The Sunset of the West:


Perhaps, but mind you, for every faltering, penultimate step it takes, it edges ever closer towards a dazzling apogee far greater than any other the world has ever seen…An example: Secular humanism. I grew up in the long tradition of secular humanism (as you just imagine ‘we’ all did). Yet when I see a post from a friend who cleaves yet to ‘Christianity’ (or yet ‘Islam’ Judaism’, ‘Buddhism’ etc) it saddens me. It seems (to me) that they have had just that same opportunity to liberate their minds from such shibboleths and fetishes as the remainder of us did. The ‘humanism’ implicit in Christianity is one thing, indeed a grand thing – the old fogey in the sky quite another!

Such ‘humanism’ is a tradition stretching back to the Ancient Greeks (indeed also to Judaism), though in many ways I ever prefer the bluff pragmatism of the Romans. You can imagine someone suggesting to them that they build another temple. ‘Or we could build an aqueduct or a mighty straight road will last folks two thousand years’ they might reply. Engineering is so eloquent!

I know I made a study for many years of Philosophy and the Western intellectual tradition in general, through Literature, History, etc. Just last night I was half fevered dreaming (with this dread pneumonia I carried back with me all the way from Everest; see eg: of my little 1970s upstairs room in the (Phil) corner of the ‘Quad’ at Sydney Uni (a replica of C10th Oxford!) whose tiny lead-light window overlooked the doppelganger of Bishop Berkeley’s famous tree, which I’m sure yet persists – though neither I nor (the late) Prof David Armstrong is there to see it, though I remember well how we watched the Transit of Venus seated on its lower branches back in the days when the world (or I at least) was young. The lass (Moira) who has ‘The Chair’ today I once knew as a pre-pubescent slip of a girl – though she is no doubt an aged matriarch now. There but for fortune, go I. I passed on that career and enjoyed another life, but I did not so doing forfeit the life of the mind, as so many seem to do (even’ alas, some Professors of Philosophy today! I know not if Moira is one of them – I would hope not).

I recognise, honour (indeed espouse) many of the moral teachings and precepts of the Christian tradition, but even moreso the greater lessons of Socrates! Everyone should read Jowett’s timeless translation of the ‘Socratic dialogues, ‘The Trial and Death of Socrates’ (, then read it again, and again. The New Testament is a poor creature besides. You can read the first, ‘The Apology’ for free right now here in its entirety:

The tradition of western Civilisation encapsulates these – and much more. I used once peripatetically to recommend to people Bertrand Russell’s timeless work, ‘A History of Western Philsosophy’ (and I still do) written when Nobel prizes were still given out for true greatness (Russell won Three!) Not since Steinbeck won the Nobel (‘Grapes of Wrath’) has there been anyone rewarded for true greatness of thought or expression, so far as I can see. Dylan notwithstanding. Jowett’s work is still a stand-out as a great work of Western literature (along eg with Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Nikos Kazantzakis’ ‘Freedom and Death’, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’, Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’, Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’…thankfully the list goes on…It is long since time we celebrated the West; it may not be the fount of all that is good and noble on earth, but it comes awfully close!

Socrates used (often) to espouse (that) ‘the unexamined life’ had no worth (often mis-translated as ‘is not worth living’). If you re-read eg ‘The Gorgias’ carefully you will be stricken again and again that Socrates is asking, ‘What makes a life enviable – or admirable’? It is not the life of maximising one’s pleasures (or power) – as Gorgias thought (even though his minions could put Socrates to death, yet fail to silence him! And as so many in the West (and elsewhere) seem bent on advocating today. Indeed such aims and goals are frivolous and meaningless. The quest for truth ought (to be) paramount. As a (near contemporary) Siddhartha is alleged to have observed: ‘if a man should glimpse a truth from a solitary cave and (in) so doing die, the truth will not die with him, but will emanate from his fastnesses and reverberate around the world’.

The quest for truth ought be the defining centre of our lives, not the quest for ephemeral pleasures, nor fleeting fame. In such regard it ought also be emphasized that not only is it not so that ‘everyone is entitled to his own opinions’ as so many demur. Indeed, the contrary is the case. No-one is. (Leaving aside the implied theology in the word, ‘entitled’: ie: that to be ‘valued by God’, which is to be valued by nothing, which is what ‘God’ is, equals to have no value at all!)

‘Opinions’ are not axioms. They are not truths in themselves. Indeed there are no axioms, reassuring as Euclid was once to adolescents force to learn it (or, in my case delighted!) They are working hypotheses which, if they are not backed up by reasoned argument capable of robust truth testing are totally worthless. No-one should have an ‘opinion’ at all! Certainly I never have! Including the aforementioned!

Many folk (including me) re-posted this homily recently: ‘Cheers to all the people who change their minds when presented with information which contradicts their beliefs.’ I like the simplicity of the refrain, and its impressive wisdom! I would see much more of what it advocates.

The key tradition of humanism is the examined life: the robust questioning of all received wisdom which is at the heart of the Western ‘scientific method’ (so eloquently espoused by the great  Karl Popper eg in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ ( There is little hope of material or ethical progress unless we cleave utterly to rational discourse and the careful examination of all that comes before us.

Truth testing is ever the ultimate arbiter of worth. Nothing (at all) has any value if it is not true. Nothing follows (logically) from a false proposition. This is the first principle of (Symbolic) Logic and ought be graven in stone everywhere. Therefore, the single most important quality of any proposition is, ‘Is it true’. Nothing else matters! Especially, it matters not a jot whom you upset by asking that very question about whatever ‘they’ say. They must either defend themselves, or if they cannot do so, withdraw. QED.

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