29 November 2007

Nietzsche's Superman

[Disclaimer: I have not read any of Nietzsche's works (Will to Power, Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, etc). My knowledge of Nietzsche comes from secondary works (like Will Durant) and his depiction in the popular media]

Let me try to set down Nietzsche's Superman (Ubermensch) theory in brief.

The human population can be divided into two groups:
1. A small minority (Supermen) who have exceptional ability, energy, ambition and intelligence.
2. The rest who are mediocre; the average and the below average; the ordinary people. Here after referred to as the 'masses'.

The 'masses' here does not mean the poor and illiterate people, although there is a great degree of overlap. A poor and illiterate man can be a Superman, if he has the qualities mentioned in 1. Conversely, many rich and middle class people (most of them, actually) belong to the masses.

To put it simply, Nietzsche did not believe that all men are created equal.

The world is not changed by the masses. It is changed by the Supermen. The masses are content with happiness. That is not such a bad thing in itself. The problem is this 'happiness' is defined in mainly material terms.

On the other hand, the Superman has nothing but contempt for material comforts and pleasures. His sight is set on higher things. He yearns for greatness, power, fame and glory. This is the stuff heroes are made of. Instead of happiness, he will find pain, discomfort, defeat, failure, fear and loneliness. But he would rather have these than the false contentment of the masses.

It is easy to see why Nietzsche is such a controversial philosopher.

Swami Vivekananda also believed in the concept of Superman. He said, "What is so great about being happy? If you give a cow enough grass to eat, it will also be happy. Then what is the difference between man and cow?"

But the crucial difference is Swami Vivekananda did not believe that Supermen have a right to exploit and oppress the masses. On the contrary, he believed they should serve the poor masses. Supermen are servants, not masters, of the people.

Accordingly, the Supermen will have to take a lot of crap from the rich and middle class masses. That is unfortunate, but unavoidable. They must endure this humiliation by keeping in mind their true purpose - which is to serve the poorest, the weakest and the most ignorant. Daridra devo bhava, deena devo bhava, mooda devo bhava.

20 November 2007

Farce In Karnataka

Indian politics has touched a new low. And the scene is not Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, but my beloved Karnataka :-(

Elections will be held now. What are the chances that one of the three parties (BJP, Congress, JDS) will get a clear majority? Very slim. So it’ll be back to the same old games, or President's rule. I don't know what sins the 5 crore people of Karnataka have committed to get a politician like H D Deve Gowda.

This kind of instability is a recent phenomenon. Earlier there was no BJP, so we had a stable two-party system (Congress and JD). With the rise of the BJP, we now have three contenders in the ring. It's all quite farcical. The JD has become irrelevant. Now the JDS is not even a caste-based party; it’s just a family-based one.

This instability will continue for some years. Eventually Deve Gowda (now 74) will die. The JDS will disintegrate. Most of its members will join the Congress; some will join the BJP. Then we will have a stable two-party system again in the state. Till then, God save us all.

19 November 2007

Foxes And Hedgehogs - 2

The words "sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision" betray where Berlin's sympathies lie. He is on the side of the foxes (The rest of the book argues that Leo Tolstoy was a fox, but was trying to become a hedgehog). Another writer (Scherder?) made exactly the same point when he said that every man is either a Platonian or an Aristotlean.

Leaving philosophy and art aside, let's talk about what this means for us ordinary mortals. The parallel at the mundane, everyday level is obvious. Some people can do only one thing at a time. Others are good at multitasking, and can do many things together. Some can hold only one thought in their heads at any given time. Others' minds are like multitrack recorders. Some seek comfort in uniformity. Others revel in variety. These are our hedgehogs and foxes, respectively. And by this definition, I am a hedgehog. (I also happen to prefer Plato to Aristotle)

So which type is superior? The usual argument of "each has its pros and cons" does not apply here. I think it is better to be a fox. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said it best: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects." In today’s fast-changing, diverse and complex world, we hedgehogs are at a serious disadvantage.

The fox vs hedgehog theme has become popular again, thanks to the management bestseller Good to great by Jim Collins. Collins argues that one must be a hedgehog to become a great business leader. But he, like Berlin, is talking about the realm of ideas, not of day-to-day work. He is telling you to relentlessly focus on one idea and build your company around it. He is surely not saying that one can become a successful CEO by being a zero at multitasking.

So are you a fox? Or are you a hedgehog? :-)

14 November 2007

Foxes And Hedgehogs - 1

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

An ancient Greek poet said,"The fox knows many things. The hedgehog knows only one thing." British thinker Isaiah Berlin made the idea famous in his book 'The hedgehog and the fox: An essay on Tolstoy's view of history'. The first paragraph makes the idea clear:

"But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.

"These last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

"The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes."

06 November 2007

"No God But Allah"

Reza Aslan's book "No god but God" has the subtitle: The origins, evolution and future of Islam. Thus the scope of the book is made clear to us. It is not a conventional history of Islam. It covers the following topics:
Origins - Pre-Islamic Arabia; Muhammad in Mecca; the first Muslims; from Medina to Mecca; the first Caliphs
Evolution - Theology and law; Shiism; Sufism; response to colonialism
Future - Islamic reformation

Thus half the book deals with only the first 50 years of Islam (the remaining 1350 years of history are dismissed in one page). The second half of the book deals with the development of the religion. And in the final chapter, the author gives us his view on what is happening in Islam today, and where it is headed.

So what does Reza Aslan say? In his introduction he says that critics will call his work an "apology". But he proudly embraces this label, saying that 'apology' means 'defence', and that there can be no higher calling than defending one's faith. He then proceeds to defend his faith. He describes the historical, social and religious context in which Islam arose (which he believes is crucial to understanding the religion). He sets down what he thinks is the correct Islamic view on issues such as the status of women, Muslim-Jew/Christian relations, meaning of Jihad, etc.

Aslan's knowledge of Islam is very deep. He is also a very sophisticated spokesman. It is more difficult to find holes in his arguments (compared to Karen Armstrong). But one pattern is clear: where he has a strong case, he dwells in detail; and where he's on a weak wicket, he moves ahead quickly. We must also remember that he is a Shiite. So where he talks about issues over which Sunnis and Shiites disagree, we have to take his words with a pinch of salt.

One problem with "No god but God" (a problem that most books on Islam suffer from) is that it focusses mostly on West Asia. It doesn't cover Islam in India in enough depth. A separate study of Islam in South Asia is necessary for two reasons. One, Islam in India has its own special characteristics. For example, the dominant school of Islamic law here is the Hanafi, as against the Hanbali in West Asia. Also, Sufism has had a far greater influence in the subcontinent than in the rest of the Islamic world. Two, Muslims are a minority here. When Muslims are a minority in a country, it throws up a whole lot of interesting questions - which do not arise in West Asia (where they are the overwhelming majority).

As a devout Muslim, Aslan does his duty of defending and explaining Islam. There is no doubt that he is a liberal, moderate and progressive Muslim. He sticks his neck out on many occasions, saying things that Islamic fundamentalists will find unacceptable, and will oppose violently. At the same time, there are many other things he says that we will find difficult to agree with. For example, he says that Islam respects other religions, but this respect is reserved only for monotheistic religions. Polytheists and idol worshippers are given two options: convert to Islam, or die.

All in all, it is a scholarly and well-written work that adds to our understanding of this intriguing faith.