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Home / Poetry / Poetry R. M. Rilke / Aphorisms       above Hradcany (Hradchin) by Martin Andrysek (2004)

    
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A cherished old form of literature, the art of formulting maxims or epigrams seems to have fallen out of favour with XXth and XXIth century authors. From the Chinese to King Solomon's Proverbs [ Ecclesiastes 1:10, from the Hebrew אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ (nihil novi sub sole est)], to the Greeks and the Romans, to the mediaeval scholastic writers, to the Renaissance, to Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Martin Luther, Baltasar Gracián, Jean de la Bruyère, Jean de La Fontaine, François de La Rochefoucauld, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Benjamin Franklin, Wolfgang von Goethe, Artur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rabindranath Tagore, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and H.L. Mencken, a wealth of aphorisms has come down to us: ethical, unethical, cynical, humorous, enlightening, excruciatingly cruel, and frequently worth more reflection than many books.

Every year I publish about 100 epigrams or "impromptus" for the UN literary journal Ex Tempore. One of these days I intend to compile "One thousand and one aphorisms" and organize them by subject matter: human frailties, love, the workplace, academia, nature, the animal world, paradoxes, war and peace, etc.. But I'm not there yet.

Modern Realpolitik has learned how to instrumentalize human rights rhetoric to pursue traditional geopolitics.

Life at its infancy is sprightly, funny, cuddly, cute, spontaneous, surprising, delightful – whether puppy, kitten or child.  Eventually all this magic mutates into us.

What distinguishes human beings from animals is not just that humans know how to make tools (some animals use tools also!) or that they engage in sports (cats play too!) but that humans know how to create art and how to transform ideas, emotions, feelings into canvas, sculpture, music.

Music is neither a liturgy of sounds nor a  litany of notes -- not empty ritual, but epiphany, a sacrament capable to redeem the soul. On angels' wings waft melodies of melancholy, merriment, of yearning, reveries, elation, vivat crescat floreat -- while human hearts beat to the rhythm of ethereal hymns.

The rule of law applies both the letter and the spirit of the law, since it aims at achieving justice in its nuanced complexity. The rule of positivism only knows the letter of the law, which when applied bureaucratically often results in injustice.

The rule of law is meant to progressively achieve justice, which requires flexibility and fine-tuning. If law were mathematics – one would use computers and could dispense of judges!  The rule of positivism or dura lex sed lex is just blind bureaucracy.

Positivism should not be confused with the rule of law – for it is only the rule of the elites.

Realpolitik in the 21st century has learned how to instrumentalize human rights rhetoric to pursue traditional geopolitical and hegemonial agendas -- hitherto with remarkable success, since broad sectors of civil society actually fall for the propaganda disseminated by a well orchestrated corporate media and supported by an accommodating "human rights industry", too often compliant and complicit with the business enterprises that dish out donations and engender long-term dependencies. Just watch them deploy their multiple campaigns to join human rights bandwagons, fashions, "the flavour of the month", while exercising self-censorship on weightier human rights problems such as abject poverty, lack of clean water and minimal health care!

This industry has a convenient fig-leaf function and serves to advance those human rights that are business-friendly and likely to generate profits -- notwithstanding the misery of millions of human beings who lack everything, those "unsung victims" of the irrelevant "third world". This widespread approach builds on the "trickle-down" phantasy, according to which if the rich become richer, then some excess wealth eventually will make its way down to the poor. Alas, this hypothesis is but a rip-off system that only aggravates the situation and negates any and all hope of human solidarity. But there is enough pious opium for the masses, pathos for adolescents -- and panem et circensis for the rest of us.

 

Manufactured consent corrupts democracies into populist entities that easily mutate into predator democracies both domestically and internationally.

A consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights against a population negates the legitimacy of the exercise of governmental power. In case of unrest, dialogue must first be engaged in the hope of redressing grievances. States may not first provoke the population through grave human rights abuses and then pretend to invoke the right of self-defence in justification of the use of force against them. That would violate the principle of estoppel (ex injuria non oritur jus), a general principle of law recognized by the ICJ. Although all States have the right of self-defence from armed attack (Art. 51 UN Charter) they also have the responsibility to protect the life and security of all persons under their jurisdiction. No doctrine, neither that of territorial integrity nor that of self-determination, justifies massacres. Neither doctrine can derogate from the right to life. Norms are not mathematics and must be applied with flexibility and a sense for proportionality in order to prevent and reduce chaos and death.

The slogan "truth will make you free" is nothing more than a placebo, a red herring, an empty promise. It contaIns multiple fallacies, including the illusion of automatism, that truth will come like a white knight to deliver us, than an outside force will solve our problems, that a Deus in machina will ensure a happy end. No. We ourselves must proactively seek truth, disseminate truth, liberate the word, use truth as a sword to cut through pretense and manipulation. Truth will reveal the degree of control to which we are all subject, the brainwashing, the robotization of our lives. Truth will enable us to develop a survival strategy and targeted tactics to counter Big Brother, refute political lies and expose opportunism.

Time is a precious resource, and its allocation deserves reflection.  Since competitors for our attention are many, priority-setting is of the essence. To whom should we devote our limited time? The choice is ours, but the seducers are clever. Subliminal propaganda is everywhere, flashed on TV, on our PCs, etc.  An electronic war over our attention is also under way.  The greater the number of internet clicks, the broader the internet presence, the higher the visibility attained. This eventually attracts attention, even if it is trivia.  Social media enhances the illusion of self-importance and the associated hope of gaining fame and fortune – or just the narcissistic satisfaction of a moment in the limelight.  Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas. (Ecclesiastes I,2)  Of course, electronic clicks can be artificially generated, as there is no “quality control” over clicks.  Visibility in the virtual world seems to offer an Ersatz for real meaning, especially to those who rely on the internet for their impulses – instead of drawing knowledge and understanding from the good advice of friends, from critical dialogue, from books.  Good judgment is shown in the way we allocate our limited time and attention.    

Human beings are peculiar animals with an omnivorous appetite for discovering things, experimenting, improvising, playing, dreaming.... They  invent tools, organise, collect things, build museums, create art, write philosophical treatises, practise doxology, revel in philocaly, set up orchestras, look endlessly into the sunset humming Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, play chess, watch football, paint graffiti on subway walls.

Representative democracy deserves the predicate "democratic" only if and when parliamentarians genuinely represent their constituents. An elected Congressman(woman) or Senator administers a sacred trust and must proactively inform the electorate of relevant developments that impact on decision-making.  He/she must be committed to inquire into what the voters need and want.  In other words, a representative is accountable to the citizens, must act transparently and regularly consult, since he/she is not a plenipotentiary, or even a delegate with a blank check.  A representative represents, since he/she is a servant -- not a master -- with a mandate limited in time and scope, which he/she must administer in good faith and not in usurpation of power.

Nil admirari (Cicero, Horace, Seneca). Roman thinkers already knew the wisdom of keeping a certain distance, the rewards of equanimity and the advantages of not being surprised by people or events. However, young people do need role models and should not be prematurely blasé. Youth should feel the rush of adrenalin that accompanies enthusiasm, the excitement of discovery, the euphoria of falling in love, the infatuation with infatuation, the illusion of heroism that floods the heart with joy. Youth has a right to be in awe of Olympic achievements and individual achievers, should endeavour to imitate them, not be afraid of asking questions, testing established customs, making personal experiences -- both good and bad -- and most importantly, they should believe in something! Of course, as we all mature, we learn to temper our enthusiasm, to discern between semblance and reality, to accept disappointment. The Roman maxim nil admirari is for post-adolescents only.

Although we all live in the real world with all its beauty, complexity, nuances, physical laws and objective facts, we operate in artificially limited worlds, in contexts governed by teleological rules, red lines, stop signs, taboos – and enforced certainties.  These separate epistemological systems are subject to man-made rules with their own internal logic and mathematics, where 2 plus 2 does not necessarily result in 4, because the building blocks are weighted according to extraneous factors of perceived political or social necessity, where essential elements and crucial facts that do not fit the equation can be negated if their logical consequences and implications counter the socially imposed “truths” which determine not only the outcome but also the process of deliberation.  There are many local, regional and larger contexts where the law is not applied uniformly, but à la carte, because what does not fit the paradigm must be ignored.  What is politically undesirable loses its objective character, mutates into non-fact. Lapses in logic and obvious fallacies are tolerated in respectful silence.   Thus, for survival in our post-modern societies, we must demonstrate intellectual and emotional versatility, always bearing in mind that besides a real world of universal logic and objectivity, there are other, restricted worlds of directed behaviour – and it is only in these truncated worlds that we are allowed to function, anxious about not behaving in the socially desired way, hesitating under an undefined threat of adverse consequences if we venture beyond, numbed by a vague apprehension that engenders both censorship and self-censorship.  Wherefore – in this world of subtle and not so subtle intimidation, cognitive dissonance, capricious dialectics, false analogies, skewed empirical data, doublethink, double standards and selective indignation – we have to keep our eyes wide open and our moral compass operational so as to navigate through the troubled waters.  Overcoming these challenges is a full-time job, but worth it -- if we want to keep our identity and our sanity.  

Human beings of all cultures and colours share a common physiognomy, basic functions, needs and aspirations.  Over thousands of years they have built diverse civilizations in which individual members have shown virtue and vice, generosity and greed, astounding creativity, musicality, gastronomy ....  Collectively, however, no civilization was ever all good or all bad, all constructive or all destructive, all innocent or all guilty – these are unhistorical categories.  From the perspective of the 21st century, we can observe the progress and retrogression of peoples and detect a growing consciousness of the need for human solidarity and proactive bridge-building, in the name of survival of the species. Global challenges demand global solutions -- ensuring global participation in decision-making. Perhaps we will someday learn to build on our 99% commonalities, instead of fighting over the 1% that separates us. Pax optima rerum!

Peace is not an eschatological phenomenon but continuous work-in-progress.

Celebrating the myriad good things of life, dwelling on nature's generous bounty, grasping those transcendental moments of genuine elation is decidedly more fun than keeping book on the faults and frailties of human beings, noticing the imperfections, counting the wrinkles or worrying about what might go wrong. This Advent season, let us enjoy the good things and sing them songs. Sursum corda!

We are who we are and ought to be comfortable with our identity, conscious of our heritage and serenely proud of the achievements of our ancestors.  Just happy to exist hic et nunc.  Each one of us has the faculty to extend our horizons, learn, build, evolve, modify our opinions as often as necessary -- as we gain experience and perhaps perspective and a measure of wisdom.  We should exercise the freedoms we have to ask questions, seek to understand our dynamic surroundings, continuously push the limits, but always in harmony with our roots and our identity. An Aborigine need not desire to be European.  A Bolivian need not aspire to be Brazilian. A German need not wish to be American.  Let the Aborigine be proud of being Aborigine, the African to be African, the American to be American – as long as such pride is tempered by self-criticism and respect for others.  There is nothing wrong with patriotism – only with egoism, exceptionalism, chauvinism.  The key to personal happiness is a sense of belonging, of harmony and familiarity with one’s environment, a combination of enthusiasm and melancholy, of love and equanimity, of being snug in one’s skin.  Love of oneself and respect for one’s heritage must not to be confused with narcissism or xenophobia.  On the contrary: it is a prerequisite for creativity and a dependable foundation to love and inter-relate with others.  We all have a pluralistic identity which is always in flux like a river (Heraclitus) and manifests not only a collective dimension in its dynamics of flow, in liturgies and rituals, but also an individualistic dimension defined by our personal choices.


Profession of faith in the wisdom of the Nuremberg Trials does not resolve certain inherent paradoxes and contradictions.


An excess of common virtues frustrates the higher virtues of moderation and proportion.


Youth is sometimes wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw), as history can be wasted on historians, notably politically-correct historians, and ideologies on ideologues-- who are notorious for losing all sense for proportion.

Education should teach young people how to think independently, how to put things into context, compare, imagine, invent.  Alas, only few teachers bother to instill curiosity in their pupils or teach them how to think outside the box, how to dare.  What is mostly taught in high schools and colleges is how to adjust oneself to the spirit of the times, how to be a loyal fan of a given sports club, how to function within a system of political correctness, and how to respect the many red lines imposed by society to maintain the status quo.

Blithe spirits bringing a myriad colours to our gardens, magic, ephemeral wings -- butterflies -- with short life-spans of a week to a few months. But why such an unpoetic name for a delicate daughter of nature? The Germans call them Schmetterlinge (even less onomatopoetic), the Russians call them бабочка (not to be confused with Бабушка, which means grandmother), the Greek πεταλουδα (which makes you think of petals), the French call them papillons (which is closer to the Latin papilio). Perhaps the more congenial, smoother descriptions are the Spanish mariposa and the delicate Dutch vlinder.

The practice of naming and shaming has relatively little effect because it rests on multiple fallacies:  first, that the party doing the naming has nothing to be ashamed of and possesses moral authority to shame the other; second, that the impugned party is generally open to criticism; third, that the target of the naming and shaming acknowledges the legitimacy of the namer to act as judge. Experience shows that the namer frequently has a closet full of skeletons and that therefore the target of the naming and shaming has no inclination to bow to the namer's pretense to moral superiority or justification to hurl the first stone at the adulteress. Instead of raising fingers and pointing at others, it would be better if those States and ngo's who claim moral superiority would instead consider offering advisory services and technical assistance so as to enable impugned States to improve their human rights practices and infrastructures.
What we urgently need is good faith, more mirrors of self-criticism, more focus on root causes and prevention, greater readiness to dialogue without preconditions, patience and perseverance -- and much less eagerness to verbally condemn or judicially punish -- above all, we need more compassion toward the victims and a commitment to redress the wrongs in international solidarity.
The all-too-frequent instrumentalization of human rights for political purposes and the abuse of the concept of human rights as a selective weapon against others demonstrates how little politicians and media care for the essence of human dignity -- which entails respect for the other person's identity, diversity and his/her right to hold different opinions. We need neutral brokers, not polemics nor rhetoric with the pervasive geopolitical after-taste. We need intellectual honesty -- not international law à la carte.

 

To become an apostate from the Zeitgeist, from the "consensus", from the bandwagon is an act of intellectual liberation – and maturity. It presupposes the capacity to think outside systems, escape indoctrination and relentless media brainwashing, arrive at new syntheses, remaining open to new inputs, patient with colleagues and friends who lag behind, never abandoning hope in the power of reason over force, of the λόγος over chaos and nihilism.

War crimes and crimes against humanity are perpetrated by ordinary people inspired by the philosophy “the end justifies the means”, and indoctrinated into believing that the envisaged end is noble, duty, divinely ordained, or inevitable. Deviation from this conviction is perceived by the powerful as “unpatriotic” or even “treacherous”.

History writing and teaching have always been co-opted by the elites in order to legitimize and consolidate their continued exercise of power. Yet, whoever has the temerity to do independent research into the past, visits the archives, analyzes documents, compares primary and secondary sources, meets doers and diplomats, interviews witnesses who may still be alive -- discovers crucial facts, deliberately omitted by the court historians, new perspectives, dimensions, nuances that fundamentally change our understanding of events and differ substantially from media caricatures, popular misconceptions and Zeitgeist. I do not pretend to think that we can arrive at the "truth" in all of its manifestations, but surely a better approximation is possible and necessary.

Living on the edge is a youthful ideal of glorified danger with attendant adrenaline rushes. Living more toward the centre is the preferred location for those who, like me, are no longer youngsters and embrace the philosophy of Buen Vivir, which entails being satisfied to have just enough, not too much, and to practice the Delphian Γνώθι Σεαυτόν and Μηδὲν ἄγαν.

***

Blithe spirits bringing a myriad colours to our gardens, magic, ephemeral wings -- butterflies -- with short life-spans of a week to a few months. But why such an unpoetic name for a delicate daughter of nature? The Germans call them Schmetterlinge (even less onomatopoetic), the Russians call them бабочка (not to be confused with Бабушка, which means grandmother), the Greek πεταλουδα (which makes you think of petals), the French call them papillons (which is closer to the Latin papilio). Perhaps the more congenial, smoother descriptions are the Spanish mariposa and the delicate Dutch vlinder.

Rhetoric has little to do with truth or sincerity, for it is a form of seduction through eloquence. Indeed, impressive rhetoric all too often proves empty if not downright false, as we know from some virtuosi of political debate. Similarly, beauty is scarcely related to goodness or generosity, for it is essentially a manifestation of aesthetics. Alas, a handsome face does not always announce a merciful heart.

War is not a given in life, but rather a crime willed by megalomaniacs, organized by bureaucrats, sold by media propaganda and suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. There are no "good wars", for all are bloody, dehumanizing, nasty, unjust and eminently avoidable.

The rule of law is more than a platitude, and much more than mere positivism.  It entails predictability, uniformity of application, absence of arbitrariness.  Most importantly the rule of law must be the rule of justice.  Laws that perpetuate privilege and injustice must be abrogated and replaced by laws that advance human well-being and human dignity.  Some countries pay lip service to the rule of law while practicing the antediluvian might is right paradigm.

Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve the sacred promises of human dignity, justice and peace. Democracy is not just the ballot box, nor is it mere majority rule. It is a form of government based on respect and solidarity with other members of society. It is a Covenant to listen to all members of the demos.

Civilization is the long journey from predator behavior to interdependence, rule of law and caritas.

Neither can we ski like the pros, nor can we sing like Met soloists, but we can sense the divine in their prowess and vicariously partake in that transcendental humanness.  They too, Olympic champions and opera singers, are members of our species, have two eyes, two ears, one mouth -- and though their achievements will also pass, we prolong them by internalizing them.

Fantasies are invigorating for the spirit, but their magic escapes if we try to concretize them.  Living out our fantasies hic et nunc is dangerous business.

Poetry resides in us all, but only the passionate few can reveal the magic. 

Civilization is the gradual transformation of the human predator into a social being endowed with a moral conscience and an awareness of both rights and duties. Alas, there are still too many antediluvian predators roaming Planet Earth. How can we teach ethics, peace and solidarity to these slow learners? That's a worthy challenge for 2013!

Human dignity has nothing to do with “justiciability” and less with positivism.  Dignity derives from the essence of the human person, and justice reflects equilibrium and harmony as an expression of the intrinsic nature of things. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 certainly did not invent the rights there proclaimed, nor for that matter la Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789.  These are but incomplete compilations of some human entitlements, for surely the rights predated their codification.  It is a poor excuse to say that a right does not exist (e.g. the right to the homeland, the right to peace, the right to a sustainable environment) or that it is not “justiciable”, just because it has not been specifically codified. Lawyers have a responsibility to complete the task of codification and politicians must establish enforcement mechanisms that ensure real remedies.

Art evokes a transcendental meaning, transmits a vital spark. It is not chaos, it is not n’importe quoi. So-called modern opera productions delight in reversing aesthetic values and reject -- quite deliberately -- the hitherto attainable synthesis of art forms (music, libretto, singing, acting, staging, costumes), a concept that Wagner termed Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. The current fashion of so-called “director’s theater” (Regietheater) is to allow opera directors to supplant the composer and librettist and experiment with a kind of surrealistic parallelism – on the one side an unchanged musical score and libretto, on the other a different plot, a dream, a time-machine transposition. Instead of coordinating the staging to the music and libretto, a “spectacle” is played-out, admittedly with some tenuous links to the original message of the opera. The problem is that the effect is short-lived, only to become artificial, forced, boring, even ludicrous. Thus, for instance, the new, thoroughly unconvincing production of Lohengrin at La Scala fails miserably, notwithstanding the superlative voices. This production reminds me of what the Germans call a Schnappsidee – i.e. a wet idea that may seem intelligible under the influence of alcohol (Schnapps), but distinctly less so if you are in full use of your mental faculties. The asymmetries of Regietheater thus condemn it to be a temporary fad, a parody of culture, not a long-term dismantlement of art. And yet, the fad is not without consequences. Perhaps the greatest harm perpetrated by these art polluters (who evidently enjoy spraying graffiti on genius (Elisabeth Schwartzkopf)) is endured by the young. My generation was privileged to experience inspiring opera productions conducted by Karl Bohm, Herbert von Karajan etc. with intelligent staging by Schneider-Siemssen and others. Our younger generation of melomanes is being deprived of the opportunity of being seduced by a true Eva in Meistersinger or Marie-Thérèse in Rosenkavalier. What a shame, since modern technology and light effects would render the staging of opera much easier than in the past. "Modernity" does not have to mean parody -- or demolition. Art is the perfection of music, staging and dance -- for instance the 2007 Mariinsky Ballet production of Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, with Uliana Lopatkina (Odile) and Danila Korsuntsev (Prince Siegfried), conducted by Valery Gergiev, in the Ross MacGibbon production.

Humour delights in paradox, irony, unexpected turns, serendipity ... It entails that felicitous faculty of seeing a funny side in all human endeavour, recognizing ourselves in other peoples' foibles, sensing the ephemeral in vanity, jealousy, pettiness, taking distance, putting things in perspective --always with a sense for proportion-- laughing at awkward situations, including laughing at our own idiosyncrasies. Humour is an attitude quite unlike cynicism or hubris. It manifests an optimistic mindset, an exultation of spirit, an affirmation of joie de vivre.

When contemplating history, it is best to put aside labels, ideologies and nationalities, because they invariably cloud our vision, and what we think are short-cuts frequently turn out to be obstacles. What really matters is the personal integrity and courage, the nobility and heroism of individuals. Generalizations about peoples or even civilizations are artificial and all too often dehumanizing. Surely there were good Neanderthals and good Cro Magnons, good Israelis and Philistines, good Greeks and Persians, good Athenians and Spartans, good Romans and Carthaginians, good Crusaders and Fatimids, good Protestants and Papists, good French revolutionaries and royalists, good Unionists and Confederates, good Marxists and capitalists. There are heroes and scoundrels in every human conflict, for reality is never black and white, as in the good there is always an admixture of bad, and even in the bad some good. We should therefore celebrate the human being in all his complexity and contradictions, we shoud honour his good deeds -- not the Zeitgeist-caricature of humanity, nor the ideological "flavour of the month".

Belief is identity and raison d'être, as human nature requires an emotional map, reference points, defined goals -- no vacuum, no black hole ... For our own well-being we need to believe in something –the actual belief being somewhat less important.  Crucial is the readiness to have faith in ourselves and in humanity, in our culture, in human dignity, in the values of our nation -- not chauvinistically, not blindly "my country right or wrong", but consciously for the good of our community -- to believe in a cause bigger than ourselves, to serve a higher goal, even if we cannot reach it. And when we die, we can say, we have believed, and our yearning and striving has given meaning to our lives. Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen (Goethe, Faust II, 11936–11937). The temerity to believe in nothing may be a modern pseudo-philosophy, but it is neither heroic nor healthy, not even funny, but instead a manifestation of misanthropy, an insipid form of nihilism, a petulant mood devoid of fire, devoid of cheer. Thus, let us celebrate the rite of spring and the music of flowers -- and people -- around us. Fe y adelante!

Learning how to love ourselves, how to forgive ourselves is undoubtedly an important lesson for a good and healthy life. While evil and guilt do exist, they can and must be marshalled. A guilt fixation or obsession is in itself a fault, a sin. Guilt must be tempered by mercy and by a sense for proportion. How else can we love others, if we do not respect oneselves first. It should be obvious to everyone that if we are to love others as we love ourselves (golden rule), we must also know and accept our own wrinkles, sins and imperfections. Admittedly, we neither love nor condone sin, but we must exercise the faculty to rise above sin and to continue testing our conduct against universal ethical principles day by day. Only thus can we develop a life strategy how to deal with the reality of evil, evil which predated our birth, evil and injustice which existed even before Adam and Eve. We must reject the paradigm of original sin and embrace instead the paradigm of grace and forgiveness through the Cross and Resurrection. Sursum corda!

Every one knows the Latin maxim: si vis pacem, para bellum -- if you want peace, prepare war (Livius VI, 18,7; Vegetius, 'Epitome rei militaris' 3, prologue)). Surely it would be better to propose: si vis pacem, cole justitiam. If you want peace, cultivate justice ! This enlightened maxim greets you at the Peace Palace in The Hague and at the ILO headquarters in Geneva (ILO was awarded the Nobel peace price 1969). Policy-makers and civil society take note!

***


Although, in principle, history-writing should observe the five C's of chronology, context, causality, consequences and comparison, many contemporary historians seem to delight in anachronisms, ignoring the context and root causes of events, indulging in post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies and teleological conclusions, making truly ludicrous comparisons -- frequently to satisfy the capricious Zeitgeist.

****

Retirement is too big a word; what we basically want is withdrawal from bureaucracy,  so that we are free to do what we feel is really important.  Better old outside and young inside, than young outside and hopelessly decrepit inside.

***

 

Law is a tool to bring order into chaos. As such, it is a means, not an end. As a normative manifestation of power, law expresses the will, the priorites and sometimes the values of the sovereign. Law is not coterminous with justice; in fact, it may and is frequently used to maintain and legitimize an unjust social order, a system of exploitation, an uequal distribution of resources. The maxim "might is right" reflects the power equation, not any moral or categorical imperative (Kant) dictated by reason or deontology. It is for the philosophers -- and poets -- to infuse ethics into power ! It is for civil society to demand it.

 

A shockingly new idea, a controversial new prespective, an uncomfortable new paradigm first meets with fierce opposition, then with marginalization and silence, finally it is accepted as self-evident.

The two-party system is, alas, only twice as democratic as the one-party system.

***

The war on terror is a rhetorical war just like the war on poverty, and, alas, poverty won.

***

Education entails the faculty to think independently, apply criteria and arrive at individual judgment, even when different from consensus. It should awaken curiosity, discard taboos, formulate new questions, seek different perspectives, engage logic and coherence, strengthen ethics and intellectual honesty vis á vis others - and ourselves. This faculty of independent thinking, which is the very core of education, remains true even when we forget factual knowledge. Indoctrination, which thrives on uncritical repetition, deference to authority and peer pressure, has nothing to do with education..

Our goal can be somewhat less than trying to change the world. Helping a couple of people is fine too.

The legitimacy and credibility of law rests on its uniform application. Thus, there must not be any favouritism, because in law "one size fits all". The rule of law means the rule of non-arbitrariness, which knows no service à la carte. More fundamentally, although justice is not identical with law, justice requires that law be consistent with ethical values. Law should not follow politics, but it is politics that must follow law.

Societies can be animistic, pantheistic, atheistic, polytheistic, monotheistic -- or, like ours -- moneytheistic.

Civilization, as we know it, developed when nomads settled down, domesticated animals, invented the plow, grew wheat and vine, started baking bread and fermentig grape juice into wine ... O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, Agricolas! Quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus.(Vergilius, Georgics, ii, 458).

A “failed State” is not just a State with a troubled economy or with a dysfunctional administration. It is also a State that cannot live in peace with its neighbours.

If we take more time to enjoy what we do have, we will have that less time to belly-ache about what we still lack.

Serendipity goes beyond carpe diem, carpe noctem, beyond grasping at fortuity.. It means winning the game and holding on, remaining alert to fortune's many moods.

Tomorrow is one day more – and one less.

Good governance is more than mere alliteration -- it entails applying Logos rather than legalism, practicing proportion rather than perfection, preferring peace and pluralism over populism, promoting justice instead of jealousy -- and in budget matters employing more mathematics and less metaphors.

Politicians and generals go into history books. Musicians go into the hearts of generations of grateful listeners. Wellington, Blücher, Grant, Eisenhower, Motgommery, de Gaule, Zhukov are long dead. Beethoven lives!

Fortunately for mankind, glory is ephemeral and fame fades fast. Otherwise even more megalomaniacs would enter the fray and plague the rest of us in the process.

Peace is not just the absence of war. It means abandoning the aggressive animus and the will to exploit other nations and peoples. It requires closing down the criminal arms industry that fuels conflict throughout the world. More than that, peace implies the presence of something positive -- not just an absence of evil. It entails the presence of good will, a striving for harmony, the exercise of solidarity, the quest for justice -- that possible dream we once read about in the Sermon on the Mount.

Good politicians are pessimists in analysis but optimists in action.

Progress depends on tempered enthusiasm rather than on hot tempers. Met drift kom je nergens, met geestdrift overal.

Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of finding something unexpected when one is busy looking for something else

Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no competition, for respect is due to rich and poor alike. The dignitas humana has no room for privilege and exploitation; all victims deserve solidarity, recognition and rehabilitation without discrimination. Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication of human dignity

There is no clash of civilizations, but rather the clash of narrow-minded politicians who pretend that theirs is the only civilization.

Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythologies for adults, caricatures for the elites, instrumentalized trivia for the hoi polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception for one and all.

The Manichaean world view lacks the poetry of nuances, of the good within the bad, the bad within the good, the poetry of ambiguity.

Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of finding something unexpected when one was busy looking for something else.

Objectivity does not exclude poetry.

Creation is divine -- and very much human: from writing a love poem, to composing a symphony, to inventing a flower arrangement, to baking a cheese cake, to singing Panis angelicus.

Truth is in the nuances.
Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythology for adults, caricature for the elites, instrumentalized trivia for the hoi polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception for one and all.

Doing always the right thing does not automatically yield the good result.

Coping with great misfortune is sometimes easier than accepting banal inconveniences.

Failure is not per se punishment, nor does it entail guilt. Often enough it is the guilty who are successful and the innocent who lose.

Integrity entails living in the midst of lies and not falling for them, facing adversity without losing one’s sense of proportion.

Self-respect often requires stoic perseverance -- even when there are no followers.

Self-preservation takes precedence over revenge.

Some politicians indulge more in science fiction than in government.

A politician should be pessimistic in analysis but optimistic in action.

Cognitive dissonance occurs not only in politics, but also in human relations. How often does a lover pursue the shadow of his own infatuation? There are many Don Quijotes still yearning for their own imaginary Dulcineas.

War is the great destroyer – not only of human beings, but also of values.
“Clash of civilizations” is an euphemism for the animus to aggress others.

Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no competition.

Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication of human dignity

There were good guys on all sides of the Peloponnesian war, the Punic wars, Julius Caesar’s campaigns, the “Reconquista”, the French revolution, the American Civil War, the Bolshevist revolution, the Spanish Civil War, at Verdun and at Stalingrad. There is never a monopoly of good or evil in any human conflict.

The essential homo sapiens evolves slowly. I bet that Neanderthal children threw snowballs at each other with as much gusto as 21st century lads.

The habits and expectations of modern man are scarcely conducive to happiness. Whereas everything good that happens to us is perceived as natural and we take it for granted, we are surprised and frustrated over every stone in our path. We would be happier if we would only learn to count our blessings.

When you take a nation’s past away, you also destroy its future

God obviously prefers carnivores to vegetarians, otherwise he would have given the same attention to Cain’s veggies as to Abel’s lamb offerings.

Mankind is not peaceful by nature. Violence was with us from the start – four human beings and already one murder!

God is not an advocate of an eye-for-an eye: Cain was banished, not killed because of murdering his brother.

It is easier to endure long misfortune than to prolong a state of happiness.

Good men do not always get what they deserve. Nor do the bad.

Commercial rivalries cause even more wars than religious differences.

Rulers can afford to be generous and enlightened after they have suppressed or even exterminated the opposition.

Morality lessons are easy to impart after a position of force has been secured, usually by immoral means.

Academic work is both drudgery and passion.

Not every philosopher has worthy disciples. Socrates lucked out with Plato, Plato with Aristotle. But Socrates failed to instill modesty and measure on his pupil Alcibiades, an egomaniac cheat, who never understood the meaning of moderation (meden agan, metron ariston), while Aristotle had the disappointment of tutoring Alexander (for some “the Great”), who started as a megalomaniac and grew into a genocidal killer – and drunkard.

Man is born into a culture and religion and has a limited number of roles to play.
While perfectly coherent within a given epistemology, outside this specific cultural or religions context, man’s actions may appear illogical or even irrational. Thus, while St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were doubtless brilliant thinkers, their legacy is not accessible outside the Christian faith. For non-believers, much of Aquinas’ reasoning may appear circular; to a traditional Christian, Muhammad remains inaccessible.

True scholarship is free of loyalties.

The scholar does not root for a team but remains aloof of the media fray.

Insisting on justice often only prolongs the pain. Experience teaches you to cut your losses and turn the page.

Dogs show immediate enthusiasm for other dogs and socialize with them readily – size, race or colour notwithstanding. Why don’t humans get more enthused over other humans ?

Imperialism, whether military or economic, was never benign.

Imperialism -- whether American, British, French, German, Ancient Greek, Roman or Persian – never endeared the masters to their subjects.

Realpolitik is more akin to opportunism than to patriotism.

Patriotism means very different things to different people. You may call it a cocktail of self-deception and bravado, a form of mental masturbation, rooting for a political party as you root for a football team, a readiness to rape.

Heroism is a cocktail of brazenness and patriotism. For some, a manifestation of stubbornness – fighting unto death for a personal conviction or even for a caprice.

Genuine patriotism entails a striving for political and social justice. It is not “my country right or wrong”, but “let’s work to make this country just”.
The cult of heroism is a totalitarian tool.

Every totalitarian regime has its saints.

Christianity has done many bad things such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Pope Alexander VI’s Bull Inter Cetera. But it has also done glorious things -- immeasurably enriched us by inventing musical notation (the monk Guido of Arezzo!), inspired Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, gave outlet to all forms of artistic expression -- from the poetry of the Gothic Cathedral to the humanity of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Beatitudes will always be an antidote to despair, consolation in mourning, hope in hope.

Religion is awe of nature plus a moral code.

Religion is more than rituals and sacraments, but belief in cosmic justice and commitment to truth -- helping other human beings – or at least not hurting them!

Pseudo-religion is the instrumentalization of fear for purposes of power.

The sun shines on the just and unjust alike. In its light, justice can be seen by all who have eyes, but some would hide justice in the shadow of their own agendas.

Competition does not exclude caritas.

Lessons learned are all too quickly unlearned.

Asymmetrical love lasts longer

Freedom of thought means freedom from mental models and the temerity to think the unthinkable.

Post-Cartesian logic:
Cogito libere, ergo ego sum. (I think independently, therefore I am myself).
Liber sum, ergo possum cogitare. (I am free, therefore I can think).

Axiom: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
-- Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies, 1927
Corollary: “Popular myths are not necessarily facts”

Retributive justice is hardly justice when it only reflects the top-dog/underdog syndrome. Restorative justice offers greater credibility and sustainability if it is based on the recognition of root causes, the mutual acknowledgment of errors, and is future-oriented, inspired by a genuine reconciliation paradigm.

Even those who have no future do have a human right to dream.

No one has the “right” to be a billionaire. Great fortunes are made thanks to the existence of a market – which is not an individual achievement, but rather the result of collective action by society at large. Whoever benefits from the marketplace owes it to the rest of society to share the profit with the collectivity. This is done by philanthropy -- and progressive taxation. Wealth is just and respectable as the merited reward for incentive. Taking a greater share of the pie than one deserves is but vulgar greed.

Property is a legal fiction to describe certain powers of disposition over material things
Property in rem is subject to taxation; property in personam is chattel slavery. "Ownership" is ephemeral, since we can exchange, dispose of or otherwise lose property, and after death we "can't take it with us!". Even in our lifetime, the idea that a human being “owns” a tree appears rather implausible. One may carve a sweetheart's name on a oak, one may chop down a conifer and make a chair out of it, but one never really owns the tree.

Freedom of expression is meaningful if one has an opinion to express.  Opinion is based on factual knowledge and an appreciation of the various points of view.  Freedom of expression would have little value if it only meant the right to echo what one receives from the media. More important is the right to think freely and to exchange views so as to develop one’s own conception of things. Thus, the manipulation of information is just as dangerous when it is done by the private sector (CNN, Fox) as when it is imposed by governmental authority.  The crucial test is whether the people have the information needed to formulate opinions and take decisions thereon, or whether they are just victims of manipulation.

 

An art lover who internalizes a painting has more ownership of it than a person who buys it and hangs it in his living room.

Tolerance is good, but frequently patronizing. Respect entails more: the acceptance of the other's right to be, even his right to be wrong.

It is relatively easy to find confirmation for a pet theory or hypothesis. What is crucial is to test the logic of competing theories and conscientiously look for refutation.

Being is immesurably more than doing

Freedom is the choice to swim with or against the current. Swimming only with the current misses out on a world of other possibilities. Freedom means adventure, even at the risk of drowning.

It is more important to deepen than to lengthen life, more existential to pause than to rush by.

Millennia ago there was neither politics nor law.  Humans were hunters and gatherers and survived from hand to mouth, from day to day.  Primitive politics manifested itself as brute force, but soon the chiefs themselves recognized the necessity to legitimize their rule and secure a degree of social stability by enacting commandments, laws and ultimately constitutions that conferred primacy to the ”rule of law” and were administered by a higher caste of lawyers and  judges.  Gradually a more sophisticated system of checks and balances emerged.  Today the clock cannot be turned back and no politician is legibus solutus or above the law

.

Theft is not only robbing a bank or burglarizing a jewellery shop.  It is also looting enterprises through abusively high salaries, unearned bonuses, luxury expense accounts, overpaid consultancies and golden handshakes, plundering stock markets through insider trading, playing casino at commodity markets, pilfering a nation's natural wealth through "privatization", adamantly keeping the booty of centuries of imperialism, pretending it is tabula rasa for theft, exploiting the weak through new forms of economic colonialism, keeping bonuses and tax breaks given to TNCs as incentives to open businesses and then relocating elsewhere where labour costs are lower, extorting interest from poor nations once induced to take unnecessary loans they could never repay. 



In his Sonnets to Orpheus Rilke gave wings to his feeling that: “Gesang ist Dasein” which approximately translates as “singing is being”.  Maybe the converse is even truer:  Being is serenade, symphony, opera, rhythm, dance!

 

 

 

1-2-3 Impromptus

Jeux de mots do not always find the mot juste .

Marriage functions best after you learn your partner's mode d'emploi .

Gender equality will be achieved when the Peter Principle applies equally to men and women.

To be lonely and to be left alone are distinct states of being.

Mankind's faith in progress is but a residue of the child's striving for growth.

The child's first lesson in Latin philosophy: lacrimo ergo sum.

The child is always part of the adult. Being adult entails hiding that child.

Pathos is for adolescents.

Talking just happens. Thinking takes brains.

A suspicion of guilt radiates more guilt than undisputed culpability.

A relic is a hyper-concentration of memory.

Conspicuous absence highlights one's presence.

Politics is a form of religion with its own secular demons and deities.

Camus imagined Sisyphus a happy man, because, after all, he had a goal in life. By contrast, one could imagine Prometheus woefully bored in his chains, notwithstanding Shelley's romanticising him as proudly defiant and confident of the ultimate triumph of his cause.

Too much of a good thing is just about right.

Development and decline can be measured empirically. Political pundits make a living out of manipulating empirical facts into dogma.

Consciousness of death enhances the sense and the immediacy of life.

Chaos never generates art, but art can tame chaos into form and beauty.

Yearning for immortality is thirst for an unending, ever-evolving melody.

Vanity ages badly.

Going on a diet is like taking farewell from our youth in the hope of regaining it.

It takes many decades to take farewell from youth.

Power is its own justification, but it will invoke philosophy – any philosophy – to sound more respectable.

Mundane philosophies are necessary for getting a grasp on life. Fancier philosophies can be amusing mental gymnastics until they become the excuse for power.

When the reporting of news events becomes entertainment, truth frequently loses out.

“Yes” and “no” are absolute categories. “Maybe” is a third, more sympathetic option.

Selfish persons have little time to gossip about others.

Happily married couples have learned the art of harmonious fighting.

Jealousy is a nasty, vulgar emotion. Yet, for the theatre and the opera, it has been a notable generator of art since antiquity.

Self-confidence entails believing in your abilities even beyond what your best friend would.

New spelling rules are the editor's aphrodisiac.

To be forgiven is not quite as gratifying as to forgive.

Some of the largest social gatherings take place in “Hermitages”.

Whoever has taken the New York subway finds merit in becoming a hermit.

It is clever not to display one's cleverness.

It takes expertise to make believe one is just a beginner.

I cherish many errors I have made.

It is better to judge and to err in good faith than not to judge at all.

Revolutionaries evolve into conservatives as soon as they have usurped power.

The dead are quickly forgotten by other mortals who soon after join them in oblivion. Only the names of a few artists and politicians attain a vague form of immortality, and the memory that remains seldom corresponds with their true achievements .

Feelings are ultimately more decisive than logic.

A bad conscience is often the source of good deeds.

Having it all is a curse.

Moses had such a rough time bringing the Jewish people across the Red Sea because half of them were busy picking up pretty shells.

Lucky people enjoy good health and a bad memory.

A bachelor's vocation is to look and not to find.

Boredom generates amusement.

Art should not just imitate life, but transform it.

Quantity and quality are mutually exclusive.

Love requires respect. Passion doesn't.

The past is finite. The now timeless. The future infinite..

As the future will become present and past, better move with the now.

Only in youth do you think you understand the world.

A child needs to see things as good or bad; an adolescent thinks he knows the difference; an adult experiences more trouble with black and white categories and in concrete cases often cannot even decide who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

Love can be exhausting. Respect is a more comfortable attitude (adapted from Sir Peter Ustinov on 7 November 2002 at the Palais des Nations).

Humour is the voice of paradox.

If you are not in possession of yourself, you can hardly pretend to give yourself to someone else.

Pure truth, like pure light, can blind.

A day without emails or faxes, without phones or newspapers …What a garden of Eden! If it could only last!

Change in little doses is delightful.

Identity is knowledge of the stable core of the evolving soul.

Identity is consciousness of the self.

Home is ultimately one's language.

Poisonous mushrooms and venomous humans frequently appear quite harmless.

It takes consummate diplomacy to point out the obvious to an imposed superior who ought to know better and doesn't.

Creation needs silence.

Even Paradise gets boring at times.

Art can germinate in apparent lethargy.

Only the goddess of fate makes a bright person a brilliant comet.

Since life is a moving target, you'd better stop and aim calmly before shooting.

Longing with hope of fulfilment is better than fulfilment with fear of loss.

Wisdom entails living with injustice and coping with it.

Comparison is good for the soul: upward for challenge, downward for consolation.

One should measure one's fate not only against the blissful but also against the wretched of the earth.

One should not die encumbered by thoughts unsaid.

Silence, space and solitude are necessary solace to the urban soul.

The wise man knows when to quit, lest perseverance lead him to disaster.

A sound defeat may ultimately be more productive than a transitory victory.

The question before us is not why there is injustice, but how to deal with it.

Absent persons live quietly in our memories, waiting to be called -- deceased persons live on in our memories, restlessly, and call on us when least expected.

Not showing emotion can be a sign of respect.

It's the residual value, not the added value, that determines the worth of an individual.

Invoking fate is a way to avoid addressing the question why.

Sometimes it is wiser not to know.

Life never cared for the merit system.

If you do not have an umbrella, it's not the rain's fault that you get wet

A friend is a guardian of one's solitude.

Duelling is not honour. War is not glory – only waste.

A good conscience is better than a brilliant reputation.

Spectatoring political events without being able to influence them stresses the soul.

Post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself after lost elections.

To be understood by others one must understand them first.

The good news of the gospel is not “you must” but rather “you can”.

As deep joy and sorrow eventually mellow into nebulous memory, so will new emotions arise and fade again – unless time kills us first.

It may take an elaborate strategy to attain fame, but a single tactical error suffices to lose it.

No one with sound judgment would aspire to fame.

The memory of the fragrance of hyacinth fields in April, like a sensuous caress, helps us relive dormant fancies.

Head wind on the dunes, sheep peacefully gracing, rabbits springing in the sun, a careless pheasant in the fields – and a golden fox around … ephemeral memories of cycling through Holland.

Animals tend to reciprocate friendship better than humans.

One must imagine heaven as a vast spectrum of colours and sounds, not as some nebulous nirvana, rather a continuation of life with its smiles and tears, ecstasy and melancholy, dissonance and resolution.

Beauty, like life, is naturally ephemeral, and it is precisely this cycle of blooming and fading that renders both life and beauty so eminently human, so stimulating, so worth living.

Even wise men have a history of errors.

The path to wisdom is littered with foolish mistakes.

Who needs Panem et circenses (bread and circus games), when we have “freedom fries” and bombs over Bhagdad on CNN ?

Aggression remains aggression, as murder remains murder, irrespective of the arrest and punishment of the perpetrator. Calling the operation “liberation” ist just another item in the growing list of political obscenities of the 2lst century.

State terrorism is worse than private terrorism, since the State's raison d'être is to uphold the law -- not to break it.

A patriot is not a chauvinist who shouts “my country right or wrong” but an honest citizen who wants to be proud of his country, and having a conscience and a sense of proportions, acts to do justice and speaks out when government is being unjust.

To protest is a democratic duty. Remaining silent only encourages futher abuse.

The right to peace and the right to identity are higher values than a claim to foreign riches.

The “New World Order” is 1984- light .

If hypocrisy is the homage that vice renders to virtue (La Rochefoucauld), then cynicism is the tribute that the itellectual dandy pays to Zeitgeist values.

Cynicism is often truth spiced up with malice.

Cynicism can ultimately be a cry for help.

True Christianity has no use for fire and brimstone, for it lives for compassion, forgiveness and love.

God needs no bribes.

Law resembles mathematics in that it has rules, principles and logic. An important difference, however, is that law is often broken with impunity, particularly international law.

A breach of law cannot the source of new law.

Justice and law have never been synonymous.

Law is a half-way house between justice and chaos.

Lethargic persons can hardly be evil, for it takes stamina to be unjust, and even more energy to do serious injustice to others.

A just person is one who can be unjust with impunity but deliberately abstains.

Not every one gets the opportunity to be unjust.

A true scoundrel is blissfully free of such things as conscience – good or bad.

Embarrassing the arrogant can be an ecological exercise.

Humiliating enemies is a sport that may be practised with gusto , but should be enjoyed in due moderation.

The right to be wrong is non-derogable.

Aphorisms are a bargain-basement form of philosophy.

© AdeZ

and now some of my favourite borrowed aphorisms:

H.L. Mencken once observed: "Patriotims is not only the last refuge of scoundrels; it is their nursery and breeding pen."

Copyright ©2004-2011 Alfred de Zayas. All contents are copyrighted and may not be used without the author's permission. This page was created by Nick Ionascu.