Tag Archives: philosophy/religion

Frederick Douglass on Patriotism

“No, I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of this country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”

Frederick Douglass

Speech at Market Hall, New York, N.Y., 22 Oct. 1847

Excerpted from: Schapiro, Fred, ed. The Yale Book of Quotations. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church)

“African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church): African-American Methodist denomination, formally organized in 1816. It originated with a group of black Philadelphians who withdrew in 1787 from St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church because of racial discrimination and built Bethel African Methodist Church. In 1799 Richard Allen became minister of Bethel, and in 1816 he was consecrated bishop of the newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church. Limited at first to the Northern states, the church spread rapidly in the South after the Civil War. It founded many colleges and seminaries, notably Wilberforce University (1856) in Ohio. Today it has 3,600 churches and more than a million members worldwide.”

Excerpted/Adapted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.

The Doubter’s Companion: Ad Hominem

Ad Hominem: The obverse of hero worship. Both indicate an unwillingness to deal with content.

Public figures have complained for decades about the growing tendency to judge them by violent personal attacks, often aimed at their private lives. But as public actors have chosen to assume Heroic guises—whether majestic, saintlike, martyred, romantic or touching—so those they attempt to seduce have reacted with personalized integral vilification.

There is nothing new about such ad hominem attacks. They were widely used for political purposes in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If public figures paid a little more attention to history, they would know that their predecessors led a much rougher life. Today they are protected by concentrated media ownership, the obsession of the large professional elites with respectable public behavior and, in most countries, overly strict libel laws. Given that ours is a management-oriented society, we give far too much importance to the smoothness of public discourse and fear serious open verbal conflict.

Contemporary ad hominem resembles that of an earlier period—the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a society of courtiers constantly in pursuit of meaningless power. Court life was measured by personal details—orgasms, medals, gloves, cleavages, and titles. Ad hominem fed the endless appetite for gossip which filled the salons and occupied the days of those caught up in the complex structures of the state. These were powerless people living by irrelevant criticisms in the shadow of false human gods—the absolute monarchs. That such detached ad hominem attacks have returned with a vengeance in the late twentieth century suggests that we have also returned to the courtier-based society of the great palaces, which have been transformed into the great professions and the great organizations of the public and private sector.

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Nietzsche on Convictions

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Excerpted from: Winokur, Jon, ed. The Big Curmudgeon. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007.

The Doubter’s Companion: A Big Mac

“A Big Mac: The communion wafer of consumption. Not really food but the promise of food. Whatever it tastes like, whatever it is made of, once it touches lips A Big Mac is transubstantiated into the mythological hamburger.

It is, along with Perrier, one of the sacred objects of the leading philosophical school of the late-twentieth century public relations. Cynics often unjustly suggest that this school favors superficial appearances over content. Had this been the case, PR would have failed. Most people, after all, can easily recognize the difference between appearances and reality.

A Big Mac, for example, is not big. It doesn’t taste of much. It isn’t good for you. And it seems sweet. Why does it seem sweet if, as the company says, it isn’t laced with sugar?

What the philosophy of PR proposes is theoretical content (such as sex appeal, fun, individualism, sophistication, the rejection of sophistication) in the place of actual content (banal carbonated water and a mediocre hamburger). This is modern metaphysics.

Because public relations are built on illusion, they tend to eliminate choice. This is an important characteristic of contemporary capitalism. A Big Mac, like so many creations of PR, is a symbol of passive conformity. As Mac McDonald put it: ‘If you gave people a choice, there would be chaos.’”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Voltaire on Stupidity and Etiquette

“To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”


Excerpted from: Winokur, Jon, ed. The Big Curmudgeon. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007.

The Doubter’s Companion: Abasement

“Abasement: In a society of courtiers or corporatists, the question is not whether to abase or to be abased, but whether a favorable balance can be struck between the two.

Simple folk may have some difficulty mastering the skills involved, but the sophisticated innately understand how the pleasure of abasing others can be heightened by being abased themselves.

The illusion among the most skilled is that they can achieve ultimate pleasure through a type of ambition or drive, which they call competence. This causes them to rise higher, and so to win ever-greater power. But what is the value of this status in a highly structured society devoid of any particular purpose except the right, for a limited time, to give more orders than are received? Courtiers used to scurry around palace corridors with much the same illusion of importance.

When the time comes to retire from the functions of power, many collapse into a psychic crisis. They feel as if they have been ejected into a void. This is because society has not been rewarding them for their competence or their knowledge, but for their occupation of positions of power. Their very success has required a disembodied abasement of the individual. And when they leave power, the agreeable sense of purpose which it conveyed simply withers away.

Of course, power must be wielded or there is no civilization. But in a society so devoted to power and run by hierarchies of expertise, the elites are unconsciously addicted to an abstract form of sadomasochism. This may explain why success so often translates into triumphalism and constant complaints about the incompetence of others. The underlying assumption of most civilizations, including our own, is the exact opposite. Success is supposed to produce a flowering of modesty and concern for others.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Popol Vuh

“Popol Vuh: Mayan document that provides valuable information on ancient Maya mythology and culture. It was written between 1554 and 1558 in the Quiche language using Spanish letters. It tells of the creation of man, the acts of the gods, and origin and history of the Quiche people and also gives a chronology of their kings. The book was discovered early in the 18th century by Francisco Jiminez, a parish priest in the Guatemalan highlands, who copied out the original, now lost, and translated it into Spanish.”

Excerpted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.

Mesoamerican Religions

“Mesoamerican religions: Religions of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec. All religions of Mesoamerica were polytheistic. The gods had to be constantly propitiated with offerings and sacrifices. The religions also shared a belief in a multilevel universe that had gone through five creations and four destructions by the time of the Spanish conquest. Mesoamerican religions heavily emphasized the astral bodies, particularly the sun, the moon, and Venus, and the observations of their movements by astronomer-priests were extraordinarily detailed and accurate. The Aztecs approached the supernatural through a complex calendar of ceremonies that included songs, dances, acts of self-mortification, and human sacrifices performed by a professional priesthood, in the belief that the welfare of the universe depended on offerings of blood and hearts as nourishment for the sun. The Mayan religion likewise called for human sacrifices, though on a smaller scale. Information on the astronomical calculations, divination, and ritual of the Mayan priests has been gathered from the Mayan codices.”

Excerpted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.

Wounded Knee

“Wounded Knee: Hamlet and creek in southwestern South Dakota, the site of two conflicts between the Sioux Indians and the U.S. government. In 1890 the Sioux had been inspired by the Ghost Dance movement to take up arms and reclaim their heritage, but federal military intervention quelled their rebellion. On December 29 a young brave, while surrendering, became involved in a scuffle and a trooper was killed. Soldiers fired at the Indians, killing more than 200 men, women, and children. Thirty soldiers also died. The so-called Battle of Wounded Knee is regarded as the final episode in the conquest of the North American Indian. In 1973 some 200 members of the American Indian Movement took the reservation hamlet by force, declared it an independent nation, and vowed to stay until the government agreed to address Indian grievances; a siege by federal marshals ended when the Indians surrendered in exchange for a promise of negotiations.”

Excerpted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.