Our Dreams Are Such Stuff As We Are Made On

In New English Review Dalrymple recounts a dream that caused him to wonder: Is honor a virtue? That depends, he says. How can we know when it becomes a vice? That also depends.

The fact that there is no precise point or moment at which virtue turns into vice suggests that there will never be any categorical imperatives, at least not of any use to the person who is trying to behave well…The ethical life is a course steered eternally between Scylla and Charybdis, between the rock and the whirlpool of different manifestations of intransigence.

That there is no rule for discerning when virtue turns to vice does not mean that there is no real distinction between them, any more than the fact that there is no precise point at which a man becomes tall means there is no distinction between a tall man and a short one.

The Leper of the City of Aosta

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Xavier de Maistre (1763 – 1852) was the younger brother of the brilliant reactionary philosopher, Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821). Both wrote in French, but were actually Piedmontese: Joseph was Sardinian ambassador to St Petersburg while Xavier served the Tsar and died there.

Xavier is now mainly remembered for his amusing Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage Round My Bedroom) in which he describes with wit and irony a circumnavigation of his room in forty-two days, stopping off at various points to reflect philosophically on the condition of mankind. For example, he calls his looking-glass the greatest masterpiece of human art because it reflects, and can reflect, nothing but the truth; the only problem is that the prism of amour-propre is the most powerful distorting prism known, far more distorting than that used by Sir Isaac Newton. In other words, we are ready to receive anything except the truth about ourselves.

Xavier wrote little; one of his works was The Leper of the City of Aosta. The protagonist of the story – the leper – is made to live in an abandoned castle in a depopulated area south of the city, where he is provided for by the municipality but is cut off from all human contact for fear of contagion. His sister lived with him for a time, also a leper, but she dies of the disease, leaving him entirely alone – apart, that is, from a dog.

The dog is not a handsome one, but he is affectionate and the leper loves him. From time to time, however, the dog roams and is thought by the nearest inhabitants to be a potential spreader of his master’s disease, so that one day they come to the castle and demand that he deliver the dog up to them so that they can kill him. Initially they want to drown him but finally decide on lapidation. The leper hears the pathetic cries of the dog as he is done to death, and despises himself for not having protected him better as it was his impossible duty to do.

De Maistre here demonstrates his sympathetic understanding of the intense and loving relationship that the lonely and disabled develop with their dogs; his story is strongly reminiscent of Turgenev’s short masterpiece, Mumu, in which a deaf and dumb serf called Gerasim is forced to drown the little dog upon which he pours all the love of his heart for lack of any other object upon which to pour it because his mistress, a capricious and thoroughly spoilt woman, says that the dog’s barking (not very much) has given her a headache. Carlyle wrote that Mumu was the most powerful denunciation of arbitrary power that he had ever read; and if there is a more powerful one, I certainly do not know it.

After the dog dies, the leper thinks of suicide, but even the thought seems to him a terrible crime.

In de Maistre’s story, a sympathetic soldier visits the leper and extends his hand to him, which the leper refuses to take. He does not even agree to epistolary contact between them, for fear of infecting the soldier. Instead he says to him as he takes his leave that he needs no other friend than God, in whom they will eventually be united. ‘Stranger,’ he says, ‘when sorrow or discouragement attack you, think of the hermit of Aosta. You will not then have visited in vain.’

Ah, if only the thought of those who are worse off than ourselves could truly console us as it should!

The Emperor’s Nice Clothes

Dictator Robert Mugabe replaced Zimbawe’s colonial rulers supposedly in the name of justice. So why did he adopt their attire?

Be that as it may, Mr. Mugabe’s attitude to the settler regime was not one of total rejection. There were many things about it that he admired. And in truth it was a remarkable regime, one with a very small elite who produced and ran a functioning, though not of course a just, state. It was not only the efficiency but the style that Mr. Mugabe admired, and since outward show is easier to imitate than inner substance, Mr. Mugabe adopted that style as his own, and the dress of what he thought was the British gentleman. The uniformed men around him still wear the uniforms of the British hierarchy.

Rich Man, Poor Man: No Insults Allowed

Someone in France has proposed making it illegal to criticize the poor, but Dalrymple asks: Hasn’t hatred of the rich actually proven to be far more historically catastrophic?

Few emotions are as easy to stir but as difficult to control as envy and hatred of the rich. What Freud called the narcissism of small differences means that increased equality does not necessarily assuage or lessen such hatred, for there is no end to the pettiness of humankind. How much envy and jealousy are provoked by trifling differences in status?

If it were right, then, to censor the expression of dangerous or unpleasant sentiments, it would be right above all to censor expressions of economic egalitarianism, a doctrine that proved so dangerously inflammatory only a few decades ago and that we have no reason to believe could not have the same terrible effects again. Under such a law, anyone who argued that the rich ipso facto exploited the poor would be subject to prosecution for a form of so-called hate speech that has abundantly demonstrated its potential for provoking violence.

Read the whole piece here

Ain’t It the Truth

One thing that bears noting about Dalrymple’s writing is his consistent (and in my view, increasing) willingness to criticize, and perhaps even to laugh at, himself. In a new piece at Taki’s Magazine, for example, he writes about his bias in opposition to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Anxious to preserve my worldview, I read the paper (much of whose science I did not really grasp) with a view to sniffing out error, as an Inquisitor sniffed out heresy. And, not surprisingly, I soon found what I was looking for.

The authors of the paper propose that obesity is strongly genetic in nature, and even after recognizing his own bias, Dalrymple rejects the authors’ conclusions:

The paper thus holds out the age-old false hope that we can become good, sensible, or (in this case) temperate by purely technical means that require nothing of us as moral beings endowed with agency except compliance with treatment and obedience to technicians. Appetite itself will come under the control of geneticists, who will relieve us of the necessity to exercise self-control.

Read it here

Why We Love Falstaff

It is no doubt a sign of Shakespeare’s genius that he could create a character like John Falstaff, who is universally loved not in spite of but because of his serious and serial flaws. At City Journal, Dalrymple examines Falstaff’s character and explains his appeal. One example:

Prince of perpetual gaiety Falstaff may be, but prince of perpetual untruth he is also (the two aspects are intimately connected, as if truth inevitably leads to sorrow). Lies come naturally to his lips, and when found out, he immediately thinks of a plausible explanation for them. Though he shows genius in this, it is of all the forms of human genius the most widely distributed, for even the most unimaginative man can usually find an ingenious excuse for himself.

The French-German Disconnect

Dalrymple writes at the Library of Law and Liberty on differences in fiscal and economic attitudes between France and Germany, two very different countries coexisting uneasily in a supposedly united Europe:

The French have a faith in their state which is in part justified. Its benefits are obvious every day; its stultifying effects are less evident except to the smaller proportion of the population that attempts something new.

The Germans, by contrast, have, or want to have, faith in their currency. The folk memory of inflations is still strong in Germany and with reason. Inflation is their bugbear and fiscal rectitude therefore their policy, irrespective of who is in power. The rebuilding of the country and the achievement of monetary stability is their source of national pride. Financial rectitude is visible in their private lives as well: the Germans use credit cards far less than the French, let alone the British.

Read the rest here

Things Not Generally Known

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Publishers, in my experience, speak as if they had some special insight into the book market; but they are always surprised when a book sells either well or badly. The market is incalculable: who would have guessed that books with titles such as Does Anything Eat Wasps? Or Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? would sell so well?

Yet there has long been a taste for arcane and miscellaneous knowledge. John Timbs (1801 – 1875), who once worked as a druggist, spent most of his life catering to the Victorian public’s thirst for facts, or supposed facts, compiling compendia about everything from ghosts to frescoes to electric telegraph cables. One of his most successful works was Things not Generally Known, my copy (1857) being a new edition that claimed to be one of the sixteen thousandth printed.

Among the things not generally known were some of medical interest, for example that epidemic cholera did not add to the overall mortality:

It appears that the total number of deaths in the cholera-year (1849), for all England and Wales, was 440,839; but in 1850 the number of deaths fell to 368,995, being not only 71,844 less than in the cholera-year, but even less than the number of deaths in the year preceding that of cholera, by as many as 30,838.

Averaging the number of deaths in the two pre-cholera years and that of the cholera year and the year following, we find “that no greater number of people died in those years because of the cholera intervening than if the cholera had not visited us.”

Is the moral of this that there was no need to panic, and that those victims of cholera should take consolation from the fact that they would have died anyway without it? Doctors, at any rate, could draw no such happy conclusion: Timbs mentions the fact that during “cholera visitations” between 12 and 20 per cent of “the medical men employed” died. True officers lead from the front.

Published only two years before On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Timbs informed his readers that:

The new and brilliant science of geology attests that man was the last of created beings in this planet… she affords conclusive evidence that, as we are told in Scripture, he cannot have occupied the earth longer than six thousand years.

But as for individual humans, their time is short:

The average of Human Life is about 33 years. One quarter die previous to the age of seven years; one half before reaching 17. To every hundred persons, only six reach the age of sixty-five.

For the enlightenment of those lucky six, Timbs turns his attention to the important question of human hair turning grey, and tells the following story of a doctor:

A medical man in London, less than twenty years ago, under the fear of bankruptcy, had his dark hair so changed in the same period that his friends failed to recognise him; but the colour in this instance returned, as his worldly prospects revived.

There is hope for me yet, then; unlike Lady Harbury’s hair, that turned quite gold from grief, mine might (if my investments do well) turn quite brown from prosperity. The colour of my hair depends, then, on the outcome of the crisis.

Prime Minister Corbyn: While insincerity is usually a vice, sincerity is not always a virtue

The prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister scares Dalrymple. For one thing, he’s an all-too-sincere social justice warrior.

…there is not a bien pensant cause in sight to which he does not wholeheartedly subscribe with the uncritical belief of an apostle, and for which he would be unprepared to go to the stake; and I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done.

Read the rest at the Salisbury Review