28 September 2009

Excerpts from Jonathan Glover's "Humanity"


Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century is one of the best and most important books I have ever read.

Excerpts below:

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An extimate for the period from 1900 until 1989 is that war killed 86 million people. Eighty-six million is a small proportion of all those alive during the ninety years, and is a small number compared to those who have died from hunger and preventable diseases. All the same, death in twentieth-century war has been on a scale which is hard to grasp. ...If these deaths had been spread evenly over the period, war would have killed around 2,500 people every day. That is over 100 people an hour, round the clock, for ninety years.
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One of this book's aims is to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality. A consequence of this is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. ...We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.

04 September 2009

Readings from Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning"

I am currently reading Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist, was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, for several years. He survived the experience and went on to develop the theory of "logotherapy," a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on human beings' "will to meaning." The part of the book that discusses Frankl's memories of his camp experience is, like any Holocaust memoir worth its salt, extremely disturbing and difficult to read, but it ought to be read in spite of that. Here are a few (non-graphic) excerpts from the book, which I highly recommend:

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Soon we had resumed the previous day's positions in the ditch. The frozen ground cracked under the point of the pickaxes, and sparks flew. The men were silent, their brains numb. My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
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If there is a meaning of life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life.
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What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.