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March 25th, 2003

Philosophy, Al Qaeda and the Meaning of Life

As mentioned below, there have been a few references in the blogworld to Paul Berman’s article in the NY Times magazine about Sayyid Qutb, the ‘philosopher of Al Qaeda’ as they call him there. I said I didn’t like it very much, so this post is to say why. It’s a little long, because I’m a little too lazy to edit it properly.


Qutb’s picture, hardly an original one, is that Western culture is based largely on a merger between Jewish and Greek ideas. (I’m told that developing this idea is one of the main theme’s of Finnegan’s Wake, but heaven knows how one could tell.) From the Jews we get the monotheistic religion, with a few epicycles having been added in the last few millenia. From the Greeks we get the idea that spiritual life and material life can be separated. So we abandon the Jewish idea of letting religous convictions govern all aspects of daily life. Crudely, we accept large parts of Exodus but none of Leviticus. (Some people in the West like the anti-gay lines there, but unless they follow Orthodox practices in all other aspects of life they are obviously hypocrites and should be ignored.) This, Qutb thought, was a disasterous combination. And you know, I think Berman agrees.



Europe’s scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ‘‘hideous schizophrenia’‘ [the separation of spiritual life from material life] on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery — the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe’s leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition — a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb’s account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful — an alienation that was also a humiliation.


That was Qutb’s analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely — the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds.



Whatever one thinks of the merits of following the Greeks here, the conclusion is just ridiculous. As Joan Robinson apparently said in response to one of Paul Samuelson’s lectures, I don’t so much object to what the young man is saying as to what he means behind it. If modern life is somehow at odds with human nature, just which other time period is more in harmony with it. Perhaps he thinks it was when we were all hunter-gatherers on the savannah. Perhaps he thinks it was when a large percentage of us were slaves. Perhaps he thinks it was when we had Dickensian labour conditions. Perhaps he thinks it was when 51% of us were compelled by social custom to be removed from civil society at an early age and spend and/or sacrifice their lives in child-bearing and rearing.


Early in Ulysses Stephen says that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Some days it feels like my life is just what Stephen would have when he wakes up, and I’m more than a little grateful.


It may not be in keeping with Berman’s idea of human nature to spend more time worrying about the quality of this season’s Gap stock, or whether that cute guy/girl in the bar likes one’s looks than about, say, the relevance of religion to dining practices or the divinely mandated division of labour between the sexes, but that’s just too bad for Berman. And, though it bothers me less, for Qutb.


I suspect most readers will agree so far, so let me move on to the parts that is more likely to lose friends and influence people. Here is Berman’s entire conclusion.



It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.


But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society’s every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.


Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding — one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.




But what the world needs now is not another deep thought. What the world needs is a way of recognising how much value there is in everyday life. It needs therapy more than this kind of philosophy. To not be able to see enough value in everyday life to keep on keeping on without believing in some external source of value just is a form of depression, perhaps the worst kind there is.


There is something odd about the terminology used around here. Some, and I suspect Berman is among them, suggest that life is not meaningful without some deep idea to guide it. And this is meant to be a bad thing. But lives are, in the most important sense, not meaningful, and this is a good thing. Things that are meaningful, street signs, sentences in blogs, etc are not intrinsically valuable – their value consists in their utility. If lives are to be justified in terms of their meaning, that is to say that they have instrumental value only. And that is the first step on the road to ruin, or at least calamitous war.


I thought the primary lesson of the 20th century was that deep ideas are dangerous. Small ideas are the lifeblood of the world, and they are safe to boot. Someone who has a new idea for representing the relationship between thought and world, or for curing a particular kind of cancer, or for describing the history of the Jews through the Dublin traipsings of an ad salesman, is not likely to start a war over their idea. Someone who has a new idea for the overall arrangement of society is somewhat more war-prone. Deep thoughts are literally dangerous. Paraphrasing Keynes somewhat, the armies of the world are moved by little else.


This of course is not meant to be a move in the war of ideas. I’m not likely to relieve someone’s existential angst by pointing out that it is a form of depression. But I doubt that any move in the war of ideas will cure this. What will cure it? Well, who knows, but I suspect psychologists know a fair bit more than you or I, or than they did 100 years ago. What we need is to get people to see the world in roughly the way Ramsey does, in this utterly delightful passage.



My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable becuse the future is blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I foind interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.



I don’t agree with all of that. Call me crazy, call me old-fashioned, but I do believe in astronomy. And when this depression leads the depressed to try and kill as many people as possible, potentially including me, well perhaps the despise becomes mutual. But I think the overall picture is just right.


More positively, I think that what moves us forward here is not one big idea, but thousands of small ideas. The best, as in most useful, ambassadors for liberal democracy are not the high theorists, but the millions of artists, innovators and entrepeneurs that make liberal democracy recreate itself every few years in the image of its people’s imagination. Less theoretically, a Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue is likely to win more hearts and minds than most essays on political philosophy. And if that doesn’t work, well there are millions more ideas where they came from.


This is not to deprecate the role of political philosophy, or of philosophy more generally. It is rather to say that the picture Berman ends with, which I think is a picture widely shared by philosophers, is not at all helpful. The image we get is of the philosopher as Captain Ahab, staking it all on the hunt for the one big catch, the one big deep idea that will change everything. Some people follow this life pattern, and unlike the real Ahab some of them beat the odds and catch a whale of sorts. But it’s not a helpful role model.


To loop back to Joyce (again!) the better role model is Bloom, the flawed but decent everyman whose life is ‘defined’ by how well he does the little things, not by its dramatic arc. Philosophy should be like this too – dealing with the challenges that face us day-to-day, perhaps hoping and checking from time to time that we are not just walking in giant circles, but having value in how well it handles the details, and makes small progress not in how dramatic its big picture may be. Geoff Nunberg says somewhere (it’s in one of the papers on his site, but it’s a little late for me to look where, so the quote may be inaccurate) that a discipline has become a science when second-rate practicioners can make valuable contributions to it. Ahabian philosophy can’t be like that, but a philosophy of puzzle-raising and solving can be. (You may think I have a vested interest in this model of philosophy being accepted…) And those kind of sciences have been much more successful than those that spend their time between paradigm shifts interpreting the words of the great man who last moved the field.


I do pity the people who cannot see the value in a life of everyday pleasures and successes, or at least I pity the non-criminals amongst their number, and it is a source of constant regret that more people don’t see the value in that kind of approach to philosophy.


UPDATE (and clarification): Re-reading that it strikes me that I might have painted with an even broader brush than I intended. Not that it was meant to be a subtle post, but still. The targets, as it were, are not meant to be those people, which would include I suspect most every adult in the world, who thinks that part of the value of their life is constituted by their participation in a grand story. Such stories, be they political, religous, artistic, scientific, or whatever, are an important part of many perfectly healthy lives. Rather, the targets are those who think their life would be valueless without such a narrative, who think that the pleasures and rewards of everyday life are not worth the cost. While I am deliberately flippant above about what makes everyday life valuable, letís not forget that a large part of it consists in caring for, and where necessary nurturing, those that one loves. Someone who doesnít find sufficient value even in this I think is a cause for concern. One concern about such a person is that they may think my life is valueless unless Iím participating in the same grand narrative that they see themselves in. But as Ramsey points out, serious costs start to accrue well before that. My main objection to Bermanís piece was the suggestion that we arenít telling the right narrative, that philosophers should be searching for it, and that perhaps nightmarish history should be our guide. I think by the time a story is needed, it is already too late for anything but therapy. Retail therapy is widely recommended.

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7 Responses to “Philosophy, Al Qaeda and the Meaning of Life”

  1. Dr Zen says:

    “If modern life is somehow at odds with human nature, just which other time period is more in harmony with it.”

    Saying why modern life is at odds with human nature does not necessarily imply that there ever was a time when it wasn’t. The reasons have differed could be all we are saying.

    But don’t the Qutbistas believe that Mohammed’s Arabia is the model of a time when life was not out of sync with human nature? Or the time of the caliphs? The latter was after all a golden age of sorts for the Ummah.

    I think your focus on how good life is exactly encapsulates what the Qutbistas deplore. Your focus – it seems – is on the material comfort our life brings (and don’t get me wrong, I’d wish that same comfort for the whole world) and ignores what you might call spiritual comfort as anything other than an offshoot of it.

    You are suggesting, I think, that the signs of material comfort and its portrayers (the Victoria’s Secret catalogue copywriters) will win over the Qutbistas – how can they possibly not love the frilliness, the frothiness, the glee of our culture? Ultimately, if the “small ideas” of our culture are amounting to little more than “I like it lacy”, we have nothing to oppose to the great ideas that motivate the Qutbistas, no matter how misguided their ideas might be.

  2. Dr Zen says:

    I didn’t realise this was so old. Still, I enjoyed the article and thought it was worth a comment!

  3. Lech Dharma says:

    Overattachment to material power and its consequential repression of spiritual purpose has become the mantra of the West. It results in the existential vaccum as defined by Viktor Frankl, where the people suffering from it turn to all the wrong things to fulfill their missing meanings of life; be they on a daily basis or grand-picture scale.

    It is in the material manifestation, or lack thereof, of individual misguided spiritual purpose that evil patiently waits in the shadows; the devil is always in the “dogmatic” details.

  4. Niky Ring says:

    I am worried about a philosophy that only sweats the small stuff, is concerned with ‘everyday living’, etc. We need big ideas to examine how we live, act, and think.

  5. McDuff says:

    But everyday living is a big idea. Those searching for a “meaning of life” to provide some kind of worth to their existence on the planet will ultimately be frustrated, whether they turn to Buddha or NASCAR to provide it. The disappointment and spiritual unfulfilment felt by people is caused by their misguided notion that there is a meaning of life, and that if you don’t know it there’s something wrong with you.

    The idea that there’s nothing there, so stop looking and go do something else with your life, is huge, which is why it is so easily rejected.

  6. Wallace Francis says:

    This was an extraordinarily befuddled article so I can’t really comment on it. The only thing I can say is that fascism, as a concept, isn’t something we can ignore simply because the building we are in isn’t collapsing on us. It’s nihilism to suppose we should go and clean our dishes while a hundred million people have gone completely insane.

  7. wallace francis says:

    Is the purpose of philosophy to give us a way to look at the world that benefits mankind in some way, or is it a recourse to intellectual masturbation for our own self-indulgence? I dread the thought of a conversation on utilitarianism. Perhaps Ed Abbey said it best: “When I hear the words “phenomenology” or “hermaneutics” I reach for my buck knife.

    http://livefromblogdahd.blogspot.com/