Heinlein’s Wisdom of the Day

I fear that our patient readers will have to suffer through what I’m reading from time to time, which is currently Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein’s controversial book first published in 1959.  I have it on good authority that the book is substantially more political and philosophical than the more-recent movie (which I’ve never seen, but understand is awful). A hundred pages in, I am finding it to be true– the story follows soldiers involved in a future intergalactic war.  However, Heinlein uses the science fantasy setting to explore transcendent truths. Center to the (back)story thus far is the main character’s high school teacher of History and Moral Philosophy (which incidentally would have been my college major had it been available), who passes his time in the novel sermonizing. I found this particular passage full of pertinent wisdom:

“There is an old song which asserts that “the best things in life are free”. Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The excerpt’s greater context is Heinlein’s criticism of the theory of value of Marx, whom our History and Moral Philosopher teacher calls a “pompous fraud.” Oh, if more people these days spoke with this kind of moral authority…

-B

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Heinlein’s Wisdom of the Day

  1. John

    Oh Brandon, how misinformed you have been. The movie version is a cult-classic and a must-see! It was also nominated for an Oscar, I believe. The passage on democracy you cite is glossed over in the film, however–there’s only a very brief reference to it while the students are in class.

  2. czf

    Starship Troopers is a great book.
    Another great one from the period is Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. Gets into similar issues of the period (the 50s must been f*ck*d up), and has one of the most stunning and wonderful endings to a story I’ve encountered in years. (To experience this ending, you will have to read the book, since no Hollywood film could ever put such an ending into a popular film.)

    Also. Marx was a genius. Though his philosophy of wealth may be largely untenable, it’s dangerous to cast him aside with such casual accusations as “pompous fraud”. I know that is Heinlein, not Brandon, but just pointing out.

  3. GCC

    Why is it dangerous to cast aside those with untenable philosophies?

  4. John

    Historically, casting Marx as a genius has been far more dangerous than casting him aside. Tens of millions of corpses attest to that.

  5. czf

    Historically, casting Christ as a God has been far more dangerous that casting Marx as a genius.
    How many corpses attest to that?

  6. John

    This is a red herring. We’re talking about Marx, not Christianity. When the Discursionists take up the latter I’ll be happy to chime in (although the math will not be in your favor–Marxists killed more innocents than did Christians by something like 350 to 1…).

  7. blraatikka

    I don’t know if we should throw Marx out with the bathwater (I know, I know– I was the one who originally posted the quotation that he was a “pompous fraud.”). After briefly studying him in class, there was a two-week period in college in which I called myself a “Marxist Republican,” not because I thought his ideas were tenable, but because I thought they reflected a moral perspective. While I’ve read very, very little of Marx, so I definitely could be wrong, I’d guess Marx’s was an eloquent expression that the world, to borrow a phrase from a fellow Discursionist, is not how it ought to be. Furthermore, his ideas seemed to be motivated by a sincere humaneness. He was a deep thinker, and although I think a lot of his ideas are unrealistic (in my opinion), there’s probably some value in studying them, if at least because, again, they are a response to what’s wrong with the world. (Of course, that people have ran with them to create more wrong in the world should be considered, too.)
    In any event, Heinlein was disputing the labor value of goods, insisting instead that utility is the true measure of value.

  8. blraatikka

    And John, that would be a great topic– I’ve always been troubled with how myopic the argument that “religion has caused so much evil so it must be untrue” is. (I don’t think Chris is making that argument, though, just probably disputing that body count is an appropriate way to measure Marx.)
    I wonder if Grant wants to take the topic up, since he’s read a lot of Hitchens.

  9. czf

    Brandon. I agree with the humane picture of Marx that you thought you saw. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor, and the growth of wealth for the alienated worker. This leads to a disconnection of morality and economics. That is a moral, humanist worldview.
    John. Blaming Marx for the tyrants who slaughtered millions is a completely disingenuous and rhetorically fallacious argument. It is the same argument as blaming Christ for the millions (and millions) of deaths in the name of Christ. I know that might be obnoxious to say, because Marx was a philosopher (not an economist) and Christ was a moral leader (if not a god, on that I have no idea) but it does not change the structure, or the absurdity, of the argument.

    Second. Marx’s dismantling and critique of capitalism is as well put together as any I have ever found. Das Kapital (not that I have read all 3000 pages) is a brilliant piece of work. Anyone actually agreeing or disagreeing with it has no bearing on that.

  10. czf

    And as far as having “the numbers in your favor” when it comes to murder and genocide, that makes me very sad.
    What kind of justification for killing is this? As Evelyn Waugh said when it comes to murder and salvation, “quantitative judgments do not apply.”

    And on that, I’m out.
    See you next post.

  11. GCC

    One thing that caught my eye through this that generally seems to rub me the wrong way: The idea that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor. I can’t figure out how that idea really comes about. As long as someone is working voluntarily I can’t see how they are being exploited. And isn’t the ability to work as much or as little as one wants (that is, a general freedom of choice) really the basis of capitalism? Indeed, don’t we often refer to capitalism in terms of the FREE market? Doesn’t exploitation imply a lack of freedom? And if it does, wouldn’t that make exploitation counter to capitalism rather than its basis? If anyone could elucidate the idea that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor I’d very much like to be enlightened. (Also, I assume more thought has gone into the concept that the simplest definition of the word “exploitation:” use. Of course capitalism “uses” labor. And so does a kibutz.)

  12. John

    czf, I never blamed Marx for any deaths, only those who once cast Marx as a genius (something Lenin, Stalin, and Mao indisputably did). Nor did I justify killing: you correlated death with notions of Christ’s divinity, and I was simply making a comparison. No need to put words in my mouth: they are laid bare before you. That said, I argue that your history is false: “casting Christ as a God,” as you say, has not been responsible for “millions (and millions)” of deaths. Let’s see your evidence.

    Sorry to hijack your post, Brandon. I only meant to persuade you to watch the movie! (Denise Richards shooting giant bugs–awesome.)

  13. czf

    I suppose the correlation between Marx and Christ isn’t that difficult for me. I don’t personally understand how Lenin or Stalin taking on a (mis)reading of Marx and that leading to deaths is different from those who take a mis(reading) of the Gospels and that leading to deaths.
    Do you honestly need me to give examples of this occurring? Because history is written upon them. The quickest and most genocidal examples accompany the spread of Christianity to a new continent (Europe, Africa, N.&S. America). My point is precisely that this killing in Christ’s name, there is no other way to put forced conversion, has nothing to do with Christ. It’s a justification of murder. Killing in the name of. The point you made about Marx. Like you said, your words are laid before me.

    I don’t understand the course this has taken. Maybe our worldviews are simply too far removed, because I can’t dispute my points here (except for the comment about Christ, I’ll admit, but that was simply to indicate the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy of the first ‘millions of corpses’ post). I’m not being belligerent, or attempting to be rude. I guess I just think these things are evident, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Finally, Brandon, you should watch Starship Troopers. Because it’s awesome. Paul Verhoeven is a genius when it comes to pulp. Oops. It’s happening again.

  14. Josiah

    “No amount of labor will ever turn a mud pie into an apple tart.” -Heinlein

    I haven’t read much Marx, but I have to say that I can find no better refutation of the concept of the value of labor. Heinlein goes on to say, through this same character that Brandon quoted, that in most cases, labor can actually decrease the value of a product. In the case of an unskilled worker, a bushel of apples could be ruined and made inedible through the application of “labor.” It is only through the application of “skill” that value can be added to a thing. A master pastry chef could take the same bushel and produce something of much greater value through relatively little labor on his part.

  15. Josiah

    My brain is muddled with chemo drugs, so this may not make the most sense, but here goes.

    After reading through some of the other comments I was struck with an idea: If we insist on comparing Marx to Christ because people have killed in the name of both, then why beat around the bush at all? Let us call Marxism what it is: A religion. You can have all the happy-fun thoughts you want about Marxism working, but the real world has proven time and again that it never will. And since people are still willing to “believe in” Marxism despite the evidence that it doesn’t work, that must mean they have incredible faith. Faith allows us to believe in something despite the facts. And since faith is the cornerstone of any religion, I think that we can safely apply that label to Marxism.

  16. czf

    I would agree with that, Josiah, entirely.
    I would caveat, however, that Communism, rather than Marxism, would be the religion which spawned from Marxist thought, and which has repeatedly failed.

    I just had an interesting conversation about Marx with a friend in NY, who said he lamented that Marxist philosophy, and Marxist economics professors and economists at the school he is a grad student at, are always dealing with students coming who uphold a very socialist notion of Communism, and are disappointed that their very reasonable Marxist economics professors disavow any notion of a practicable Communism.

  17. John

    Communists explicitly use Marx to condone killing. That is indisputable and has led to millions of deaths: this is not “post hoc…” because sufficient evidence exists to prove causality. From Chairman Mao: “Yes, we are advocates of the omnipotence of revolutionary war; that is good, not bad, it is Marxist” (“Problems of War and Strategy,” Nov 1938).

    Christians have also used scripture to justify killing–I’ve not denied that. But they did not kill more people than did the Communists–what I’m denying is your contention that they did. The only measurable way to prove either of our points is with statistics. Perhaps casting deaths in a statistical manner saddens you; as a historian, I see them as a useful (though not infallible) tool for analysis. To me, the question of whether all killing is murder, etc. is utterly irrelevant: mine is an evidential, not moral, argument.

    To that end, I contend that the 40-50 million corpses currently attributed to Mao Zedong’s Marxist policies outnumbers the sum of all Christian enterprises in Africa, the New World, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. If you can demonstrate Christian killings in excess of even, say, ten percent of that number I will be impressed indeed.

  18. blraatikka

    Great “discursion” guys– I post a quotation that has relevance to stimulus plans and democracy, and we end up debating “killing in the name of Christianity” vs. Marxism.
    And the takeaway is that I need to see Starship Troopers.

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