Quotes & Commentary #25: Homer

Quotes & Commentary #25: Homer

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men; as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

—Homer, The Iliad

Last week I took a walk in the sierra. A dirt path twisted its way through the pines, leading me out of the town and into the forest. It was a cool day. My fingers felt frozen in my pockets. The air had the fresh, crisp smell of autumn. I could scarcely hear a sound. The only noise I recall is the tinkling of the bells worn by the cows and sheep, grazing in the nearby farms.

I passed a small brook running downhill, and sat down on a nearby rock to rest. The sound of running water is one of the most calming in the world; your anxieties seem to get carried off by it. On the stream’s surface I saw the reflections of branches hanging overhead. Their brittle leaves were green, red, and golden yellow, and their surging reflections in the stream reminded me of a painting by Monet.

Further on, I entered a clearing, where the trees had been cut down to make room for a power line. Behind me I saw the mountains of the sierra, their grey jagged peaks scratching the clouds above. In the other direction was the city of Cercedilla nestled into the hillside. The last rays of the setting sun shone mournfully through the clouds, making the buildings glow.

I saw all this, and I felt in my bones how small a part of the world I am. How many people were living in that town? How many people had to walk through this forest to clear the path? How many years of rain and water erosion were responsible for that running brook? How many eons did the tectonic plates need to throw up such massive mountains?

All the organisms around me, including myself, had evolved over millions of lifetimes to fill a specific niche. Those cows and sheep, animals we intimately rely on, were domesticated by men and women not very different from myself, so many generations ago.

The people who put up those monstrous power cables were each as unique and self-absorbed as I am. Each of them had a favorite after-work drink, each had their own problems with their spouses and their own exasperations with work, each had their own private moments, as I was having, when they were struck by some fleeting, incidental beauty, filled with poetic emotions they could not put into words.

When I reflect on how many generations have come before me, and how intimately they have shaped my world, I get a sense of my vanishing insignificance in view of the whole. And when I consider that all these humans were only a small, passing manifestation of the pageantry of life, and that even life itself is just an isolated itch of matter, I feel even tinier.

I took a deep breath and turned to go. The ground was strewn with the discarded leaves of autumn. One day, I would be among them.

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Quotes & Commentary #24: Ovid

Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses

I like to this of this passage as the mirror image of the Jane Eyre quote I wrote about a couple days ago. Eyre overcomes her desires in order to do what she thinks is right; but in this story, told by the Roman poet Ovid, the desire wins in the end.

The passage comes from one of the most memorable tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that of Myrrah. Myrrah is the daughter of Cinyras, king of Cyprus. Due to the malicious intervention of the Furies, Myrrah falls madly in love with her father. She spends months fighting this desire, struggling all through the night, until finally she attempts suicide. Her maid discovers the suicide attempt and stops her; then, to prevent any further suicide attempts, the maid agrees to help Myrrah satisfy her taboo desire. In the end, Myrrah succeeds in sleeping with her father; then she is discovered, flees, gets turned into a tree (a common occurrence in Ovid’s universe), and gives birth to Adonis.

This quote stuck in my mind for summing up, with such pith and force, the all too common experience of wanting something you think you shouldn’t want. The case of having lust for your own father is obviously extreme. Most often, I have a craving for unhealthy food and excessive drink; or my desire to laze about and do nothing does battle with my urge to be productive.

I tend to think of these situations, not as my desires fighting against my reason, but as my short-term desires (bacon pizza) fighting against my long-term desires (living to be eighty years old). Reason is simply not a motivation for action. In and of itself, no action is more logical than any other action; the logicalness of an action is a consequence of whether or not it achieves its desired goal; in other words, only in the context of a goal can an action be said to be sensible or not.

In and of itself, no desire is logical or illogical either. Our desires are simply givens. They are facts, and facts cannot be logical or illogical. We are born with our desires, or we develop them; but we certainly don’t choose to have them. Desires become logical or illogical only in the context of other desires; that is, if one desire contradicts another one—such as the desire for bacon pizza and the desire to be an octogenarian—then some logic is needed to negotiate the internal conflict.

Thus, reason has two functions in decision making: negotiating between conflicting desires, and figuring out how to satisfy desires. Take the case of Myrrah. She had two very strong desires: first, she wanted to abide by the laws of society and maintain her position in the world; second, she wanted to have sex with her father. Those desires contradict. She was paralyzed by indecision, not because her reason prevented her, but because both desires were almost equally matched. She was inflamed by love, but also terrified of the consequences. (Fear is a type of negative desire.)

Now, normally we use our reason to envisage and understand the long-term consequences of an action. By envisioning the long-term consequences, we desire things far in the future. “Reasonable” action, as it is commonly called, is usually the desire for something far in the future; and “unreasonable” action, so-called, is desire for immediate gratification. The function of the reason is not to generate desires, but to help discover them, so to speak, by taking the long view. Without some ability to think abstractly, for example, I wouldn’t be able to understand that eating bacon pizza is not good for my heart, or that my heart is needed for long-term living.

We would call Myrrah’s action unreasonable because the short-term desire won out in the end. No matter how vividly she pictured the negative consequences, she still desired her father more than she feared being banished or killed. Yet Myrrah did have to use her reason—and quite cleverly, too—in order to satisfy this “unreasonable” desire, because she had to create a plan that would allow her to deceive her father. In a similar vein, I have been amazed by the care, ingenuity, and dedication that some marijuana users have shown in procuring and consuming their herb.

The case of Myrrah is obviously a special one. But I think it is generally true that everyone ends up doing things that they feel they “shouldn’t” be doing, because their short-term desire was too strong to resist.

One reason for this, I think, is that we have collectively chosen to call actions “wise” that are oriented towards the distant pleasures, while actions oriented towards immediate pleasures are “unwise,” or at the very least less wise.

Thus when we do something hedonistic or impulsive, we feel that we “shouldn’t” be doing so. But it is a basic rule of psychology that we always want what we are told not to want. We’ve known this since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

The story of Myrrah is another example of this. The poor girl wants the thing most strongly forbidden by society. And of course any time you draw a line in the sand, all you’re doing is tempting fate.

Besides, it is instinctive that telling someone that they “should” want something only makes them resentful towards it. Nobody likes doing things if they feel obligated to do them; nor is it easy to enjoy doing something if it feels like a responsibility.

The trick, I think, is not to tell yourself that you “should” do something or “shouldn’t” do another thing. It is to remind yourself that you want something, something in the future that you’ll really enjoy, and thus you are really not sacrificing anything in the long-run by acting “wisely.” Indeed, you’re doing the opposite of sacrificing: you are being intelligently hedonistic.

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive … so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Right now I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. A concentration camp survivor and a psychologist, Frankl created what is now school the “Third Vienesse School of Psychotherapy,” in which Frankl posits a will to meaning in contrast with Adler’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure. (The Germans and Austrians have a strange fascination with “will” that I find difficult to empathize with.)

Logotherapy is often called existentialist because of its preoccupation with preventing nihilism, and its conviction that humans make their own meaning. Frankl thought that humans could find meaning in any circumstances, even in the dehumanizing torture of a concentration camp. This meaning is what gives us resolve, courage, and hope. Thus, in his therapy sessions, Frankl encouraged his patients to find a meaning in their situation, whatever it was.

This reminded me of the above quotation by Joseph Campbell. As soon as I heard it (Campbell said this in the course of an interview with Bill Moyers), I was struck by how similar his view was to mine. Life, in itself, is meaningless; meaning only exists in experience.

I know from experience that people are apt to get upset when I say this. “What do you mean that life is meaningless?” they say, aghast. Even Bill Moyers, normally in accord with Campbell’s views, fought him on this point. So I think it’s worth specifying what is being argued.

In the past I used to torture myself about the meaning of life. “What is the point of it all?” I would ask myself. “Sooner or later everything will come to an end. The sun will swallow the earth, and entropy will increase until the universe decays into a pool of heat. And in any case, whatever I do or accomplish in my life won’t change the fact that I’m going to die, and thus lose everything.”

Viewed from this perspective—human life as viewed from the cosmos, that is, from nowhere in particular—everything thing I did and could do seemed totally pointless, absurd, just the twitching of organic matter on a watery rock. Viewed this way, as a small-scale physical phenomenon, life is just as meaningless as an asteroid, a star, or the vacuum of space. Joseph Campbell put it nicely when he said: “I don’t believe life has a purpose. Life is a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.”

Life is not unique in this respect. Simply nothing has meaning in itself. Meaning is not a property of objects, and thus has no objective existence. (By objective I mean existing without any observer.) Life exists in itself, and has certain discoverable properties, such as that it chemically reproduces itself. But that’s just a physical process; it’s just as “meaningful” as the nuclear fusion that goes on inside the sun.

This is a consequence of the nature of meaning. In order for meaning to exist, there must exist some perspective; meaning is necessarily subjective—it exists in the mind of an observer. Thus people are committing a category mistake when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Life, in itself, cannot have a meaning, in just the same way that sugar, without anybody to taste it, doesn’t have a taste. Like life, sugar has a certain objective reality as a chemical; and like life’s meaning, the sweet flavor of sugar only exists in experience.

Experience, then, is where the meaning of life is to be found. But every second of experience is unique and different. Every moment is transitory and cannot be reproduced. Thus life has no permanent, fixed, unchanging meaning, but rather each moment of experience has a different meaning. Meaningfulness has thus no relationship with duration; something that lasts longer is not more meaningful than something that lasts a mere instant.

Once I began to think of meaning this way, as an interpretation that my mind imposes upon objective reality, then I ceased to be troubled by my bleak thoughts about the end of life and the universe. What does it matter if everything will end one day? My future end has no effect on my ability to enjoy my life now. And what does it matter if, viewed from nowhere, life is meaningless? I don’t view the life from nowhere, but from my own perspective. And because a meaning is an interpretation, and all interpretation is arbitrary, that means it is within my ability to choose how to see and understand the world.

There are some barriers to this, however. The main barrier, in my experience, is habit. We can become so used to doing the same thing, day after day, automatically and unthinkingly, that we forget that each moment is unique. Through routine, we become deadened to the distinctness of each passing second. But sometimes we can awake from this malaise, and re-experience the “rapture of being alive.” This rapture is simply the full awareness of the preciousness and uniqueness of each passing moment, achieved by being so fully and completely engaged in the moment that time seems to slow down.

For me and many others, great art, music, literature, and philosophy can do this. So can falling in love, or having a great conversation with a friend. Even moments of great pain can connect us to the rapture of being alive, if we experience them the right way.

I am reminded of something Louis C.K. said during an interview. He was driving in his car when, suddenly, he began to feel very sad. His impulse was to reach for his phone and text some friends—that is, to retreat into his habitual patterns—but, instead, he pulled over by the side of the road and let the emotions hit him. And although the moment was tremendously sad, it was also sublimely beautiful, because it broke through the apathy of routine and connected him with the reality of his experience.

David D. Burns, the psychologist, reported a similar experience when, as a medical student, he had to tell a family that their loved one was dying. He told them the news, and then broke down and cried; and although he recognized the tragedy of the situation, he also recognized that there was something precious and poetic about his sadness.

The more moments like these we have, the more alive we are. This is where meaning is to be found.

Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Quotes & Commentary #22: Charlotte Brontë

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and the soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolable they shall be.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

This passage made a lasting impression on me the first time I read it.

In the story, Jane is at her lowest ebb. She just agreed to marry Rochester; and at the last moment it was revealed that he was already married. Rochester begs her to run away with him, to flee the hypocritical, pretentious morality of England and to have a happy life together. Jane is sorely tempted. She recognizes the injustice of the situation, and she is deeply in love with Rochester. But in the end, her principles overrule her passions, and she forces herself to leave him.

My feeling about this were mixed. On the one hand, it was clear to me, a modern, secular American, that the law preventing Rochester and Jane from marrying was idiotic and unjust. There was simply no logic behind it, just dumb prejudice and unthinking tradition. If I were Jane, I would have ran off with Rochester, and left all those dimwits to live within the narrow confines of their self-righteous morality. So I was a bit disappointed in Jane, normally a rebellious spirit, for being such a slave to custom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring Jane for doing what she thought was right, even though it caused her so much pain. The second time I read the book, I found myself admiring her even more. What seemed at first to be obeisance to an old-fashioned prejudice looked now like loyalty to herself.

Jane knew that the negative opinion of eloping existed for a reason. Even though it was extremely tempting, she knew that running away with Rochester would ultimately be a betrayal of herself. It would be compromising on what she wanted and deserved: to be legally bound with someone she loved, in a union accepted and recognized by the community.

Remember that Jane was poor, and Rochester rich. Running away with him without the sanction of society would thus have put her fully and completely under his power. She would have no recourse if, one day, Rochester suddenly changed his mind and decided to leave her. She would have no claim on him. Thus her apparently unselfish act—to run away from Rochester—was really a more intelligent form of selfishness. (In my opinion, nobility normally consists, not in acting unselfishly, but in being more intelligently selfish.)

This quote and this story encapsulates why humans create moral rules. Most of the time, in daily life, our short-term and long-term desires are in harmony. We can satisfy our immediate desires without jeopardizing our future goals. In these situations, moral rules become rather irrelevant, or at the very least automatic, since the function of moral rules is, at base, to harmonize individual interests with group interests.

For example, no moral injunction is needed for me to go to work; nor is one needed for my employer to hire me. Both of us act selfishly, but in harmony, because each of our desires is satisfied by the other. I have something to gain from work (money), and my employer has something to gain from my work (English classes), so what need is there of any rule?

There are situations in life, however, when our short-term desires are so markedly out of harmony with our long-term goals that rules are needed to guide behavior. Jane Eyre’s situation was one such example; and in the end the choice turned out to be the right one.

The difficulty is that, sometimes, the temptations to have one’s cake and eat it too can be overwhelming. This especially applies in cases where, even if it is against the rules of society, an unethical act will most likely escape detection, and thus escape consequences. Every human has an interest in maintaining the rules of society as far as other people are concerned, and strategically breaking them in their own case. This is why E.O. Wilson, in his book about human nature, said: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken.”

But every breach of the moral code, however carefully concealed, carries a risk of detection. And even if you aren’t detected, the stress associated with concealing a secret can be punishment in itself. Epicurus made this point: “It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.”

Thus I think it is wise, as much as possible, to be consistent with your words and deeds, with the code you hold others to and the code you hold yourself to, and to act as though everything you do will one day be revealed. But, of course, all this is easier said than done.

Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

In fact, I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.

Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As part of my job as a professional American (being an English teacher in Spain is little more than being a professional American), I had to give a presentation on thanksgiving for my class.

Thanksgiving is really the quintessential American holiday. We watch American football—our defining sport, which involves taking land by force. We watch the Macy’s Parade—which consists of giant cartoons floating above our heads, a combination of our love of pop culture and excessive size. And finally we eat, and eat and eat. And then, the next day, we shop. No series of activities could more perfectly encapsulate the American identity.

The most conspicuous absence from this list of activities is being thankful. Theoretically, at least, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but we have no specific ritual of thanksgiving. In my classes, I tried to get my students to say one thing they’re thankful for. Some were very forthcoming, but most were extremely shy.

Why are people shy about thanking others? Being thankful is difficult because it requires vulnerability. To thank someone sincerely is to acknowledge a debt—not just a material but an emotional debt—a debt that perhaps cannot be repaid. To seriously communicate this gratitude requires that you let down your guard, something easier said than done.

For whatever reason, most of us go through life pretending that we are self-sufficient. We don’t like to think we owe anything to anybody. Instead, like Satan in Paradise Lost, we like to pretend that we are self-generated, self-sufficient, self-caused:

“I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest, and in a moment quit / The debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome still paying, still to owe; / Forgetful what from him I still received.”

Ingratitude is Satan’s principal sin. He does not want to live a life of gratitude, constantly and eternally singing a hosanna to God. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he owes anything to anybody, not even the creator of the universe.

It must be admitted that owing a debt can be humiliating and crushing. Here I am reminded of the potlatch, a ritualized form of combat practiced by the natives of the Northwest Coast of Canada. During a potlatch, the headmen from competing groups would do symbolic battle by giving each other ostentatious gifts. The loser would be the man who received more than he could reciprocate.

This sounds bizarre, but consider: have you ever received a gift from somebody you’re not very fond of? I have, and I know that receiving gifts can engender bitterness as well as gratefulness. Being the recipient of a gift puts you under the giver’s power; and few people are grateful to be under somebody else’s power.

But is this necessarily true? Is gift giving necessarily aggressive? John Milton’s Satan goes on to say “And [I] understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.”

Here Satan realizes what many people forget. Being thankful is not a sign of weakness—although often appears so to the egotistical mind—but a sign of strength. It is a sign of strength because it requires sincerity, and being sincere always involved being vulnerable, letting your guard down. Being grateful means dispensing with the illusion that you’re self-caused and self-sufficient, and revealing your weaknesses to the world. Nothing requires more strength than showing weakness.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the universe and everyone in it. I’m luckier than I could ever put into words.

Quotes & Commentary #20: Locke

Quotes & Commentary #20: Locke

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience: in that, all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

—John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

This passage is one of the most famous formulation of the tabula rasa account of the human mind. Tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate,” which is the traditional metaphor used to explain the theory. At birth, the mind is like a blank chalk board, devoid of writing; our experience is the hand that writes upon us; and our knowledge is the end result.

John Locke held that there was nothing in the mind that did not originate in the senses. Yes, we could have abstract ideas, like our notion of a triangle; but these ideas were simply generalizations from individual triangles that we have experienced through our eyes. Thus all knowledge, however general, abstract, or theoretical, was just a summary of our experience.

In Locke’s own lifetime, this idea was contested by Leibniz, who wrote an entire book-length response to Locke’s Essay, arguing that the mind needed certain innate principles in order to acquire knowledge. And this puzzle—the respective roles of experience, sense data, induction, deduction, and abstraction in our knowledge of the world—forms the basis of Kant’s magnificent Critique of Pure Reason.

Locke was a philosopher, and thus his Essay is largely concerned with epistemology—the nature, limit, and acquisition of knowledge. Yet this debate—empiricism versus rationalism, the “blank slate” versus “innate ideas”—is often reframed, in today’s world, as a scientific controversy.

The most famous example of this that I’m aware of is the controversy in linguistics. How much structure must we posit in the human brain in order to account for language acquisition? These classic answer to this question was given by Chomsky. He argued that, contrary to Locke, we can’t imagine the brain at birth as a blank slate, but must assume an enormous amount of complex machinery.

Several arguments led him to this conclusion, the most famous of which was the “poverty of input.” This is the observation that, without some kinds of basic assumptions guiding their derivation, children are not exposed to nearly enough examples of language in order to derive the correct grammatical form. For the human infant trying to guess the meaning of an unknown sentence, there are an enormous number of logical possibilities. If the language learner had to eliminate each one of these possibilities one by one, then it would take far too much time. Thus some in-built, innate schema must allow them to guess intelligently.

Not only that, but for the learner attempting to divine the deep structure from the surface structure, they must contend with the fact that the surface structure of a language is often misleading. Consider these two sentences: (A) “I expected the doctor to examine John,” and (B) “I persuaded the doctor to examine John.” Now let’s say we transform the first sentence into the passive voice: “I expected John to be examined by the doctor.” Notice that the meaning of this sentence is identical with the earlier sentence.

Suppose the learner, reasoning by analogy, transformed sentence (B) the same way, resulting in “I persuaded John to be examined by the doctor.” Now notice that the meaning of this new sentence is different from the first one. In the active voice the doctor is being persuaded, and in the passive voice John is. And this, despite undergoing what, superficially at least, appears to be the same transformation as sentence (A). Clearly, there is more to the grammar than meets the eye.

From all this, Chomsky concludes that there must be a “Universal Grammar,” which is a schema in the brain that determines which types of grammatical rules are permissible. Put more simply, Universal Grammar is something that allows learners to guess intelligently, rather than randomly, about the structure of language. Clearly such a schema would be a lot of information to be born with. In this, Chomsky resembles Leibniz and Kant far more than Locke and Hume.

But you don’t really need any of Chomsky’s arguments to realize that there must be some innate organization in our brains that allow us to learn language. After all, almost every person learns a language, while dogs and cats, who also have brains, and who are exposed to about as much language, never pull it off. Computers are better at many cognitive tasks than humans; and yet a few minutes with Google Translate is enough to convince anyone that computers haven’t quite gotten the hang of language. Clearly there is something special about the human brain that allows us to acquire language, while cats and computers struggle.

Thus we are left with several interesting questions. First, how much information and organization does the human brain possess at birth? How much of this information consists of general learning strategies, and how much is specific to language acquisition? And what exactly does this information consist of? Chomsky’s model of Universal Grammar, for example, was an attempt to answer this last question, by proposing a set of conditions that all languages must abide by. But his model has of late been criticized, first, for positing too much organization, and second, for failing to account for the structure of certain rare languages.

I am not a linguist, and thus I cannot hope to solve this controversy, or even make an interesting contribution to it. I only want to point out that this debate, although new in form, harks all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought all knowledge was buried in the mind, and all philosophers had to do was uncover it; and Aristotle, like Locke, thought that knowledge derived from the senses. It is obvious to everyone by now that either extreme must be wrong. But apparently 2,500 years hasn’t been enough time for us to come to a conclusion.

Quotes & Commentary #19: King

Quotes & Commentary #19: King

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.

—Stephen King, On Writing Well

Stephen King’s book about writing is among a handful of books whose reading has permanently changed my day to day life. This is partly because, as Stephen King says, it is a book with admirably little bullshit in it.

In this quote, for example, King points out something that is commonly overlooked: being good at doing something is no guarantee of being good at teaching or analyzing it. This applies with special force to artists. Few things are more disappointing than hearing a great artist talk about his work.

I thought about this most recently while watching a movie inspired by Bob Dylan’s life, I’m Not There. In one scene, Dylan (played by Cate Blanchett) is questioned by an intellectual from the BBC. He is asked questions about social and political issues, to which Dylan gives characteristically curt and flippant responses. The intellectual gets angry and concludes that Dylan is a poser; and Dylan, in turn, gets frustrated because the intellectual is obviously missing the point.

The inability of artists to articulate the principles or ideas embodied in their works is just one example of the distinction, made famous by Gilbert Ryle, between knowing how (knowing a skill) and knowing that (possessing knowledge). The difference between knowing how to write a protest song about racism, and knowing about the mechanics of racist institutions, is not a difference of degree, but a difference of kind; and there is no contradiction, or even irony, in somebody being able to write good protest songs without being to explain how he does it, and without having a particularly deep knowledge of what he is protesting.

Stephen King, although certainly no philosopher, is well aware of the difference between knowing how and knowing that. Learning to write is learning a skill; the knowledge is embodied in practice. Thus good writing cannot be reduced to a set of rules, maxims, and principles. And even if such rules did exist, it would not be necessary for a novelist to be able to learn and articulate the rules in order to produce good art, in the same way that it isn’t necessary for children to learn a theory of bike riding to ride a bike.

It is true that, when teaching beginners in any skill, teachers often resort to providing rules. These rules are inevitably simplifications, meant to ease the pupil’s progress. But at a certain point the pupil becomes so adept at the task that it is unnecessary—not to mention impossible, for lack of time—to consciously consult these rules during practice. Not only that, but the pupil learns (largely unconsciously) when and how to interpret the rules (because all rules need interpretation), where to apply them (which does not depend on another rule), and when to break them (because all rules can be broken). This is what it means to be an expert.

Because of this strange ineffability of expert knowledge, at a certain point the learner must resort to observation and imitation. Rather than trying to articulate rules, the learner simply watches what experts do, and tries to recreate it. This is why, as Stephen King says, the only way to become a good writer is to read, read, read, and then write, write, write. No style guide will compensate; no set of rules will suffice; no magic formula exists. Writing, like baking, basketball, and playing the banjo, is an embodied skill, and thus must be learned through imitation.

This is why Stephen King emphasizes, again and again, that aspiring writers must write daily. He advises setting yourself a minimum word count, and then making sure you write that many words, come hell or high water. King’s word count is 2,000, but that’s quite high. For a while I forced myself to write 1,000 words a day. It was very hard at first—some days it was excruciating—but it gradually became easier. Nowadays I’m more lax; 500 is enough to satisfy me. But I will be forever grateful to King for dispensing with the bullshit, for forgetting about the rules, and for encouraging me to put pen to paper.

Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst return to laughter.

—William Shakespeare, King Lear

This quote has been coming to my mind often, for the simple reason that, nowadays, it is a common joke to call something “the worst.” Saying this is inevitably ironic, if only because, as Shakespeare also pointed out in King Lear, “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

As long as we have the presence of mind to call something “the worst,” chances are that things could get worse still. In the worst conceivable situation, I don’t think we would have the time, ability, or inclination to be wondering if things could go still more downhill.

All this sounds like a joke; but consider how often we give negative labels to things in our lives. As soon as you say, “I’ve had the worst day,” you begin, intentionally or not, to go through all the things that went wrong: the disappointments, the frustrations, the bad luck, and all the unpleasant moments.

To label something is to reduce a complex object to a supposedly essential quality. In the case of a negative label, whether it is an insult, a vulgarity, or “the worst,” we reduce a varied and textured experience to its most disagreeable elements, and use those elements to define the whole.

Even on the worst days, there are inevitably things that went well—things unnoticed, taken for granted, overlooked. Even in the worst situation you can find things to be thankful for. Nothing in the world is so simple as to be wholly bad or good; and even if there were such things, the badness or goodness would only be a result of our perspective, not inherent in the thing itself. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What is terrible to one may be beautiful to another; and reminding ourselves of this subjectivity is an excellent way to transcend the egotism of judgmental labeling.

But even if all this were untrue, if we found ourselves in a wholly bad situation, bad essentially and objectively, Shakespeare gives us another reason to be optimistic: there is no direction from the bottom but up. All change from the worst is good change.

Right now I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Erich Fromm. In that book the author relates how, once, while living in a concentration camp, he saw one of his fellow prisoners suffering from a terrible nightmare, writhing and moaning in his sleep. Fromm’s natural impulse was to wake the man; but then he reflected that any nightmare would be better than camp life. Thus there are even situations when a nightmare is a desirable change.

It is a story told and told again: about how someone “lost everything,” and after “they had nothing left to lose” they began to rebuild their lives. It is cliché nowadays, but clichés become clichéd for a reason. Most of the things we fear are associated with external things; we fear heartbreak, loneliness, failure, rejection, mediocrity, poverty, humiliation. All these, in one way or another, involve failing in the social world, economically, professionally, romantically, or otherwise.

But after all these external forms of validation are stripped away, you will find that you are no less a living, breathing person, a person of flesh and bone. And all those validations only have meaning in a certain social context, a context that is ultimately superficial and transitory. Thus you are reconnected with the basics of life; and in this state, because everything that could be done has been done to you, and you are nevertheless alive, there is nothing left to fear. Indeed, you may find yourself laughing. The values of society are rather amusing from the outside.

Quotes & Commentary #17: Spinoza

Quotes & Commentary #17: Spinoza

Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are conditioned. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause of their actions. As for their saying that human action depends on the will, this is a mere phrase without any idea to correspond thereto. What the will is, and how it moves the body, none of them know; those who boast of such knowledge, and feign dwellings and habitations for the soul, are wont to provoke either laughter or disgust.

—Baruch Spinoza, Ethics

Few things can make you more skeptical about free will than studying anthropology. For me, this had three components.

The first was cultural. I read about the different customs, rituals, religions, arts, superstitions, and worldviews that have existed around the world. Many “facts” that I assumed were universal, obvious, or unquestionable were shown to be pure prejudice. And many behaviors that I assumed to be “natural” were shown to be products of the cultural environment.

It is unsettling, but nonetheless valuable, to consider all the things you do just because that’s what your neighbors, family, and friends do. These include not only superficial habits, but our most basic opinions and values. Our culture is not like a jacket that we put on when we go out into the world; culture is not a superficial layer on our deeper selves. Rather, culture penetrates to the very core of our beings, shaping our most intimate thoughts and sensations.

The next influence was primatology, the study of primate behavior. This came to me most memorably in the books of Jane Goodall, about the chimpanzees she studied. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. They are recognizably animals and yet so strangely human. They get jealous, become infatuated, bicker, fight, make up, and joke around. They make tools and solve puzzles.

I remember the story of a small chimp who, while walking through the forest with his group, saw a banana out of the corner of his eye. The rest of his group didn’t notice it; and this chimp knew that the bigger ones would take the banana away if they saw him eating it. So he ran off in another direction, causing everyone to follow him, and then secretly snuck back to get the banana. If that’s not human, I don’t know what is.

Last was the study of human evolution. This also involves the study of archaeology: the material culture that hominins have left behind. I held reproductions of the skulls of human ancestors, and examples of the stone tools made by our smaller-brained predecessors. I saw how the tools became more advanced as the brain size increased. Crude choppers became the beautiful hand axes of the homo erectus, and these large axes became refined into serrated blades and arrow heads by later species. Finally our species began showing evidence of symbolic thinking: burying people, crafting statues, painting caves, carving flutes, and almost definitely using language.

After seeing the obvious influence of evolution on our capacities and tendencies, after learning about the striking similarities between us and our ape cousins, and after witnessing the pervasive effects of culture upon behavior, my belief in free will was in tatters. True, even if we take all these evolutionary and cultural factors into account, we can’t predict the exact moment when I’m going to scratch my nose. But neither can we predict where a fly will land, or which patch of skin a mosquito will bite. Nobody thinks flies or mosquitoes have free will, so why us?

I normally understand “free will” to mean the ability of an organism to fully determine its own actions. In other words, a free organism is one whose actions cannot be predicted or explained by pointing to anything outside, including genes or upbringing. Not DNA, nor culture, nor childhood experiences would be enough to fully explain a free individual’s behavior. A free action is, in principle, unpredictable; and thus the free agent is morally responsible for his actions.

I do not believe in this type of freedom, and I have not for a long time. For my part, I think Spinoza is exactly right: “free will” is just a name for our ignorance of the causes of our own behavior. If we knew these causes, our actions could be predicted like any other natural phenomenon, and “freedom” would disappear.

This ignorance is not difficult to explain. Human behavior is the product, first, of our environment, which is infinitely varied and constantly changing; and, second, of the human brain, one of the most complex things in the universe. Because of the amount and complexity of the data, along with our lack of understanding, we can’t even come close to making predictions on the scale of individual human actions, like scratching one’s nose. But we can’t conclude from our inability that our actions are thus “free,” anymore that we can conclude from our inability to predict where a fly will land that flies possess a mystical “freedom.”

Kurt Vonnegut made this point, with much more wit, in Slaughterhouse Five. His Tralfamadorians, who can see in the time dimension as well as space dimensions, already know everything that will happen. Thus they have no concept of freedom, and find it puzzling that humans do: “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

To me it seems manifest that the traditional definition of freedom has been thoroughly discredited by what we know about the natural and cultural world. Humans are made of matter obeying physical laws, shaped by evolution, subject to genetic influence, and responsive to the cultural environment. The mind is not a mysterious metaphysical substance, but a product of the human brain; thus the mind and its behavior, like the brain, can be understood scientifically, just like any other animal’s.

All this being said, there are nevertheless ways to redefine free will so that it is compatible with what we know about physics, biology, anthropology, and psychology.

Perhaps free will is simply the inability of a thinking organism to predict what it is about to do? Every person has, at one time or another, been surprised by their own actions. This is because, as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle explained, “A prediction of a deed or a thought is a higher order operation, the performance of which cannot be among the things considered in making the prediction.That is to say that it is logically impossible to predict how the act of predicting an action will alter the action, because the prediction itself cannot factor into the prediction (you can try to predict how you will predict, but this leads to an infinite regress).

Or perhaps free will is a condition caused by our ignorance of the future? After all, difficult decisions are difficult because we can’t be sure what will happen or how we’ll react. Deciding between two job offers, for example, is only difficult because we can’t be sure which one we’ll like more. If we could be sure—and I mean absolutely sure—which job would make us happier, then there wouldn’t be a decision at all; we would simply take the better job without a dilemma even occurring to us. In this way, our freedom is as much a product of our ignorance of the future as it is our ignorance of the causes of our actions.

What sets humans apart from other animals is not our freedom per se, but our behavioral flexibility. Humans are able to continually adapt to new environments, and to learn new habits, techniques, and concepts throughout their lives. This ability to adapt and to learn, which serves us so well, is not freedom so much as slavery to a different master: our environment. Our genes do not instill in us a specific behavioral pattern, as in ants, but give us the capability to develop many different behavioral patterns in response to our cultural and climatic surroundings. But is it any more “noble” or “free” for our behavior to be determined by social and environmental pressure rather than from genetic predestination?

Probably the best practical definition of freedom I can come up with is this: Humans are free because we are able to alter our behavior based on anticipated consequences. This is what makes morality possible: we can influence people’s behavior by telling them what will happen if they don’t follow the rules. What is more, people can understand that they have more to gain by playing along and helping their neighbors than by acting impulsively and at the expense of their neighbors. Thus our intelligence, by allowing us to understand the consequences of our actions, gives us the ability to be more intelligently selfish: we can weigh long-term benefits with short-term pleasures.

Freedom is, of course, a fundamental concept in our political philosophy. So if we choose to stop believe in freedom as traditionally defined, how are we to proceed? Here is my answer.

The important distinction to be made in political philosophy, regarding freedom, is what separates freedom from coercion. The difference between freedom and coercion is not that one is self-caused and the other caused by the outside—since even the freest person imaginable has been profoundly shaped by their environment, and is making decisions in response to their environment. Rather, there are two important differences: coercion implies force (or the threat of force) while freedom doesn’t; and “free” actions usually benefit the acting individual, while “coerced” actions usually benefit an outside party at the expense of the acting individual.

The difference thus has nothing to do with freedom as such (freedom from environmental influences), but is determined by the type of environmental influence (violent or non-violent), and by the party (actor or not) that receives the benefits. (Even though an altruistic act benefits a party besides the actor, it is not a coerced act because, first, it’s not motivated by threat of violence, and, second, because altruistic acts usually benefit the actor in some way, either socially or psychologically.)

I find that some people become horrified when I tell them about my rejection of freedom. For my part, I find that my disbelief in freedom has made me more tolerant. When I consider that people are products of their environment and their genes, I stop judging and blaming them. I know that, ultimately, they are not responsible for who they are. In a profound sense, they can’t help it. We are each born with certain desires, and throughout our lives other desires are instilled into us. Our behavior is the end product of an internal battle of competing desires.

If you think that morality is impossible with this worldview, I beg you to read Spinoza’s Ethics. You will find that, not only is morality possible, but it is necessary, logical, and beautiful.

The Writing of Will Durant

In my several reviews of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, I have consistently praised his writing. The more I read, the more I want to read; and the more I digest, the more impressed I become. For this reason, I wanted to collect some samples of Durant’s prose, both for my own benefit, to serve as models for my prose, and to show others why I recommend Durant so highly.

For me, Durant is a writer of rare caliber, capable of being clear, charming, and graceful through thousands of pages. In many ways, Durant epitomized the pedagogical approach William Zinsser suggests in his book, Writing to Learn. Through his writing, Durant explored nearly every subject and epoch. He wrote his way through metaphysics and mercantilism, through paintings and plagues, through English law and ancient engineering. So, without further preface, here is a sampling of Durant’s prose. And mind you that these excerpts are not atypical, but representative of his whole work.

Durant on Religion. He is giving an overview of the Catholic Church; from The Reformation (Volume VI):

Through a formative millennium, from Constantine to Dante, the Christian Church offered the gifts of religion to men and states. It molded the figure of Jesus into a divine embodiment of virtues by which rough barbarians might be shamed into civilization. It formulated a creed that made every man’s life a part, however modest, of a sublime cosmic drama; it bound each individual to in a momentous relation with a God Who had created him, Who had spoken to him in sacred Scripture, Who had descended from heaven to suffer ignominy and death in atonement for the sins of humanity, and Who had founded the church as the repository of His teaching and the earthly agents of His power. Year by year the magnificent drama grew; saints and martyrs died for the creed, and bequeathed their example and their merits to the faithful. A hundred forms—a hundred thousand works—of art interpreted the drama and made it vivid even for letterless minds.

Durant on Home Life. He is painting a portrait of the home in medieval Europe; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

There was not much comfort in the medieval home. Windows were few, and seldom glassed; wooden shutters closed them against glare or cold. Heating was by one or more fireplaces; drafts came in from a hundred cracks in the walls, and made high-backed chairs a boon. In winter it was common to wear warm hats and fur indoors. Furniture was scanty but well made. Chairs were few, and usually had no backs; but sometimes they were elegantly carved, engraved with armorial bearings, and inlaid with precious stones. Most seats were cut into the masonry walls, or built upon chests in alcoves. Carpets were unusual before the thirteenth century. Italy and Spain had them; and when Eleanor of Castile went to England in 1254 as the bride of the future Edward I, her servants covered the floor of her apartment at Westminster with carpets after the Spanish custom—which then spread through England. Ordinary floors were strewn with rushes or straw, making some houses so malodorous that the parish priest refused to visit them.

Durant on Visual Art. He is describing the Sistine Chapel; from The Renaissance (Volume V):

[Michelangelo] divided the convex vault into over a hundred panels by picturing columns and moldings between them; and he enhanced the tridimensional illusion with lusty, youthful figures upholding the cornices or seated on capitals. In the major panels, running along the crest of the ceiling, Angelo painted scenes from Genesis: the initial act of creation separates light from darkness; the sun, moon, and planets come into being at the command of the Creator—a majestic figure stern of face, powerful of body, with beard and robes flying in the air; the Almighty, even finer in form than in the previous panel, extends His right arm to create Adam, while with his left arm He holds a very pretty Angel—this panel is Michelangelo’s pictorial masterpiece; God, now a much older and patriarchal deity, evokes Eve from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, and are expelled from Eden; Noah and his sons prepare a sacrificial offering to God; the flood rises; Noah celebrates with too much wine. All in these panels is Old Testament, all is Hebraic; Michelangelo belongs to the prophets pronouncing doom, not to the evangelists expounding the gospel of love.

Durant on Architecture. He is evaluating the palace of Versailles; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

Architecturally, Versailles is too complex and haphazard to approach perfection. The chapel is brilliant, but such flaunting of decoration hardly accords with the humility of prayer. Parts of the palace are beautiful, and the stairways to the garden are majestic; but the compulsion laid upon the designers to leave the hunting lodge intact, merely adding wings and ornament, injured the appearance of the whole. Sometimes the proliferating pile leaves an impression of cold monotony and labyrinthine repetition—one room after another to the spread of 1,320 frontal feet. The internal arrangement seems to have ignored physiological convenience, and to have presumed upon remarkable retentive power in noble vesicles. Half a dozen rooms had to be traversed to reach the goal of desire; no wonder we hear of stairways and hallways serving in such emergencies.

Durant on Literature. He is discussing Shakespeare’s language; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The language is the richest in all of literature: fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports, and the professions, the dialect of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions—occulted, unkenneled, fumitory, burnet, spurring… He relished words and explored the nooks and crannies of the language; he loved words in general and poured them forth in frolicsome abandon; if he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen—the words themselves are fragrant. He makes simple characters mouth polysyllabic circumlocutions. He plays jolly havoc with the grammar: turns nouns, adjectives, even adverbs into verbs, and verbs, adjectives, even pronouns into nouns; gives a plural verb to a singular subject or a singular verb to a plural subject; but there were as yet no grammars of English usage. Shakespeare wrote in haste, and had no leisure to repent.

Durant on Engineering. He is summarizing the Roman techniques for constructing roads; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The consular roads were among their simpler achievements. They were from sixteen to twenty-four feet wide, but near Rome part of this width was taken up by sidewalks (margines) paved with rectangular stone slabs. They went straight to their goal in brave sacrifice of initial economy to permanent savings; they overleaped countless streams with costly bridges, crossed marshes with long, arched viaducts of brick and stone, climbed up and down steep hills with no use of cut and fill, and crept along mountaintops or high embankments secured by powerful retaining walls. Their pavement varied with locally available material. Usually the bottom layer (pavimentum) was a four- to six-inch bed of sand, or one inch of mortar. Upon this were imposed four strata of masonry: the statumen, a foot deep, consisting of stones bound with cement or clay; the rudens, ten inches of rammed concrete; the nucleus, twelve to eighteen inches of successively laid and rolled layers of concrete; and the summa crusta of silex or lava polygonal slabs, one to three feet in diameter, eight to twelve inches thick. The upper surface of slabs was smoothed, and the joints so well fitted as to be hardly discernible.

Durant on Music. He is explaining the development of musical notation; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

We owe to our medieval forebears still another invention that made modern music possible. Tones could now be determined by dots placed on or in between the lines of the staff, but these signs gave no hint as to how long the note was to be held. Some system for measuring and denoting the duration of each note was indispensable to development of contrapuntal music—the simultaneous and harmonious procedure of two or more independent melodies. Perhaps some knowledge had seeped from Spain of Arab treatises by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and other Moslems who had dealt with measured music or mensural notation. At some time in the eleventh century Franco of Cologne, a priest mathematician, wrote a treatise Ars cantus mesurabilis, in which he gathered up the suggestion of earlier theory and practice, and laid down essentially our present system for indicating the duration of musical notes. A square-headed virga or rod, formerly used as a neume, was chosen to represent a long note; another neume, the punctum or point, was enlarged into a lozenge to represent a short note; these signs were in time altered; tails were added; by trial and error, through a hundred absurdities, our simple mensural notation was evolved.

Durant on War. He is describing the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The towns suffered only less than the villages. Many of them were reduced to half their former population. Great cities were in ruins—Magdeburg, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Neustadt, Bayreuth. Industry declined for lack of producers, purchasers, and trade; commerce hid its head; once-wealthy merchants begged and robbed for bread. Communes, declaring themselves bankrupt, repudiated their debts. Financiers were loath to lend, fearing that loans would be gifts. Taxation impoverished everyone but generals, tax collectors, prelates, and kings. The air was poisonous with refuse and offal and carcasses rotting in the streets. Epidemics of typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and scurvy ran through the terrified population and from town to town…

Morals and morale alike collapsed. The fatalism of despair invited the cynicism of brutality. All the ideals of religion and patriotism disappeared after a generation of violence; simple men now fought for food or drink or hate, while their masters mobilized their passions in a competition for taxable lands and political power. Here and there some humane features showed: Jesuits gathering and feeding deserted children; preachers demanding of governments an end to bloodshed and destruction. “God send that there may be an end at last,” wrote a peasant in his daybook. “God send that there be peace again. God in heaven, send us peace.”

Durant on Science. Here he explains the consequences of Newton’s work on light; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

When [Newton] passed a small ray of sunlight through a transparent prism he found that the apparently monochrome light divided into all these colors of the rainbow; that each component color emerged from the prism at its own specific angle or degree or refraction; and that the colors arranged themselves in a row of bands, forming a continuous spectrum, with red at the one end and violet at the other. Later investigators showed that various substances, when made luminous by burning, give different spectra; by comparing these spectra with the one made by a given star, it became possible to analyze in some degree the star’s chemical constituents. Still more delicate observations of a star’s spectrum indicated its approximate motion toward or from earth; and from these calculations the distance of the star was theoretically deduced. Newton’s revelation of the composition of light, and its refraction in the spectrum, has therefore had almost cosmic consequences in astronomy.

Durant on Trade. Here he gives us a picture of Roman trade in the first century; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The improvement of government and transport expanded Mediterranean trade to unprecedented amplitude. At one end of the busy process of exchange were peddlers hawking through the countryside everything from sulphur matches to costly imported silks; wandering auctioneers who served also as town criers and advertised lost goods and runaway slaves; daily markets and periodical fairs; shopkeepers haggling with customers, cheating with false or tipped scales, and keeping a tangential eye for the aedile’s inspectors of weights and measures.

Durant on Philosophy. Here he is summarizing Spinoza’s metaphysics; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying all things. This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter, and as thought or mind. These two are “attributes” of substance; not as qualities residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete monist: these two aspects of reality—matter and thought—are not distinct and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding mental state.