Review: Philosophical Investigations

Review: Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read first Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and then follow it with his Philosophical Investigations, you will treat yourself to perhaps the most fascinating intellectual development in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein has the distinct merit of producing, not one, but two enormously influential systems of philosophy—systems, moreover, that are at loggerheads with one another.

In fact, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to tackle this work without first reading the Tractatus, as the Investigations is essentially one long refutation and critique of his earlier, somewhat more conventional, views. But because I wish to give a short summary of some of Wittgenstein’s later views here, I will first give a little précise of the earlier work.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues that language has one primary function: to state facts. Language is a logical picture of the world. A given proposition mirrors a given state of affairs. This leads Wittgenstein to regard a great many types of utterances as strictly nonsense. For example, since ethics is not any given state of affairs, language couldn’t possible picture it; therefore, all propositions in the form of “action X is morally good” are nonsense.

Wittgenstein honestly believed that this solved all the problems of philosophy. Long-standing problems about causation, truth, the mind, goodness, beauty, etc., were all attempts to use language to picture something which it could not—because beauty, truth, etc., are not states of affairs. Philosophers only need stop the attempt to transcend the limits of language, and the problems would disappear. In his words: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”

After publishing this work and taking leave of professional philosophy (as he thought it had been dealt with) Wittgenstein began to have some doubts. Certain everyday uses of language seemed hard to account for if you regarded language as purely a truth-stating tool. These doubts eventually culminated in a return to Cambridge, and to philosophy. His posthumously published Investigations represents the fullest expression of his later views.

So what are these views? Well, first let us compare the styles of the two works. The writing in both the Tractatus and the Investigations is extraordinary. Wittgenstein is one of the very finest writers of philosophy, in a league with Nietzsche and Plato. He uses almost no technical terms, and very simple sentence-structures; yet his phrases can stick in the mind for months, years, after first reading them. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with my German tutor about learning a foreign language. To something I said, she responded, “Die Grenzen meiner Spracher bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.” (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”—a quote from the Tractatus.)

Although the the writing in both works is equally compelling, the structures are quite different. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s argument is unified, complete; he even numbers his sentences as primary, secondary, and tertiary in terms of their importance to the argument. In that work, we can clearly see the influence of Bertrand Russell’s logicism: language is reduced to logical propositions, and the argument is organized along logical grounds.

The reader of the Investigations will encounter something quite different. Wittgenstein writes in similarly terse aphorisms; he even retains a numbering-system for his points—each individual point getting its own numbered paragraph. The numbering of these paragraphs, however, is cumulative, and does not express anything about their significance to his larger design. It is almost as if Wittgenstein wrote down his thoughts on numbered flash cards, and simply constructed the book by moving the flash cards around. Unlike the Tractatus, which resolves itself into a unified whole, the Investigations is fragmentary.

I begin with style because the contrast in writing is a clue to the differences in thought between the earlier and later works. Unlike the Tractatus, the Investigations is rather a collection of observations and ideas. The spirit of Wittgenstein’s later enterprise is anti-systematic, rather than systematic. Wittgenstein aims not at erecting a whole edifice of thought, but at destroying other edifices. Thus, the text jumps from topic to topic, without any explicit connections or transitions, now attacking one common philosophical idea, now another. The experience can often be exasperating, since Wittgenstein is being intentionally oblique rather than direct. In the words of John Searle, reading the Investigations is “like getting a kit for a model airplane without any explanation for how to put it together.”

Let me attempt to put some of these pieces together—at least the pieces that were especially useful to me.

Wittgenstein replaces his old picture metaphor with a new tool metaphor. Instead of a word being meaningful because it pictures a fact, the meaning of a word is—at least most of the time—synonymous with the social use of that word. For example, the word “pizza” does not mean pizza because it names the food; rather, it means pizza because you can use the word to order the food at a restaurant. So instead of the reference to a type of object being primary, the social use is primary.

This example reveals a general quality of Wittgenstein’s later thought: the replacement of the objective/subjective dichotomy with the notion of public, social behavior.

Philosophers have traditionally posited theories of meaning that are either internal or external. For example, pizza can mean the particular food either because the word points to the food, or because the word points to our idea, or sensation, of the food. Either language is reporting objective states of affairs, or subjective internal experiences.

Wittgenstein destroys the external argument with a very simple observation. Take the word “game.” If the external theory of meaning is correct, the word game must mean what it does because it points to something essential about games. But what is the essential quality that makes games games? Is there any? Some games are not social (think of solitaire), some games are not trivial (think of the Olympic Games), some games are not consequence-free (think of compulsive gambling), and some games are social, trivial, and consequence-free. Is a game something that you play? But you also play records and trombones. So what is the essential, single quality of “game” that our word refers to?

Wittgenstein says there isn’t any. Rather, the word “game” takes on different meanings in different social contexts, or modes of discourse. Wittgenstein calls these different modes of discourse “language-games.” Some examples of language games are that of mimicking, of joking, of mourning, of philosophizing, of religious discourse. Every language game has its own rules; therefore, any proposed all-encompassing theory of language (like Wittgenstein’s own Tractatus) will fail, because it attempts to reduce the irreducible. You cannot reduce chess, soccer, solitaire, black-jack, and tag to one set of rules; the same is true (says Wittgenstein) of language.

Another popular theory of meaning is the internal theory. This theory holds that propositions mean things by referring to thoughts or sensations. When I refer to pain, I am referring to an internal object; when I refer to a bunny, I am referring to a set of visual sensations that I have learned to call ‘bunny’.

Wittgenstein makes short work of this argument too. Let’s start with the argument about sensations. Wittgenstien points out that our ‘sensations’ of an object—say, a bunny—are not something that we experience, as it were, purely. Rather, our interpretations alter the sensations themselves. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein uses perhaps the funiest example in all of philosophy, the duck-rabbit:


As you can see, whether you interpret this conglomeration of shapes, lines, and spaces as a rabbit or a duck depends on your interpretation; and, if you had never seen a duck or a rabbit in your life, the picture would look rather strange. Ernst Gombrich summed up this point quite nicely in his Story of Art: “If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression?”

The point of all this is that trying to make propositions about sense-impressions is like trying to hit a moving target—since you only see something a certain way because of certain beliefs or experiences you already hold.

The argument about inner feelings is equally weak. For example, when we learned the word pain, did someone somehow point to the feeling and name it? Clearly, that’s impossible. What actually happens is that we (or someone else) exhibited normal behavioral manifestations of pain—crying, moaning, tearing, clutching the afflicted area. The word pain then is used (at least originally) to refer to pain-behavior, and we later use the word ‘pain’ as a replacement for our infantile pain-behavior—instead of moaning and clutching our arm, we tell someone we have a pain, and that it’s in our arm. This shows that the internal referent of the word ‘pain’ is not fundamental to its meaning, but is derivative of its more fundamental, public use.

This may seem trivial, but this line of argument is a powerful attack on the entire Cartesian tradition. Let me give you an example.

René Descartes famously sat in his room, and then tried to doubt the whole world. He then got down to his own ego, and tried to build the work back up from there. This line of thought places the individual at the center of the epistemological question, and makes all other phenomena derivative of the fundamental, subjective experience of certainty.

But let us, as Wittgenstein advises, examine the normal use of the word “to know.” You say, “I know Tom,” or “I know American history.” If someone asked you, “What makes you say you know Tom and American history?” you might say something like “I can pick Tom’s face out of a crowd,” or “I could pass a history test.” Already, you are giving social criteria for what it means to know. In fact, the word “to know” presupposes the ability to verify something with something that is not yourself. You would never verify something you remember by pointing to another thing you remember—that would be absurd, since your memory is the thing being tested. Instead, you indicate an independent criterion for determining whether or not you know something. (The social test of knowledge is also explicit in science, since experiments must be repeatable and communicable; if a scientist said “I know this but I my can’t prove it once more,” that would not be science.)

So because knowing anything apparently requires some kind of social confirmation, the Cartesian project of founding knowledge on subjective experience is doomed from the start. Knowing anything requires at least two people—since you couldn’t know if you were right or wrong without some kind of social confirmation.

Wittgenstein brings this home with his discussion of private language. Let’s say you had a feeling that nobody has told you how to name. As a result, you suspect that this feeling is unique to yourself, and so you create your own name for it. Every time you have the feeling, you apply this made-up name to it. But how do you know if you’re using the name correctly? How do you know that every time you use your private name you are referring to the same feeling? You can’t check it against your memory, since your memory is the very thing being doubted. You can’t ask somebody else, because nobody else knows this name or has this sensation. Therefore, merely thinking you’re using the name consistently and actually using the name consistently would be indistinguishable experiences. You could never really know.

Although Wittgenstein’s views changed dramatically from the early to the late phase of his career, you can see some intriguing similarities. One main current of Wittgenstein’s thought is that all philosophical problems result from the misuse of language. Compare this statement from the Tractatus, “All philosophy is ‘Critique of language’,” with this, from the Investigations: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In both works, Wittgenstein is convinced that philosophical problems only arise because of the misuses of language; that philosophers either attempt to say the unsayable, or confuse the rules of one language-game with another—producing nonsense.

I cannot say I’ve thought-through Wittgenstein’s points fully enough to say whether I agree or disagree with them. But, whether wrong or right, Wittgenstein already has the ultimate merit of any philosopher—provoking thought about fundamental questions. And even if he was wrong about everything, his books would be worth reading for the writing alone. Reading Wittgenstein can be very much like taking straight shots of vodka—it burns on the way down, it addles your brain, it is forceful and overwhelming; but after all the pain and toil, the end-result is pleasant elation.

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Roaming in Rome: Churches

Roaming in Rome: Churches

(This is part two in my series about Rome. Click here for the introduction, here for basilicas, here for museums, here for ruins, and here for the Vatican.)

It is an absurd understatement to say that Rome has many beautiful churches. You can hardly go two blocks without passing a church which would, in any other city, be a major tourist destination, but which in Rome is just another church.

Rome has so much world-class religious architecture that I need to divide up my posts by building type. This post is for the churches; the basilicas will come next. (The difference between a church and a basilica is largely a matter of size.) I only visited five churches, although they were quite famous ones. Thus this post, like everything written about Rome, will be woefully incomplete.


Santa Maria della Victoria

Santa Maria della Victoria

The first thing I did when I put down my bags was rush to Santa Maria della Victoria, which was luckily right near my Airbnb.

The main reason I wanted to go was because of Bernini’s famous statue: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. That’s all I knew about the church. So I was astounded, upon entering, to find that every inch of the place was breathtaking. I found myself gasping, transfixed, at everything I saw. The church deservers Bernini’s masterpiece.

The first word that springs to mind, as I attempt to describe the place, is lush. Like a forest in springtime, the church overflowed with sensory pleasure. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the statues, the altars—every surface, corner, and crevice provided fascination and delight to the eye.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

After gaping at everything for a few moments, I went immediately to find Bernini’s statue. And there it was. In my experience, the first time you lay eyes on a famous work of art, one that you have seen many times in photos, there is a second of disappointment. “So, that’s it?” you say to yourself. At first glance, the statue looks like any other.

When you look closer and more deeply, the disappointment soon turns into a feeling of unreality. It’s like you just walked into a television program: you are suddenly inside something which you had been experiencing from without. “Am I really here?” you think.

This feel, too, goes away soon enough, leaving only you and the artwork. Now that you can look at it, what do you see? To the modern eye, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa looks inescapably sexual. A smiling angel stands over the supine saint, an arrow raised in his hands. St. Teresa is crumpled over, obviously overwhelmed, her mouth hanging open (in pain, pleasure, or both?).

To us in the post-Freudian age, the spear, the postures, and the Saint’s expression all seem like an obvious depiction of coitus. This impression is confirmed when you know a bit about St. Teresa’s life, whose greatest religious struggle was her attraction to handsome men. Yet I wonder if this was intended by Bernini. He was certainly not unacquainted with the sexual side of life. But it’s also hard for me to think that a sincerely pious man would have intentionally depicted something sexual for a church, and that the church would have accepted something it considered suggestive.

As usual with Bernini, the statue is a work of technical virtuosity. The most outstanding feature is Saint Teresa’s robe. In the Renaissance, as in Rome and Greece, cloaks and robes were depicted as falling naturally over the body, closely fitting the body underneath. But here the robe seems to be alive. Far from succumbing to gravity, it is animated as if by an electric current, rippling and folding and crashing like stormy ocean waves. Instead of revealing the saint’s body underneath, the robe totally obscures her form, absorbing her into a torrent of energy that represents, all too clearly, the ecstasy she is feeling. This also serves to highlight the saint’s face, since the rest of her is absorbed by her garment. And here too we find Bernini to be a master. The saint is angelic, beautiful, and otherworldly.

Across from this masterpiece is a much lesser work, The Dream of Joseph by Domenico Guido, which is nonetheless impressive. The ceiling is covered with a heavenly fresco, and is held up by white, stucco angels. Besides Bernini’s statue, what most stuck in my memory was the marble in the walls and the floor. Several different colored stones were used, all of extraordinary quality. I cannot fathom how much money went into this single church. I find marble to be nearly hypnotic to look at. Light and dark patches of color swirl around each other like puffs of petrified smoke.


Santa Maria del Popolo

Santa Maria del Popolo

(Note: I’m actually not sure if this is a church or a basilica.)

I had the bright idea of trying to go to this church on Sunday morning. I walked in to find that, of course, they were celebrating mass, so I did an abrupt about-face and sat down on the steps outside.

Santa Maria del Popolo is situated in the Piazza del Popolo, one of the pleasantest plazas in the city. In the center is a large Egyptian obelisk, the second oldest obelisk in Rome; and bounding the plaza are two semicircular walls, with a fountain in the middle of each. There are a few interesting facts to be found on Wikipedia. Although the name literally means “Plaza of the People,” its name historically comes from the poplar trees that grew there. It was also the site of many public executions.

Piazza del Popolo with St. Peter’s in the background

It was in this plaza that I waited, hungry and frustrated, for the mass to end. The only thing that provided amusement were the many other tourists who made the same mistake. Person after person walked into the door and immediately walked out again, as a beggar by the door futilely said “La messa, la messa!” (“The mass, the mass!”). Obviously nobody could understand the poor guy, or else people habitually ignore the homeless. In any case, the steps were soon full of frustrated tourists who were, like myself, waiting for the mass to end.

It is, by the way, a sardonic comment on religion in the modern world that hundreds of people were annoyed that a church was being used for worship. There are still millions of Catholics in the world, of course; but it seems obvious to me that, in Europe at least, the religion is dying. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand it seems like progress; but on the other it is hard for me to be happy about a religion disappearing when it inspired and helped fund so much beautiful art. But with this new Pope, maybe the future of Catholicism is looking up.

Finally the mass was over and we all poured inside. Compared with other churches in Rome, the interior of Santa Maria del Popolo is relatively austere. This isn’t saying very much, of course. There were statues, friezes, paintings, and shining golden surfaces in abundance. The church’s dome is lovely, with a pinkish-yellow swirl of clouds painted on the inside, and light pouring in the windows from all directions.


Although Santia Maria del Popolo is home to many important and lovely monuments, it is most known for two paintings by Caravaggio. As soon as we got inside, all of us tourists immediately flocked to the altar where the paintings hang. These two works are the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Unfortunately, the paintings are hung in such a way that they face each other, rather than the viewer, so you have to see them at an odd angle. And if you want to see the paintings properly lighted, you’ve got to put a euro into a little machine nearby (or wait till another visitor does it, like I did).

As usual with Caravaggio, the style is darkly realistic. Accurate anatomy, shadowy backgrounds, grubby details, and an intense focus on dramatic moments are what set Caravaggio apart from his contemporaries.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

In Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Caravaggio pictures the saint—old, bearded, and grey—in the moment when he is being hoisted up on the cross (he was crucified upside down). Peter looks with helpless alarm at his hand, nailed to the cross. The workmen are, by contrast, anonymous forms: two of them have their backs turned to the viewer, and the last has his face cloaked in shadow. Caravaggio chose to portray the workers dressed in Renaissance Italian garb, giving the painting an extra feeling of realism.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus

Conversion on the Way to Damascus depicts the moment when Saul of Tarsus (later, St. Paul) was struck blind by God and converted to Christianity. The saint is laying flat on his back, his eyes closed, his hands reaching up to heaven. A horse and a servant look down at the supine man, confused at what transpired. The bright red and green of Saul’s clothes contrasts with the dull colors of the upper half. To me, there is something particularly touching about this painting. St. Paul is totally helpless, overwhelmed, as fragile as a newborn; and yet the look of rapture on his face tells us that he will soon be reborn.


Sant’Ignazio – The Ceiling Fresco

Sant’Ignazio Church

This church, which stands right in the center of the city, was built in the Baroque period to commemorate St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

The decoration of this church is lighthearted and joyful. This is exemplified in the fresco painted on the main vault (see above), which abounds in pinks, yellows, and blues, and whose numerous characters, flying through the heavenly skies, are almost cartoonish.

This playfulness is most apparent in the “dome.” Lacking funds to build a proper dome, the Jesuits commissioned a painter to create the illusion of one. It is excellently done: I’m sure many visitors don’t notice. When I did notice, I did a double take. “No, that can’t be right,” I thought, and tried to see it from a different angle. But soon the conclusion is inescapable: the dome is a fake.

The fake dome of Sant’Ignazio

Also notable are two friezes, one depicting the Annunciation and another St. Aloysius Gonzaga being welcomed into heaven. The swirling spiral columns of dark marble, which flank these friezes, particularly tickle my fancy.

The funeral monument of Pope Gregory XV

Even more impressive is the monument to Pope Gregory XV. Four angels hold open a curtain, revealing the Pope sitting on a throne. What is most amazing is that the sculptor, Monnot, was able to make marble into a near-perfect semblance of fabric. Technically, at least, it is a masterful.


St. Louis of the French

St. Louis of the French

This is the French national church in Rome. This means that the church originated as a charitable organization that helped French pilgrims in Rome. In any case, all the signs in the church are in French.

The church of St. Louis of the French is not far from the Piazza Navona. Although a lovely church by itself, it nowadays attracts visitors for its three famous Caravaggio paintings about the life of St. Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. All three hang together in the Contarelli Chapel, and all three are masterpieces.


(Unfortunately, as in Santa Maria del Popolo, two of the three paintings are difficult to see, not only because they are a bit far away, because they are positioned at a right angle from the viewer. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that such great works of art are not more easily visible.)

The Calling of Saint Matthew

On the left wall is The Calling of Saint Matthew. Here is a perfect illustration of Caravaggio’s genius and originality. Instead of a heavenly scene, with the divine Jesus calling Matthew to serve God, we are shown a confused rabble in a bar. Jesus is almost invisible, hidden in shadow; most noticeable is his pointing finger. We follow this finger to a shabby, bearded man sitting behind a wooden table. This is Matthew. He thinks Jesus must be confused, looking for someone else; he points helpfully to his companion, who is bent over, counting money on the table. As usual, the costumes and the scenery are all taken from Caravaggio’s contemporary world (note the boy dressed in bright livery). The grimy realism, the dramatic gesture, the innocent surprise on Matthew’s face—all this combine to make the painting one of the most convincing portrayals of this Gospel scene.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

In the center, facing the viewer, is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This was apparently a difficult commission for Caravaggio, since several earlier versions were rejected by his patron. Unfortunately for us, the most famous of these early versions, Saint Matthew and the Angel, was destroyed during World War II. (As the historian Will Durant notes, art and war are engaged in an eternal struggle.) This earlier painting is almost scandalous in its realism. (I recommend you look up an image.) St. Matthew is portrayed as a illiterate peasant. He is seated uncomfortably on a chair, his eyes squinting, his hand gripped awkwardly around the pen. An angel stands next to him, his hand guiding Matthew’s, acting the role as writing teacher. I love the painting, but I can see why the cardinal didn’t like it.

The later work is somewhat more conventional, but nonetheless wonderful. Instead of guiding St. Matthew’s hand, the angel hovers above the saint, talking to him (the angel seems to be counting something on his fingers). Matthew looks only slightly more comfortable. He is kneeling on a stool, hunched over his table, bending backward apprehensively to listen to the advising angel. Although less startlingly realistic, this painting makes up for that by being iconic in its design. The angel, robed in white, comes down from the upper right; while Matthew, robed in red, is positioned in a diagonal from the bottom right. The antithesis of the figures’ colors and postures make this painting instantly memorable.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

Last we have The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. This painting is by far the most dramatic. A nearly naked, intensely muscular soldier stands over St. Matthew, whose has collapsed on the ground. The soldier’s face is pure anger and violence. He is the wrathful embodiment of human strength. Surrounding the two central actors are about a dozen figures, reacting to the scene in different ways, from horror to mild curiosity. The saint seems, at first glance, to be frightened. His arm is raised, as if pleading. But then we notice that he is not looking at or reaching towards the soldier, but is entranced by the angel floating above. The angel is holding down the branch of a tree, which St. Matthew reaches for, as if he is about to be pulled right into heaven.


San Pietro in Vincoli – The Funeral Monument of Pope Julius II

San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli is a tremendously old church, first consecrated in the year 439 (although rebuilt after that). Nowadays, it is famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The statue is part of a larger funeral monument to Pope Julius II (who was, incidentally, the subject of one of Raphael’s greatest portraits).

The relationship between fame and quality is interesting. To be honest, if I had not known that the statue was done by Michelangelo, I’m not sure I would have paid any special attention to it. This is most likely due to my own ignorance of art, rather than any defect on Michelangelo’s part. Nevertheless, I think the same is true of nearly every person who visits, not only this church, but many other famous works of art: we are impressed as much by the name as by the art itself (if not more).

Michelangelo’s Moses

You might notice that Moses is depicted with horns on his head. This isn’t because Michelangelo thought he was a cuckold, but because of the way St. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate Bible, translated a Hebrew word. The original Hebrew word, used to describe Moses as he descended from Mt. Sinai, often meant “horned,” but also could mean “shining.” St. Jerome chose the first option; and thus there are many portrayals of Moses with little horns on his head.

Moses is seated. His long, flowing beard hangs down in tangled glory. In body and face he is so splendid that he could be mistaken for Zeus. Under his right arm are the two tablets with God’s commandments. On his face, he wears a dark and judgmental expression. What is he looking at? Perhaps he is casting a disappointed glance at his people, who are lost in idolatry. Freud made this statue the subject of some psychoanalysis, and later scholars have done likewise.

Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

Men are not born equal, they are not born free; they are born a most various multitude enmeshed in an ancient and complex social net.

The Outline of History, H.G. Wells

This is one of the most powerful quotes in H.G. Wells’s wonderful popular history book. To me it encapsulates an inescapable fact. In any complex society, however egalitarian, resources are not distributed equally. Power, money, influence, and cultural capital are usually distributed hierarchically; and having powerful parents, a rich family, or being the “right” race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever—these things you are born into.

Karl Marx makes a similar point in this famous passage:

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth: he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close as hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.

“Equality of opportunity” is a phrase we like very much in the United States. It is an ideal, and like any ideal is something we strive for but can never achieve. Yet what does it mean? People born into wealth are at an obvious advantage to people born into poverty. They have better schools, they can afford to go to elite colleges (and elite colleges often can’t afford to turn them away), and thus they are many times more likely to get high paying jobs (besides being able to inherit money). This is an obvious case of inequality.

But what could we do about it? It’s a difficult problem. Should we prevent people from bequeathing money to their children? Should we make private schools illegal? Should we make laws preventing elite universities from accepting more than a certain percentage of people from wealthy families?

Perhaps it’s better to focus on improving the opportunities of the poor rather than restricting those of the rich? We can improve the schools, legislate affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and make higher education more affordable (and less dependent on rich donors and students for their survival). These are all good things, for sure, and to a certain extent we are already striving to accomplish them.

A work in progress is all we will ever achieve. Like everything perfect, perfect equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream. And yet, even if the dream were realized, would we be living in a perfect society? This is a question worth asking.

Even if we managed to equalize the starting point of every child, there would still be the question of how they would be measured. The idea behind having equality of opportunity is that, if some people are more successful than others, we can consider the outcome fair. This is an ideal meritocracy, where everyone gets their just desserts.

In a perfect meritocracy—where opportunity is equal—we advance or fail to advance because we possess certain qualities. But these qualities are arbitrary. In the United States, for example, we tend to value certain types of intelligence, certain personality traits, and certain goals. In other cultures, they have other values.

Every culture arbitrarily chooses some characteristics to value and others to ignore. Yet even when you subtract all the environmental influence, we are still left with our genetic endowment: each of us is born with different abilities, propensities, and weaknesses. Is it really fair that these inborn qualities should determine our success? It seems not—especially when you consider that these native qualities are being measured against an arbitrary standard.

Because of this arbitrariness, I think any fair system needs a kind of social safety net. Even with perfect equality of opportunity—which does not exist—some people will always have more trouble succeeding than others. Providing a basic minimum standard of living is an acknowledgment of this fact.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.

Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Review: Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and HappinessDo What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe anybody can do what he or she loves, but only the wealthy can avoid going into debt to pay for it.

I first heard of Tokumitsu when an essay of hers was being circulating among some friends on Facebook. I was struck by how well she articulated some half-formed thoughts that had lately been kicking around my head, so I immediately got her book. Then, I immediately put off reading it, until now.

Tokumitsu’s thesis is that the cultural ideal of doing what you love (DYWL) is, in practice, often exploitative and nefarious. She gives many reasons for this. First, DWYL glorifies certain types of work—almost all white collar—and ignores others. Only certain jobs are believably lovable; other types of work are unglamorous, and thus ignored. Steve Jobs gave a famous commencement speech in which he encouraged the young graduates to follow their dreams; but Apple would be impossible without the thousands of people toiling in factories, cafeterias, and warehouses supporting the visionaries.

Another way that DWYL can be exploitative is when it is used to underpay workers. Any musician can tell you that they are often expected to play for free, because they’re doing it out of love and not for money. Unpaid internships have grown in popularity; and academics nowadays often find themselves in underpaid adjunct work, because they’re supposed to be passionate about their subject. These purgatory periods are characterized as paying your dues; and yet studies have shown that, more often than not, unpaid internships and adjunct work don’t lead to full-time positions.

I find the situation in academia especially ironic. As a group, academics are some of the most politically conscious, leftist people out there. And yet in academia the pressure to do underpaid work, to personally identify with your job, and to work long hours can be intense. All this is justified with the notion that academic work is more noble than the grubby capitalism of the non-academic world. In the process, however, academics become ideal capitalist workers, doing enormous amounts of work for little compensation. This is “hope labor” at its purest: badly paid work performed in the hope of breaking through to the next tier.

In many ways, the DWYL ethic is not so different from the Protestant Work Ethic identified by Weber over 100 years ago. The major shift is that the Protestant Ethic viewed work as a duty, while DWYL sees work as love. Duty isn’t trendy anymore, but self expression is, which is what DWYL is all about. In any case, although the virtues we choose to emphasize have changed, the basic logic of an individualistic, competitive system remain. When you’re living in a supposed meritocracy, the poor can be dismissed as deserving their poverty, and the rich congratulated for deserving their wealth. DWYL just puts a different spin on this. One hundred years ago we might have chosen to emphasize Steve Job’s force of will, penuriousness, or his abstemiousness; but now we talk about his passion, vision, and his courage.

Another consequence of DWYL, in Tokumitsu’s opinion, is the culture of overwork. Employers want their employees to be passionate; and the easiest way to demonstrate dedication is to work long hours. This mentality is certainly common in both New York and Madrid; and it is rather strange when you consider that people become generally worse employees when they work longer hours. When you don’t sleep enough, it takes a toll on your health, not to mention makes you sluggish and slow-witted.

One of Tokumitsu’s most valuable observations, in my opinion, is that the DWYL mindset seems to devalue sources of pleasure, pride, and love that are not work-related. Under DWYL, finding love in a non-work activity, like a hobby, a relationship, or just relaxing, is frivolous. If you were serious and passionate, you would be paying your dues and working as an intern. Tokumitsu illustrates this with her discussion of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, in which the interviewees express astonishment and mild disapproval that Maier, who worked her whole life as a nanny, could have been such a dedicated, talented photographer and have not sought recognition.

The book ends with a call to make free time legitimate. In order to enjoy free time, we need to be paid decently and to work reasonable hours. We shouldn’t be seen as lazy or insufficiently passionate if we want to be fairly compensated for artistic, academic, or even menial work; and we should have the leisure to pursue interests outside work, since for most of us having a wonderful job isn’t realistic. To accomplish this, Tokumitsu envisions labor movements.

These are some of the Tokumitsu’s observations I have found most valuable. For that reason, I think the book is worth reading. But I must admit that, even when I was in agreement, I often found this book exasperating. Without looking at her biography, I could tell Tokumitsu was a recovering academic. The formal writing style, the many quotations and citations, the Marxist bent, and especially the topic of the book—everything belied a recently minted PhD who had felt the pain of the academic job market.

There’s nothing wrong with having a PhD, of course. But there is something wrong with writing a book like this in an academic style. The book’s subject is accessible and relevant, and Tokumitsu’s aim is to spur labor movements. Yet its orientation and tone severely restrict its audience. Her first chapter, for example, is an analysis of two television shows and the way that they portray the DWYL mentality. The analysis was well done, but why on earth would you lead with that?

The prose was also a problem for me. I admit I’m especially sensitive to this sort of thing, since I spent a bad year in a PhD program. And I also admit that Tokumitsu is certainly a better writer than the vast majority of her peers in academe. (I’m talking about the humanities, specifically.) I also think that Tokumitsu has great potential.

Even so, there are many sentences like this one: “Attending the theatrical performance of one’s child faces long odds against the obligations of capitalist production.”

The sentence is irritating in many ways. It is about something intimate, but uses formal language. It is about something concrete, and yet uses abstractions. It turns something personal into something coldly impersonal. Here’s an example of a rewrite: “Making time for your daughter’s school play is hard when your boss can email you at any hour of the day.” I’m not saying my sentence is perfect, but it’s at least an improvement.

The Marxist perspective was also unfortunate, in my opinion, because it will further limit her audience. The DWYL mentality afflicts people of all political persuasions; and I think you can see serious flaws in the mentality without being opposed to capitalism itself. Wanting shorter hours and higher pay is pretty uncontroversial, after all.

I could go on with this complaining, but I’d better stop. Really, the book is a worthy read. Certainly it will be hard for me to forget Tokumitsu’s insights. And even if the style isn’t terribly accessible, the book compensates by being short. So stop doing what you love, and read this book.

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Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.

—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

I originally wrote down this quote because it was an excellent illustration of Bryson’s excellent prose.

Style manuals often tell us to focus on nouns and verbs. Such is the advice of E.B. White in The Elements of Style, where he says that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give writings its toughness and color.” (The sentence is perhaps intentionally ironic, since the adjectives “toughness and color” are what make the sentence memorable.) Stephen King, in On Writing, even advises writers to avoid adverbs altogether: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Bryson shows how effective adjectives and adverbs can be in the hands of a master. First, the chain of three-syllable words with “ly” endings gives the sentence a rolling rhythm, each adverb tumbling off the tongue. He has also chosen his adverbs well. Saying the word “sumptuous” makes me feel sumptuous; and the word “radiant” almost glows. The comedic twist is when he connects his chain of adverbs with the adjective “ignorant.” I understanding being astoundingly ignorant, but what does it mean to be sumptuously and radiantly ignorant?

I also like this sentence because it reminds me of my childhood. One of my first obsessions was with whales. As often as I could, I would go to the Museum of Natural History and stare in awe at the gargantuan blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life.

My favorite was always the sperm whale. These leviathans, the largest toothed predators on earth, dive thousands of feet down into the dark deep to do battle with giant squids. The display in the Museum of Natural History pictures this battle mid-scene, the whale’s jaw clamped around the squid’s tentacles, both of their massive forms emerging from the shadows.

Something about this scene fascinated me, and still does. I drew the diorama over and over again, until I had hundreds of copies. The sperm whale seemed heroic to me: it descended into the depths and fought a monster, just to have lunch. And if a creature as big and terrifying as the giant squid could be lurking down there, what else might?

This wonder was reignited when, several years later, I heard of “Bloop,” a powerful underwater sound detected in 1997. The sound is now believed to have been caused by an icequake, but originally it drew attention because its sonic profile was similar to a noise made by an animal. This was noteworthy because the sound was much too loud to be made by even a whale, which led to a lot of speculation on the internet about giant monsters. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to these unexplained, underwater sounds, which I’m sure has provided valuable ammunition to pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists.

To me, the ocean’s depths exert a primal fascination. We still know relatively little about the deep, and what we do know has been consistently surprising. With no sunlight, freezing temperatures, and immense pressure, life has still eked out an existence, taking on many bizarre forms in the process. Maybe “radiant” is the best way to describe our ignorance of a place so devoid of light.

Review: The Magic Mountain

Review: The Magic Mountain

The Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.

In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.

I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.

The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.

Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.

The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.

When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.

Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.

What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.

Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.

Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.

But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.

Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.

Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.

When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.

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Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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Roaming in Rome: Introduction

Roaming in Rome: Introduction

This summer I was lucky enough to spend five days in Rome. I saw so many things there that, if I wrote about them all in one post, it would be much too long. To avoid that, I am breaking up my writing into several posts: introduction, churches, museums, basilicas, ruins, and the Vatican.


I walked off the plane and into the sweltering heat. Then I paused to look around and breathe in the hot, humid air. I was in Rome.

Well, not quite. I was in the Ciampino airport, about 12 kilometers from the city center. Now I had to find my bus.

Back in Madrid, while I was on the queue to board the plane, a representative from Ryanair went by selling bus tickets. Impulsively I bought one—they were only four euros—and now I had to figure out where to go.

This really wasn’t difficult. But I was stressed and anxious, partly because I am always like that when I travel, but also because this was the first international trip that I took by myself. I felt totally exposed and vulnerable. I had no support system if I messed up, nobody to bail me out if I did something stupid. More pragmatically, I didn’t have a working phone. Anything could happen.

Panic attacks notwithstanding, the bus was easy to find. Exhausted, sweaty, and shaking with nerves, I dropped my bag into the luggage compartment and climbed aboard the bus. The sunlight shone harshly through the window, causing my skin to burn and my face to flush with the heat. The bus seemed to sit there for a long while, as passengers lazily put their stuff away and shuffled on.

I felt terribly self-conscious already. What kind of loser travels alone? What did these people think of me? Were they staring at me? Was I staring back? And why wasn’t there air conditioning? Finally the bus began to move, saving me from myself. We were off towards the eternal city.

I couldn’t believe it: I was going to Rome! I had been hearing about this city all my life. One of my all time favorite books is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Roman poets, generals, statesmen, emperors, philosophers, historians, slaves—the names of so many Romans were familiar to me. I was visiting the city where Cicero delivered his speeches, where Virgil penned his verses, and where Caesar bestrode the narrow world like a colossus. All these people were like characters in a long-cherished novel, creatures endowed with the aura of my imagination. Now I would be standing where they stood, under the same sun, sky, and stars, walking on the same soil. (And this is not to mention the Renaissance Italians!)

My eyes were glued to the window. Everything that even hinted at antiquity—crumbled buildings, little run-down shacks, piles of rubble—sent my imagination flying. Were they ruins? Was that a castle? Was this a temple?

Soon reality intervened. Pharmacies, car dealerships, tobacco stores, and rows and rows of ugly buildings surrounded the bus. Pudgy pedestrians walked on the streets, cars honked their horns, and exhaust fumes wafted up into the sky. This was the eternal city?

To be fair, we did pass through a lovely stone gate on the way to the main bus terminal: Termini. (This is an enormous transportation hub, the Roman equivalent of Grand Central; if you go to Rome, you’ll end up in Termini.) There, we were dropped off, and soon I was panicking again, wondering how to get to my Airbnb.

Again, there was nothing particularly difficult or perilous about this. But I was a ragged bundle of nerves, filled with terrible anxiety. Plus, it was hot.

Because I am a millennial, the prospect of navigating a city without Google Maps is alarming. I only ask strangers for directions in emergencies, and I cannot be trusted with a physical map. Luckily, there is Maps.Me, a navigation app that allows you to use your phone even when you don’t have service. (I was confused by this at first, but apparently your phone’s GPS still works even when it’s on airplane mode.) The application is pretty neat, and I certainly recommend it; although it can be pretty laggy and sometimes crashes.

After struggling to find the address in my notebook, walking in the wrong direction, enduring three panic attacks and some hyperventilation, and after I got lost and looked hopelessly at the sky while fighting back tears, I found the apartment. It took about twenty minutes.

I was greeted by a friendly older Italian man, who spoke good English. Seeing him, hearing him, having some of the fruit he offered me—all this calmed me down instantly. I have been talking to Italians and eating Italian food all my life. I wasn’t in a foreign country; I was somewhere very familiar—where I knew the history, the cuisine, and the culture (though unfortunately not the language). I was in Rome.

I had five days to explore the city, five days to drink up as much of the history, art, and architecture as I could. I got started immediately.

General Impressions

What they say about Roman drivers is true: the roads are bedlam. Every time I crossed a street I felt like I was taking my life into my hands. The drivers simply wouldn’t stop. At best, they’d swerve around me; most didn’t seem to notice me at all. I would like to see the mortality statistics.

I had been advised not to visit Rome in July; but that was the only time I had available, so I went anyway. Nevertheless, it’s good advice. The weather was inhospitable. Just a few minutes in the afternoon sun were enough to soak my clothes through with sweat. The air hung heavily around me, seeming to physically pull, drag, and weigh me down.

The only compensation was the drinking fountains. Rome is full of them. Do yourself a favor and bring a refillable bottle. Just watch out of the fountain says “non potable.” Otherwise, drink up—you’ll need it. Several times I was so thirsty that the sight of the running water struck me as heavenly nectar. Nothing tastes better than water to a man suffering from thirst.

Because I was trying to save money—and I’m not a connoisseur, in any case—I ate as cheaply as I could. This usually meant eating pizza. I ate a lot of it. Maybe I’m a snob when it comes to pizza, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by the quality. The one exception to this was the pizza from a place called Pinsere, which was both excellent and reasonably priced. Otherwise, the food in Rome was expensive and mediocre.

This is because of the tourists, of course. Rome is full of them, especially in summer. Everywhere I went was packed. I could hardly walk three blocks without overhearing Americans chit-chattering away. Complaining about tourists is as old as tourism itself. It’s an activity especially popular among tourists.

Visiting Rome can be a religious experience, even if you’re not religious. But it is hard to appreciate the beauty, history, and sanctity of the place when tour groups go stampeding by, their guide yelling into a microphone; or when you have to keep dodging out of people’s photos; or when the people next to you are complaining about the weather, in English, while taking several selfies. I suggest that you visit Rome in fall or winter, if you can.

If you knocked down all the churches, destroyed the Roman forum, blew up the Colosseum, dynamited all the monuments, burned the museums, and smashed the statues, then Rome wouldn’t be a very beautiful city. Indeed, not much would strike you as special. The streets are a bit dirty, the buildings are plain, modern, and unremarkable, and the traffic crawls through the streets like a column of army ants.

But of course Rome has churches, ruins, monuments, museums, and statues in abundance.

The night of my arrival, I decided to walk to the Colosseum. I got there just as the sun was setting. There it was in the twilight, its familiar iconic form towering above me, shushing me with awe.

How many others had stood in wonder at that same sight? How many others had come to Rome to pay tribute to the civilization that had flourished, conquered, ruled, declined, and then passed away? It boggles the mind that a civilization could build such a thing and then disappear. But Rome was more than an empire; Rome was more than a culture or a people. Rome was an eternal achievement, an achievement for all of humanity, and this was one of its monuments.

Quotes & Commentary #6: Aristotle

Quotes & Commentary #6: Aristotle

History shows that almost all tyrants have been demagogues who gained the favor of the people by their accusation of the notables.

—Aristotle, Politics

This quote has unfortunate contemporary relevance, given this election season. An anti-establishment ethos has characterized both the Democrat and Republic presidential races, an ethos represented by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both of their campaigns appealed to a broad dissatisfaction with the status quo; and this dissatisfaction was often expressed as a disenchantment with the political class. Both candidates issued sweeping condemnations of the current political system, and promised radical change.

This frustration was, however, apparently more powerfully felt on the right than on the left, particularly among white men, which is why Sanders was defeated and Trump was victorious. Trump has continued his primary strategy into the general election, linking Clinton with Obama, and the two of them with vested interests and the media, and blaming the combination for the country’s current lack of “greatness.”

Now that he’s down in the polls, he is doubling down on this strategy with his accusations of a rigged election. The politicians, the donors, and the media—in short, the rich and powerful, or “the notables”—are conspiring to silence the voice of the people by tampering with election results.

Never mind that he doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate the claim. It doesn’t matter. Such conspiratorial thinking appeals strongly to the human imagination. Once you suggest there’s a conspiracy, the very lack of evidence becomes a sort of evidence. If there’s a secret, of course we wouldn’t know about it, right? It appeals to a paranoid mindset, seeing significant patterns where none exist, suspecting hidden forces at work behind the scenes.

By questioning the legitimacy of the institution of elections, Trump is positioning himself as a sort of prophet. He can see what others don’t. He is also casting himself as an instrument of the people, a threat that “the notables” must defend themselves from. This is a powerful narrative: a room full of bad guys plotting conspiracies, and a man of the people out to stop them. I know from experience how appealing this story can be; after all, I voted for Sanders in the primary, whose talk of the 1% and Wall Street, and whose criticism of the media coverage (I thought it was bad, too), put him in a similar position.

But of course there are huge differences between Sanders and Trump—so obvious that I feel bad even writing their names in the same sentence. One major difference is that Sanders never questioned the legitimacy of the United States government the way Trump is doing. Sanders accepted defeat and is now campaigning for Clinton. Trump is only intensifying the conspiratorial rhetoric.

This strategy of accusing the notables was ancient by the time Aristotle wrote about it, over two thousand years ago. But it appeals so strongly to our psychology that it is still practiced today. An easy way to gain power is to make people angry at the people who currently wield it. Unfortunately, pointing out problems does not make you qualified to come up with solutions. And someone who is willing to prey on people’s fears shows a cynical contempt for the people, not a desirable quality in a ruler. This is why demagogues so often become tyrants.