Bruegel’s ‘Two Small Monkeys’ (1562).

Pieter Bruegel (1525-69, 44)    Two Small Monkeys (1562).

What does it “mean”?

Simply the traditional moralistic warning to Man not to become “chained to”, addicted to, sinful behaviours of whatever stripe?


 FEATURED..  Pieter BruegelTwo Monkeys,1562, oil on panel, 23 x 18cm, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.


Gentile da Fabriano. (c1370-c1427). 1423, Adoration of the Magi (DETAIL from), tempera on panel, 203 cm × 282 cm, Uffizi, Florence. NOTE. From late in his life, this is the artist’s most famous surviving work, “commissioned by the Florentine literate and patron of the arts Palla Strozzi”.



  • No mystery here? Hard to avoid a traditional explanation, ie moralistic subject alluding to the dangers ofirrational or reason challenged man becoming “chained” to, addicted to sinful behaviours.
  • Bruegel shows two birds flying freebehind, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.
  • Possibly he saw chained monkeys in Fabriano’s 1423 Adorationin Italy, and quite likely he saw real such monkeys in busy Antwerp.
  • The hazelnuts are important, refer to a local proverb also warning Man not to be irrational, eg to go to court over trivial matters!
  • Left wing Marxist explanations, suggesting Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new wealthy bourgeois class seem nonsense. They paid his bills. Also this new private market-based economy has since brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global headcount.



This unusual, intriguing later painting – small (only 9 x 7in.) and showing an intimate, simple scene – is very different to four important panels also completed in the same busy year, 1562, by the then well established and experienced Bruegel (age c37). All four of the major works presented serious subjects depicted in typical detailed crowded compositions: The Suicide of Saul, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg).

So the painting of the monkeys may have provided light relief for the artist.

Bruegel’s rendition shows the monkeys chained on a window sill, by pieces of broken hazelnut shell, views behind to Antwerp, which Bruegel knew well, where he lived c1551-1563.

According to Google the two monkeys are identified as collared mangabeys (genus ceropithecidae), native to the west coast of Africa. Presumably Bruegel may have seen this species of monkey at the important trading centre that was Antwerp then, particularly given his apparently accurate rendition of the species markings.


Bruegel’s painting – an interpretation

Bruegel was always serious polemical painter. In the footsteps of Bosch – though now much less militantly evangelical, now more humanised – every image carried a message or story of some kind.

So here it’s hard here to avoid a traditional explanation for showing monkeys and monkeys chained, ie alluding to irrational or reason challenged man being “chained to”, addicted to sinful behaviour.

In the sky behind Bruegel shows two birds flying free, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.

Yes it’s possible he recalled seeing the pair of chained monkeys in the grand Fabriano painting in Italy about 15 years previously. And also it’s quite likely he saw real monkeys in Antwerp, which given his observant eye he would have noticed.

As many have remarked the hazelnuts are important, given his then recent famous 1559 painting illustrating a collection of Netherlands proverbs. So there seems little doubt the nuts refer to the local proverb warning Man not to be irrational, eg not to go to court over trivial matters! Good advice. Only the lawyers win.


The reason for showing Antwerp?

The obvious explanation for Antwerp appearing is that it was Bruegel’s base for many years (c1551-1563, except for for near 2 years to Italy) where he lived and worked, and prospered. And it was a town then riding a wave of prosperity based on trade, facilitated by its strategic location, its port facilities on the Schelde River, by the Channel and not far south of the mouth of the Rhine, its population roughly doubling between 1500 and 1568.

This prosperity, however, would shortly be severely dented as Spain’s war with the rebel Dutch Republic took hold (the 80 Years War, 1568-1648).


There is the Left wing Marxist explanation (refer below), that Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new economy, at the new wealthy bourgeois class, people like the merchant Nicolaes Jongelinck who importantly patronised the artist, buying at least 16 of his paintings, until they were forfeited as collateral for debt and ended up in the collection of the Hapsburg Rudolf II, HRE, thence Vienna today.

Indeed Bruegel’s interest in the Tower of Babel as a subject (which he painted twice in 1563) can also be read as frowning on Man’s ambitious material objectives, his arrogance, his unrestrained too big for his boots commercial ambition.

But this take seems far fetched here, drawing a long bow, when the traditional symbolic reference works well?

Also this new money paid his bills.

It’s worth noting this new private market-based economy has since, finally, brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global population.


Monkeys in art

Monkeys have traditionally been popular in art mainly to symbolise ill disciplined Man abandoning Reason, measured prudent behavior, and succumbing to base animal desires, and popular particularly because there is an obvious close resemblance between humans and apes, which Darwin later explained.

And the monkeys being chained? This almost certainly alludes to “fallen” sinful humans being trapped by, “chained to”, their improper desires, lusts, ignoble appetites, which thus in turn can be styled as addictions, because they are difficult to resist.

Monkeys appeared in many illustrated manuscripts in Medieval Europe, perhaps for iconographical reasons, but perhaps also simply for fun, as exotic quasi-human animals.

Monkeys were popular especially in art in the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) in the 17th C where, in a subset called singerie, monkeys often appeared dressed like humans, engaged in human activities showing immoral or dissolute or disreputable “sub-human” behaviour, like playing cards (gambling), smoking and drinking, selling tobacco, or even the tulip mania (also gambling?).

This was also an allusion to the Great Chain of Being (L. scala naturae, “Ladder of Being”), popular in the Middle Ages, eg through Aquinas, and sourced from the old Greeks (Plato and Aristotle etc), being a ranking or hierarchy of the natural order, animals, plants and rocks, from rocks bottom to animal higher up then God at the top. Thus monkeys ranked below humans, as creatures that were “sentient”, meaning all they could do was feel or sense, and did not possess the faculty of reason, a capacity to reflect on their condition and manage, restrain appetites and behaviours.

Singeries stayed popular in the early 18th C in France, and 19th C.


What does Two monkeys “mean”? Some ideas.

A BBC writer (5th Oct. 2018) suggests the idea of pair of chained monkeys may come from an important painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), his lush, extravagant, crowded The Adoration of the Magi (1423), an example par excellence of the reactionary International Gothic style, which work Bruegel may have seen in Florence during his Italian visit, 1552-54, ie about 8 years earlier, in his late 20s.

There the monkeys are chained near a pomegranate tree bearing bursting ripe fruit. In Fabriano’s painting the meaning of the monkeys relates to Christian iconography? The monkeys can represent fallen Man’s base condition, in Paradise Garden, ie Man prone to, lusting after, base desires, including of the flesh, desires metaphorically represented by the ripe fruit.

Meanwhile salvation now beckons through the Christ child shown left, where the Magi arrive to present themselves.

The BBC writer suggests the monkeys become “an emblem of humility [and] all that stands between us and the splendours of the world we inhabit are the fetters we clamp on ourselves and on each other…” Whatever that means?!


Perhaps more usefully another blogger, Angela, looks to the hazelnuts, which allude to a Netherlands proverb, “to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut”, noted by other observers. Thus for Angela the nuts can symbolise addiction, “people will do anything to obtain their desires, no matter how small”. Thus the sad monkeys are trapped by their lust for nuts! In the arched window which is their prison.


Gerry in Art (2015) notes Antwerp in the background, then booming commercially, then posits a textbook Marxist explanation, claims Bruegel is basically mauling the new quasi-capitalist economic system, no beating about the bush, “one founded upon exploitation and inhumanity, and the enslavement of human beings by their fellow-men…the chains on the monkeys represent the suffering brought about by contempt for the dignity of fellow human beings.

Nonsense. He’s dreaming. Look about you today.

But he does usefully mention “Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote a verse entitled Bruegel’s Two Monkeys, published June 1957, a year after the Poznan riots. Thus the chained monkeys become obvious symbols for a “chained” people.


Emphatically the first Australian Modernist painter

  • Emphatically the first Australian Modernist painter.

  • And therefore warrants much wider recognition for it.

  • Why not better recognised? Between two stools. Thus was not front rank in Europe. And in Australia was overlooked by parochial conservative tastes.


“I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea”

FEATURED:  c1905, A Wave Breaking on the Shore, Belle Ile Oil on canvas, 46 x 65 cm Sotheby’s, Sydney.  NOTE: Through the color and coarse brushwork another colorful quasi-abstract work, and Fauvist?

  • John Russell was clearly the first Australian Modernist painter, as such a pioneer within the small Australian pond,  who clearly deserves wider recognition.
  • Why not better recognised? Easy. He fell between two stools.
  • In Australiahe was overlooked by conservative parochial tastes.
  • And at the main game in Europehe was good but not front rank, and also, blessed by family money, he exhibited rarely, did not much promote his own art. Then in 1908 he apparently destroyed c400 works, upset when his wife died at only c40.
  • From the mid 1880s he became the first Australian painter to keenly embrace modern art, ie Impressionism / Post-Impressionism, from the 19thC European revolution out of France, and was far ahead of much better known Australian contemporaries like his friend Tom Roberts, also McCubbin, Streeton etc. And this despite Roberts also visiting Europe quite a bit, as did Streeton, and McCubbin briefly in 1907.
  • Taking advantage of good fortune, he dived into Europe and stayed Europe for c40 years, 1881-1921:engaging the right company at the right time and place, in France in the late 19th C.
  • His art style shifted abruptly c1886 after meeting Monet, absorbing his Impressionism, but his approach was nonetheless distinctive, even pioneering,especially in
    • a/ his Modernist works c1890-92, from a visit to the Antibes area(on French Riviera, just west of Nice), emphasizing light and bold color, and stylised compositions, even proto-Fauvism (eg c1890 landscape with tree, View Antibes);
    • and b/ the turbulent quasi-abstractionin many of his sea paintings at his then home on Belle Ile, off the Brittany coast, eg as early as c1890 (eg Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile).
  • Like most “Impressionists” Russell’s art was staunchly aestheticin purpose, with no interest in social comment.
  • He painted some portraits to start but overwhelmingly his output was outdoors, landscapes and seascapes. Also he remained a hands on painter, not academic, not a writer / theorist?
  • His early portraits were very good, mid 1880s, in Paris, like his outstanding portrait of Van Gogh (1886), also of friend M Fabian, and a very good self portrait.
  • However his style stagnated, did not move on. Into the 20thC his style stayed stuck in the 19th C, ignored the ongoing fast moving revolution after Fauvism c1905, ie especially Cubism and Abstraction.
  • And also later his subject range remained narrow,and less interesting for it, just landscapes, no more portraits.
  • Meanwhile the physical and athleticRussell, socially easy-going, but with a temper, developed meaningful and influential relationships with famous European First Division artist peers like Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Rodin.
  • Thus, 1896 and 1897, he apparently played an important role in provoking Matisse’s interest in less restrained color.

Some of Russell’s pioneering modernist paintings, as an Australian exploring the new styles.

No other Australian painter at this time, c1890 through mid 1910s, came anywhere close to Russell’s modernist style.


Riviera, France and Italy


c1889 Les Terrasses de Monte Cassino, oil on canvas 65.0 x 81.0 cm, private.

NOTE: Painted while visiting his to-be wife’s family in Italy. No other Australian painters then came anywhere close to this expressive almost unnatural coloration which veers close to Fauvism? Then still about 15 years ahead.


1891, In the Afternoon, Oil on canvas, 65 x 65 cm AG NSW, via Sotheby’s, Melbourne.

NOTE. Another important painting from Antibes area. AG NSW: … Russell’s sojourn in Antibes in the winter of 1890-91 produced some of his most beautiful landscape paintings.

Russell had seen Monet’s 1888 Antibes paintings in Paris which he wrote to Van Gogh about, criticising their lack of form but admiring their colour.

In Russell’s own Antibes works he has synthesised Monet’s techniques with an attention to form and is now working with pure colours that he is mixing himself.

The strength of colour Russell experienced in the clear Mediterranean light is embodied in ‘In the afternoon’ where the purple shadowed foreground, orange midground, stripe of blue ocean, mauve and white Alpes-Maritimes, and intense turquoise sky epitomise Russell’s exceptional engagement with colour at this time.

Russell has thickly layered paint in a worked up surface in which colour is also experienced as texture, achieving an overall chromatic and visual intensity.

While many Impressionist paintings appear spontaneous as the artist transcribes particular effects in front of the subject, in reality they are often highly considered and ‘worked’ compositions. In the afternoon is no exception as conservation analysis has revealed an earlier version of this painting underneath in which the colour tones are lighter. Russell has allowed this to dry before painting over it to achieve the more intense colours in the final version. The reworking occurred soon after the first version as it is the colours and composition of the current painting that Russell describes in his letter to Tom Roberts in 1891. The complex interweaving of colours throughout the painting, but particularly visible in the fore and middle grounds, show an artist in full control of his technique to achieve the luminosity he sets out to convey.

‘In the afternoon’ is one of two works that Russell exhibited in London in the New English Art Club exhibition in 1891, alongside ‘In the morning’ (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) – the two paintings embodying the impressionist interest in the changing effects of light and colour at different times of the day.

In addition to artists working in England such as George Clausen, John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert, this progressive exhibition included work by French artists Edgar Degas and Monet.

Russell’s paintings were seen as aligned with those of Monet and the reviewer in ‘The Times’ noted the “sunshine, real, genuine sunshine in Mr J.T. [sic] Russell’s ‘Morning’ and ‘Afternoon’ [and] in Monsieur Claude Monet’s ‘Orange and Lemon Tree’. (The Times, London, 30 November 1891, p3)



C1890-92, The sea at La Spezia (La mer à La Spezia), oil on canvas 60.0 x 72.0 cm Private collection, Melbourne

NOTE: Bold colour again, coarse Impressionist brush textures and a stylised layered composition looking way ahead to Rothko?


1891c View Antibes, K Stokes collection.

NOTE: simple painting but bold. Is this not another proto-Fauvist work? About 15 years before summer of 1905 at Collioure.



1890-1, In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, Oil on canvas 60.3 × 73.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra



1891c, Le Forte d’Antibes, Oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm The Collection of Sir Leon and Lady Trout, Christies, Brisbane.

AG NSW: In Autumn 1890, John Peter Russell left Belle Île to see the Midi and Riviera, where Van Gogh and Monet had worked.

He crossed France in a cart drawn by two horses and took a house for the winter in the ancient seaport of Antibes.

Enraptured by the landscape of the French Mediterranean peninsula, Russell produced some of the most dazzling canvases of his career. He painted numerous canvases during his time in Antibes, working out of doors in front of his subject in the southern light.

A fine example from this period, ‘Antibes’ demonstrates Russell conviction to pursue pure colour and move away from the restraints of naturalistic form.




1891c, Antibes (View from Hotel Jouve, plage de la Sallis, looking towards the medieval walls and the Grimaldi Castle, Antibes) Oil on canvas, 60.7 x 73.9cm, Queensland Art Gall.


1891cView Antibes, old town (houses in Italy), 45 x 45 cm, private, Melbourne.


Belle-Ile, Brittany.


c1890. Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile, off Brittany. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40.2 cm. Sotheby’s, Sydney, sold Nov 2007, A$180,000.

SOTHEBYS: Temptuous, colour-saturated Belle-Ile seascapes such as this rank as Russell’s most important paintings; undoubtedly the point at which he came closest to the French Impressionism of Claude Monet. Russell first met Monet in September 1886 when both artists were staying here at the remote island of Belle-Ile off the Brittany coast in north-west France.  Monet assumed that the young Australian Russell was American but found him ‘tres amiable‘, and the two worked together side by side for a time on the rocky Atlantic shore.  It seems likely that seeing Monet’s Belle-Ile series exhibited in Paris the following year was a factor in Russell’s decision to settle on the island with his family in 1888. He would remain there for 20 years – the happiest, both professionally and personally, of his life.  Russell at first did not approve of Monet’s revolutionary technique, with its deliberate lack of distinction between form and colour.  But by the 1890s his own style increasingly came closer to Monet’s.  Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile, off Brittany”, epitomising all Russell’s passion for the place, is clearly heir to paintings by Monet such as Tempest on the Coast of Belle-Ile. The excitement and vigour of the brushwork, the warm pinks in the sky and icy blues of the seaspray, are also seen in Russell’s larger Rough Sea, 1900, in the collection of Dr Joseph Brown at the National Gallery of Victoria.


1900 Rough sea, Belle-Île (Brittany, France), oil on canvas, 63.2 × 63.1 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, per Dr Brown.

NOTE: WHO „invented“ Abstraction? Russell’s Rough Sea (1900) is certainly relevant, as a case of proto-abstraction, about 10 years ahead of Kandinsky? It’s not meant to be abstract, as the title suggests, but a „blind tasting“ might struggle to say what it does depict? Perhaps even a hilly snowscape.



1905 Storm, Belle-Île, 25.5 x 32.5 cm (sheet), watercolour, gouache on thick buff wove paper, AG NSW. NOTE. Another proto-abstract work. AG NSW: ‘Storm, Belle Ile’ 1905 closely related to .. ‘Mer agitée: tempête Belle Ile’ formerly in the Behan collection, Brisbane.


1886, Van Gogh. oil on canvas, 60.1 cm x 45.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Museum: “The Australian painter John Peter Russell got to know Vincent at Fernand Cormon’s studio. He painted this portrait of his friend in 1886 in a conventional, realistic style. It is clearly influenced by photography, although the face and the hand still show Impressionist touches.

The portrait was not so dark originally. Another artist, Archibald Standish Hartrick, met Van Gogh at Russell’s studio. He later recalled: ‘[Russell] had just completed that portrait of him in a striped blue suit.’ You can indeed just make out a few little blue stripes at the lower edge of the painting. Analysis has revealed, moreover, that the words ‘Vincent, in friendship’ were painted in red over Van Gogh’s head.

In Hartrick’s view, this was the most accurate portrait of Van Gogh – more realistic than the likenesses done by other artists or any of Vincent’s self-portraits. Van Gogh was very attached to it. Years later, he wrote to Theo: ‘take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.



“Western civilisation” works? Yes, but be honest about its dark side.


Liberals are undermining western civilisation, writes Professor Robert Tombs (1), April 23 2018, The Times


FEATURED:  Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. 1938. Panel no. 5: “Slave trade reaches its height in Haiti, 1730.” Tempera on paper, 29.21 × 48.26 cm. Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans.


Not being open about “Western civilisation’s” full story significantly undermines its marketability

  • Professor Tombs is on the right track, but is telling only part of the story, leaving out the dark side of “Western civilisation’s” emergence, its ugly violent gestation.
  • Yes he leaves out the widespread predatory European imperialist / colonial engagement, in the Americas, then Africa and Asia.
  • In particular he leaves out slavery and the slave trade, especially across the Atlantic.
  • So he omits the sad and flagrant hypocritical betrayal of “Western” values by the newly born USA, in its treatment of blacks and native Americans.
  • And he could throw in two world wars in the 20th C and their appalling consequences. Thus WW1 should never have happened, was self-inflicted, caused by deficient collective leadership succumbing to deadly nationalistic ambitions.  .
  • Not being open about these failures “undermines” credibility in selling the virtues of the “Western” liberal-democratic model (WLDM). It gives greater licence to reactionary repressive authoritarian regimes today.
  • Which is a great pity for the WLDM is clearly universally valid as an optimum approach for nations managing their collective affairs in the modern world, both for 1/ demonstrated far superior economic and associated outcomes; and 2/ far superior political outcomes, human rights and freedoms.
  • Importantly the WLDM is ”Western” only because it happened to emerge there. But it’s as valid universally as Newton’s laws.


1/ A “chequered” history – the dark side of “Western civilisation”.

The Professor misses grievous failings in the story of “Western civilisation”.


2/ Slavery

We can start with the marred US “achievement”, the American Revolution, launched by the high-minded Founding Fathers’ Declaration of Rights, Constitution etc ., in the wake of 18th C European Enlightenment.

Except their admirable and just lofty ideals applied only to.. . whites! Like a club it was Members Only.

And this club was not open to slaves or native Americans, at a frighful cost, in the end to both sides, and to this day. Look at the 2017 furore over Confederate statues. Which would not be a lot different to neo-Nazis in Germany wanting Guderian etc on horseback in bronze.

Instead, at a great ultimate cost, the South chose to fight to maintain the bonanza that was their cotton-based economy, underpinned by nearly 4 million slaves and selling to a Europe then booming as the industrial revolution marched on.

Then having fought and lost the Civil War the South, with the acquiescence of the US Federal Government, managed to effectively “re-enslave” the blacks through Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement, for nigh on another century!

The Civil War was a terrible price paid by the Republic for its hypocrisy.


This US experience was one facet of a much wider economically motivated criminal enterprise, chiefly in the Americas.

Yes the damning truth is that slavery has been a major blight on “Western civilisation”.

How many fancy old houses in Britain were funded by slavery and the slave trade?


4/ Western imperialism.

Slavery was part of the wider blight of Western imperialism, the widespread predatory foreign colonial engagement by European powers especially in the Americas to start, through Spain then Portugal, thence Africa and Asia, through England, France and the Netherlands. Then even the US joined in in a small way, end of the 19th C.


Taking the experience of one frustrated imperial power, look at the appalling post WW2 failure by France, its futile desperation in trying to cling to its substantial colonial footholds in Vietnam then Algeria, at great cost to locals and the French visitors. And the Algerian debacle occurred after the ignominious 1954 defeat in Vietnam, as if they learned nothing in Indo-China.


5/ And two world wars and the rest! Our fault?!

Finally we can throw in the two world wars of the 20th C (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war), and their appalling consequences, certainly like the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust, and perhaps too the Depression and the Maoist Revolution.

Yes WW1 was basically self-inflicted by the European powers, should never have happened. It was caused simply by an egregious failure in leadership by the governments of the main European powers, succumbing to the temptations of Old World nationalistic ambitions.

Except now, ironically, these countries were armed with the best the booming newly industrialised economies could provide, in volume and deadly killing efficiency.


6/ The value of “Western civilisation”, “Western” values.

However, the Professor’s main point is right, the value of “Western values”.


Importantly, they are now “Western” only in the sense they happened to emerge there, in the West.

Though their relevance is now universal – like Kepler’s or Newton’s Laws – in the sense they are by far the best practical arrangements Man has devised for management of his collective affairs, within group political entites, within nations.


And for two major reasons.

First, through regulated private free markets and rule of law, they are by far the most successful arrangements for economic outcomes, and associated consequent benefits, in terms of matters like nutrition, shelter, leisure and health,

Second, they provide by far the best outcome for effective freedom of individuals, human rights etc.

But the result, while far superior to all the authoritarian alternatives, will still always be messy, “chequered”, sub-optimal, not least because of a/ necessary adaptation to never-ending ongoing disruptive economic and technological change, b/ reactionary opposition; c/ bad governments and other actors.


7/ But avoiding the dark side of “Western civilisation” has consequences, impairs its marketability, 

It’s not an academic matter.

Not telling the truth, the whole truth, about the history of “Western civilisation”, undermines its wider appeal, especially to countries today plagued by.. ..Old Values!

It allows self-interested opponents in authoritarian countries greater licence in stirring opposition to “Western” values.

So there is a responsibility, even a moral one, to sell the value of “Western civilisation”, and to be honest about its failures on the journey,


Note. 1/  Professor Robert Tombs is author of The English and their History.
Meanwhile the heading “Liberals are undermining western civilisation” uses “Liberals” in a misleading way, namely the confusing American terminology referring to Left wing protagonists.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend, a triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience


FEATURED: Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) 1754. Portrait of David Hume (1711-76). Age 43. Oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery



H4  H5

Steve DiBenedetto (born 1958) 2015, Drone Souvlaki (courtesy Steve DiBenedetto/Derek Eller Gallery); Vasili Kandinsky 1942 Intime Message 49.2 x 49.6 cm tempera, cardboard, Pompidou, Paris

ABOVE:                                 Laborious Experience  

Liberal Modernity: messy, generally not pretty, never finished, but it’s actually working.

BELOW:               Lazy Invention

Religion, Nationalism: tidy, complete, pretty as you like, something for everyone, and possibly an after-life thrown in.



Brilliantly written”, but still rubbish! But not the first time.

So John Gray’s argument – when boiled down, the regulus in the crucible – is that the Atheists are all tarred with the same brush, as those they criticise, the believers.

Thus “your atheism is just another belief”. And therefore also a matter of blind faith, not of evidence, of experience.

So that’s that. Pace Robert Graves, we call this playing with words, such that debate becomes meaningless.

For the argument, the believers believe.

The theists believe in a personal or specific god, the Christians in God who “speaks” through the [hands who wrote the] Bible, the Word of God, and the legion of stories therein. And all the Saints’ stories etc.

Deists present a more elusive target, believe in a vague impersonal divine “cause”.

Atheists say there isn’t a God or gods, and agnostics just say who knows, I don’t.


Bit like two chaps reach a corner, and cannot see round it.

The believer says, Round the corner is a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts.

How does he know? He doesn’t, he just “believes”.

Could just as well be a brass band, resting between performances. All the same to the believer.

The agnostic says, I don’t know, because I can’t see round the bend.

The atheist says, I don’t know either, but there’s not a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts, which of course he cannot know for sure.

But the believer says, Your statements are all just “beliefs” too.

Which makes debate with the believer meaningless because he dismisses anything anyone says. As beliefs, detached from evidence.

So the believer makes his position untestable.

Which is a hallmark of faith.


But the simple reality is that the onus is on the believers, to prove their claims on what’s round the blind corner.

Ball is in their court.

Meanwhile among what the atheists / agnostics “know”, based on long Experience, is:

1/ now all the weird and weirder science of the universe;

and 2/ logical psychological reasons for humans ”believing”, as conscious animals, aware of their mortality, reasons for surrendering to seductive encompassing certainties, however they are determined, and however detached from any supporting evidence;

and 3/ most specific “gods”, in all cultures, past and present, are anthropomorphic.



In a similar fallacious vein the cheerful John Gray also lays into the modern Optimists, like Pinker, Ridley etc, claims their “humanism”, “liberal democracy”, ”progress” are all “God substitutes”.

So “Gray.. believes… humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject..”

Then Terry Eagleton in reviewing Gray’s book calls Pinker et al “wide-eyed optimists”, and “.. just as one-sided as the prophets of doom”.

Which of course is total misrepresentation, fashioning a straw-man.

Per David Hume, the “humanists” views, the Optimists views, are based on laborious never ending sifting of Experience.

Not Invention.

They are based on hard work assembling evidence not on wide-eyed mute submission.

Belief is the triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience.

Though Mr Eagleton does at least hold Mr Gray’s feet to the fire, labels him the “card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance”. Spoken like an agnostic. Mr Hume would agree.  And “Gray belongs to a group of thinkers who turn to transcendence without content, epitomised by Hollywood spirituality.” Boom boom.


The evidence of the Optimists is extensive, wide-ranging, and emphatic, if necessarily imperfect.

So the modern outcome is also inevitably messy, untidy, always Heraclitean, always changing.

Unlike gods, which arrive box-wrapped, tidy, complete and eternal.

Which is chiefly why believers choose them! No complications.

And so there will always be something to excite that sizeable cohort of Born Worriers, those who will never quite be happy.



So Pinker et al are simply addressing evidence, the outcome of Experience.

And they call the outcome “progress” – epitomised by Liberal Democracy – on the evidence, because on average, generally speaking, conditions at point A are demonstrably better than earlier point B. It is what it is.

Thus, stepping right back to get perspective, it’s fair to say approximately say three-quarters of all people in advanced affluent economies today have never had it so good.

And if they are not happy then they have only themselves to blame!


But meanwhile in NO way do the “Optimists” ever claim that “progress”, such as it is, will necessarily continue, that it’s somehow inevitable.

Nothing is “fated”, and also they are too aware of their evidence!

Like how the French Revolution was commandeered by the quasi-religious Jacobins, then by Napoleon Inc. rampaging about Europe, “reforming” or “modernising” France chiefly to help resource his military enterprises, in his wake installing family in imperial posts.

Like how the calamitous outbreak of WW1 punctured, shattered many decades of “progress”, when massed reactionary throwback nationalism – alas, and ironically, abundantly armed with the best means modern economies could provide – unleashed two world wars (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war) and, for good measure, the disastrous Russian Revolution, practical ”Comminism”, the after effects of which still plague the world today.


Whatever the “progress” we have achieved, whatever we might keep achieving, the outcome will always be messy, not least because it will always be obstructed by the un-Enlightened Old World, by Tradition loyalties and especially the “religious mindset”, the born believers, broadly defined.

For there will always be the capable and ambitious who see a rewarding career in pandering to this mindset, offering seductive if hollow certainties.

It’s a long honour roll, including: the Pied Piper, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, that Hubbard chap, Jim Jones.

Nietzsche – the Greeks got there first.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, 56).

  • Overrated.
  • God is dead”? Yes, but the Greeks got there first, and then he only got half way. And the easy half!
  • Less than helpful in what to do next.
  • A reactionary conservative, not remotely in touch with Modernity’s liberal democracy project.


FEATURED: Edvard Munch (1863-1944) 1906. Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, oil, 201 × 160 cm, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm


Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Onions, 1881, Clark Art Institute.

COMMENT: Renoir’s down to earth – grounded – painting is a good antidote for the “brilliant”, intense malady-plagued Nietzsche, epitomising what’s missing from the great thinker’s work, a stroll through a village Monday morning, watching it come to life, pausing for coffee, buying onions on the way home. And garlic.

 In essence.

  • Overrated. Nietzsche was a classic ivory tower intellectual, at home with his tomes, detached from, oblivious to the diverse, complicated fast changing “real world”.
  • God is dead”? Yes, but he only got half way. And the easy half!
  • Furthermore the ancient Greeks (whose works he knew well) got there first, about 2.5 millennia earlier.
  • Thus he left out what’s Man to DO next, sensibly do, after finding there is no God, beyond exercising a strong “will”?! Or the similarly trite, “Become what you are.”
  • In particular he also claimed that with God “dead” there is no right “absolute” answer on what to do, that we are thus completely adrift, facing nihilism, making your / our own rules.
  • He had a dim view of the capacities of the common man, indeed humanity itself, and thus had no regard for the capacity of post-Enlightenment Man to take mature responsibility for running his collective community affairs, once freed of fanciful (Christian) theological guidance.
  • So basically Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some theological construct. So he was a reactionary conservative, out of touch with, discounting Modernity’s liberal-democratic project, then underway particularly in the English speaking world.
  • Implementing the liberal-democratic project is not easy, is messy, always will be, not least because of self-serving resistance by reactionary, “traditional” interests, especially religious and nationalistic. No quick fix.
  • So end of the day Nietzsche’s greatest failing was irresponsibility, recognising that with freedom comes responsibility (ie the core message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, restated by G. B.Shaw), ie in particular responsibility for devising sound Government,
  • But at least he saw through Christianity (the Church), how it devalues, demotes Man, for its own ends.
  • So why did he make the big splash, if after all his views really not that radical or novel? Because a/ he had his say at a very opportune time, as the challenges of Modernity were evident; b/ he said it colourfully; c/ he then became famous / infamous after being practically adopted by 20th C Fascist dictators; and d/ his fierce walrus-moustached face.
  • He then became controversial when was keenly appropriated, promoted, exploited by self-serving Fascist forces.
  • Discerning the “real” Nietzsche is harder because of his aphoristic dot point writing style, then his sister’s later self-serving changes to some works, adulteration.
  • He sold poorly in his lifetime but became famous in his after-life.


Context historical?

Two key backdrops were;

1/ Germany on the up.

2/ Modernity marching on, the industrial revolution gathering steam.


Quick run through.

1/ God is dead. And we killed him! This just means traditional religion fails as an authentic life philosophy.

Also he specially criticised Christianity for its notion of original sin, devaluing Man, including its repression of sexuality.

Also he attacked faith as closing Man’s mind, rejecting curiosity. “Faith, according to Nietzsche, means not wanting to know what is true.”

If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe,’ he wrote to his sister; ‘if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.’

So rightly he said religion is a cop out, eg faith = closing one’s mind, not wanting to know truth, denying curiosity

BUT the Greeks there long before in undoing gods, a bunch of them were. They saw through the G thing, saw gods merely as Man creations.


2/ BUT it worried him because he saw the “death” of God as the end of moral absolutes!?

So regarding a/ rules for living, and b/ meaning in life, he saw all as relative now, hence we are “Beyond good and evil”, facing a “consequent gaping hole in human existence”, thus making ours a nihilistic age.

Thus he discounted any attempts at an objective truth, claimed all knowledge is “contingent and conditional”, always shifting, a view now called “perspectivism.


3/ so WHERE to now? Here is Nietzsche’s major error? Lapse.

He just said, tautologically, life is what you make it.

For an authentic life you must DO something, man should TRY.

A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: “Become what you are.””.

But become what?

The closest he got was to suggest… must have WILL power.  Which is trite? Even self-evident.

The will to power”, ‘live dangerously’ (appealed to Benito Mussolini), as – Übermensch /‘the superman’, ‘Become who you are’, ‘Strife is the perpetual food of the soul(1862).

And will was weak or strong. And “The man of strong will and clear sight was the Übermensch (literally the ‘Overman’ (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra), the man who has overcome himself, often rendered as the ‘Superman’). Such a one was almost a god. “


And in DOING something YOU then make own rules/morality.

Since now “no set purpose, and therefore we had to devise our own.”

“‘Man should sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose’; if we have our why we can put up with any how”.

He tried to define good and evil. ‘What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness.’

“ the mid-1880s, [some see] Nietzsche’s outlook was almost theological, though he had replaced God with the Superman, divine grace by will-power, and eternal life with eternal recurrence. “

This was HIS view, but vague, adds what for common man??


So.. “ freedom was the essence of his philosophy – and this, as George Bernard Shaw, a Nietzschean thinker, once wrote, ‘means responsibility’. (He added, perceptively, ‘That is why most men dread it’.)”

Here GB Shaw, for once, was dead right.


4/ Nietzsche also stressed the primacy of change, everything always in flux, again borrowed from the Greeks, Heraclitus. And which again is trite? Self evident?


5/ so in summary Nietzsche only got half way, and the easy half!

Yes God dead and yes Man should seek truth, an authentic life.

But beyond that he had NOTHING constructive to offer.

And leaving others to misuse his ideas.


6/ so in particular he MISSED the whole Modern notion of liberal order, of devising / implementing a collective rules based democratic process, Man running his affairs.

He saw liberalism as “herd mentality”. He did not trust the masses, had “lofty contempt” for them.

“…he decided that liberalism was a product of the ‘herd mentality’” And “He cast scorn on the ‘non-sense of numbers’ and the ‘superstition of majorities’’‘.


7/ Basically, fundamentally, Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some confected theological construct. He was trapped in the past.

7a/ no confidence in Man, the common man.

In particular in looking at implications for wider society he saw “too many people lived inauthentic lives – they were ‘human, all too human’ (meaning weak, cowardly, self-deceptive, petty, selfish, lazy, small-minded, ignorant, dishonest, malicious, pathetic).”

But more than that his thought was antiquated, unscientific, “Nietzsche believes that aristocratic nature is to some degree bred into us, so that some of us are simply born better off than others”.

Are thieves and villains proportionately more common further down the socio-economic ladder?


7b/ So  he favoured an elitist anti-democratic take on history. He wrote of “master-morality” and “slave-morality”, former as “good”, coming from “a warrior aristocracy and other ruling castes”, versus the latter as “bad”, “a reaction to master-morality”. He sees “Modern culture is defined by a tension between two kinds of morality”.

“…  it is clear from his own writings that Nietzsche wanted the victory of master morality. He linked the “salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance” of master morality and called master morality “a higher order of values, the noble ones, those that say Yes to life, those that guarantee the future”. Just as “there is an order of rank between man and man,” there is also an order of rank “between morality and morality “.

This is all crazy. Nietzsche stands as a good old fashioned reactionary.


8/ Other notions.

8a/ “Eternal return” / “eternal recurrence”

Eternal return” (also known as “eternal recurrence“) is a hypothetical concept that posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form for an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.” From The Gay Science.

This talks to his preoccupation with change, which he found in the Greeks.

Does this add much?


8b/ “Apollonian” versus the “Dionysian

Artistic creation depends on a tension between two opposing forces, which Nietzsche terms the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian”. From The birth of tragedy. “Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy.

Which the poet Hölderlin had spoken of?

A useful observation.


9/ Nietzsche later was appropriated by others for their ends, especially by assorted nationalists, thence 20th C fascist dictatorships.

Yes Hitler read him, then feted Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth, who did promote her brother’s application to Fascism.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra sold 140,000 copies in 1917.

But Nietzsche didn’t help, eg

You should love peace as a means of new wars,’ he wrote; ‘and the short peace more than the long … I do not exhort you to peace but to victory.’

And “and the man who fired the first shot in the war, the assassin Gavrilo Princip, admired Nietzsche and was given to quoting his works, especially the line: ‘Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself’.”

Was he speaking metaphorically? “When Nietzsche had talked of waging war, he had in fact meant fighting against one’s own weaknesses, self-deceptions and follies. He did not expect to be taken literally,”



10/ But Nietzsche was mostly not “political”, a nationalist, not an anti-Semite? Rather, per contra, he “hated the German militarism after 1871 Unification”.

The new Reich, he said, is the ‘politicisation and thus destruction of the true German spirit’, which to his mind was cultural.

And 1887, ‘He wrote in February 1887 that ‘I have no respect left for present-day Germany, bristling, hedgehog-fashion, with arms. It represents the most stupid, the most depraved, the most mendacious form of the German spirit that ever was’.”

He “scorned” Wagner’s love of Teutonic myths, his nationalism and anti-Semitism.

So broadly speaking we cannot blame him for the German 20th C rampage.

“ If thinkers are to be held responsible for glorifying war… then those figures – from John Ruskin to Max Weber – who glorified real war must be indicted before N. Nietzsche’s views were not ‘militarism run mad’.. they were individualism run mad.” 

Irony that “his individualism – which in political terms equates with anarchism – would have been even more opposed to the far greater collectivised tyranny of totalitarianism. Nevertheless both Mussolini and Hitler admired him.”

Hitler too was impressed. He read him as a prisoner in Landsberg (‘my university’), or so he said, and later gave Mussolini a copy of the collected works for his sixtieth birthday. … In 1934 Hitler travelled to Weimar to pay his respects to Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, presenting her with a huge bouquet of flowers and speaking of his ‘unchanging reverence’ for her ‘estimable brother’.

But “the version of Nietzsche of which many fascists approved was that painted by his sister in “The Will to Power”. Elizabeth evidently did have extreme nationalist, racist and fascist sympathies, and her husband more so. “


11/ A thought. It seems likely Nietzsche’s big health problems – right through life, including syphilis, which finished him?  – drove, influenced his thought? Eg his affection for Schopenhauer and especially his stress on WILL, on the individual taking the reins.

Perhaps Nietzsche had to cultivate heroic will-power in order to avoid succumbing completely to ill health…. the hero of his great book of 1885, Zarathustra, affirms life nobly, joyfully and sometimes even ecstatically, despite all its problems and disappointments. “

Influence too his idea of ‘eternal recurrence’, “one of his most curious late ideas…”


12/ Interesting, Nietzsche’s tale helps remind us that Liberal democracy is very much an English achievement, emerged there, with help from the Dutch. So the whole notion of Democracy was radical in Europe then, offended many conservatives.

Though Greeks were there 2500 years before.

So the real English achievement was developing a practical working replacement for God!

Though the outcome will always be messy, a work in progress, never complete, never come boxed, wrapped and ribboned.

Thus Man can find Meaning, find collective moral standards.

If he works at it.

And arguably these “values” are ABSOLUTE, have universal applicability, are not relative, anything goes.

Thus Franklin Delano Roosevelt was clearly heading in this direction in his famous early 1941 State of the Union “Four Freedoms” speech, free speech, free religion and freedom from want and fear. Not a bad start,

Unfortunately his grand post-war vision (which later included the United Nations) was brutally hijacked after WW2 by not one but two “Communist” dictatorships, first the USSR, giving us the 44 year long Cold War, and second, from 1949, “Communist” China, which famously changed economic direction after Mao’s death, but remains staunchly authoritarian. This sad outcome also gave us the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Both states are of course far more nationalistic than they are “Communist”. Thus their evident observed preoccupations do not extend to liberating the oppressed proletariat.

And around 75 years after WW2 these two antagonistic anti-democratic major powers are still with us, still allergic to liberal-democracy.


Influences on Nietzsche?

Greek philosophers, especially pre-Socratic Heraclitus, that all is change, “who stressed competition / emotion rather than mere logic”;

The Greek materialist thinkers, “who denied the existence of anything metaphysical (including a self separate from the body)”; also “Darwin and other evolutionists, who saw no reason to presuppose the existence of a creator”.

Schopenhauer (Mr Pessimism, Schopenhauer, only death will end your misery!) impressed, was a major stimulus to his interest in philosophy, partly because of his pessimistic outlook on life. “It’s best to envisage the world as a sort of penal colony, insisted Schopenhauer: after all, life is ‘a disappointment and a cheat’ (words he wrote in English), death a welcome oblivion”. ‘No rose without a thorn,’ he quipped, ‘but many a thorn without a rose.’

This appealed to the suffering Nietzsche?

Schopenhauer saw us in two worlds, the superficial “world as representation”, which we see, and the “world as will,” which lies behind the senses, and is the “real world”

The other major influence was Wagner, whom Nietzsche met in Switzerland. ‘When I am near him,’ he wrote in August 1869, ‘I feel as if I am near the divine.’ They quarrelled in the late 1870s, like over Wagner’s nationalism and ant—Semitism, but Nietzsche took from him and his music was the “notion of the hero”.



From a conservative family. He was born in 1844 at Röcken, near Leipzig, in rural Prussian Saxony, son of a Lutheran pastor, both his grandfathers were Lutheran ministers. His father (who died 1849) was a royalist, called him Friedrich Wilhelm after the King of Prussia. Bright early, educated in Naumburg, at Pforta boarding school and at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. Then, at the young age of 24 (1868), he became Professor of Philology (specialising in classical Greek language and culture) at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Awkward socially? Contracted syphilis early?

He had suffered migraine headaches and poor eyesight from early years, volunteered to serve as a nursing orderly in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he soon collapsed from dysentery and diphtheria. He was never really well again.

By 1879 N’s health so poor he retired on a small pension from Basel University, began travelling – to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France – living simply, incessantly writing.

In January 1880 he was suffering a ‘semi-paralysis which makes it hard for me to talk’ and also ‘furious attacks’ which had him vomiting for three days and nights at a stretch

On 3 January 1889, in Turin, he “saw a cabman beating his horse”, intervened, “when he retained consciousness, he was no longer sane”.

For the last 11 years of his life, from the age of 44, he was looked after by his mother and then his sister, Elizabeth.. for the last two years he could not speak. He died on 25 August 1900”.

Yet even before 1889 there were signs that Nietzsche was becoming unbalanced. Self-obsessed. His short autobiography Ecce Home (‘Behold the man’, words used by Pilate about Christ), published in 1888, contains chapters with the titles ‘Why I am so wise’, ‘Why I am so clever’, ‘Why I write such excellent books’, ‘Why I am a destiny’.


Understanding his work?

Problems, 1/ his sister? “The problems of [understanding] N.. compounded by .. his sister edited his surviving notes, containing ideas he’d rejected, into an often misleading work, The Will to Power, published 1901.”

2/ his writing style. “..  in his prime, Nietzsche sometimes wrote in poems, parables, aphorisms, riddles and metaphors which are often difficult to fathom”.

The “return of Empire? No. Modernity marches on.

How to grasp a 5 million year moment for species “Homo”?

FEATURED:  A modern Faust.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69) 1563, detail from Dulle Griet (Mad Meg). Oil on panel, 115 cm × 161 cm, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

COMMENT: a visual metaphor for Modernity? Remorseless, unstoppable, robotically fanatical, sans sentiment in confronting, swallowing Tradition?


If a man will begin with certainties he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties (Francis Bacon (1561-1626), ie the certainty of uncertainty.

The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race. English writer, EM Forster (1879-1970). Not a bad checklist.


The liberal “West”? Very much alive.

Yes the old liberal “West” has “problems”, and always will, coping with:

  • adjustment from never ending economic and technological change,
  • dissent from within from its own fractious reactionary elements, hostage to the Siren-call of Tradition.
  • and reactionary states – run by conflicted elites – hostile to the liberal-democratic model, like China, Russia etc.


While the model is called “Western” that only refers to its origins. Like quantum physics and other scientific constructs the precepts are now relevant universally.


But the liberal heart is still beating, and remains inherently strong, sustained simply, ultimately, by popular appetite for democracy and freedom.

So at least it’s backing the winning team, ie listening to voters who can access a rules based competitive liberal democratic system.

And the reactionary authoritarian states will keep paying a price for their misguided loyalty to tradition,not least economically.

The cork is out of the bottle – freedom is loosed, abroad – and will never go back.


People wonder why Modernity’s obvious success (material, health, freedom) has not left people generally happier. “Tradition” left people poor and powerless but its slower pace and comfortable (if illusonal) “ideological”certainties appealed to many, especially now in hindsight as bad memories of it faded.

So Modernity’s biggest single challenge in seeing off “tradition” is enabling people to still find “spiritual” meaning or purpose.


The return of Empire? No. No match for “Modernity”.

Mr Kaplan (1) got Iraq wrong (but kept good company in so doing), and it now seems likely he’s dead wrong again, in his The Return of Marco Polo’s World (Robert D. Kaplan  Random House,2018). James Traub reviewed him in the WSJ (March 2018) headlining thus:Empires Strike Back. A combination of state failure, globalization and technological change has eroded state sovereignty and begun to restore an older world.”

Mr Kaplan is right to discern nostalgic / reactionary “Imperial” inclinations in countries like.. Iran, Russia and China.

But end of the day they are all losers, on the wrong side of history, resisting, recoiling from Modernity, from the rational open-eyed free thinking liberal democratic model.

It’s costing them, and will keep costing them.

Note:1. Return of Marco Polo’s World’ Review: The Empires Strike Back. A combination of state failure, globalization and technological change has eroded state sovereignty and begun to restore an older world. By James Traub  March 5, 2018  WSJ.  And 9 march 2018. The Return of Marco Polo’s World By Robert D. Kaplan  Random House, 280 pages, $28


China? Paying a price for not liberalising.

The prognosis for “Communist” China is complex, other than to say, whatever economic progress to date, its failure to liberalise is costing them..

Many are pessimistic for China’s economy (like Carl Minzner, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise”, 2018).  But China meanwhile has marched on, confounding many “experts”, apparently still growing at well over 5% pa, and now off a much larger base.

It is certainly authoritarian / autocratic, but the regime does remain strongly focussed on (now cleaner) economic growth, doing what it can to foster this. Rationally they understand the economic value of “Western” liberal practices like competitive markets and rule of law, see how well it works in Chinese flavoured jurisdictions like Taiwan and Singapore, where Chinese people are economically incentivised.

So they’re trying to have best of both worlds, to keep a lid on people’s democratic aspirations but grow the economy. So within the constraints of an authoritarian political system they do what they can to encourage a positive economic outcome, through promoting foreign trade, infrastructure and innovation, and also (notwithstanding obvious constraints) “rule of law”.

The contrast with its large western and also authoritarian neighbour Russia could hardly be sharper.

But end of the day contradictions abound.

Stepping right back, the blunt and unhappy reality for China – or rather its “Communist” leadership – is that they are a nostalgic reactionary cast, out of step with the remorseless march of Modernity.

The illiberal authoritarian system will inevitably mean a poorer economic result than otherwise. So end of the day “Communist” China will pay a price for not liberalising, economic and political.

And who cares recently if Mr Xi stays there indefinitely? It’s the same authoritarian system, and not as if his successor would be in any way voted by the people. And who cares if Mr Xi wants to promote his alternative model. Who else wants it? Look what autocracy is doing for economic miracles like Russia and Iran.

It’s called “Communist”, referring back to Lenin, Marx, Socialism etc, but that’s just a useful ideological construct to support a rigidly authoritarian system which sees itself far more as Chinese than working for grand dreams of a son of Trier.


And other “Empires” like Russia? Paying an even bigger price.

Russia and Iran are both paying a high economic price for their belligerent thuggish, corrupt, reactionary kleptocracies, much higher than China, which is at least giving economic progress some priority.


The wider debate: whereto Modernity? The improbable 5 million year moment for species “homo”.

The topic goes to the heart of the biggest global polico-economic question of all today: the fate of Modernity in the modern world, child of the Enlightenment Project.


This goes to the contest between the competitive liberal-democratic (LD) model – which is the basic organisational framework of Modernity – versus the long running traditional authoritarian model, where a ruling group, clique, caste, rules the common masses, through:

1/ a self-serving supportive validating ideology / mythology, especially traditionally, religion, and later nationalism, especially post the French Revolution, ie after the Church and traditional monarchies were finally sidelined, and authoritarian governments then appealed to their own ethnic culture/history for legitimacy.

Both models, religious and secular, take advantage of profound popular appetite for “spiritual” sustenance.

And 2/ force, security forces: enlisted and paid enough, to repel dissenters.


Meanwhile, after a long and bitter and violent gestation, across 3 centuries, seeing off strenuously reactionary foes (especially religious, then including supporters of slavery and imperialism, and visceral nationalism), at great cost (like the 30 Years War, the Napoleonic Wars,  then not one but two world wars), the LD model is now out of the bag and established in the “West”, in Europe whence it emerged, and in Europe’s offshoot the US, but now, post WW2, in other parts too, in parts of Asia and South America.


The LD model has been hugely successful, in three respects (eg refer to host of relevant books, lately like “Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress”,  Steven Pinker, 2018, Allen Lane):

1/ in politics, allowing meaningful full franchise democratic political freedoms, also great strides in human rights .

2/ the economy. Freedom is powerfully effective economic medicine, through harnessing Man’s creative abilities, in a collective competitive system, overseen, managed by democratic governments.

And 3/ health outcomes, with dramatic boost in longevity.

Manged competition among economic agents is perhaps the single key driver of economic progress, as it was for the success of post Bronze Age classical Greece..

The comparative economic experience of the two systems evident in divided Germany, in China and Korea illustrates the difference starkly.


Modernity is a dramatic and unparalleled state of affairs. The last few centuries, continuing fiercely now, is a 5 millon year moment for species Homo.

So it’s no wonder a species which has been evolving that long may have trouble adjusting to such a sudden and  drastic change in affairs.


Yes there are “problems”. There always are.

The outcome is never perfect, is always sub-optimal, especially coping with:

1/ adjustment from never ending economic change the inherent processes of “creative destruction”,

2/ and reactionary dissent, sometimes exploiting popular appetite for “tradition”, “meaning in life”.


So yes there is now opposition, resistance:

  • Yes from states outside, notably from China, not least for its size, and also Russia, Iran
  • And from within LD states too, reactionary forces, citing tradition. Yes religious and nationalistic.
  • And there is always (criminal) opposition from Bad People.


Modernity’s Faustian deal brings its biggest challenge? Answering life “purpose”.

Modernity’s biggest single challenge in seeing off, fighting off “tradition” and its ardent proponents is enabling people to still find “spiritual” meaning or purpose.

Tradition”in one guise or another supplies easy spiritual moorings, the simple encompassing (if delusional) spiritual “quick fix”, usually or typically religious but also for many simply loyalty to some notion of human group: community, tribe, nation, communing with home-land and ancestors one way or another, formally and informally.

Anti-liberal states, institutional religions, and nefarious charlatans all, exploit for their own ends these ready DIY spiritual answers to pervasive curiosity about the circumstances of existence.


Modernity’s millstone is that it upends easy existential answers.

The door to Modernity brings Man to the Faustian turnstiles, to Man’s modern grand Faustian predicament: he trades “spiritual certainty” for freedom!

Freedom brings extraordinary knowledge, opportunities, material abundance, antibiotics, but the price of this knowledge, at least for the open-eyed, diligent and intellectually honest is – paradoxically – uncertainty! The price is profound mystery, awareness of the limits of knowledge, and thus surrendering the certainty offered by Man’s spiritual sand castles, surrendering submission to some seductive carefully human fabricated. self-serving, but delusional belief system, whether based on religion or or community and location (nationalism etc).


Man is left living with mystery, however exquisite, tantalising.


It’s an important reason many people still “worry”, apparently “irrationally”, despite the extraordinary progress – economic and political – loudly recorded by writers like Steven Pinker.


BERT: Bill’s Eternal Ripple Theory

But there is a curious possibility,perhaps awaiting a Nobel Prize to help confirm.

Every life, short or long, high or low, accumulates manifold thoughts and actions, which may echo, ripple`forever after, somehow,somewhere.

Leave some manner of footprint.

So we may live on after all, in some infinitesimal way.


Meanwhile the cork is out of the bottle, for good.

End of the day, EOD, there is strong popular, universal, appetite for rules-based “democracy”, for responsibly discharged freedom.

Arguably too this is now reinforced especially by increasing education, globally, everywhere,  opening eyes, which, importantly, chips away at the appeal of traditional authority.

Education is a problem for states hostile to liberal democracy. Thus success in a modern economy means having educated, literate workers, but such education will only open popular eyes to liberal-democracy.

The cork is out of the bottle – freedom is loosed, abroad – and will never go back.


Though the practical task of keeping the LD model in shape never ceases, educating the next generation and fighting off multiple antagonists.


The reactionary states, where ruling elites reject the LD model out of power and financial self-interest, are not immune to the “disease” of freedom:

  • They have to cope with dissent triggered by popular democratic aspirations,
  • and they will pay a big ongoing economic price for suppressing it.

Peter Doig meets Kazimir Malevich?


A serendipitous similarity – 1991 meets 1908.


FEATURED: Look, Vistula is Near! Poster. 1914. Lithograph. 51.3 x 33.40 cm.




Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). Landscape with Yellow House. 1906-1907. Oil on cardboard. 19.2 x 29.5 cm The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.


Peter Doig (b. 1959). 1991, THE ARCHITECT’S HOME IN THE RAVINE, oil on canvas, 200 by 250 cm (source: Sothebys etc)


There is some striking similarity between this small early (1908) “Impressionist” Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), just before his Russian-hued Cubo-Futurist adventures, and this distinctive much larger 1991 work by Peter Doig (b. 1959), which just sold for Stg14.4m through Sothebys.

Mr Doig is now feted by the feverish mainstream commercial art market- and not without reason, for works which are distinctive, colorful and figurative enough to lure visually curious sentient- where “discovered” painters become Big Bucks, fuelled by:

1/ the global wealth generated by the ever growing modern economies (especially now Asian economies, with an aggregate population now near 3 billion?),

2/ thus by collectors accessing this vast wealth to indulge in a little psychologically rewarding Narcissistic-flavoured Conspicuous Consumption (T. Veblen? Cf JK Galbraith’s books),

3/ and by art fashions they succumb to, validate, with a little earnest financially incentivised help from the commercial art houses.