Quotes & Commentary #36: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #36: Emerson

I hate goodies. I hate goodness that preaches. Goodness that preaches undoes itself.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Certain stories snatched from daily life stick in the mind long after they have any practical relevance, because they seem to be the embodiment of a moral injunction. A friend of mine recently told me one such story.

This friend is a stand-up comedian, if not by trade, at least by dint of persistence, and he is constantly shuttling from venue to venue to hone his craft. One of these venues was run by a goodie. Now, the difference between a goodie and a good person is that the latter treats people with respect and kindness while the former makes a big show of his virtue.

This particular goodie was a straight white male who constantly advertised his progressive values. He decorated his venue with portraits of the black men killed by the police, and forbade all jokes with even a whiff of sexism.

All of this would possibly be admirable if this goodie were not constantly getting into conflicts with those around him. Like many goodies, he has a victim mentality, and blames all of these disagreements on the malevolence of his antagonists. When his venue was shut down by the fire marshal, for example, he attributed it to a conspiracy of right-wing comics.

Let me pause and remind the reader that all this is hearsay, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this information. I am told that during the uproar that followed the closure of his venue the goodie was publically accused of rape. The irony of a man who shrouds himself in feminism being a rapist is too palpable to pass unremarked. The goodie responded to the accusation, I am told, with a counter-accusation, saying that it was he who was raped.

Whether all or any of this information is actually true, it rings true. Throughout my life I have met many who have acted the part of a moralist and a crusader, preaching at every turn, tolerating no dissent, treating all disagreement as vile persecution. And these goodies, almost inevitably, are unpleasant to be around, even when I agree with their ideals.

There is a basic set of values—kindness, generosity, tact, respect, tolerance, and humility—that are fundamental to real goodness, that comprise the humdrum, everyday, unremarkable virtue that keeps society working. Goodies are not humble, not respectful, and not tolerant.

Goodies are nefarious because they sacrifice these basic values for supposedly higher ones—usually a political or a religious ideal. I say “nefarious” because, by failing to reach the level of everyday virtue while appearing to rise above it, they often manage to attract around themselves a little band of followers, who confirm one another in their zealotry. Thus goodieness spreads.

Now, there is, of course, nothing wrong with sticking up for your political or religious values, and preaching has its place. But remember that these ideals, whatever their appeal, whatever their justice, do not allow their adherents to forfeit the more basic virtues of everyday life.

Real virtue does not advertise itself; it is silently manifest in each phrase and action, an accompaniment of every word and deed. If a person repeatedly and insistently calls attention to their own goodness, suspect that this goodness is goodieness, and run for the hills.

Quotes & Commentary #35: Francis Bacon

Quotes & Commentary #35: Francis Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.

—Francis Bacon, “Of Revenge”

The thirst for revenge is one of our ugliest, most satisfying, and most basic tendencies. It isn’t hard to see why.

The urge to revenge ourselves is a straightforward consequence of the urge to preserve ourselves. If somebody has hurt us in some way—by stealing a mate, by physical violence, or merely by a rude remark—then they have clearly shown themselves to be a threat, a dangerous person who can’t be trusted. The logical thing to do then becomes to neutralize this threat, to diminish or destroy his capacity to further hinder us.

This counter-attack will serve two purposes: first, it will harm the enemy, reducing his capacity to harm you in the future; second, by publically revenging yourself on an enemy, it will signal to others that you are not one to be trifled with, and that you will retaliate if anybody tries something funny. The practical benefits of revenge are thus preventative.

It is paradoxical, therefore, that revenge is not often thought of as oriented towards future security, but instead toward bygone injuries. The purpose of revenge, we feel in our bones, is to right the wrongs of the universe, to put the cosmic scale of justice back to zero, balancing a good action for a bad one.

When revenge is conceived this way, as retaliatory and not as preventative, then it can lead to absurdly unproductive actions, notable only for the resources they waste. In this connection, I can’t help thinking of Iñigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, whose obsessive quest to kill the murderer of his father consumed decades of his life.

Ask anyone to tell you about their ex, and there’s a good chance you will be met with the same vengeful fixation. The revenge intoxicated man is something of a narrative cliche, repeated ten thousand times in novels and television and movies. I would guess that revenge is second only to romantic love as the emotional engine of drama.

The folly of orienting your life around getting back at an enemy is clear to anyone with healthy sense of perspective. The best form of revenge, after all, is being happy, and all-consuming quests for personal justice are not conducive to happiness.

Even as a preventative measure—to incapacitate an enemy and prevent others from springing up—revenge often backfires. This is for two reasons.

First, if you attempt to render an enemy incapable of harming you in the future, there is always a risk you will fall short of full incapacitation. This is dangerous because, if you don’t succeed in fully disabling your enemy—whether psychologically, politically, logistically, socially, or physically—then there is a good chance that you will only embitter him, who will then counter-attack after he recovers his strength.

The second risk, related to the first, is the question of third-parties. If you succeed in fully disabling your enemy, there is still the possibility that he may have powerful friends. The friend of every enemy is another potential enemy, and can be mobilized against you. After successful revenge, you may yourself be the victim of a vengeful act by one of the enemy’s allies. If this revenge against you is successful, then one of your friends might retaliate against this new foe. 

This logic of attack and counterattack is how feuds start. Every act of vengeance can breed another, until half the world is embroiled in a bitter, pointless war against the other half. The most emblematic of these vindictive conflicts was the feud between the Hartfields and the McCoys, but you see this sort of thing in every section and at every scale of human life.

Revenge, as you can see, is a strategy of limited utility. It would, however, be untrue to say that revenge is always futile. In a situation similar to Hobbes’s “State of Nature,” vengeful acts are hardly avoidable. If there is no structure in place to resolve disputes, no laws and thus no method to punish law-breakers, then each party must enforce their own version of right and wrong.

Remember that, for each individual, taken separately, right and wrong are products of self-interest. In other words, in the absence of law, “right” is simply what helps you, “wrong” what hurts you; and without any legal system, you must enforce your own version of right and wrong, since no one else will.

In order to survive in an anarchic world, you must retaliate against those who interfere with your self-interest. If not, it will send the message to those around you that you are a pushover, and that they can take advantage of you without any risk; and you can only expect more enemies to interfere with you in the future. (I teach adolescents, so I know something about an anarchic world.) Some retaliation is therefore necessary. But care must be taken not to take vengeance too readily or too forcefully, or you may be the victim of revenge yourself.

Humans were born into anarchy and we still have the instincts that helped us get through it. This is why revenge comes to naturally to us, and why it tastes so sweet. But this emotional armory does not help us when we live in a society governed by law.

Law is a substitute for revenge, with all of its advantages and none of its defects. With recourse to the legal prosecution—organized retaliation, approved by the community—then we can neutralize threats and protect ourselves from future harm, with only a minimal chance that our enemies’ friends will try to get back at us. Law replaces private desire with public safety; and because the will of the community sanctions the law’s consequences, the law is joined with overwhelming force, to protect its adherents and attack its antagonists.

Living, as we all do, in states governed by law, the emotional urge to take revenge becomes a hindrance rather than an asset. If you are wronged, you can seek legal retribution. But if that is not available, then it is usually unwise to take matters into your own hands, since this makes it possible that legal retribution can be used against you.

True, there are many things that fall outside the confines of the law, the most notable of these being romance. And as expected,  vindictiveness is alive and well in matters of the heart. You still find people revenging themselves on their exes and their rivals, waxing indignant at perceived wrongs and organizing their friends in concerted actions of revenge. Having no social structure to resolve disputes, people fall into anarchy.

Yet I would argue that, even in these cases, revenge is a poor strategy. The revenge mentality is only justified, I think, in anarchic situations, specifically when the consequences for not retaliating are potentially severe. But in the case of romance, there is no chance that you will be seriously damaged. Heartbreak hurts, but it is seldom fatal.

In cases like these—where you can be sure of surviving any enemy attack—then I think another strategy is called for: returning love for hate. This sounds Biblical, but its justification is logical.

Keep in mind that I am talking of a situations like romance, in which harm cannot incapacitate either you or your enemies. (By “incapacitate” I mean render them unable to do future harm.) Since harming your enemies cannot disable them, it can only embitter them and potentially create new enemies; and since you cannot be disabled by being harmed, you have nothing to fear by not retaliating.

Returning harm for harm is thus clearly a poor long-term strategy, even if it might be satisfying in the short-term. You are left with two options: do nothing, or return help for harm. The first option seems superficially like the more logical one. By doing nothing, you don’t risk creating new enemies, and you don’t use resources to benefit your enemy that could be used elsewhere.

The second strategy, returning help for harm, is quite obviously more expensive, not to mention less satisfying. (Who likes to see their enemies happy?) Yet I think it is wiser as a long-term strategy, since it is by returning help for harm that enemies are converted into friends. A friend, after all, is somebody who acts in our interest; and it would be a stubborn enemy indeed who could persist in hating somebody who showed them only love and kindness.

Revenge, born of anarchy, is both a social and a personal ill. It is rendered obsolete as soon as people begin living in a society governed by law. It is a waste of resources and a poor survival strategy, and has no place in a just legal system or in the conduct of a wise individual.

2016 in Books

2016 in Books

2016 on Goodreads2016 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This at least of flamelike our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways.
—Walter Pater

So ends 2016, already a proverbially bad year. Both in the world at large and in my private life, this year has been one of disappointment and disruption. Things previously taken for granted have crumbled and collapsed; the inconceivable has happened, the impossible is already normal. History, instead of ending, has been frustratingly persistent.

Yet this year has easily been one of the best of my life. And this, not in spite of the disappointment and disruption, but because of it. Now I feel immunized against life’s bitter flavor, or at least toughened against it, since I have come to terms with impermanence. By this I do not mean that I have become embittered and fatalistic; rather, I have learned to enjoy myself more, to drink life’s pleasures to the dregs, to take the cash and let the credit go. Endings will do that; and what has this year been but a series of endings?

The basic theme of this year’s reading has been practice. I have endeavored, as far as I could, to read things that applied directly to my day-to-day life. This endeavor has taken many forms. One has been to read about Spain, her history, her people, and her culture, and this has been one of my most intellectually rewarding projects. Another was a flirtation with spiritual practices, during which I sampled Christian prayer and Hindu meditation, and became a daily meditator. This emphasis on practice even influenced my reading of fiction, leading me to focus on the moral lessons that could be learned from novels.

The mirror-image of this focus on finding the practical in my reading was finding the stories in my actions. This took the form of travel writing. I traveled like mad this year, dragging myself through dozens of cities, climbing walls, ransacking castles, profaning cathedrals with my presence, sampling strange dishes, trying to find a wink of sleep on buses, trains, and planes, and walking, walking, always walking, through fields and meadows, down dark alleys and cobblestone streets, and after each trip I tried to write something about what I did. I am not especially proud of this writing. But the very act of writing was a form of meditation, when I put my memories into order and reflected on what I saw. And just as in book reviewing, this retrospective travel writing allowed me to appreciate my travels more keenly. Indeed, I think travel writing is much like book reviewing, each city a different volume in the world’s library.

The biggest event in my reading and writing life, however, has been learning Spanish. Although very far from fluent, and still bumbling and confused much of the time, I have managed to learn enough Spanish to read at a high level. True, this reading is painful, slow, and difficult, but every day it gets easier, and some of the best books I’ve read this year have been in my new language.

There has been another result of living in Spain. Because of the abundance of beautiful monuments and museums, and perhaps the clearer sunlight and unclouded skies of Madrid, I have belatedly developed an appreciation of visual art. Before this year, I derived very little pleasure from paintings, sculptures, and architecture; but this year I have been moved and shaken to the core by what I have seen.

In that spirit, I will leave you with an image with which I began 2016. Last January I visited Granada to see the Alhambra. On a sunny but chilly day, I stood in the gardens of the Generalife and looked out across the hill at the Moorish palace. The Alhambra is the flower of an entire civilization, the product of a people who built up their knowledge year by year, slowly accumulating sophistication and resources until, in their hour of decadence, they could leave that enchanted place as a monument. Those people are now gone, their civilization vanished; and one day, hopefully far in the future, the Alhambra will crumble too.

I thought about this as I looked at the decaying walls, crowded on the hillside, slowly succumbing to the tooth of time, and felt melancholy in the winter breeze. How tragic, I thought, that nothing lasts. But now I don’t think of this as tragic. I think it is the very principle of beauty.

Thanks to all of you for being a part of this terrible and wonderful year. I look forward to the next one.

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Quotes & Commentary #34: Charles Dickens

Quotes & Commentary #34: Charles Dickens

‘Why do you doubt your senses?’ said Marley’s ghost.

‘Because,’ said Scrooge, ‘a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’

—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Recently I read a book about yoga by Swami Vivekananda. In it, the swami puts forward the common argument in favor of mystical truth: that direct experience of the super-sensuous realm—the spiritual plane—can attest to its existence. That is, the existence of the spiritual plane, while it cannot be detected with any technological device, deduced from any scientific theory, or proven on any philosophical grounds, can be known for certain to exist via direct experience.

I have no doubt that, through yoga, meditation, and prayer, people have had extraordinary experiences. These experiences may well have been far more intense than day-to-day life. On occasion these visions may have left such a lasting mark on a sage’s mind that he was forever transformed, perhaps much for the better.

Since experiences such as these are uncommon and unusual, these gurus will then be faced with the impossible task of capturing their private sensation in words and conveying it to somebody who has never felt anything similar. It would be like describing the color red to a blind man. This is why mystical writing is so often poetical. This also explains why it so often strays into metaphysics.

For my part, I am very fond of mystical poetry. But I have little patience for any epistemology that considers fleeting, incommunicable, and private experiences to be valid sources of insight into the nature of reality. Science works because its methodology does its very best to shun these sorts of visions. Science is effective because it treats knowledge as a social product, not a private hallucination, and because it treats experience as prone to error and in need of interpretation, not as a direct window into reality.

Ebenezer Scrooge was wrong about many things. But he was right to distrust his senses when he thought he saw a ghost. Luckily for him, the reality-status of the ghosts he saw does not make their moral message any less true. Likewise, even if mystical visions and meditative ecstasies may not be valid sources of knowledge about the universe, they can lead to valuable personal transformations.

Quotes & Commentary #33: Thomas Mann

Quotes & Commentary #33: Thomas Mann

“What good would politics be, if it didn’t give everyone the opportunity to make moral compromises?”

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Why do we have politics? Specifically, why do we have distinct political parties, and periodic elections in which these parties compete for power?

Competitions only exist when there is a zero-sum game. In a situation in which success benefits every party, no competition exists; only cooperation. Yet the reason that humans tend to congregate in groups—whether in families, tribes, villages, kingdoms, states, or nations—is that humans have much to gain from living with one another. That is, society is not a zero-sum game. Anyone with a friend attests to this fact.

Social groups persist because, most of the time, the personal interest of each member is aligned with that of every other. This is, of course, not to deny that there is exploitation and conflict within groups; it is only to assert that, broadly speaking, members have more to gain from staying within the group than from leaving it. For all the members of a durable group, there exists a sizeable overlap in their interest. (By “interest” I mean what is needed and desired.)

If we were to imagine a scenario in which there was no overlap in the interest of each member, then a group would never form, since cooperating would benefit nobody. In such a situation, we would expect to see a Hobbesian war of all against all, since every individual would benefit only at the expense of another.

If we were, on the contrary, to imagine a scenario in which the interest of each member overlapped completely, then this would be a true utopia. In such a state, no elections would be necessary because everyone would agree on what to do; no political parties would form because nobody would be argue; and coercion, exploitation, and conflict of every kind would be entirely absent.

Clearly, we are not living in either of these hypothetical worlds, but in a medium between these two extremes. Yet I think that we are much closer to the conflict-free utopia than the anarchical chaos; otherwise, stable nation-states would not exist.

Nearly all the citizens in a nation have much to gain from cooperation. By and large, what is good for my neighbors is good for me. When my neighbors are succeeding in the stock market and advancing in their careers, I probably am too. When they are living in peace and safety, so am I. When they are benefiting from clean streets, strong healthcare, good schools, safe products, and a fair justice system, I am reaping the same benefits. Since our interests are aligned, we have no reason to fight.

Political strife arises when interests are out of alignment. This can occur for a variety of reasons; but a major cause is demographics. Differences in sex, age, religion, race, class, career, and geography can translate into differences in interest; and differences in interest translate into political conflict. Any proposed policy that benefits men at the expense of women, city dwellers at the expense of rural farmers, the professional class at the expense of the working class, or any other combination imaginable, will almost necessarily lead to argument. This is so, because it is in these situations that the basic foundation of government—the overlap of interest—breaks down.

If these conflicts of interest were not addressed and instead allowed to grow, they could become existential threats to the state. Some mechanism is needed to resolve conflicts before they get out of hand; and this method must be deemed fair and legitimate by most of the group, or it won’t succeed. The modern solution is to have periodic elections in which political parties compete for power. This form of nonviolent competition is, by and large, perceived as fair; and the imprimatur of the majority lends legitimacy to the results.

Besides difference of interest, there is another reason that members of a state might come into political conflict: difference in preferred means, or methods, for achieving shared interests. That is, even if two individuals want the same thing, they might disagree about the best way to get it. Two Americans may want economic prosperity, for example, but disagree about which economic policy would most effectively promote this prosperity. They disagree about the how and not the what.

This type of conflict may be even more common than the former type. Luckily, these conflicts normally do not pose existential threats to the state. Even more luckily, unlike conflicts about goals, conflicts about means can be solved, or at least advanced, through rational argument. As our understanding of economic systems improves, for example, we can rule out bad strategies and develop better ones. Vigorous debate, scientific study, historical research, and the input of experts are all valuable resources when deciding questions of method.

But when a conflict is about goals and not means, when two people’s interests are opposed—when each of them will benefit at the expense of the other—then no amount of rational argument can resolve the conflict. Reason only helps us to determine the best way to achieve our interests; reason cannot dictate our interests.

Political conflict, therefore, primarily exists for two reasons: conflicts of interest, and disagreements about means of achieving shared interests. If this is true, then you should expect to see conflicts forming along certain, predictable lines. Conflicts of interest should form around demographic lines, since different demographic groups often benefit at the expense of one another. You would also expect to see different “philosophies of government”—strategies for accomplishing common goals—that concern themselves with questions of shared interest, such as healthcare, the economy, and national security.

It seems to me that this is exactly what we find when we look at the political situation. People divide themselves up into political parties along relatively sharp demographic lines, according to self-interest. Since no individual belongs to just a single demographic group, but to many at once, the way that this division plays out is quite complex. The policies that would benefit one group at the expense of another—like economic redistribution, protectionist tariffs, or anti-immigration policies—are usually the banners behind which the party’s supporters rally.

By contrast, goals that potentially benefit everyone, like economic prosperity, do not lead to this demographic splitting, but rather to differences in proposed strategies. These differences in strategy form the subject of truly substantial political debate (a rare thing). Yet because each party has different constituents, usually these different strategies would not benefit everyone equally, but rather one demographic group would benefit more than another. The conflicts of means and of ends, while separate in theory, are in practice hopelessly mixed up.

Seen this way, political conflict arises when there are conflicts of interest between major demographic groups, and the conflict is governed by the logic of self-interest. Political conflict is a competition like any other, a clash of self-interested parties using all the resources at their disposal to win the prize.

But if that is so, why is political discourse so intensely moralistic? That is a question for another day.

Quotes & Commentary #32: Gustave Flaubert

Quotes & Commentary #32: Gustave Flaubert

Human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

What is language?

Language is a symbolic medium of communication, connecting two immaterial minds through vibrating air.

Language is a chain of crisscrossing lines and circles on a screen, laden with meaning.

A residue of history, language is the appendage with which the human imagination gropes in baffled astonishment to understand its world.

Language is a cry of joy, a gasp of pain, a grumble of discontent, a sigh of lonely misery, a howl in the night. It is a catalogue of regrets, a repository of wit, an archive of longing; it is an asylum of echoes and ghosts. Communal wisdom and folly immemorial, it is a bundle of superstitious sayings, animated with old pains and aflame with arthritic aches.

Language is shabby. Faint whiffs of dust lurk in its crooks and creases. Old stains are folded into its crumpled, crimped, cramped fabric.

As opaque as ink and as clear as air, our language is a chronicle of errors and our only avenue to the truth.

Language is the vessel of our secrets, as intimate as our dreams and yet as impersonal as the weather. The bedrock of human life, and yet as temporary as a puff of smoke and as insubstantial as a speck of snow. Dying away and born again every second, as malleable as vapor and as durable as time itself.

Possessed by all and yet owned by none, language is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us.

Language is a home we carry around in our heads. Caressed, cherished, and treasured like an old teddy bear. Recklessly renovated, refurbished, and redecorated like a basement apartment.

Controlled, manipulated, distorted, twisted, bent, squeezed, throttled, and maimed, over and over again, language is universally betrayed. But we are all betrayed in return, for language always deserts us in our hour of most desperate need, leaving us stumbling, stammering, mouthing jumbled nonsense, and finally—silent.

Review: The Discourses of Epictetus

Review: The Discourses of Epictetus

Discourses, Fragments, HandbookDiscourses, Fragments, Handbook by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But to begin with, keep well away of what is stronger than you. If a pretty girl is set against a young man who is just making a start on philosophy, that is no fair contest.

Epictetus forms one part of the triad of classic stoic authors, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Born a slave, sent into exile, never rich nor powerful, he certainly had more need of the stoic philosophy than Aurelius, an emperor, or Seneca, a senator. His course of life was closer to that of Socrates. Like Plato’s hero (and unlike Plato himself), Epictetus did not trouble himself with questions of logic, epistemology, or metaphysics. His concern was ethics; his aim was to learn how to live the best possible life. Also like Socrates, he did not write anything down himself. All of “his” works were set to paper by his pupil, Arrian.

In character, too, he is far removed from either Aurelius or Seneca. Aurelius’s voice is intimate and frank; he speaks as a friend. Seneca is sophisticated, suave, and cosmopolitan; he is easy to imagine as a witty dinner guest. Epictetus is like a sassy staff-sergeant. His mode is vituperation; he is a teacher who will mock and chide you into shape. The basic idea of his philosophy could hardly be simpler. His goal is only to instill this idea into your mind so deeply that it reforms your whole character.

What is his philosophy? The basic message is this. The external world is ultimately outside of our control. We cannot determine whether we will be rich or poor, whether our loved ones will die, whether we will be banished, imprisoned, or executed, whether we will be favored or persecuted by the emperor, whether we will get sick, whether other people will like us, or a thousand other things. The outside world—the world outside our minds—will always be able to overpower us, outmaneuver us, and surprise us.

Only the internal world is within our control. This is what Epictetus calls the “realm of choice.” We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to those circumstances. We cannot, for example, prevent ourselves from being robbed; but we can choose not to place value in our jewelry, and so maintain peace of mind in the event of a robbery. Everything, even our lives and our loved ones, only has value because we give it value with our minds. You can laugh at your own executioner if you don’t regard execution as an evil. This power—the power to change our attitude towards the external world—Epictetus regards as the ultimate and quintessential human faculty. This is the power of choice, and constitutes human freedom.

‘He has been taken off to prison.’—What has happened? He has been taken off to prison. But the observation ‘Things have gone badly for him’ is something that each person adds for himself.

He is unwaveringly concerned with the practical rather than the theoretical. This book is full of castigation for philosophy students who consider themselves successful when they can satisfactorily summarize and refute a logical argument. Logic is just a plaything, Epictetus says, and all this argument is entirely besides the point. How will you react when you’re in a ship that’s being tossed about in a storm? How will you react if you’re banished or if your loved one dies? How will you face death? Remember, he says, that books are ultimately just another external good, like money or power, and by prizing them, like any external good, we simply make ourselves victims of circumstances.

Epictetus’s stoicism is more explicitly deistic than Seneca’s or Aurelius’s. He regards all humans as children of God (Zeus), whom he pictures as running every detail of the universe. Thus a large part of his philosophy consists of acting in accordance with God. If you want to live in Rome, but circumstances prevent it, don’t whine and moan, but accept that God has other plans for you. If you go bankrupt and end up a beggar, accept this new role and play your part in the grand design. To reject God’s plan is foolish impiety. It is to overlook all of the blessing bestowed on you—not least life itself—and focus on one small part of the universe that you find unpleasant: “So because of one miserable leg, slave, you’re going to cast reproaches against the universe?” (Epictetus was lame in one leg.)

Although sometimes Epictetus pictures Zeus as a personal god, for the most part it is easy to see his Zeus as merely a personalization of the universe. In any case, Epictetus’s conception of death is entirely materialistic. There is no afterlife; death is the end of existence. But it is only an end from your point of view. The materials of your body will be released and used for other things. Indeed, says Epictetus, we really do not possess anything. Everything—our house, our family, our body itself—is just on a loan from the universe. If Zeus asks for it back, we would be rude to refuse.

Books like these can easily become moralizing and unpleasant; but this one is saved by Epictetus’s rollicking humor and puckish wit. Epictetus is often shown discoursing with a pupil, upbraiding, reprimanding, scolding, chiding, and finally encouraging. His style is distinguished by its relentless use of rhetorical questions. For a philosopher, he can be rather cheeky:

I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?

The only thing that makes this book occasionally unpleasant to read is its repetitiveness. The same ideas are put forward in a hundred different ways; the same theme is returned to again and again. There is little plan or order to the sections. There is no grand unifying scheme, merely a succession of chapters haphazardly arranged. I should admit, however, that this repetition can be partly excused by the need of a moralist to firmly instill his principles: “One should know that it isn’t easy for a person to arrive at a firm judgment unless, day after day, he states and hears the same principles, and at the same time applies them to his life.”

There are theoretical troubles, too. I could not entirely agree with his division of the universe into things falling within or without the sphere of choice. Surely it is more accurate to think of a scale, or a gradation, of things more or less within our power. We can minutely influence an election, we can somewhat influence our friends, we can usually control our bodies, and we can almost always control our attitude. Thus, instead of saying “Only worry about things within the sphere of choice,” it would be more accurate to say “Only worry about things insofar as your choices can affect them.” And then, even so, in practice it is so often difficult to tell whether we are fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities.

This is related to another theoretical weakness. The stoics make much ado about living in harmony with nature (or Zeus). And yet, how can anyone act otherwise? If we are a part of nature, and bound by her laws, how can any of our actions be out of sync with nature? Let’s say, for example, that you get banished from Rome. Epictetus advises you to accept your fate as God’s will and make a new life. To protest your fate would be to act against nature. But what if it’s Zeus’s (or whoever’s) will that you protest? And how can Epictetus know that, by protesting, you won’t be readmitted to the capital? Maybe your protest will be an event in the history of Rome and change the practice of banishment forever?

By this I am led to another potential shortcoming in Epictetus’s system: fatalism. If everyone is entirely responsible for their own peace of mind, and if circumstances play no role in human happiness, then there is no reason to help anybody or to try to improve the world: “If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.” Again, in this situation I think Epictetus’s hard division between things outside or within our control blinds him to the dialogue between attitude and circumstances that comprise human life and happiness.

The modern use of the word “stoic”—someone imperturbable, unemotional, unfeeling—is not entirely accurate as regards the original stoics. Seneca was witty, cosmopolitan, and certainly not unfeeling. Yet in Epictetus we see this stereotype borne out more accurately. The majority of these dialogues is concerned with avoiding disturbance and maintaining peace of mind. Epictetus is constantly warning his pupils what not to do, what actions, people, and things to avoid in order to be properly philosophical. Very little is said about the joys of life. Indeed, unlike Seneca, who was a fan of Epicurus, Epictetus repeatedly denounces Epicureans without seeming to understand their doctrine.

These criticisms are minor when I consider that this book is easily one of the greatest books on the art of living that I have yet read. So often Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to me, with frightening relevance. He is not interested in any of my excuses, but shames me into virtue with his sharp-tongued and good-natured scolding. And it is, perhaps, unfair to criticize the theory of a philosophy whose end is practice. For my part, Epictetus is easily the most powerful of the three classic stoic authors, one who I will be sure to return to when life tosses me about.

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Quotes & Commentary #31: William James

Quotes & Commentary #31: William James

In mystical literature such self-contradictory phrases as ‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert,’ are continually met with. They prove that not conceptual-speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.

—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James’s book on religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is of mixed quality. Penetrating insights are buried in mountains of redundant quotations, and a mass of anecdotal evidence is substituted for a coherent system. After putting it down, the only chapter that made a deep impression on me was his chapter on mysticism.

Before that, I had no notion of mysticism as distinct from organized religion; and yet it is quite discrete. Instead of focusing on external rituals, communally observed, the mystic focuses on his own private experiences; and instead of attempting to translate religious experiences into a mythology or a dogma, the mystic more often reverts to poetry or song to convey the intensity of his private rapture. Mysticism is naturally antipathetic, or at the very least indifferent, to organized religion. A mystic needs no clergyman to access the divine. No intermediary clerics, priests, or theologians are necessary to translate the voice of God into profane speech.

One especially striking feature of mysticism is its ubiquity. While dogmas, creeds, rituals, and mythologies vary greatly, the basic notions and motifs of mysticism are encountered across the world. I have encountered Islamic mysticism in Al-Ghazali, Catholic mysticism in St. Teresa, Hindu mysticism in the Upanishads, and Neoplatonist mysticism in Plotinus. The Tao Te Ching of ancient China is full of the self-contradictory phrases described by William James, such as the famous opening: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao. The name that can be named is not the Constant Name.”

The common theme running through these works is that the mystic, through intense focus, can look past the world as we know it and gaze upon a higher reality, a divine vision normally invisible to earthly eyes. Right now I am reading a short book by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in which he describes a method for attaining exactly this. Once you experience this higher reality, religious doubts become irrelevant; your religion becomes a matter of experience and not of faith.

So if mystics have experienced the divine, why don’t they tell us about it? The problem is that the vision is ineffable. This is why, as William James points out, mystic poets often resort to contradictory language as a way of evoking this mysterious essence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell says almost exactly the same thing: “The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don’t render the experience, they suggest it.” St. Teresa of Ávila, for example, had to resort to metaphor after metaphor in her manual on mysticism in order to communicate the experience.

In capturing the mystical experience, visual art would have the same problem as does language, since the artist would be attempting to picture the invisible. Music has the advantage of being neither symbolic nor representative. As sound, it is purely sensuous, perhaps a direct expression of emotion. At the very least sound does not tempt its hearers into confusing the symbol for the symbolized, as language and painting might, and so it can be more safely used to transmit ineffable experiences. Music doesn’t communicate emotions, it evokes them in its audience; it doesn’t represent feelings, it re-creates them in its hearers.

The mystical potential of music was memorably illustrated for me in the autobiography of Bryan Magee. A logical, educated man, and one constitutionally antipathetic to religion, Magee nonetheless describes being so transported by music that he felt he was experiencing another plane of reality, one where there is neither time nor space. This experience was so strong that he felt sure it provided him with some clue about the ultimate nature of reality. But he was frustrated by his inability to translate this feeling into a logical argument. Once again, the mystic insight eludes symbolic expression.

Philosophically, the interesting question is this: to what extent can these intense visions can be trusted? It is beyond doubt that mystics can have ecstatic experiences; the question is what causes them. The sensation of divinity and rapture is so intense that the mystic usually cannot bring himself to doubt its veracity. But this subjective feeling of certainty is a poor guide, to say the least, of what can be safely trusted. This is not just a scientific principle; the Catholic Church was well aware of the unreliability of private visions. This is why Saint Teresa’s book is full of strategies for determining whether your vision is from Satan or God, and careful instructions about how to proceed within the Catholic hierarchy once you have a vision.

Occam’s razor would seem to demand that a naturalistic explanation be preferred for mystic visions. The simplest explanation, and the explanation that most easily harmonizes with our current scientific understanding, is that these ecstatic experiences can be traced to something happening in the brain. Nevertheless, I find it difficult not to sympathize with mystics. If I had an experience that was more intense than anything I’ve seen or heard in my waking live, I think that I would also be unwilling to doubt what I saw.

Quotes and Commentary #30: David D. Burns

Quotes and Commentary #30: David D. Burns

It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that it can be extremely difficult to do something when you sense you are being forced into it.

—David D. Burns, Feeling Good

Today I taught a class on modal verbs. This is my favorite subject to teach in English, since modal verbs are the most philosophical area of the language. What is the difference between will and would? Between can and could? Between may and might?

Every time I teach this lesson, I pause on the word “should.” I have the following problem. Very often we use the word “should” for recommendations, such as: “You should avoid eating at McDonalds.” In this situation, there is no moral element; we are telling our friend to avoid McDonalds for his own benefit, not for any ethical reason.

In other situations, “should” has an unambiguously moral connotation, as in: “You should always leave a tip in the United States.” Here, we are being exhorted to do something, not for any personal benefit, but because it is the “right” thing to do.

In many cases, however, it is ambiguous whether the word does or doesn’t carry a moral imperative. This most often occurs when we’re talking to ourselves: “I should really jog more,” or “I should quit smoking,” or “I shouldn’t eat so many donuts.” The situation here is strange, for there is no moral rule involved—is it immoral to eat donuts?—and yet we feel we feel guilty when, as so often happens, we don’t follow our own advice.

David D. Burns, in his popular self-help book on depression, cautions against this last usage of the word should. We are always telling ourselves we “should” be doing this, and “shouldn’t” be doing that. But this leads us into a depressive spiral:

A deadly enemy of motivation is a sense of coercion. You feel under intense pressure to perform—generated from within and without. This happens when you try to motivate yourself with moralistic “shoulds” and “oughts.” You tell yourself, “I should do this” and “I have to do that.” Then you feel obliged, burdened, tense, resentful, and guilty.

The process goes like this. You tell yourself you “should” quit smoking. Then, you create resentment in yourself, since you feel like you’re being forced to do something. This resentment and guilt leads to a spiteful rejection of the advice; smoking becomes, not only a pleasure, but a guilty and rebellious pleasure. The habit thus continues, while your self-esteem is eroded by your inability to do the “right” thing.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing happens to me all the time. It was thus a revelation when Burns, in his book, pointed out this common tendency and also explained why it is illogical.

The error originates from a confusion of the first and the second usage of the word “should.” That is, when we tell ourselves we “should” quit smoking, we are really saying that it’s a good idea and we would benefit in the long run. We are appealing to our self-interest and not our moral sense. But we feel guilty and resentful nonetheless. Why? Because we are importing the moral imperative of the second usage into our understanding of the meaning. We are, in other words, judging something to be an ethical duty which is only a potentially beneficial activity.

This is very easy to do, I believe, because we don’t tend to think very clearly about obligations. I have heard philosophers say that the metaphysical distinction between the sphere of moral and amoral reality is the distinction between “ought” and “is.” Moral statements, in other words, do not report what the facts are, but how they should be. Many books have been written about where this “ought” comes from and what it says about the universe.

For my part, I do not find anything special or mysterious about “ought” statements. Indeed, I’d argue that, at bottom, the first and second of usage of “should” rest on the same basis; that is, recommendations and obligations both rest on self-interest.

That the power of a recommendation rests on self-interest is not controversial. The motivation to follow a recommendation is that you will personally benefit in some way. Usually recommendations consist of suggested ways to satisfy certain long-standing desires. We are recommended to apply to a certain job or to eat at a certain restaurant, and these are strategies for satisfying our insatiable desires for money and food.

The second assertion—that obligations rest on self-interest—is sure to raise an eyebrow. Well, let me give you an example. Imagine that you promised to pick your friend up at the airport, but you then your crush invited you to hang out at that same time. You are very tempted to blow off your friend and make him pay for a taxi, but then your mom tells you: “You should always keep your promises.”

Now, at first glance this is obviously not appealing to self-interest. You are being told to do something that will be dreadful instead of something fun. So why “should” you do it? Simply because it’s the “right” thing to do? But why is it “right”?

Now you must ask yourself: Do you want to live in a world where promises exist, or a world where they don’t? Think carefully about this. What if you could never trust somebody’s word, and you could not depend on anybody to follow a verbal agreement? I don’t know about you, but such a world seems unlivably dreadful to me.

The world seems to have come to the same conclusion, since promises exist. And the reason we have agreed to have the institution of the promise is that, although occasionally painful in the short-term, it is beneficial in the long-term to live in a society where you can trust somebody’s word. Thus people make a compromise. Accept some incidental annoyances as the price for the boon of general honesty. You gain more than you lose with this bargain.

This is, I think, the nature of all moral rules: they are rules of behavior that, while occasionally painful in the short-term, benefit every individual member in the long-term by enabling a society wherein people can expect their neighbors to be respectful, peaceful, and honest. But these rules only work if everybody abides by them. For a moral rule to be beneficial to its followers, it must not allow others to take advantage of them, but must lead to a long-term gain. If enough people chose not to follow a rule, and instead take advantage of its followers, then it will collapse. All moral action is motivated by long-term self-interest, and morality collapses when it is no longer in the long-term self-interest of its members to comply.

To return to the above example, you must realize that, by breaking your promise, you are making an exception of yourself. You want to live in a world where people keep their promises, but you don’t want to keep yours. Indeed, in a small way you are undermining the institution of the promise, and taking advantage of your friend’s trust. You are choosing to indulge in a short-term pleasure rather than consider the long-term consequences of this action.

To conclude, I think the moral force of the advice “You should always keep your promises” is related directly to self-interest. In almost every situation, the benefits of living in a society where you can trust the word of other people outweigh many times over the benefits of breaking a single promise.

Now, of course, in practice the fabric of society doesn’t collapse when a few promises are broken. Moral systems are human things, and thus imperfect. Moral laws can survive with a surprising amount of noncompliance and hypocrisy. But you also have to consider the potential consequences of acquiring a reputation for being untrustworthy. Besides that, by doing your friend a favor, you earn yourself social goodwill and might be able to call upon him in the future.

This brings me back to my earlier point. A moral obligation is, at base, simply the realization that you have more to gain by following a moral rule than by breaking it. A moral obligation is thus like a piece of especially good advice; and at bottom, the first and second usage of the word “should” are identical.

I have found this way of thinking personally beneficial, since it allows me to avoid the feelings of guilt, bitterness, and resentment that I get when I tell myself “I should do such and such.” Now, I remind myself of how I will personally benefit from the action in the future. I remind myself that the things I “should” do are just ways of satisfying certain long-standing, insatiable desires of mine. And nobody feels guilty when they don’t efficiently satisfy a desire.

Roaming in Rome: Basilicas

Roaming in Rome: Basilicas


(This is part of a series on Rome. See here for the introduction, here for the post about churches, here for museums, here for Rome’s ruins, and here for the Vatican.)

Rome’s basilicas comprise one of the city’s most popular attractions, and rightly so: they are among the most beautiful examples of religious architecture in the world.

The four so-called major basilicas, designated by the Pope, are all within the diocese of Rome. These are San Giovani in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paulo Fuori Le Mura, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. (In this post, I will only talk about the first three, since I’m also writing a post on the Vatican.) Besides these four major basilicas there are a multitude of minor basilicas to visit, which are minor in name only.

Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the few churches in Rome for which you need to pass through security to enter. Standing outside, there are burly Italian soldiers carrying assault riffles, in addition to the security guards manning the metal detector. All these defenses should tell you that this is a precious building.


From the outside, the Basilica is hard to miss. Aside from its massive size, the basilica is notable for having the highest bell tower in Rome, a lovely 14th century construction. The inside is even more impressive. When you stand in the center, looking down the central nave, everything seems to be made of solid gold. The coffered ceiling is covered in gilded wooden flowers. Light pours in through the top row of windows, which sit above a row of marble columns. Straight ahead is the main chapel; on the apse above is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary’s coronation amid a golden background. The decoration is absolutely sumptuous.


The feature that most stuck in my memory was a sculpture of Pope Pius IX in prayer, which sits in a sunken area before the main altar. But much more important, historically and artistically, are the mosaics. Mosaics run along the nave in a row under the window, and also surround the semidome above the main altar. Unfortunately, the mosaics on the nave are difficult to see from the ground, but those around the arch are lovely works of art.

In the foreground is the statue of Pope Pius IX; above it you can see the altar and the apse, with its lovely mosaic.

Santa Giovanni in Laterano

Bad luck again. I followed my phone to the Basilica di Santa Giovanni in Laterano, and it wasn’t open. The gates were shut, the doors were closed.

In the plaza nearby was another Egyptian obelisk. (This is the Lateran Obelist, the largest ancient obelisk in the world, according to Wikipedia. I am embarrassed to say that I hardly took the time to look at it.)

I sat down sullenly on the surrounding barrier, determined to wait until the basilica opened. The thin metal railing was uncomfortably skinny, so I switched to one of the concrete supports. That was slightly better, but still too spherical to make a good seat. If I leaned forward or back, I would slip off; and my tail bone kept rubbing painfully against the concrete. On top of that, it looked like it was going to rain.

I sat and waited. A family of tourists walked up to the gate and then turned back, disappointed. A young couple did the same. Meanwhile, two Italian soldiers, standing beside an armored vehicle and carrying intimidating assault riffles, talked amongst themselves. Their job was not to interact with tourists; their job was to shoot anyone who does anything fishy.

An hour went by. Now it was drizzling. I began to seriously doubt whether this basilica was worth it. The outside was not terribly impressive. Maybe I could just bag it? But I’d come all this way to see it! And there’s no reason it should be closed! Idly, I checked the map on my phone. I could see that the building was quite big, occupying a whole block all by itself. Maybe there was another entrance?

With nothing to lose, I got off my perch, my butt a bit tender, and walked around the corner. Once there, I smacked myself in the head. This was obviously the entrance. I had been waiting in the wrong place for a whole hour. But I am too used to doing this to get very frustrated when it happens.


As I lingered near the entrance, I was amused to see a young American couple being forced to tie bits of colorful cloth around their waists. They had to do this because they were both wearing shorts, and the churches in Rome have a dress code. In my brief experience, this dress code applies more stringently to women than to men; several times I observed men walking around basilicas in shorts, while women were always made to cover up their shoulders and legs. Keep this in mind on your visit.

The façade of the basilica is austere and neoclassical, full of straight lines and right angles, rising up to an impressive height. The inside is still more impressive. The main nave is cavernous and enormous. Far above hangs the gilded wooden ceiling, sectioned off into quadrilaterals and covered in armorial and floral motifs. At the far end of the main nave is the main altar, covered with a gothic baldachin; this is like a guard tower, with two figures (presumably saints) keeping watch inside.


The most outstanding quality of the basilica, however, is the series of statues of the twelve apostles. These are situated in niches in the columns of the main nave. Under the direction of Pope Clement XI, in the early years of the eighteenth century, seven sculptors were commissioned to make these statues. Each one larger than life-size, and each one is elegant and glorious.

Saint John Statues.jpg

Walking from one end of the basilica to the other, from the entrance to the main altar, dwarfed beneath the gilded roof, passing between these dramatic apostles with their flowing robes and outstretched hands, you can feel the gripping power of the Catholic faith—even if, like me, you don’t belong to it.


San Clemente al Laterano

The Basilica of San Clement is one of the more historical and well-known minor basilicas in Rome. Unfortunately for me, my experience with this basilica is largely of frustration.

The first time I went—and remember that I walked everywhere in Rome, so this was a major investment of time—it was closed. I don’t know why it was closed, but it was.

The second time I went was quite late. I arrived at 5:30, just half an hour before the basilica shut its doors for the day. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem; the place isn’t very large, so half an hour was more than enough time to see everything.

But the Basilica of San Clement is not famous for its main floor; it is famous for what lies buried underneath. The present basilica—which I’ll describe in a moment—was built in around the year 1,100. It was built over the remains of an older, smaller basilica, which had been converted from the remains of a Roman house. This house had served, at various times, as an early Christian church and as a small temple to the god Mithras. Before that, there had been a house built during the Roman Republic, destroyed in 64 AD by the Great Fire. (I’m getting all this information from the Wiki page.) Many of these ruins are preserved in the lower levels of the basilica.

The basilica itself, like all basilicas in Rome, is free to enter; but you need to pay to go down to the basement levels to see the archaeological remains. I was more than willing to pay, since it sounded fascinating, but by the time I arrived they had stopped taking new visitors. I missed my opportunity.

In any case, the basilica itself was worth a visit. It is more on the scale of a church than a basilica; the roof does not tower above you, and there is no overwhelming sense of space. The semi-dome over the main altar, and the wooden roof above the central nave, are richly ornamented and glimmering with gold. The paintings and designs decorating the semi-dome have that lovely, medieval simplicity that always strikes me as noble and fresh. The portraits of the saints, with white beards and robes, and the lambs symbolizing the twelve apostles, strike me as Byzantine in style, although I’m no art scholar.


San Paulo Fuori Le Mura

The only subway ride I took in Rome was to see the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. As you might have guessed, its name derives from the fact that it was situated outside of the (now nonexistent) walls of Rome. As a consequence, the basilica is quite far from the city center, which is why I had to take a subway.

The train was absolutely covered in graffiti. It reminded me of photos I had seen of the New York City subway in the seventies. There must be very lax security if people are able to so completely cover the outside of the train cars. I always wonder: where and how graffiti artists do it? Is there a place where the trains are stored for the night, that the artists can sneak into? Maybe a railway yard in some corner of the city? For my part, I thought that the paint job was a little messy, but I appreciated the bright colors.

The walk from the metro to the basilica was instantaneous. In a second I was there, sweating like a pig in the Roman sun, facing the grand edifice. To enter, I needed to pass through military-controlled security, perhaps because the basilica, although in Italy, is technically owned by the Vatican. I was going through customs.

Before entering the basilica proper, you must pass through a courtyard. In the center is a statue of Saint Paul, sword in one hand, book in another, his bearded face staring down ominously. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by rows of elegant columns, which makes it feel more like a Roman ruin than a Catholic church.


And indeed, this feeling is justified by the history of San Clement Outside the Walls. The basilica was founded all the way back in the reign of Constantine, and was later expanded by Theodosius in 386. Although damaged at various times in its history due to wars and earthquakes, it retained its original, ancient form until 1823. That year, a workman repairing the roof caused a fire that consumed nearly everything. As it stands now, the building is almost entirely a reconstruction. It is ancient in design, but modern in appearance and execution.


When I went inside, the most lasting impression was of space. Even more than other basilicas, Saint Paul’s is vast and spacious. The paneled ceiling, covered in golden designs and decorations, glows from the light pouring in through the top row of windows. Between each of these windows is a painting of an episode from Saint Paul’s life. The ceiling is so long and wide, and the area underneath so empty, that it seems impossible it could stay suspended above you without more support. Why doesn’t the middle crack under so much weight?

The most beautiful part of the basilica, for me, was the apse mosaic. I am not sure whether it is the original mosaic or a reconstruction; but in any case, it captures wonderfully the medieval mood of simple piety that I find so appealing in religious art. Sitting underneath it, with Jesus benignly looking down upon me, I thought I could feel a trace of the comfort that believers must feel in these sacred places.


But I haven’t mentioned the basilica’s most holy treasure: the grave of St. Paul himself. In truth, there isn’t much to see. In a lowered section of the floor, there is a clear, plastic panel through which can be glimpsed white stone. In a wall adjacent there is another transparent screen with more white stone. I wouldn’t have had any idea what I was looking at if there hadn’t been a sign.

By chance, just when I walked down the stairs to see this tomb, an entire American football team came marching into the cathedral. They seemed to be of college age, and there must have been at least fifty. Why so many? A nun with an Irish accent guided them to the tomb (I made a hasty retreat to get out of their way) and they all gathered to hear her give a brief explanation. Then, they all bowed their heads in prayer.

Perhaps I am just a mischievous cynic, but I couldn’t help wondering how much time these burly, hormonal males spend on spiritual things compared with the time they devote to girls and sports. None of them looked particularly excited to be there.


Santa Maria in Trastevere

From Saint Paul Outside the Walls I took a long walk to Trastevere. For the most part, this walk was unexciting and unpleasant—just sweating and slogging my way past apartment buildings and parking lots in the heat and humidity. The most notable exception to this pattern of boredom was when I turned a corner and saw a pyramid.


This is the Pyramid of Cestius, and is actually one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome. To me it looked as though it could have been built yesterday. Instead, it was built in around 12 BCE as a tomb for Gauis Cestius, a magistrate, when Rome was conquering Egypt and there was consequently a fad for Egyptian paraphernalia in the city. I thought it was strange that Cestius would put up a tomb in the middle of the city; but Wikipedia informs me that, back when it was built, the tomb was well outside the city walls; the city later expanded around it.

It has since been incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. This was done to save money and materials, but it looks a little funny to see a pyramid with walls sticking out on both sides. The fortified gate near the pyramid is also well-preserved.

I did not know this at the time, but near the pyramid is the famous Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. It’s funny how fame works. Keats and Shelley have modest tombstones, no bigger than average; and yet they will be remembered at least as long as English is spoken. The name of Gaius Cestius, by contrast, is not associated with any notable words or deeds; the only reason we remember him is for his peculiar and grandiose taste in funerary architecture.

The novelist Thomas Hardy visited this area in 1887 to pay his respects to Keats and Shelley. The sight inspired him to write a poem, Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats. He begins by asking: “Who, then, was Cestius / And what is he to me?” He continues:

I can recall no word

Of anything he did;

For me he was a man who died and was interred

To leave a pyramid

And so he was.

Soon I passed the pyramid, walked through the gate, and found myself in Trastevere. This is one of the most historical and most hip neighborhoods in Rome. It is attractive for tourists because of its narrow, stone-paved streets and its plentiful bars and restaurants.

The basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in the city. The basic floor plan comes from the 4th century; and the building as it stands now was largely built during the Romanesque period.


The basilica is lovely from the outside. Unlike many basilicas, it is not imposing or grandiose, but humble and pleasant. Its graceful brick campanile stands above a simple, triangular roof. At the top of the bell tower, above the clock, there is a small mosaic of the Virgin and Child, easy to miss if you’re not looking; and beneath the roof is another, larger mosaic of the Virgin, surrounded by women holding lamps.


The inside of the basilica is even more charming. Its paneled roof is particularly nice; it is divided into stars, crosses, and other shapely forms, and has a painting of the assumption of the Virgin in the center. The glory of the basilca, however, is its apse, covered in medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. (This is the same artist who did the mosaics in Saint Peter Outside the Walls, which were destroyed in the fire.) As is fitting in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these mosaics depict her life, and center on her coronation in heaven.


I remember the first time I took a serious look at the painting of medieval Europe. It was in an art history class I took in university, and at the time I thought the art was simpleminded and cartoonish. But the more I look at medieval art, like the moving and masterful frescos in this basilica, the more I fall under its spell. There is no pretence at realism. Two-dimensional figures, hardly individualized, stand in a neutral space with a gold background. And yet it is this lack of realism that allows the artwork to be so emotionally expressive. The figures are frankly symbols of higher things, too subtle and spiritual to be realistically expressed; the sign can thus not be confused with its signifier.


I sat under the apse and thought about time. How many years had it taken to build that basilica? How long has it stood? How many have worshipped here? How many have visited? I tried to think of all the people who were somehow connected with the basilica’s existence: the men who mined the rock, who baked the bricks, who carried the materials from the quarry to the building site. The Early Christians who founded the religion amid persecution, and the later Christians who built up the Catholic Church into the most impressive institution of the medieval world. The Popes who commissioned works, the priests who gave services, the artists who painted and sculpted. The poor mother who left a donation every Sunday. The specialists who helped preserve the aging artwork. The tourist who visits and takes a picture with his phone.

I thought of all the years that went into the place, and all the people who contributed, directly and indirectly, in big ways and small, and I thought about how many more people would visit this basilica after I was dead and gone, and I grasped, just slightly, how small I am in the grand scheme of things. Now, that’s some good religious architecture, if it can make you feel that.