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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Office Overhead, Arthur Koestler, and Clarence Day

From Washington Lawyer, October 2006

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator We were talking about overhead. I said law books take up too much expensive office space. I emphasized the point by saying there are more law books on narrow tax issues than there are medical books about something really important such as the anatomy of the human brain.

He said we should be glad there are more tax law books than there are medical books about the human brain. We already know enough about how our brain works to know we need all the law books we can get. He directed me to Arthur Koestler’s comments on the human brain, where I found this quote by Paul MacLean, a distinguished expert on the human anatomy:

Man finds himself in the predicament that Nature has endowed him essentially with three brains which, despite great differences in structure, must function together and communicate with one another. The oldest of these brains is basically reptilian. The second has been inherited from the lower mammals, and the third is a late mammalian development, which . . . has made man peculiarly man. Speaking allegorically of these three brains within a brain, we might imagine that when the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.

Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) said that the wild horse and the cunning crocodile frequently outvote the reasonably prudent man, and given the proliferation of atom bombs, they may vote us into the war to end all wars and all people.

Before the 1945 atom bomb explosions, each of us lived with the prospect of his own individual death. But since 1945 we have lived with the prospect of the death of the entire human race.

Koestler said a dispassionate observer, looking in from another planet, would be astonished at our compulsion to kill one another:

The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums. Tribal wars, religious wars, civil wars, dynastic wars, national wars, revolutionary wars, colonial wars, wars of conquest and of liberation, wars to prevent and to end all wars, follow each other in a chain of compulsive repetitiveness. . . .

This bad brain of ours likes to give fanatical devotion to the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who bring death to millions who die for an abstraction, a dynasty, a religious belief, a political ideology. The individual crimes that fill the pages of the Metro section—the thefts, the assaults, and the murders—are insignificant in number when compared to the world wars.

Koestler says we need a new wonder drug, a mental penicillin to control the bad parts of the brain. Koestler did not mention mankind’s only remedy, the law. It is undramatic, but it is all we have. The more law books the better.

Let me tell you more about that fascinating man, Arthur Koestler. Romanian born, he attended college in Austria. He then got employment as a journalist. He joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1931.

In 1937 he covered the Spanish Civil War and was captured by Franco, threatened with death, and imprisoned for 95 days. He obtained a release and joined the French Foreign Legion. Thereafter he found his way to England in 1940, joined the British army, and made England his home.

By 1938 he had already seen too much of Communism, his God that failed. Friends of his in the Communist Party had disappeared and others were fearful of their lives, not from those outside and hostile to the party, but from those inside the party. Koestler exposed and condemned the party with his novel Darkness at Noon.

In 1998 a distinguished panel of writers ranked Darkness at Noon as the eighth-best novel of the century. It has been published in 30 languages and remains in print. It is the story of a true believer in a Communist utopia who, during the 1930s Stalin purge trials, first confesses crimes he never committed in obedience to party loyalty and then denies them and ends a ruined man.

Koestler picked up specialized subjects as easily as he picked up languages (he wrote in Hungarian, German, Spanish, and English). Among Koestler’s many writings is an article on humor. The trouble with the article is that Koestler had no sense of humor.

Clarence Day (1874–1935), a writer with a shining sense of humor, set forth his own views of why we act the way we do in This Simian World. Day said it must be apparent to anyone who gave it some thought that we are all simian primates with many of the traits of chimpanzees, monkeys, apes, and perhaps orangutans. They get up in the morning and look for food. They like to steal food from one another and hide it. After lunch they take a nap. When they get up they bicker. There is a lot of chatter, screaming, and yelling. Each group has a leader who screams the loudest (a lawyer?). There are periods of rage, conciliation, threats, retreats, advances, arbitration, and noisy chattering all the time. It is their day in court. They exhaust themselves with all this bickering, eat a banana or two, take another nap, some pairing off and then off to bed, just like reasonably prudent men and women. The next morning it is more of the same.

Fortunately for them they have not learned to manufacture weapons. Also, only rarely do they physically harm one another, and they have no utopian schemes they are ready to die for.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.