Maarten Maartensz

Notes Philosophy - Chamfort - Maxims and Thoughts - Notes by MM
 


 


This is a file of notes by Maarten Maartensz to his English translation of the French text by Chamfort. Every star in this file links back to the aphorism the text immediately above it is related to.


Part II

MAXIMS AND THOUGHTS


CHAPTER ONE


GENERAL MAXIMS


1.1: There is no one, except perhaps for the very stupid, who has all his ideas about any subjects at any moment ready. Therefore it makes sense to draw up maxims, not as truths, but as reminders of useful insights that seem more probable or more sensible than not.

That intelligence is roughly proportional to the ability to see and make specific sensible distinctions, does not imply that anyone can do without general judgements.

The mediocre and the stupid have neither the incentive nor the ability to think, for they neither can do it well nor do they have reasons to expect any special advantage or insight from their thinking.

The mediocre and the stupid are nearly always conformists and followers, and indeed are rational if they rely on others to think for them, even if they often rely on those who use and deceive them.

*

1.2: Anybody who believes all that any author outside mathematics wrote, very probably has no ability to think rationally for himself.

*

1.3: Outside pure mathematics, there is not a single book that contains anything like "the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth" about any subject (apart from telephone-directories and the like). Those who believe that they know such a book, generally are little better than fanatics, and can be excused only by their ignorance or their stupidity.

For humans, to establish anything like the truth about anything whatsoever generally is the work of generations, and not of one man, or one generation.

*

1.4: All state-sponsored education aims first and foremost at producing conformist citizens rather than learned, civilised or individualist citizens.

The well educated tend to be the privately educated.

*

1.5: It is extra-ordinarily difficult to judge men and their affairs without prejudice or bias, if only because such judgments tend to derive from personal interests or concerns.

A man without personal interests and concerns is a dead man.

*

1.6: Morals and science that are not applied, or not applied well, are as useless as fantasies, and no better than wishful thinking.

The worst things tend to be done for the noblest sounding reasons.

*

1.7: The only reasoning that can corrupt is false, biased or prejudiced reasoning; the only personal feelings that are not biased are those that sincerely aim at justice or truth.

*

1.8: Man is naturally a social animal, and most human social behavior is pretense.

There are two kinds of pretense: altruistic pretense, that tends to be restricted to one's family, friends and fellows, and generally tends to help them; and egoistic pretense, that tends to be extended to everybody else, and generally aims to use or deceive them, in the interest of oneself or one's fellows.

Society requires cooperation; cooperation requires communication and compromises, and all members of society must have some self-control and  need to play according to learned socially agreed upon rules.

Society would be impossible if its members would follow their present emotions whenever they felt them.

Social peace is generally due to indifference that's praised as tolerance.

*

1.9: The two main reasons why so very few men dare to be honest in society are that honest persons in authoritarian societies risk their lives, while in non-authoritarian societies they risk their incomes.

Indeed, in society almost all public acting is dishonest and conformist, and almost the only exceptions to this are geniuses, comedians, fools, and idiots.

*

1.10: Criminals also have their moral principles and rules of honor, for without agreements between people there is no human cooperation.

*

1.11:  It is very easy to moralize about others when one's belly is full, and one is not in danger for uttering one's opinions.

Almost all men are moral failures and frauds by their very own moral norms.

*

1.12: The fewer social ties, that is, the less is the chance to be found out, the more likely ordinary men will lie to others.

Almost all ordinary social behavior is fraudulent: People would not act socially as they do, if they did not fear punishment or disapproval for not doing it, or if they did not expect advantanges or praise from doing it.

*

1.13: Ordinary men naturally assume all men act from self-interest only, and indeed this is generally true of ordinary men, apart from their friends and family.

There is genuine altruism, but it is personal and limited.

Most saints are frauds.

*

1.14: Rationally speaking, it is useless to consider morals without realizing that the greatest part of all moral speaking and acting is posturing or hypocrisy.

Very few people - in modern western societies - act morally and fairly to others, if this does not conform to their own interests, and they do not fear being found out and punished.

*

1.15: Cynics often have said that books of morals and sermons make no real difference, because people are hypocrites anyway. These cynics forget that people are not moral because they believe in morals, but because they expect to be found out and punished when they behave or speak counter to the moral norms of their society.

Few men have been converted by books of morals or sermons, but since all men are ideological apes, and rationalizing social animals, they need to acquire some system of beliefs, desires, ends and values to orient, guide and behave themselves, and understand others.

*

1.16: The great handicap of the small minority of the fair, the honest, the reasonable and the rational, is that the great majority is neither fair, nor honest, nor reasonable, nor rational, and especially not to those who are not members of their own group.

*

1.17: Philosophers and theologians who do not know science or mathematics are like the congenitally blind who dogmatize about painting.

*

1.19: It does not require great talents of any kind to behave morally and decently to others - all it usually requires in ordinary society is some character, some honesty, some self-control, and a little altruism or empathy.

If only a few intelligent men and women reach similar conclusions about human frailties as a few intellectually less privileged reach, it seems few people are really sane.

As soon as intellectual ideas are involved, that are remote from everyday practice and common sense, or ideas which strongly involve the emotions, such as religious or political ideas, most men cease to be rational.

*

1.20: Very few men know how to be social without lying or posturing. Almost all social behavior is fraudulent, like almost all public speaking is cant.

*

1.21: There is nothing that cannot be improved by rational investigation, just as there is nothing that cannot be harmed by irrational thinking and acting.

*

1.22: Religion without hypocrisy is as realistic as a stage without actors.

There are men of sincere and deep faith, but generally such men are not intelligent at all, or quite special in some other way.

*

1.23: Most men are more like partially rational ideological apes than they are like the best men and women there have been. Their excuse is perfectly valid though: They did not ask to be born, nor could they protest their lack of abilities when they were conceived.

Most men seem not to be able to be much better, intellectually or morally, than they usually are.

*

1.24: A philosopher who believes in the supernatural is like a fool who believes his ticket will win the lottery.

Those who believe in supernatural entities should also believe in ghosts, miracles, mermaids and griffons or other oxymorons, and generally do.

There is far more in reality then there is according to most philosophies, and far less then there can be according to most theologies.

No Holy Book of any religion contains as much as a percentage of a percentage of the science and technology that has been found the last few centuries by science.

The real basis of most thinking of most men is wishful thinking.

*

1.25: Those who court the public generally do not differ relevantly from whores, who do just the same, and who are far more likely to deliver what they promised, when paid.

An honest politician is an oxymoron or a noble fool.

*

1.26: The main reason for the myth of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the same as the main reason for most religious teachings: To frighten people from thinking for themselves, so as to make them a managable flock for the priests and clergy, generally in the interest of the élites of the church and the society.

*

1.27: In every human society, at any time, and any place, there have been rational and reasonable men and women. Alas, in every human society, at any time, and any place, they so far have were a small minority, that was often persecuted, and nearly always in danger.

*

1.28: The most stupid tend to be the most social.

Man is a social creature, and many seem quite happy with mere chatter.

*

1.29: The only rational remedy in nearly all cases is to think again, and try better.

*

1.30: There are men of character, but they are rare, since character and a career are as easy to mix as water and oil.

*

1.31: Those who say they believe that man is good tend to be idiots or politicians.

If men in majority were good or intelligent, history would be completely different from what it is.

The only men that most men tend to be good to are members of their own group, family or kind, and even then much human goodness is caused by the fear of punishment rather than by the desire to do good to others.

*

1.32: To desire to make a career one must be quite ordinary, perhaps apart from ambition.

To find fame among ordinary men, one normally needs to be a born entertainer.

*

1.33: There are no social careers without deceptions, frauds and posturing. The only persons who may hope to escape this must have some great and remunerative talent, next to a backbone of steel.

*

1.34: What nearly all modern democrats and egalitarianism easily forget is that mankind until very recently, and nearly everywhere nearly always, consisted of a majority of slaves, or of people from lower castes, who had to work in great misery for little or no pay, to support a small class of so called noble men or upper caste folks.

If history shows any clue as to what comes natural to the human average, this cannot be other than to be the happy, faithful and loyal servants of a small class of revered dictators, of supposed superior humanity. Or panem et circensis, which translates into U.S.-English as a car and TV.

Democracy is a very fine and fair way to decide matters of taste, provided the majority of those who vote are qualified to judge what they vote on. This is unfortunately rarely the case.

*

1.35: At most 1 in 10.000 will be remembered for anything special, whether good or bad, after his death. For nearly all men it is as if they have never lived, for all the differences they have made to nearly everybody.

*

1.36: There is nothing in nature that may be as noble or as cruel as a man may be.

*

1.37: To become a social success, one needs to be as much as possible like the others, except that for most successes one also needs fewer moral inhibitions.

*

1.38: Only extra-ordinary individuals may hope to escape turning into frauds and phoneys when they grow up.

*

1.39: There have been many detractors of reason. All tend to forget that man without reason is like a furless chimpanzee.

If you don't believe in reason, you should give your wealth to the poor, since this should make no appreciable reasonable difference to you.

*

1.40: What most men say they believe, in fact is the pretense of fashionable cant.

What is claimed to be true and cannot be shown to be true commonsensically or mathematically usually is false.

*

1.41: It is possible, sometimes, to love one's child like oneself, but to love one's neighbour like oneself takes a saintliness that is beyond the humanity of the vast majority.

Society is as succesful in helping people on a large scale, as it is succesful in killing, exploiting and repressing people on a large scale.

*

1.42: The easiest way to become unhappy is to try to become someone in the eyes of the multitude.

The greatest source of joy for many is the evil that others suffer.

*

1.43: Real philosophers are as rare as true love; false philosophers are as common as streetwalkers.

*

1.44: Most men are little better than thinking apes.

Human civilisation is mostly the result of the thinking and acting of a small minority of rational or courageous men.

(The wittiness in the French saying is due to the fact that in French a cockchafer is synonymous with a witless creature.)

*

1.45: There is an unfortunate tendency, especially among those who know little of science or mathematics, to attribute to Bacon Lord Verulam things he very probably or certainly did not do, such as writing the works of Shakespeare or laying the foundations of modern science. To speak only of science: It was Galileo Galilei who first clearly saw and said that the book of nature is written in mathematics and discoverable by experiment - and it may be added, in fairness, that this great mathematician and physicist wrote as well as, and more clearly than, Lord Bacon did in his Essays

*

1.46: Since anything that may be used, may be  abused, reason may be abused too, just as one may unwittingly saw off the branch on which one is sitting.

*

1.47: Youth without passions and illusions is an oxymoron.

There is no passion without some illusion, and vice versa.

*

1.48: It has been well-said that the art of medicine mostly consists in keeping the patient amused, while nature effects the cure.

What few realize who are impressed by modern medical science and modern medical doctors, is that the medical doctors of the past were as pretentious as the modern doctors, and that the modern doctors are more effective than their predecessors because they stand on the shoulders of great scientists -  who usually were not medical doctors.

I have seen many medical doctors in my life, and the vast majority of them behaved more like shamans or cheats than like scientists - and indeed, a modern medical education is not so much a scientific education as it is a practical course to learn to prescribe pills, make diagnosis, and refer to colleagues in a somewhat rational manner, and profit by that.

*

1.49: Fortunes and careers tend to be made by the same means as wars are won: By deception, by fraud, by force - and not at all by honesty, fairness or kindness.

To become a nouveaux riche, one generally requires genius or fraudulence. Few fortunes have been made by honest means; most fortunes are made by fraud, force, theft or war.

*

1.50: There are more social than natural ills, because man has had little time to evolve, and is the only kind of animal that is consciously and deliberately cruel.

There are very many natural ills, but they differ from the harm man does in being neither premeditated nor done for monetary profit or out of religious or political fanaticism.

*

1.51: Nearly all things nearly all men believe have no better foundation than faith: It is make-belief based on authority, not on individual thinking or effort.

*

1.52: In public, most men pretend; in private, most men misbehave.

*

1.53: A philosopher who knows neither science nor mathematics is a fraud -  and the same is true of a carpenter, if not to the same degree.

*

1.54: If a fool is witty, he generally is so by accident, if the wit is in any way refined.

*

1.55: There are extra-ordinarily few people who dare to be their own man, and not someone else's creature or follower, because so very many men oppose whoever is not like them, and so very few men can think well.

*

1.56: It is much more reasonable to try to help those who have been harmed, than to try to improve those who have harmed, but it is also more common and more popular to moralize verbally than to act practically.

*

1.57: Human stupidity is one of the greatest "unacknowledged legislators of mankind".

*

1.58: There is no fashionable opinion that is not mostly cant.

*

1.59: Character is destiny, and there is no one without the weaknesses that belong to the character he is, or tries to pretend to be, just as there can be no mountains without valleys.

*

1.60: There are no social judgments of people without bias; there are few social judgements of people that are based on adequate knowledge.

*

1.61: To believe that any extensive human society can make do without a small élite or a large lower class is as rational as to believe in circles without circumference.

Any society where all are equal consists of just one person, if only for purely logical reasons, wholly apart from utopian dreams.

If there are fewer criminals and frauds than honest men in a society, the laws in it must be effectively enforced.

*

1.62: Tyche, the Greek goddess of chance, is the only somewhat credible deity - and she is completely irresponsible, and unresponsive to all prayer.

*

1.63: There are few men who are capable of "a vigorous and intrepid use of their reason", and even fewer who dare to do so: In human society it so far has always been dangerous and unpopular to try to be rational and reasonable.

*

1.64: There are no politicians who are not hypocrites, for the same reason as there are no swindlers who are not frauds.

It is not necessarily a blemish in a politician that he is a fraud, for so are his opponents. The true test of a politician is whose interests he serves - and most serve their own interests, or those of their party.

*

1.65: There is nothing that demeans people so easily and effectively as nearly anonymous membership in a group.

There is no crime or cruelty that cannot be speciously justified by the supposed interests and moral norms of some group.

*

1.66: To falsify oneself is a necessary condition for most careers.

*

1.67: In society, nearly all depends on mutual checks and balances.

The advantage of society are the chances for individual betterment it provides; the disadvantage of society is that nearly all ways towards social improvement are ways of individual corruption.

*

1.68: None are more ambitious than the witless, the fraudulent and the greedy.

*

1.69: The cement of human society is reputation, and reputation tends to be based on posturing and hypocrisy.

*

1.70: There is nothing so deceptive and deceiving as passion.

*

1.71: Reason and emotion are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps rather: Reason is emotion, constrained by values, ends, will and self-control.

*

1.72: There is no such thing as pure emotion: all emotions are mixed.

*

1.73: Those who believe that man can only be saved by giving up his desires, may as well believe man needs to grow fins to improve his chances.

A man without desires is a thoroughly dead man.

*

1.74: The first virtue must be self-control, for there is no virtue without it.

*

1.75: Most choices in life are made from whim, weakness, or prejudice,

*

1.76: There is no humanity without hopes and illusions, and there seem to be necessary human illusions like there are necessary logical truths: Without them, no man can hope to survive; with them, no man can hope to be always rational and reasonable.

Man is the only animal that lives by dreams, fantasies and metaphysics, instead of in the here and now.

*

1.77: The goodness and the morality of most men, that exists just as well as does their badness and hypocrisy, tends to be limited to their own fellows or family.

Those who have been ill often or long, and have had to rely on the goodness of their fellow men, know best how good most men are: In precise proportion to the expected rewards for good behavior.

Most men and most societies are such that those who can't pay their own way must starve.

*

1.78: To love nature or a pet is much easier and less demanding than to love a human being.

*

1.79: The theatre pleases only because it summarizes, deletes, improves, enhances, in short falsifies so much in ordinary life.

Men are usually much fonder of their dreams and illusions than of reality.

*

1.80: The miseries of most men are mostly not their own doing.

Circumstances and chance are stronger than any man.

*

1.81: Human stupidity is one of the great forces of history.

*

1.82: To get ahead in society and not be a phoney one needs a large inheritance.

*

1.83: A secret that's not kept secret is no secret.

*

1.84: Most men are as interested in real knowledge as asses are interested in mathematics: It gives them no joy whatsoever, and it doesn't help them eat or make a career either.

The knowledge most men are truly interested in involves scandal and sensation, not science.

*

1.85: To learn to forego personal pleasure for social approval is one way of making people more social and cooperative.

*

1.86: There is no true philosophy without prior destruction of most of the cant and superstition one was raised in and educated with.

*

1.87: There is so much pain, misery and danger in any human life, that it is easy not to fear death.

*

1.88: Most men differ so little from their fellows, that they have no special value of their own.

*


These notes are by Maarten Maartensz and date from January 2008.

Original: Jan 8, 2008                                        Last edited: Jan 13, 2008