Category Archives: E — MEDITATIONS SERIES - Page 2


18-01-18 BLOG Democritus_statue

Dem­ocri­tus med­i­tat­ing on the seat of the soul, by Léon-Alexan­dre Del­homme (1868)

This blog has been online for a dozen years. A good deal has changed in that time. 

When I began in 2006, it was only read by a hand­ful of friends. Since I held no aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion, and had more or less failed as a fic­tion writer, I did my work in obscu­ri­ty. I have no degrees, no aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion, no insti­tu­tion­al con­nec­tions. My “CV” con­sists of a lot of youth­ful and incau­tious “adven­tures” in dis­tant places, a good deal of expo­sure to the seamy under­side of my own soci­ety, and a sys­tem­at­ic pro­gram of read­ing. A sin­gle paper, writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an estab­lished schol­ar, Steven R. Muhlberg­er, was for many years my only claim to aca­d­e­m­ic legit­i­ma­cy, though it was to have an amaz­ing endurance and influ­ence. Steve’s patient friend­ship and emo­tion­al sup­port have been the key to my sur­vival. His own blog, the lit­er­ate and infor­ma­tive Muhlberger’s World His­to­ry, pre­ced­ed mine. We are still col­lab­o­rat­ing, though nowa­days on the trans­la­tion of a medieval text. I am equal­ly indebt­ed to Skye Sepp and Isaac White, whose reg­u­lar vis­its, intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­lus, and reg­u­lar com­pan­ion­ship have kept me from going bonkers. I also had emo­tion­al sup­port from old­er friends, scat­tered around the world, who remained in touch by cor­re­spon­dence and occa­sion­al vis­its. Of par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tance to me has been an endur­ing com­rade­ship with Fil­ip Marek of Prague, whose actions dur­ing the Czech Rev­o­lu­tion of 1989 inspired me both intel­lec­tu­al­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly. Over the course of a long friend­ship we have trav­eled the roads and trails of Cana­da as far as the Arc­tic Ocean, picked our way through a half dozen ancient Minoan and Myce­naean sites, and not long ago spent a week hik­ing the trails of mag­nif­i­cent Mt. Assini­boine.

Now, in 2018, the pic­ture is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I have a mod­est aca­d­e­m­ic rep­u­ta­tion, and some of my writ­ings are wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed. As of this year, I am free to pur­sue my research­es full-time as long as I live fru­gal­ly. A few eccentrics in con­ven­tion­al Acad­e­mia have pro­mot­ed my work — notably Jean-Paul Gagnon (now with the Insti­tute of Gov­er­nance and Pol­i­cy Analy­sis in Can­ber­ra, Aus­tralia). Cita­tions pile up. The blog has a wide inter­na­tion­al read­er­ship. I have wit­nessed some of the ideas which, when Democracy’s Place in World His­to­ry was first pub­lished in 1993, were nov­el and unortho­dox, become a sig­nif­i­cant stream of thought sur­fac­ing in many quar­ters. Though we are enter­ing some dark and dan­ger­ous times, as far as democ­ra­cy and civ­i­liza­tion are con­cerned, I believe those ideas will ulti­mate­ly flour­ish and tri­umph over bar­barism.

My blog writ­ing is not meant to be the same as for­mal aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing, and much of it is rough and unpol­ished. Top­ics as dif­fer­ent as the soci­ol­o­gy of silent films, cur­rent hot bands, democ­ra­cy in the ancient world, how to cook ban­nock, and why you shouldn’t climb vol­ca­noes in sub­stan­dard sneak­ers appear in the blog, hig­gledy-pig­gledy. But among these, in the begin­ning years, were a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­ra­cy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­lar­ly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elic­it inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter (for the sec­ond time) so they can have anoth­er round of vis­i­bil­i­ty, espe­cial­ly (I hope) with younger read­ers. Over the com­ing months, I’ll be re-post­ing them in their orig­i­nal sequence. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­al­ly append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Most­ly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updat­ing.

Phil Paine, Toron­to.

PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS (written July 25, 2010)

The extend­ed blog entries called “Med­i­ta­tions” have proven to be the most pop­u­lar items on this web­site. While some of these essays have some schol­ar­ly trap­pings (cita­tions, etc.), they are pri­mar­i­ly per­son­al doc­u­ments, and thus may con­tain col­lo­qui­al prose, pro­fan­i­ty, or oth­er non-aca­d­e­m­ic ele­ments.

Any­one is enti­tled to reprint these pieces, as long as they are not altered, and cred­it is giv­en. Read more »


A few days ago, I was in the sub­way, and I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion about our cur­rent nation­al elec­tion. Two boys who, from their appear­ance, could have been no fur­ther along in school than grade nine or ten, were dis­cussing the tele­vised debates between the lead­ers of the five major polit­i­cal par­ties. What struck me, as I lis­tened in, was that the dis­cus­sion was cogent and intel­li­gent. One of the boys, who seemed the youngest, was par­tic­u­lar­ly artic­u­late, and his opin­ions were not the sim­ple par­rot­ing of some adult he had heard, or the pur­suit of a par­ty line. In fact, his analy­sis of the debate showed keen­er obser­va­tion and judg­ment than that of the pro­fes­sion­al com­men­ta­tors who dis­sect­ed the debate after the broad­cast.
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The argu­ment behind this series of med­i­ta­tions is that aris­to­crat­ic elites, whether they are dressed up in mil­i­tary uni­forms, busi­ness suits, or the regalia of roy­al­ty, are iden­ti­cal in pur­pose and func­tion. Dif­fer­ences between them are triv­ial and cos­met­ic, not struc­tur­al. The term “dic­ta­tor­ship” applies equal­ly to all places where an unelect­ed gang of hood­lums rules over peo­ple and ter­ri­to­ry, what­ev­er their sup­posed ide­ol­o­gy or what­ev­er style they chose to prance around in. I fur­ther con­tend that they are nei­ther moral­ly legit­i­mate, nor “gov­ern­ment” in the sense that demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed admin­is­tra­tions are. Dic­ta­tors are mere­ly crim­i­nals, no dif­fer­ent from the crim­i­nals that rob con­ve­nience stores or attack women in dark­ened car parks. The only dif­fer­ence is the amount of mon­ey they steal and the num­ber of peo­ple they mur­der or maim. Read more »

FIRST MEDITATION ON DICTATORSHIP (written Thursday, February 7, 2008)

We are so hamyd,
For-taxed and ramyd,
By these gen­tlery-men!

― The Wake­field Sec­ond Shep­herds’ Play, c.1425–1450 [1]

We are men the same as they are:
Our mem­bers are as straight as theirs are,
Our bod­ies stand as high from the ground,
The pain we suffer’s as pro­found.
Our only need is courage now,
To pledge our­selves by solemn vow,
Our goods and per­sons to defend,
And stay togeth­er to this end…

Robert Wace, Le roman de la Rou et des ducs deNor­mandie, 1160–70s [2]

On my return to Prague, last year, after tramp­ing in Hun­gary and Tran­syl­va­nia, my friend Fil­ip Marek took a day off for some more explo­rations of the Bohemi­an coun­try­side. This turned out to be the most emo­tion­al­ly charged day in my trav­els, and I’ve delayed describ­ing it because of its per­son­al impor­tance to me.

The land­scape around Prague is not much dif­fer­ent, at first glance, from that of South­ern Ontario. It’s rich farm­land, gen­tly rolling hills, and patch­es of mixed for­est sim­i­lar to those around Toron­to. Most of it was so pleas­ant that I couldn’t help replay­ing snatch­es of Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček in my head as the car rolled under the dap­pled sun­lit trees, past fields and vil­lages that seem to be both ancient and brand new at the same time. How­ev­er, our quest was to extract some­thing incon­gru­ous­ly dis­turb­ing and trag­ic from Bohemia’s woods and streams.[3] We were going to see two places that do not loom large in the his­to­ry books, but loom large in the kind of his­to­ry that I am con­cerned with. The first was the Voj­na Hard Labour Camp, in the for­est near the vil­lage of Příbram, and the sec­ond was the site of Lidice, a vil­lage that no longer exists. Read more »

SIXTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written January 10, 2008)

For this Med­i­ta­tion on Democ­ra­cy, the sixth in the series, I will under­take a cri­tique of some cur­rent­ly dom­i­nant ideas about the role of democ­ra­cy in human his­to­ry, and attempt to pro­vide a con­cep­tu­al frame­work for look­ing at democ­ra­cy in a dif­fer­ent, more real­is­tic way. This will mean that some of the ground cov­ered in ear­li­er med­i­ta­tions will be revis­it­ed. It will also draw on the col­lab­o­ra­tive work between myself and Prof. Steven Muhlberg­er, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of World His­to­ry, and on the World His­to­ry of Democ­ra­cy Web­site. I am exclu­sive­ly respon­si­ble, how­ev­er, for the views expressed in this series. 

The cri­tique will rest on these asser­tions:

Democ­ra­cy is not a tem­po­rary or recent phe­nom­e­non, but a mode of human social behav­iour that has exist­ed since the ear­li­est com­mu­ni­ties of “mod­ern” humans appeared, some­where between six­ty and a hun­dred thou­sand years ago, and which is in turn based on our roots among pro­to-humans and our pri­mate ances­tors.

Democ­ra­cy is an expres­sion of fun­da­men­tal ele­ments in human social psy­chol­o­gy, and hence, not “cul­ture-spe­cif­ic” or “belong­ing” to any par­tic­u­lar human cul­ture, eth­nic group, or local­i­ty.

Democ­ra­cy is not an “ide­ol­o­gy” co-equal and alter­na­tive to oth­er “polit­i­cal sys­tems”, but is in fact sui gener­is, a mode of human behav­iour fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from ide­olo­gies of pow­er and rule. Read more »

FIFTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Monday, November 5, 2007)

It’s my con­tention that both hier­ar­chi­cal and egal­i­tar­i­an behav­iour are equal­ly “nat­ur­al” to human beings. These two meth­ods of inter­act­ing with oth­ers in a group have co-exist­ed in all human soci­eties, from the ear­li­est stages of our evo­lu­tion as a species. It is also my con­tention that, while there is a lim­it­ed place for hier­ar­chi­cal think­ing and behav­iour in a good soci­ety, it is egal­i­tar­i­an think­ing that has cre­at­ed civ­i­liza­tion and moral­i­ty. Any soci­ety that is dom­i­nat­ed by hier­ar­chy is essen­tial­ly back­ward, self-destruc­tive, and immoral. Read more »

FOURTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Saturday, September 22, 2007)

Recent­ly, two Cana­di­an high school stu­dents did a remark­able thing. It was remark­able enough to gen­er­ate a large amount of com­ment in the blo­gos­phere. Accord­ing to the orig­i­nal news item in the Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald [1], a grade 9 stu­dent “arrived for the first day of school last Wednes­day and was set upon by a group of six to 10 old­er stu­dents who mocked him, called him a homo­sex­u­al for wear­ing pink and threat­ened to beat him up.” Any­one who has attend­ed high school knows the usu­al out­come of such sit­u­a­tions. But in this case, it was dif­fer­ent. Two senior stu­dents, Travis Price and David Shep­herd, were dis­gust­ed by this crude bul­ly­ing. “It’s my last year. I’ve stood around too long and I want­ed to do some­thing,” David explained. The two stu­dents bought 75 pink tank-tops and, ral­ly­ing stu­dents through the inter­net, per­suad­ed half the stu­dent body to wear them, or to sup­ply their own. When the bul­lies next came to school, they were con­front­ed by an ocean of pink sol­i­dar­i­ty. “The bul­lies got angry,” said Travis. “One guy was throw­ing chairs (in the cafe­te­ria). We’re glad we got the response we want­ed.”

The protest rapid­ly spread to thir­ty oth­er Nova Sco­tia schools, then across the rest of Cana­da. High schools are no longer iso­lat­ed, self-con­tained, strat­i­fied, and despot­ic mini-soci­eties. Social net­work­ing media like Face­book and MySpace are enabling rapid, flu­id and demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not only between stu­dents in the same school, but link­ing them to every oth­er school in the world. Read more »

THIRD MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Saturday, August 18, 2007)

West­ern Europe, and lands cul­tur­al­ly derived from it, have made some rel­a­tive­ly suc­cess­ful approx­i­ma­tions of democ­ra­cy and civ­il soci­ety, and com­bined them with notice­able pros­per­i­ty. Peo­ple both inside and out­side this favoured zone won­der why, and they have often sought the answer in two par­tic­u­lar areas: reli­gious tra­di­tions, and the dra­mat­ic intel­lec­tu­al era called “the Enlight­en­ment”. As some­one who has writ­ten about the uni­ver­sal aspects of democ­ra­cy, I’ve often felt some annoy­ance at what I con­sid­er parochial views of his­to­ry, and dubi­ous ideas of causal­i­ty. I feel great sym­pa­thy for peo­ple out­side the favoured zone, who are hope­ful that they can have a demo­c­ra­t­ic future, but are dis­com­fit­ed by the “sec­ond-banana” sta­tus that it seems to imply for their cul­tur­al her­itage. This is espe­cial­ly true in the Islam­ic world, where past cul­tur­al glo­ries and present embar­rass­ments com­bine to make the search for demo­c­ra­t­ic reform a touchy sub­ject. I think that an exces­sive­ly car­toon­ish view of the Enlight­en­ment, and of the rela­tion­ship between reli­gion and democ­ra­cy, is part of the prob­lem.

I recent­ly read two arti­cles by Tas­saduq Hus­sain Jil­lani, a supreme court jus­tice in Pak­istan. Though Pak­istan has mil­len­nia of cul­tur­al achieve­ment — it was one of the ear­li­est cen­ters of urban civ­i­liza­tion — and it has a well edu­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion, it lan­guish­es under a crude mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. It has expe­ri­enced much strife from con­flict­ing reli­gious fac­tions. While its econ­o­my is a sham­bles, the mil­i­tary thugs who run the place take pride in their pos­ses­sion of nuclear weapons. Read more »

SECOND MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Monday, August 7, 2007)

Civ­i­liza­tion is the process in which one grad­u­al­ly increas­es the num­ber of peo­ple includ­ed in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreas­es those labeled ‘you’ or ‘them’ until that cat­e­go­ry has no one left in it.” — Howard Win­ters, an Amer­i­can archael­o­gist who stud­ied ancient set­tle­ment and trade pat­terns [quot­ed by Anne-Marie Cantwell in Howard Dal­ton Win­ters: In Memo­ri­am]

“Voice or no voice, the peo­ple can always be brought to the bid­ding of the lead­ers. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the paci­fists for lack of patri­o­tism and expos­ing the coun­try to dan­ger. It works the same in any coun­try.” — Her­mann Wil­helm Göring, sec­ond in com­mand to Adolf Hitler.

What most telling­ly dis­tin­guish­es demo­c­ra­t­ic from non-demo­c­ra­t­ic thought is its respect for human beings. By this, I don’t mean respect for some neb­u­lous abstrac­tion called “human­i­ty” or “the peo­ple”, which is all too eas­i­ly trans­formed into a mys­ti­cal col­lec­tivism. It’s a respect for real-life indi­vid­ual human beings, who live, fall in love, have chil­dren, and strug­gle to find secu­ri­ty and hap­pi­ness. In demo­c­ra­t­ic thought, the well­be­ing of indi­vid­ual human beings is the pur­pose and mea­sure of polit­i­cal choic­es. Well­be­ing, to the demo­c­rat, is defined first in terms of what mat­ters most to con­scious beings — lib­er­ty, self-respect, dig­ni­ty, con­trol over their own lives. The phys­i­cal neces­si­ties of life, such as food and shel­ter, are mean­ing­less to human beings except with­in the con­text of those val­ues. We are not cat­tle. Read more »