Arthur Koestler

Hungarian-British author and journalist (1905–1983)

Arthur Koestler (5 September 19051 March 1983) was a Hungarian-Jewish novelist, philosopher, and political activist who spent his later life in England.

Men cannot be treated as units in operations of political arithmetic because they behave like the symbols for zero and the infinite, which dislocate all mathematical operations.

Quotes edit

  • Oh, they had an explanation ready for every occasion, from the extension of capital punishment to the twelve-year-old to the abolition of the Soviet workers’ right to strike and to the one-party-election-system; they called it ‘revolutionary dialectics’ and reminded one of those conjurers on the stage who can produce an egg from every pocket of their frockcoats and even out of the harmless onlooker’s nose. They explained everything so well that, during a committee meeting, old Heinrich Mann, at one time a great ‘sympathiser,’ shouted to Dahlem, leader of the German Communists: ‘If you go on asking me to realise that this table here is a fishpond, then I am afraid my dialectical capacities are at an end.’
  • Indeed, the ideal for a well-functioning democratic state is like the ideal for a gentleman's well-cut suit — it is not noticed. For the common people of Britain, Gestapo and concentration camps have approximately the same degree of reality as the monster of Loch Ness. Atrocity propaganda is helpless against this healthy lack of imagination.
    • A Challenge to 'Knights in Rusty Armor, The New York Times, (14 February 1943).
  • Men cannot be treated as units in operations of political arithmetic because they behave like the symbols for zero and the infinite, which dislocate all mathematical operations.
    • From his essay in The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism (ed. Richard Crossman, 1949), p. 68.
  • In the social equation, the value of a single life is nil; in the cosmic equation, it is infinite... Not only communism, but any political movement which implicitly relies on purely utilitarian ethics, must become a victim to the same fatal error. It is a fallacy as naïve as a mathematical teaser, and yet its consequences lead straight to Goya's Disasters, to the reign of the guillotine, the torture chambers of the Inquisition, or the cellars of the Lubianka.
  • I profoundly admire Aldous Huxley, both for his philosophy and uncompromising sincerity. But I disagree with his advocacy of 'the chemical opening of doors into the Other World', and with his belief that drugs can procure 'what Catholic theologians call a gratuitous grace'. Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system.
    • Return Trip to Nirvana from The Sunday Telegraph (1967).
  • Creative activity could be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.
    • Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955-1967 (1967).
  • If one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted by some built-in mental disorder which drives him towards self-destruction.
  • The evolution of the brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use.
    • The Ghost in the Machine (1967).
  • God seems to have left the receiver off the hook, and time is running out.
    • The Ghost in the Machine (1967).
  • The progress of science is strewn, like an ancient desert trail, with the bleached skeletons of discarded theories which once seemed to possess eternal life.
    • The Ghost in the Machine (1967, 1976).
  • Einstein's space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh's sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist's discoveries impose his own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his; an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is based on the observer's frame of reference, which differs from period to period as a Rembrant nude differs from a nude by Manet.
  • Without the hard little bits of marble which are called 'facts' or 'data' one cannot compose a mosaic; what matters, however, are not so much the individual bits, but the successive patterns into which you arrange them, then break them up and rearrange them.
    • The Act of Creation (1970).
  • The more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards.
    • The Act of Creation (1970).
  • Language can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality. This is the reason why true creativity often starts where language ends.
    • Chapter 7, "The Snares of Language," The Act of Creation (1964).
  • [T]he evidence from anthropology concurs with history in refuting the popular belief in a Jewish race descended from the biblical tribe. From the anthropologist's point of view, two groups of facts militate against this belief: the wide diversity of Jews with regard to physical characteristics, and their similarity to the Gentile population amidst whom they live. Both are reflected in the statistics about bodily height, cranial index, blood-groups, hair and eye colour, etc. Whichever of these anthropological criteria is taken as an indicator, it shows a greater similarity between Jews and their Gentile host-nation than between Jews living in different countries. ...The obvious biological explanation for both phenomena is miscegenation, which took different forms in different historical situations: intermarriage, large-scale proselytizing, rape as a constant (legalized or tolerated) accompaniment of war and pogrom.
  • Look at this. Did you ever see a magazine called the New Musical Express? It turns out there is a pop group called The Police - I don't know why they are called that, presumably to distinguish them from the punks - and they've made an album of my essay The Ghost in the Machine. I didn't know anything about it until my clipping agency sent me a review of the record.
    • Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton (1986).
  • "Rome was saved in A.D. 408 by the ransom the Senate paid to Alaric the Goth; ever since, when Europe found itself in an impasse or in a questing mood, it has turned yearningly to the land of culinary and spiritual spices. "
    "The greatest influence during the dark ages was Augustine, who was influenced by Plotinus, who was influenced by Indian mysticism.
    "Long before Aldous Huxley found Yoga a remedy for our Brave New World, Schopenhauer called the Upanishads the consolation of his life."
    • Attributed and quoted in Richer by Asia - By Edmond Taylor, p. 7.
  • The Mahatma was the greatest living anachronism of the twentieth century... [India would probably be] better off today and healthier in mind without the Gandhian heritage.
    • Arthur Koestler, quoted in Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, Michael Scammell

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959) edit

  • The sixth pre-Christian century—the miraculous century of Buddha, Confucius and Lâo-Tse, of the Ionian philosophers and Pythagoras—was a turning point for the human species. A March breeze seemed to blow across the planet from China to Samos, stirring man into awareness, like the breath of Adam's nostrils. In the Ionian school of philosophy, rational thought was emerging from the mythological dream-world. ...which, within the next two thousand years, would transform the species more radically than the previous two hundred thousand had done.
  • We find in the history of ideas mutations which do not seem to correspond to any obvious need, and at first sight appear as mere playful whimsies — such as Apollonius' work on conic sections, or the non-Euclidean geometries, whose practical value became apparent only later.
    • as quoted by Michael Grossman in the The First Nonlinear System of Differential and Integral Calculus (1979).
  • If there is a lesson in our story it is that the manipulation, according to strictly self-consistent rules, of a set of symbols representing one single aspect of the phenomena may produce correct, verifiable predictions, and yet completely ignore all other aspects whose ensemble constitutes reality...
    • Epilogue
  • Today we know that on the sub-atomic level the fate of an electron or a whole atom is not determined by its past. But this discovery has not led to any basically new departure in the philosophy of nature, only to a state of bewildered embarrassment, a further retreat of physics into a language of even more abstract symbolism. Yet if causality has broken down and events are not rigidly governed by the pushes and pressures of the past, may they not be influenced in some manner by the "pull" of the future—which is a manner of saying that "purpose" may be a concrete physical factor in the evolution of the universe, both on the organic and unorganic levels. In the relativistic cosmos, gravitation is a result of the curvature and creases in space which continually tend to straighten themselves out—which, as Whittaker remarked, "is a statement so completely teleological that it certainly would have delighted the hearts of the schoolmen."
    • Epilogue [footnote referenced E.T. Whittaker's Space and Spirit (1946)]
  • If time is treated in modern physics as a dimension on a par with the dimensions of space, why should we a priori exclude the possibility that we are pulled as well as pushed along its axis? The future has, after all, as much or as little reality as the past, and there is nothing logically inconceivable in introducing, as a working hypothesis, an element of finality, supplementary to the element of causality, into our equations. It betrays a great lack of imagination to believe that the concept of "purpose" must necessarily be associated with some anthropomorphic deity.
    • Epilogue
  • The uomo universale of the Renaissance, who was artist and craftsman, philosopher and inventor, humanist and scientist, astronomer and monk, all in one, split up into his component parts. Art lost its mythical, science its mystical inspiration; man became again deaf to the harmony of the spheres. The Philosophy of Nature became ethically neutral, and "blind" became the favourite adjective for the working of natural law. The space-spirit hierarchy was replaced by the space-time continuum.'s destiny was no longer determined from "above" by a super-human wisdom and will, but from "below" by the sub-human agencies of glands, genes, atoms, or waves of probability. ...they could determine his fate, but could provide him with no moral guidance, no values and meaning. A puppet of the Gods is a tragic figure, a puppet suspended on his chromosomes is merely grotesque.
    • Epilogue

Quotes about Koestler edit

  • When Judt wears the blinkers of his “pensée unique” he fails to make the subjects he discusses compelling and move them into interesting directions.
    In his essay on Arthur Koestler he criticizes Darkness at Noon for never mentioning the use of force whereby false confessions were extracted during the Moscow trials. Almost in a socialist realistic way, he chides Koestler for hiding the ugly truth of torture, stopping just short of implying that Koestler, despite his anti-Stalinism and anti-Communism, remained the prisoner of the ideas he once believed in. But Judt fails to see that this is precisely the strength of Koestler’s book. Extracting confession through torture is nothing new: it has been practiced through times immemorial. But convincing people that they should deliberately and falsely accuse themselves in order to further a cause is something truly important. It shows the quasi religious nature of Communism. Ignacio de Loyola and Glatkin (the interrogator in Darkness at Noon) would have perfectly understood each other, as indeed Dostoyevsky in his “Great Inquisitor” saw a century before. Compared to that, beating somebody to a pulp is banal.
  • I read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon with its poignant account of a communist show trial. Unlike Valtin's description of Gestapo brutality, Koestler's book allowed me for the first time to get inside, as it were, the mentality of the communist. Even more subtly, it showed that through the eyes of the communist himself the communist system makes no sense... Years later, when as Leader of the Opposition I met Koestler, I said how powerful I had found his book. I asked him how he had been able to imagine Rubashov and his tormentors. He told me no imagination was required. They were real.

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