Saturday, 28 November 2020

You are What you Eat

In 1747, the French physician and philosophe Julien Offray de la Mettrie published a book entitled Man: A Machine  (L'Homme Machine). It is little known today, but in it La Mettrie proposed an idea we are very familiar with nearly 300 years later: You are what you eat. He argued human beings (and all living things) were machines, fueled by the digestion of food: 

"The human body is a machine which winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement. Nourishment keeps up the movement which fever excites. Without food, the soul pines away, goes mad, and dies exhausted ... But nourish the body, pour into its veins life-giving juices and strong liquors, and then the soul grows strong ... What power there is in a meal! Joy revives in a sad heart, and infects the souls of comrades." (Image: La Mettrie)

La Mettrie was a philosophical materialist. He held that everything in the universe was made up of matter. Spirit was a figment of overheated imaginations. Spirit did not exist, which meant no angels, no demons, no ghosts. The soul was merely the animating principle arising from matter, and animals as well as people had souls. 

La Mettrie conceded that God "might" exist but it didn't matter because He did not interfere in the world. Today, most people would call La Mettrie an atheist, and he did used that term to describe his position. He was also a hedonist. He argued that happiness was the sole purpose of life. People should indulge in pleasurable activities as much as possible, including eating fine food, drinking, and sex.

Atheism was a rare stance in even in the Enlightenment, but it had a long history. The Roman poet Lucretius espoused materialism. Some of La Mettrie's fellow philosophes advanced atheistic arguments, notably Baron d'Holbach and David Hume. (pictured below). But most of the philosophes, atheist or not, denounced La Mettrie's claim that hedonism should be the main goal of human life.

Other philosophes, called deists, also rejected La Mettries's atheism. They argued that God definitely existed and had created a good world, but then left it to operate according to His benevolent natural laws. Deists and atheists alike fell afoul of religious and secular authorities. Deists were often denounced as atheists for rejecting key Christian doctrines. 

Like other philosophes, La Mettrie had to move about for his safety. He fled France to the more tolerant Netherlands. After the publication of Man: A Machine, things got too hot for him there. He found refuge in Prussia at the Court of Frederick the Great. Voltaire, perhaps the best known of the philosophes, also fled there in 1750.  (Images: Frederick and Voltaire)

But let's get back to eating. La Mettrie argued that the food one ate determined one's personality, disposition, intelligence, and behavior. Diet explained why some people were more savage than others: 

"Red meat makes animals fierce, and it would have the same effect on man. This is so true that the English who eat meat red and bloody, and not as well done as ours, seem to share more or less in the savagery due to this kind of food...."

As another example of how food effects behavior, La Mettrie related the story of a Swiss judge who "when he fasted, was a most upright and even a most indulgent judge, but woe to the unfortunate man whom he found on the culprit's bench after he had had a large dinner! He was capable of sending the innocent like the guilty to the gallows." 

Diet could even affect the intelligence of whole nations. "One nation is of heavy and stupid wit, and another quick, light, and penetrating. Whence comes this difference, if not in part from the difference in foods....? 

La Mettrie was well versed in the science of his day, but his argument about food was hardly scientific. His evidence was anecdotal and stereotypical. Yet no one today would deny that diet can have enormous effects on mental and physical health. Medical and dietary science has linked poor diet to all kinds of illnesses and dangerous conditions. 

La Mettrie's death was utterly ironic. He died in 1751 of a gastric disorder, followed by a fever and delerium. Some versions say he ate a huge amount of a pheasant and truffle pate pie at one meal to show off how much he could consume. Others claim that the food that had gone bad. 

As he was dying, priests allegedly gathered in his room, hoping to get him to confess his faith in God. At one point, he cried out "Christ!" in his agony. The reverend fathers advanced eagerly towards his bed. Alas, he disappointed them. "It was just a manner of speaking," he said, smiling. 

Frederick the Great gave the eulogy at La Mettrie's funeral. He called him "a good devil and medic but a very bad author."  

The holiday season is upon us. Be careful what you eat. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Peoples' Charter: A Program to Save American Democracy

If it wasn't crystal clear before January 6, it should be now. To save American democracy it will not be enough to reverse the damage Trump and his enablers have done. That is necessary but not sufficient. If the USA merely restores the status quo ante-Trump, it will face more anti-democratic governments in future. 

If a few thousand votes had gone the other way in several states, Trump would have won the election, even though Biden got almost 7 million more votes. How is this possible? Because democracy in the US is not firmly rooted, and never has been.

The Trump regime did not start its assault on democracy and sanity from square one. It built on anti-democratic policies and machinations dating back decades or more. Many of them exist at the state rather than federal level. A root and branch strategy is needed to eliminate these dangers. 

Many people will say the changes I suggest are impossible. And it will be a huge struggle to achieve any one of them. But many people said that all men, and later all women, could never get the vote. Many people said slavery could never be eliminated. Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in history, but after massive grass roots campaigns, Parliament abolished the trade in 1807 and slavery itself in British colonies in 1833.

The Chartist Movement in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s took its name from "The People's Charter." Its goal was to establish a working democracy. The rulers of the day and many ordinary folk dismissed Chartism as utopian. But of its six demands ("The Peoples' Charter"), all but one is now law. That one was a demand for annual Parliamentary elections. Few people would support that idea now. Moreover, this was accomplished without a revolution, and only minor violence. (Image: photo of Chartist Demonstration, London, 1848)

The Chartists did not include women in their vision of democracy, but was rectified in 1918 and 1928.

I have drawn up my own People's Charter for the USA

  • 1.       Abolish the Electoral College, the gift that has empowered American reactionaries since slavery times. Replace it with the National Popular Vote. 

  • 2.       End gerrymandering by creating an independent, non-partisan commission to draw up boundaries of congressional constituencies. This is done in the UK and other countries.

  • 3.       Overturn the Citizens United decision to reduce corruption from big money in elections. Nothing like this exists in other democracies.
  • 4.       Prohibit political ads. They are virtually useless as information, generally misleading if not untrue, and damned annoying. 

  • 5.       Introduce proportional representation or ranked voting to end the stranglehold of the two-party system. Some people will argue that this would make efficient government impossible. Well, what have we got now? 

  • 6.      The Senate must be made more representative than it is. It gives the smaller states collectively far more power than the largest. That California with 40 million people and Wyoming with only half a million have the same number of senators is both absurd and thoroughly undemocratic.

  • 7.       Require by law enough polling stations to end long lines and hours of waiting to vote. Voting is an obligation. It should not be a torture or a danger. Voter suppression of all kinds must be eliminated. 

  • 8.      Fund public education adequately and fairly. College and university education should be free or cheap, as it was when I went to college and university in the late 60s and early 70s. Why are we shortchanging our children and dumbing down our voters?

  • 9.      Establish a national, affordable health care plan that covers everyone. The present for profit system is a disgrace and a laughing stock around the world. Health insurance must be separated from employment. Covid has underlined the cruelty and absurdity of this tradition, which turns many workers into virtual serfs.

  • 10.       Require the payment of a living (not minimum) wage for all adult workers. This should vary according to local living costs. It costs a lot more to live in California than North Dakota.

  • 11.     Reduce the period between the election of the president and the inauguration to two weeks at most. This would have minimized Trump's ability to create havoc. In the UK and many countries a new government generally takes over immediately after the election. This can be done because the parties have already selected the members of the cabinet and other ministers. Proceeding this way also gives voters a sense of what they are going to get. Whether they pay attention is another matter.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Hilarious British Place Names

Any one who has travelled around Britain will have laughed at many of the place names. Here is a small sample of the island's odd and sometimes smutty geographic names.

England and Wales

Sandy Balls 

Beer Head


Shag Rock (2, in Cornwall)

Happy Bottom, Flash Bottom, Scratchy Bottom, King's Bottom (and many more "Bottoms")

Steeple Bumpstead



Beaver Close


Black Bush

Goon Gumpas

Great and Little Snoring

North Piddle

Chorlton Cum



Hardon Road

Middle and Nether Wallop




Tickle Cock Bridge

Cock Play (several)

Great Cockup

Dirt Pot



Cockshutt cum Petton

Pant y Drain



Horny Old

Booby Dingle

Lord Hereford's Knob

Titty Ho





East Breast

Maidens Paps

Shaggie Burn

Bottom Burn

Cock Burn




Cock of Arran


Buttock Point


Dick Institute


Dick Court

The Bastard