Altruism, Communism, Christianity, Thoreau

Fri Sep 11 13:55:44 1998
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 98 20:55:40 GMT
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Name="Ben Harkin"
Findout="Quite by accident"
How is life treating you?="Better than I can express in words,...and I'm an English major!!"
comments="I wrote you earlier, but I keep finding things on your page I want to talk about. but, I suppose the constraints of cyberspace will be the biggest barrier in that desire. Just wanted ask your oppinion in the difference of Communism and Altruism, because it seems to me that you regard them both in the same; certainly, they are not. So feel free to write back.

       Dear Brian,

       There is, in the theory of communism, a great deal of altruism. The Marxist theory holds that the rise of the proletariat will bring about the death of the ruling class and the end of the historical dialectic and a utopian society of "each according to his ability, each according to his need." The Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton was correct in finding a parallel between the early Christians and the communist faith. Before the show trials and mass slaughter and starvation of the communist regimes came to the light of the world, young idealistic people worldwide flirted and were seduced by the credo of communism. This has led to the present state of affairs where people are deeply distrustful of political idealism and ideologies. The irony is that he who would play the angel often instead plays the devil. Who can say otherwise? And it certainly matters not much to the Russian peasant whether he is oppressed by a Tsar or a Comissar. It is the same at ground level.

       I read with interest your webpage. I can hardly believe that anyone would claim how it is "cool" to be stupid - or worse, believe it. Such persons embarrass themselves - you hardly need raise your pen in their censure. If all those who surround you at the university are idiots in this way and then you disagree with them, you are hardly less correct for being in the minority. Perhaps you wrote so that your fellow students could look at themselves and see the folly of their thinking. As Thoreau stated, "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

       I like your passion and willingness to take a position on an issue which is not easy or trivial. However, I think you go a bit too far. There are philosophers - the Roman stoics, for example - who would live a life of the mind to the exclusion of their human relationships. But Socrates, Jesus, Jefferson, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Voltaire, and many others were all first-rate thinkers who none the less mixed easily and happily with their fellow men and women. It is true that is something in Thoreau which is a bit arch and aloof - as if he were looking down on the rest of mankind. He was obviously one of those people who find it more easy to say "yes" than "no"; I probably never would have been his friend. But he wrote against his fellow Concordians out of love and in the hopes that they would stop living lives of "quiet desperation" and instead strive to be happy.

       Thoreau wanted that each American should use his intellectual powers to embrace that which truly suits him and makes him happy - as so few did then and do today. Who can deny the truth that most people simply strive to survive or "get ahead" instead of living a life devoted to happiness and principle? Is this crass materialism not even more prevalent today than in the mid-19th century? What about the lawyer with the Porsche who works 80 hours a week and still is on the verge of blowing his brains out? The young woman who feels she is a "failure" if she does not have a giant house and gobs of disposable income by the time she is 30? You see in his writing that, for him, to live simply on the shores of Walden Pond in harmony with nature was happiness incarnate - whereas for you perhaps that is too remote and cut off from human relationships (as it is for me). But I doubt Thoreau would begrudge that which makes you happy, and would ask as much from you in return. Thoreau writes, "I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it evil, as it is most likely they will."

       Thoreau, as well as the vast majority of philosophers, wrote that the greatest glory was to live a life of happiness through principle. To quote one last time Thoreau, "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." He says nothing about living as a hermit; and thusly he never did live. He never found a "companion more companionable than solitude", but he still lived as a member of Concord, had visitors, went into to town.

       They say that nothing is so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it; and famous thinkers through history often directly contradict each other. However, few of them would say live selfishly and independent of others - not even Thoreau would agree with that. Most philosophers would simply say there is no true happiness without living the examined life, searching for truth, and striving to know oneself (and skimming through your "Thoughts Archive" and reading some of your ruminations, I think you know as much.) Don't mistake the forest for the trees.

       Be well out there in Oregon.

       Very Truly Yours,

       Rich Geib

P.S. "The whole life of the philosopher is a preparation for death," said Cicero. You might appreciate this quote more when you find yourself closer to death than birth. To put this whole argument in the context of my whole life, check out the following URL:

At 01:56 AM 9/12/98 -0700, you wrote:

Let me first say that I am thankful for your reply, intrigued by your response, and flattered by your interest in my writing.

I suppose I'll takle my reply (my hope is to keep this route of communication readily open) in a line-by-line basis so as not to confuse myself. I think the area where we disagree in the area of our Communism discussion is that I beleive you are writing off the thoughts and dreams of Karl Marx with the barbarism of Lenin, Stalin, and any other political dog that pushes Communism. Let me assure you, I am not one of the college students who hold dearly and tightly to the dying institution, I am opposed as you as to it. But the writings of Karl Marx do not speak of running nations with terror and a disregard for humanity. Instead of the selfishness of Lenin and the like, Marx was an advocate of selflessness. I often find that many people regard Marx himself as the father of Communism and thus think him a devil. How ironic that if people were to actually read him, they would find that he holds many the same ideals as Jesus Christ. Altruism: helping one another, acting out of grace instead of intimidation. Communism, under close speculation, does take a perverted form of Marx's theories for it's economics, but pulls from the likes of Rand for it's authority. True, Rand was certainly from from living at the time, but the whole mindset of living for your own ambition is what inspires Communism, and not the passive-generous writings of Marx.

Moving on, I do fear we come to a certain disagreement in regards to Throeau. While Throeau did write such claims that he would not inhibit anyone's genius nor disrespect anyone's vessel of happines, no matter who the man, I find Throeau lived his life as a hypocrite, defying all his writings concerning his passiveness for people. Throeau, you may well know, was arrested for not paying a tax to fund the Mexican War (I believe) and was thrown into jail. His dearest friend, Emerson, came to pay his bail and to pay the value of the tax due, but Throeau refused saying with spoiled pride that he did not want to taken from out the spotlight he had been placed sice the whole ordeal began. Emerson questioned why Throeau was doing this, and Throeau turned around and asked Emerson why he wasn't. Throeau said that emerson ought (out of moral obligation) to be in the cell with him. This stunt along with his move to Walden only lead me to beleive that Throeau was nothing more than a philisophical showman, wanting fame and public response more than he did wisdom and truth. While some of his wirintgs are great, his life was nothing but ambitious trek after ambitious trek, and this ambition seemed to poison his writing and devalue it greatly.

How I digress. The whole point of that "thought" was to simply say that just because an idea was tagged as a philosophy doesn't necessarily mean it is true in all cases and has no fault. To someone who is well-read like yourself, this is no major revelation. However, keep in mind where my settings are. I am at a state university which in some way hold the stench of public highschool. This essay was probably spurred by a class discussion regarding Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." One young man was insisting that the allegory was radical and unfair (I admittedly agree with him), but he was quickly silenced by his peers and professor because he had no authority to denounce the likes of Plato. You cannot understand how this makes my blood boil. I believe that there are no OPINIONS better than another, and so this guy's opinion held no authority over Plato's, and in the same regard, neither did Plato's over his.

And finally, yes, I will begin to appreciate quotes such as this more as I near my time of death, but who is to say that I am not near it already? Does the fact that I have not yet reached what the world's view of "true adulthood" make this quote anyless valuable to me? I insist that it does not. I am as ready for death as a 65-year-old man with heart problems. "I am not a cynic, more of a realist" (to pull from Dead Poet's Society). If you knew me, you would be certain that I am not a cynic; however, I do pursue life with possibilities of the unexpected in mind. Perhaps, if you'd like, I'll send you an essay I have written on Adultism (no, i'm not accusing you of anything =)), I think you may find it interesting.

I am certainly enjoying this exchange, and I hope it does not yet come to an end. If you do fine time, I humbly insist you write back.



       Dear Ben,

       Granted that Christianity and Marxism have in them the germ of idealism. However, I care not only that a person have idealistic motivations in their life and work but also that the results of their work help rather than harm people. When taken too far, idealists (who brook no compromise) often -- even with very the best of motivations -- do great harm while trying to do good. If you look at Robespierre, Lenin, the various Inquisitors, you will see the wild-eyed look of the true believer. Despite their differences in philosophy, I see little difference between a Maoist ready to blow up Wall Street, a radical Muslim eager to blow up an embassy, or a fundamentalist Christian disposed to explode an abortion clinic. As historian Daniel Boorstin says, "It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever." These people look at mankind as sick and in need of drastic, painful (bloody, if need be) surgery; and only two steps behind the true-believing zealot acting decisively in the name of the Good and the Just we find the Inquisitor, the Secret Police. Life is cruel; they make it crueler.

       I personally find Christianity to be a much more interesting faith than Communism. But I do not see a huge difference between Marx and Lenin: read "The Communist Manifesto" and it reaks of hateful invective, revolutionary passion, an absolute moral certainty as to victims and victimizers and a stridently militant tone, "...the proletariat will be the gravediggers of the bourgeoisie." Christianity and Communism are both rooted in a romanticized eschatology promising that the meek should inherit the earth, but a writer's tone is almost more important that what he says; Marx is dogmatic, angry, the Moses risen up in wrath: a warrior. At least Jesus preached universal love, even if persons innumerable have been burnt in His name. I say it one more time: I care not what the motivation of a person be if he or she only adds fuel to the fire. (As Montaigne reminds us ironically, "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.") Lenin is simply Marx interposed onto the real world in a backwards country with a long history of absolutism; the 19th century reformers in Western Europe owe more to Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians than to Marx. Lenin is Marx writ large; he is the theory made real: they are both fellow soldiers against the pernicious Evil of Capital and Private Property.

       But there has always been this absolute idea of Messianism in Russia: look at Stalin, the ex-seminarian, and the other sons of priests and intellectuals in the Marxist vanguard movement. Contemporary Russian writer Viktor Erofeyev writes, "What was imported in Western Marxism will vanish. But Communism will not dissapear, inasmuch as the spirit of collectivism is at the heart of this nation. The nation will always say 'we' rather than the Anglo-Saxon 'I'." Maybe we will have another mass movement of messianism in Russia's future? The Russian Orthodox Church as the re-vived "Third Rome" of Tsarist ambition? A resurgent and sullen economic pigmy but nuclear-armed military superpower with an attitude and a grudge? I remember in one of Dostoyevski's novels a police inspector talking about how he fears revolutionaries who believe in God more than all the others. What barbarity will they not commit in the name of God? To what new collective Idol will the Russians voluntarily surrender their personal freedom?

       I am well acquainted with Thoreau's life. Thoreau only wanted people to be happier than he saw them, sweating to try and make money and work all day long and night, too. He preached a form of individualism which claimed that a man should seek spiritual truth above all things; he claimed that was where happiness (and I agree with him) was to be found: in a life of principle. The polar opposite of Thoreau is Franklin and his thrift and industry: one can learn from both thinkers. You claim that egoism was Thoreau's motivation in going to Walden. I would claim that he went there in the desire to be happier than he had been in town. And who, after reading his words, can doubt that he succeeded? There is an idealism in Thoreau which is offputting to me - he would make no compromises with the larger world, and live in large part outside of it and away from its pleasures. But even as I choose not to live thusly, the germ of his philosophy can teach me much.

       I wonder if you are projecting onto him. If it true he had made perhaps pride an indulgence, but look at the rhapsody and ecstasy of his most lyrical passages and you see he did not live in vain or unhappily. Thoreau shows us we live not to live to think, but think to live better. Look at how many people do not do that! Look at how many people ARE unhappy! They stumble desperately through life without even thinking about what they are doing other than at a very low level! Thoreau asks how many people can date the moment when they read a book which changed their lives. Thoreau - and many others - have written such books. They write them not only for selfish reasons.

       I do not doubt that you have contemplated your mortality and are ready for the fall of the sword of Damocles when it comes. However, if you live under the specter of death as does an elderly man with heart problems, I would say that is a great waste. The vigors and enthusiasms of youth are to be enjoyed while they last; to cling to visions of decrepitude and death is to spite the gift of youth. Such gloomy introspection come naturally in the fullness of time as the body decays, parents die, friends die, regrets accumulate, etc. A young man in war might be looking at his death up close as it surrounds and reaches out for him; such a person ceases to be young very quickly. I hope you are able to enjoy the pleasures of being young longer. I had so many fabulous romantic adventures and awesome evenings of sharing and exploration with my female co-eds in college! More than a decade removed from all that and in a different phase of my life, I realize the time was priceless! But I have seen that with age comes experience and suffering which (hopefully) brings a modicum of wisdom. With wisdom comes sadness, and the end of youth. Maybe that is "adultism," but it is how I see it.

       Be well.

       Very Truly Yours,


I am afraid that I misresprestented myself, as I feared i might have after clicking on "send," while discussing my view of death. Thank you for your concern, however, I do not consider myself "haunted by the spectar of death,"...=). If you'llgive me anotehr chance, I'll try to project how I feel accurately, seeing as how it is much earlier my say than it was at the time of my last message. I honestly, and not boastfully, consider myself one of the only truely happy people that I have run across in my life. To say that I am constantly thinking of death, or even fearing it, would be inaccurate. I would not say, though, that I would not have my soul prepared should the occasion arise.

Though I have experienced considerably less than most people, you for exapmle, this does not mean that all those older than me are necessarily wiser. I imagine that right now, you are sitting back with your arms crossed, smiling, and thinking "arrogant youth." Let me go further. Just because a man may be another's senior by even 20 years, does not mean that man is more valuable to anyone; it all depends on the man. Creativity, honesty, motivation--all these things are wonderful things and are of great value. The worth of these things seem to deteriorate with age, commonly, and that is a shame.

These and many other things are what I hold against this useless institution that is adultism,..."With wisdom comes sadness." Why is that do you think? Certainly it isn't because people begin to find that life is unenjoyable. Certainly it can't be because people find thier life's toils, moments of teary-eyed happiness, heart-wrenching moments of passion, and moments of untold glory and victory have all lost their value upon nearing death! I believe that this is true in most cases because their creativity has been discouraged from thier first day of world-worthy education. In the thoughts of Gordon MacKenzie, author of "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" (a remarkable book and I recomend it), children are inadvertently discouraged to be artists, and thus this world is somewhat starving for artists and creative minds. But, I've bored you enough with that.

To bring 2 subjects to one, both Thoreau and Marx have written wonderful works. But, to discount Marx's on the sole ideal that if taken in radicality that it may be dangerous, but to insist the works of Thoreau to be safe and prusuable is a bit contrary. Any philosophy, ideal, or moraliyt is dangerous if poisoned by the ignorant. Marx and Lenin conflict with one another on nearly every level because Lenin was not only ignorant, but also ambitious, selfish, and blood-thirsty--a nasty concoction. Marx was not a wild-eyed revolutionist as you seem to interpret, but rather a thinker and writer like myself and you. To confuse the two is tragic.

As to the life of Thoreau himself, we seem to disagree there, as well. Whereas I see things like the refusal to pay the tax for the Mexican War and his Walden excapade as publicity stunts for his own glory, you see them as honest pursuals of a wonderfully honest lifestyle. If Thoreau did preach pacifism, why did he not live it? Why would those in contact with him (even Emerson) describe him as immature, impracticle, and a claude? Thoreau was a dreamer, which I admire, but he was too much an advocate for himself.

Finally, if I may spark a new subject, what do you think is a fair definition of maturity? Not the United States definition, mind you, your's. This is simply to quench my own curiosity. Also, feel free to ask me any questions regarding my beliefs or understandings; I would be glad to answer them.

Again, thank you, again for your time, and I hope to hear your reply.


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