Monday, November 27, 2006

Des-Cartes vs Di-Caprio

When I moved back to Iran in the early nineties, I was astounded at the philosophical sophistication of society. And I am not only talking about a small intellectual elite: Book stores were packed with translations of the Great Western Philosophers, and a variety of literary magazines regularly reviewed and critiqued their great works – magazines that were always the front and center of thousands of the newsstands all around Tehran.

Recently, I enjoyed a pleasant conversation at Umair’s Innovation Wednesday – talking about, among other things, the Western press and the observation that a majority of people in the US and the UK seem to be more interested in tabloids and celebrity gossip rather than ‘real’ news.

But I wonder if there is a reverse correlation between the philosophical quality of journals found on newsstands and the well being of civil society.

Here is a passage from Mangol Bayat’s chronicle of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of (1905-1909):
“The French diplomat-scholar-essayist Arthur de Gobineau, who was stationed at the embassy in Tehran in the 1850’s and early 1860’s, had observed that Iranians imported books in great number from western Europe, particularly from Germany. He had also expressed his surprise to see how well acquainted Iranian intellectuals were with the works of Kant and Spinoza. Delighted with their positive response on his own lectures on Descartes, Gobineau commissioned the translation of the seventeenth century French Philosophers famous work Discours sur la Methode.”

For the past 150 years, we Iranians have been studying Cartesian methods, and lining our newspapers with utterances from Kant.

One Hundred and Fifty Years!!!

Perhaps we should be more encouraged about the prospect for Iran’s democratic future by those street vendors I encountered a few years ago, who, rather than selling newspapers to cars stuck in traffic, were peddling posters of Leonardo Di Caprio!



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