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The World of Yesterday
At the end of his life, observing   Europe’s fall from his exile in Brazil, Stefan Zweig, wrote one of his most appealing books, “The world of yesterday”.

This poignant book is dominated by his despair to see European culture, destroyed by Nazism, after it had just reached a climax . A “no future” situation: Zweig had already decided to commit suicide before writing this book.

The main topic is the unique atmosphere in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century: Vienna “world capital of culture,” where everybody fulfilled his life with artistic emotions:  everyone was eager to spend his evenings attending a concert or a theatrical performance , with a passion for any new artistic creation, and for all information about the life of singers, dancers, performers, maestros. It was a world dominated by an endless confidence in the beauty of  life:  ”our world was the golden age of the security” .

And the thirties came. With the upsurge of the Nazism,   preparing   “Anschluss”.

The fact is that the Austrian people turned a blind eye to danger: one went on attending operas and theaters until the last minute, minimizing dangers associated with  Nazism, the weakness of its politicians and  the cowardice of the international community towards Hitler. They tried to preserve their private happiness in the middle of a collective disaster, until dictatorship made it totally impossible, by oppressing and killing artists, closing theaters, destroying books, introducing misery and devastation everywhere. They didn’t know that they were dancing on a volcano.

Zweig witnessed the collapse of his beloved city, the most vibrant of the world, with a poignant despair.

He was never involved in political  affairs: he even refused to vote for any election. He couldn’t change his mind during the upsurge of the Nazism: the only way out was to leave the country, flying to London, Paris, Rio, trying to rebuild a new   life far from this nightmare.

Zweig belongs to a long list of thinkers reluctant to take any political stance as developed by Epicure and, in a moderate way, by Seneca when the latter (ce dernier) develops the concept of “retreat”:  “nous ne poussons pas le sage à prendre part à tout gouvernement” (“we do not advise the wise man to take part to every government” (Letter to Lucilius 68), even if Seneca was in general in favor of an involvement in politics, except for artists.

S. Zweig  seems to share Dostoïevski’s vision of politics, much clearly assumed:  Dostoïevski was of the opinion it was not possible to improve anything in the  political and social organization, as the human being,  dominated by negative instincts, would develop negative forces in political affairs: political leaders cannot change the world, as they cannot influence human nature. The social framework is secondary:  the only way to improve the world lays in the efforts   of each person in his private life.

In fact, the tragic end of   Zweig’s road illustrates the failure of his vision of the world: in Rio, he reached a deadlock, as the “fatal attraction” of suicide took a dominant hold on his life

How do you assess the position assumed by Stefan Zweig ?  Does it   reflect a pure egoism?  

Should we stay out of politics, because no one politician can improve anything in the society? Or should we enter in politics just to diffuse something positive around us? Should we limit our involvement in special circumstance.
Books Discussed
The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography
by Stefan Zweig

Well, dear me, Pierre. No wonder people are sitting back pondering what to say here. What a difficult question?!

But let us look again at this question, which, as you point out, has been with us since at least the Great Classical (Western) eras of the Greeks and Romans. Let us look at this question from our present standpoint, that is, with the assistance of our modern access to such broad knowledge - of science, psychology, and even a great spectrum of philosophical thinking that we may inherit from the depth of historical records we now keep.

On the surface, one might have to conclude that indeed for a philosopher, it is as Epicurus maintained; better to stay out of politics completely.

The reason that I have for agreeing with Epicurus is that for me, at least, I don't observe that politicians or their advisers or the greater part of the media, possess the tools of mind that an evolved human may have, and that will allow him or her to appreciate the world as it truly is...

I give you this perhaps rather idiotic example - for years upon years,the entire world of wine lovers and experts have expressed what now amounts to a fairly standardised conception that it is possible for the educated nose and tongue to perceive so many scents and flavours in a good wine, and so much 'balance' and tannin and sugars and acid and yeast and so on and be able to determine that such and such is a good wine or a great wine. Multi million-dollar industries and reputations are built on all this tradition. Even you Pierre, may not have immediately heard of Tomas Prevenslik without at first resorting to the Wikipedia, but you at least may have heard of Luca Turin or Linda Buck - who only discovered and isolated the actual cells and cell nerve systems of the nose and upper mouth that engage with odour molecules I believe in the Nineties. And these people will very clearly demonstrate that 'wine experts' are all totally and completely wrong in the way they imagine they 'detect' scents and flavours and qualify them as superior. Modern brain science - the latest understandings about neurons in the human - contradict the wine experts very thoroughly.
And so, like all politicians, to tell someone - an expert - that he or she is absolutely and completely in error about what they are 'an expert of' or an 'expert in,' well... Thus also wine experts (by example) will find great difficulty in accommodating what modern science says - especially neuroscience - about what they are doing or what they claim to be doing.

And further, you should see from what I am saying, that science itself, is a moving horizon and we can know more and better all the time if we are open to do this. What was unequivocally true yesterday (Einstein's theory on light and matter) is doubted again today. And you will witness here, hordes of conformists rush to the aid of Einstein no sooner than they will have read these words of mine...!

But a philosopher must know the truth. All of it. Certainly as much as the day and age permits to him or her.

And then, observing the great poverty of the leaders of the world and of daily affairs, compared to what a dedicated lifestyle of the evolved human mind can bring to one, it seems difficult to bridge even the gap of simple communication of ideas - the experiences are so different, the knowledge so different, even the words and style of thinking so different. It strikes me that you are too well aware of the corrupting nature of the political and mercantile world, and hence fear for the good man with the sound idea.

To merely diffuse something positive is a meagre effect. Believe me, Pierre, those greatest of modern thinkers are rather, much to be feared, than sadly consoled or feared for.

Truly great and philosphical ideas formed out of the best of science and mathematics and aesthetics, and rooted in the mortal heart, are like vast and powerful machines microsized to the nano-scale; you can't see them or realise they are there, nor can you observe immediately who they shoot forth from.

The only thing a great philosopher ponders is whether the people deserve to witness the power of the idea.

Between god and the great philosopher there is no sliver of distance or difference. The people wail at the wall and no god stirs.

But sometimes the god does stir. And so too the philosopher. Be first the great thinker and a moment to be a politician will avail itself of you...

Do not beg for it to happen.

A great philosopher once said this: "To be rich one can be a king; but one who is truly powerful can go without." Observe the meaning of this the next time you are in a New York hotel and encounter a maid with a seducing manner and body, and you will observe as Aladdin did, that beyond the first glowing crystal containing a beautiful glamourous fairy - there are a myriad others, each more beautiful than the last.


 Pierre, you've touched on a subject which has fascinated me for many years - namely that marvellous period of fin-de-siècle Vienna ( to which one could add other German speaking centers like Berlin, Budapest, Prague and so on ) when the modern world was born - which I've always wanted to research and have been avoiding until I can read fluently in German.

You've somehow managed to leave out the fact that a significant number of the key artists and thinkers were - like Stefan Zweig - Jewish and that their world of yesterday came to a tragic end when Hitler came to power in Germany.

If human nature is mostly evil and politics is fallible and often corrupt, that's no reason to give up and say that voting is a waste of time. Inspired leaders can change politics for the better, and people can follow their ideals and improve this world of ours. At least it's worth trying.
  So, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire with over 5,000,000 casualties was not noticed in Vienna as the band played on?
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