Review: The Life of Reason

Review: The Life of Reason

The Life of ReasonThe Life of Reason by George Santayana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George Santayana, in both his life and mind, was the embodiment of several contradictions. He was a European raised in America; a Spaniard who wrote in English; a philosopher who despised professional philosophy. He was an atheist who loved religion, a materialist who loved ideals. His writings seem somehow both strangely ancient and strikingly modern; he cannot be comfortably assimilated into either the analytic or continental traditions, nor dismissed as irrelevant. He stands alone, an intellectual hermit—like an embarrassing orphaned child that history can’t decide what to do with.

What is, at first, most conspicuous about Santayana is his writing style. His prose is elegance and balance itself. His style is, in fact, so supremely balanced that it seems to stand stock-still; the reader, instead of being drawn from sentence to sentence by the usual push and pull of connectives, must guide her own eye down the page, just as one might guide one’s eye across a painting. Will Durant summed this up quite nicely when he called Santayana’s writing “statuesque”; I can think of no better word it. Yet if his prose be a statue, it is a beautiful one; like a Greek nude, Santayana’s writing seems to both represent something real, as well as to capture the ideal essence hidden within—and this, you will see, is a feature of his mind as well as pen.

A dream is always simmering beneath the conventional surface of speech and reflection. Even in the highest reaches and serenest meditations of science it sometimes breaks through. Even there we are seldom constant enough to conceive a truly natural world; somewhere passionate, fanciful, or magic elements will slip into the scheme and baffle rational ambition.

This book, his most influential, is about the Life of Reason. It is a simple idea. We all know from experience that every desire we possess cannot and will not be satisfied. Even the richest and most powerful are saddled with unrealizable dreams. And these dreams and desires, Santayana notes, are not in themselves rational; in fact, there is no such thing as a rational or irrational desire. All desires, taken on their own terms, are simply givens.

Rationality comes in when we must decide what to do with our various wishes and wants. The Life of Reason consists in selecting a subset of our desires, and pruning off all the rest; more specifically, it consists in selecting the subset of our desires that consists in the greatest number that do not thwart one another. No single desire is itself rational, but a combination of desires may be:

In itself, a desire to see a child grow and prosper is just as irrational as any other absolute desire; but since the child also desires his own happiness, the child’s will sanctions and supports the father’s. Thus two irrationalities, when they conspire, make one rational life.

This is what we all already do—at least, to a certain extent. The key is to think of everything we desire, and to select those desires which go harmoniously together, neglecting all discordant impulses; and this harmony is our ideal towards which we strive. There is, indeed, a certain tragedy in this, for the Life of Reason requires that we choke off all incompatible desires, and thus eliminate a part of ourselves; yet this tragedy is unavoidable. All life, even exceedingly happy life, has some tragedy; our lives are too short and the universe too indifferent to satisfy our every whim:

Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute in each private fate.

All this seems very commonsensical, and it is. But note that this commits you to a certain type of moral relativism: relativism of the individual. Santayana is in agreement with Aristotle in thinking that happiness is the aim of life: “Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.”

And since happiness is achieved by satisfying certain desires—somatic, sensual, or spiritual—and since desires spring from irrational impulses that we cannot control, every person’s happiness will, or at least might, be different. What would be the ideal Life of Reason for one man is a living nightmare for another. We can only prune and harmonize the desires we are given; we cannot manufacture desires and change our natures. We are given a set of propensities and potentialities, and it is the task of a reasonable life to realize them as best we can.

This, I think, is the core of this book; yet it is far from being the only attraction. Santayana’s mind is curious and roving, and in this volume he covers a huge territory. Just as Santayana’s style transforms imperfect bodies into perfect statues, so his mind is concerned with finding the ideal form in all things human. He commences a survey of governments, and concludes that a timocracy (or meritocracy) is the best form. Santayana would have total equality of opportunity, not in order to establish a perfect communism, but to select those whose natures are the best fitted to advance. Thus, he advocates a kind of natural aristocracy. (Not being a very practical man by nature, Santayana doesn’t speculate how such a perfect state could be realized.)

Santayana explores the history of morals and the morals of history; he discusses science and its purported rivals. He is an ardent naturalist, and espouses a rather pragmatic view of truth: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Yet I think Santayana is most refreshing when he discusses religion.

When Santayana wrote this book, he was living in a time that was, in one respect at least, very similar to our own: there was a bitter clash between science and religion. Like now, there were several thorny atheists ridiculing and dismissing religion as nonsense; and, like now, there were dogmatists who took their myths literally. Santayana is at home in neither camp; he thinks both views miss the point entirely.

Religious rituals and myths should be treated like poetry; they do not represent literal truths, but moral ones. To mistake the story in the Book of Genesis for a scientific hypothesis would be as egregious as mistaking Paradise Lost for a phonebook. The myths and stories of religions are products of culture, which express, in symbolic guise, deep truths about one’s history, society, and self. Thus, both the bilious atheists and the doctrinaire devotees were overlooking what was beautiful in religion:

Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.

This brings me to my original point: that Santayana was the embodiment of several contradictions. He holds no supernatural beliefs, yet admires religions for their deep artistic power. He is a materialist, yet thinks that life must be organized around an ideal. He is a naturalist in thinking that science is the key to truth; but he holds that science is a mere efficacious representation of reality, not reality itself. He seems antiquated in his love of aristocracy, yet modern in his relativism. He seems, from a modern point of view, analytic in his pragmatic attitude to truth and his emphasis on reason; yet he is, unlike analytic philosophers, greatly preoccupied with aesthetics, ethics, and history.

Certainly, Santayana is not without his shortcomings. Although his prose is beautiful, his concern for beauty often leads him to select a phrase for being tuneful rather than clear; the reader often expresses the half-wish that Santayana would write with less prettiness and more directness. His concern for beauty affects the content as well; he very seldom puts forward careful arguments for his positions, but more often resorts to putting them forth as attractively as possible. But I cannot help forgiving him for his faults.

For me, reading this book was a sort of thoughtful meditation; one must read it slowly and with great attention, carefully unwrapping the germinal thoughts from the flower petals in which Santayana enfolds them, so that they may bloom in your mind’s soil. Santayana may indeed be a hermit of history; yet because of his solitude, reading him is an escape from the bustle and noise of the world, a reprieve from the normal tired controversies and paradoxes, a diversion as refreshing and revitalizing as cool water.

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Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Review: Scepticism and Animal Faith

Scepticism and Animal FaithScepticism and Animal Faith by George Santayana

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Who was Santayana?

Santayana has long attracted by curiosity. He just has so many things going for him.

For one, his background is interesting: a Spanish citizen who grew up in Boston, and whose professional career was spent at Harvard during its golden age, alongside William James and Josiah Royce. Like Nabokov, he learned English as a second language; also like Nabokov, he was a fantastic writer of English prose. His philosophy is as unique as his background: a personal statement far removed from the technical problems of his discipline. And in addition to authoring several influential philosophical works, he was also a man of letters, penning a best-selling novel and autobiography. He belonged to no country and no philosophical school. He was an individual.

Seeking an entry point into the writings of this half-forgotten sage, I picked up this book: Skepticism and Animal Faith. This is meant to be a critical introduction to a longer work that Santayana later wrote on metaphysics, The Realms of Being. But nowadays this book is more often read than its hefty sequel. It is a rich text. Santayana manages to compress an epistemological argument into just over 300 pages.

The first thing the reader will notice is Santayana’s writing style, which is elegant, humane, and often poetic:

Here is one more system of philosophy. If the reader is tempted to smile, I can assure him that I smile with him… My endeavor is to think straight in such terms as are offered to me, to clear my mind of cant and free it from the cramp of artificial traditions; but I do not ask any one to think in my terms if he prefers others. Let him clean better, if he can, the windows of his soul, that the variety and beauty of the prospect may spread more brightly before him.

He also has a knack for aphorisms. “Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.”

But lurking underneath this melodious stream of words is quite a sophisticated philosophical argument. Ironically, Santayana’s eloquence actually makes him harder to understand than other, less literary, writers. He takes pains to clothe his thoughts in fine words, when more cumbersome and less artful language would actually make his point easier to grasp. By the time that I got halfway through this book, I felt uncertain that I was following his argument.

Seeking guidance, I picked up John Lachs’s On Santayana, which is a marvelous little book that I recommend to anybody struggling. For what it’s worth, I put my own attempted summary in this review.

Santayana in a Nutshell

Santayana was a realist, a materialist, a naturalist, and an epiphenomenalist. By realist I mean that he believed that reality existed independently of it being perceived. He is a materialist in that he thinks that matter, not mind, is the fundamental stuff of nature. He is a naturalist in that he thinks scientific investigation is the only valid explanation for the universe; that natural laws, not supernatural principles, are what govern reality.

Epiphenomenalism is just a fancy word indicating the view that mind is distinct from matter, but fully and totally dependent on matter. Someone who holds this view believes that mental events cannot possibly influence or affect material events. For example, you see a bear; the sight of the bear triggers a flight-or-flight mechanism in your limbic system; you run away. Subjectively you have the experience of seeing, of feeling fear, and of deciding to run away. But your body performs this action because of things happening in your brain, which fully determine the things that happen in your mind; not the reverse.

Think of foam on the top of an ocean wave. The foam only appears if the wave is tall and fast enough. The presence of this foam has no effect on the height or speed of the wave; it is a byproduct of certain conditions. This is what an epiphenomenalist thinks of the body (the wave) and the mind (the foam).

These are his general conclusions; so how does he arrive at them?

Santayana’s Epistemology

Like Descartes, Santayana starts the book by doubting everything that can be doubted. But Santayana finds—to his and our astonishment—that he can doubt himself out of existence. He doesnt get himself down to just a transcendental ego, like Descartes or Husserl; instead, at the end of Santayana’s doubting, all that remains is pure appearance.

Perhaps ‘doubt’ isn’t quite the right word for this kind of radical skepticism, since the word is too active; a better term would be ‘letting go.’ Santayana’s ultimate skeptic is completely and totally engrossed by pure appearance. Like a sage having a mystical vision, the experience absorbs him entirely—so entirely that the idea of him somehow being a distinct entity, or somehow possessing a quality called ‘existence’, couldn’t even be thought.

There’s no logical or philosophical way to return from this kind of skepticism. There is no argument that can be made; no kind of being that can be posited. The ultimate skeptic exists in a timeless, egoless ecstasy of images.

The thrust of this argument is that the Cartesian method of arguing outward from a condition of doubt can’t work; it’s an insoluble puzzle.

But clearly most people—including most philosophers—don’t doubt themselves senseless. They eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and fall in love. Idealists (who think all is mental) still enjoy eating spaghetti; anti-realists (who don’t think anything exists independently of perception) still run out of the way of oncoming traffic. Underneath all of the varied customs in history and around the world, in spite of all the different philosophies concerning the nature of reality, certain fundamental assumptions are constant to human behavior. And these assumptions, taken together, Santayana calls animal faith.

For example, one influential idea in the history of philosophy is phenomenalism. This is the view of knowledge which holds that, since we can never experience something that isn’t a perception, it is illogical to posit something that is ‘behind’ or ‘responsible for’ the perception, which in itself cannot be perceived. No such unperceivable object is necessary, they argue; the perception is self-sufficient. Imagine an apple. Now remove the color; now remove the texture; now remove the shape; now remove the taste; now remove the smell. What’s left? Nothing. Therefore (argue phenomenalists) an apple is merely a collection of sensations; nothing more.

Santayana responds by saying, of course we can never perceive something that isn’t perceivable; that much is obvious. And of course we can’t have evidence for something we didn’t observe; that would be a contradiction. But nobody acts on the phenomenalist assumption; nobody acts as though sensations constitute all reality; we all assume that substance exists. Now, Santayana uses the word ‘substance’ to indicate the thing that exists independently of it being perceived. He doesn’t mean that substance is metaphysical, distinct from physical objects; to the contrary, Santayana thinks that substance is a name for the fundamental constituents of matter—whatever they might be.

It is a tenet of animal faith that things are more than mere sensations. Nobody thinks that, if they were standing in front of an oncoming trolley, closing their eyes and plugging their ears would make it disappear. And we all consider children to be the same individuals as the adults they eventually become—a gratuitous assumption, in the phenomenalist view, since the sensations associated with the person have changed entirely. If you left your house to go to work, and returned to find that a large tree had fallen and crushed it, I bet you wouldn’t conclude that the house was a certain set of sensations when you left, and is now a different set of sensations. Rather, we all assume that the tree which fell in the forest did make a sound (or at least made vibrations travel through the air) and did destroy your house—even though you weren’t around to hear and see it.

Santayana’s point is that we believe in substance not for logical reasons, nor for experiential reasons; in fact, as far as logic and experience go, the phenomenalist argument is quite compelling. But we can’t help believing in substance. It is an assumptions that is inescapable. All attempts to doubt substance presuppose it. And any philosophical criticisms of substance are bound to be hypocritical, since the philosopher who offers the criticism also operates via animal faith.

So the task of epistemology, Santayana argues, is merely to describe these fundamental beliefs that make up animal faith. We all already assume and act as if knowledge is possible; that experience can be trusted; that reality is more than sensation or ideas. So all epistemological inquiries into the possibility of knowledge are bloodless, academic exercises—the wild play of the imagination when sophistry is embraced. These arguments are as far removed from reality as the wildest myths.

Santayana’s realization that he must believe certain things in order to function, regardless of their logical cogency, leads him to his materialism, his naturalism, and his realism.

This more or less sums up Santayana’s epistemological argument. What is his metaphysical argument? I confess that I found this aspect of his thinking both harder to understand and to accept. But I’ll do my best to explain it.

Santayana’s Metaphysics

Santayana thinks that there is not one simple type of being, but four distinct types of being: matter, essence, truth, and spirit. His conceptualizations of truth, matter, and spirit are hardly touched upon in this volume. Santayana spends most of his time explaining his notion of essence. His definition of essence, however, I find puzzling.

Before I muddle things up, here are some of the ways Santayana defines essence:

The realm of essence is not peopled by choice forms or magic powers. It is simply the unwritten catalogue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed. It is the sum of mentionable objects, of terms about which, or in which, something might be said.

Later, he says “distinction, infinitely minute and indelible distinction from everything else, is what essence means.” I don’t know about you, but I’m still confused. Is an essence a potential object of experience? Is essence an adjective that isn’t necessarily attached to a noun? A disembodied quality? But Santayana thinks that essences exist independently of both mind and matter; they are eternal and infinite. But how could a quality exist independently of a perceiving mind to take note of it?

This quote made it more clear to me: “Substance is the speaker and substance is the theme; intuition is only the act of speaking or hearing, and the given essence is the audible word.” Let us recall Santayana’s view of the mind. Santayana thinks consciousness is an inner myth; that our experiences are quite literally fiction. But it is fiction that allows us to operate in the world.

When we see the color red, for example, we see a completely arbitrary mental representation of a certain wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. This representation is neither true nor false; it is a sort of visual symbol that indicates to you that something is in your environment. It is confirmed in experience when you point to a stop sign and say “that’s red,” and your friends agree with you. Similarly, the smell of spaghetti and meatball is an arbitrary mental representation of the atoms and molecules that are buzzing through the air and hitting your nostrils. Whether this is the ‘true’ smell of the spaghetti is besides the point; what matters is that this smell reliably indicates the presence of delicious food that makes your belly feel full and doesn’t poison your body. In summary, sensations are signposts that tell you what to do and where to go; they aren’t the things themselves.

Words are also arbitrary signs. The word ‘red’ is normally not printed in red ink; and the words ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ don’t smell like spaghetti and meatballs.

Now imagine there’s somebody near you speaking a foreign language. At least you think it’s a foreign language. For all you know, it could be meaningless gibberish. The only thing you know for sure is that it’s speech. You listen to the speech; but instead of listening as you usually do—interpreting the audible sounds into various meanings—you listen to the pure sound of it. In other words, instead of paying attention to the significance of the sign, you pay attention to the qualities of the sign itself.

The pure qualities of sensations are, I think, what Santayana is getting at with his term ‘essence’. The pure experience of red; the pure smell of spaghetti and meatballs. By ‘pure’ I mean the qualities of the sensation as a sensation—not purporting to signify something beyond the sensation. They are the qualities that differentiate one sensation from another. The visual qualities that make the letter A what it is are its essence. Every shade of red has its own essence. Every possible object of experience has its own essence—often multiple.

Parting Thought

In case you haven’t already guessed from this laborious summary, I found this book extremely engrossing. I must wait until I read his Realms of Being to pronounce on his metaphysics. But as an epistemological notion, I find “animal faith” extremely useful—and worth revisiting.

One of the things I most like about Santayana is his constant concern with the lived ramifications of philosophy:

My criticism is not a learned pursuit, though habit may sometimes make my language scholastic; it is not a choice between artificial theories; it is the discipline of my daily thoughts and the account I actually give to myself from moment to moment of my own being and of the world around me.

But to this humane and classical conception of philosophy, Santayana adds a considerable amount of dialectical sophistication. Thus in the same breath his system is convincing and vital.

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Review: The Complete Essays

Review: The Complete Essays

The Complete EssaysThe Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

e’ssay. (2) A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
—From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.

Now I finally have an answer to the famous “desert island book” question: This book. It would have to be. Not that Montaigne’s Essays is necessarily the greatest book I’ve ever read—it’s not. But here Montaigne managed to do something that has eluded the greatest of our modern science: to preserve a complete likeness of a person. Montaigne lives and breathes in these pages, just as much as he would if he’d been cryogentically frozen and brought back to life before your eyes.

Working your way through this book is a little like starting a relationship. At first, it’s new and exciting. But eventually the exhilaration wears off. You begin looking for other books, missing the thrill of first love. But what Montaigne lacks in bells and whistles, he more than compensates for with his constant companionship. You learn about the intimacies of his eating habits and bowel movements, his philosophy of sex as well as science, his opinion on doctors and horsemanship. He lets it all hang out. And after a long and stressful day, you know Montaigne will be waiting on your bedside table to tell you a funny anecdote, to have easygoing conversation, or to just pass the time.

To quote Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Montaigne’s essays are to be sipped. This book took me a grand total of six months to read. I would dip into it right before bed—just a few pages. Sometimes, I tried to spend more time on the essays, but I soon gave it up. Montaigne’s mind drifts from topic to topic like a sleepwalker. He has no attention span for longwinded arguments or extended exposition. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but almost. As a result, whenever I tried to spend an hour on his writing, I got bored.

Plus, burning your way through this book would ruin the experience of it. Another reviewer called Montaigne’s Essays the “introvert’s Bible”. This is a very perceptive comment. For me, there was something quasi-religious in the ritual of reading a few pages of this book right before bed—night after night after night. For everything Montaigne lacks in intelligence, patience, diligence, and humility, he makes up for with his exquisite sanity. I can find no other word to describe it. Dipping into his writing is like dipping a bucket into a deep well of pure, blissful sanity. It almost seems like a contradiction to call someone “profoundly down-to-earth,” but that’s just it. Montaigne makes the pursuit of living a reasonable life into high art.

Indeed, I find something in Montaigne’s quest for self-knowledge strangely akin to religious thinking. In Plato’s system, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the abstract realm of ideals; and in the Upanishads, self-knowledge leads to the conception of the totality of the cosmos. For Montaigne, self-knowledge is the key to knowledge of the human condition. In his patient cataloging of his feelings and opinions, Montaigne shows that there is hardly anything like an unchanging ‘self’ at the center of our being, but we are rather an ever-changing flux of emotions, thoughts, memories, anxieties, hopes, and sensations. Montaigne is a Skeptic one moment, an Epicurean another, a Stoic still another, and finally a Christian.

And isn’t this how it always is? You may take pride in a definition of yourself—a communist, a musician, a vegan—but no simple label ever comes close to pinning down the chaotic stream that is human life. We hold certain principles near and dear one moment, and five minutes later these principles are forgotten with the smell of lunch. The most dangerous people, it seems, are those that do try to totalize themselves under one heading or one creed. How do you reason with a person like that?

I’ve read too much Montaigne—now I’m rambling. To return to this book, I’m both sorry that I’ve finished it, and excited that it’s done. Now I can move on to another bedside book. But if I ever feel myself drifting towards radicalism, extremism, or if I start to think abstract arguments are more important than the real stuff of human life, I will return to my old friend Montaigne. This is a book that could last you a lifetime.

Narcicus Caravaggio

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Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

The Guide of the PerplexedThe Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This treatise has as its principal object to clarify the meaning of certain terms in the Bible.

Moses Maimonides, born in 1135, was and remains the most famous Jewish theologian in history, and this is his most influential book. Well, this is a part of his most influential book; more specifically, this is about a quarter of the whole work, the other three quarters having been pruned away by the editors of this volume. This was ideal for me, dabbler that I am, especially considering that the abridgement, so far as I can tell, was made with taste and skill.

The first striking aspect of this book is its accessibility. Maimonides writes simply and directly; indeed, sometimes I found the tone a bit pedestrian. The sentence I quoted above, the first sentence of the book, is quite typical of Maimonides. The work is written in the form of a (very long) letter to a perplexed pupil, broken into bite-sized chapters for easy comprehension. The only technical terms are those derived from Aristotle—essence, form, matter, etc.—which posed no problem for me.

The second striking aspect of The Guide is how similar Maimonides’s intellectual approach is to that of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the aim of both thinkers was more or less the same: to provide a rational defense and systemization of their respective faiths. Both lean heavily on Aristotle for this task, adopting his doctrines, terms, arguments, and philosophical style.

Of course this isn’t a coincidence. The attempt to harmonize Greek thought, specifically Aristotle, with religious thinking originated, I believe, with Muslim philosophers, and later spread to Europe. Maimonides himself was born in Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus), wrote in Arabic, and was clearly well read in Islamic philosophy. Later on, the works of Aristotle, translated from Greek into Arabic, entered Europe through Toledo, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin so that people like Aquinas could read them. Aquinas also read Maimonides, by the way.

Thus the three Abrahamic religions were engaged in almost the same philosophical project during this time. But of course, being of different faiths, the thinkers reached different conclusions. For example, Maimonides’s conception of God is strikingly different from Aquinas’s. Instead of expounding on all the different perfections of God, as does Aquinas—his omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, necessary existence—Maimonides holds that God’s essence cannot be described in any satisfactory way. In fact, Maimonides’s conception of God strongly reminded me of, and was perhaps influenced by, the Neo-Platonist conception of The One, the mystical, mysterious, ineffable fountainhead of all existence. Like Plotinus says of The One, Maimonides asserts that we cannot even attribute existence to God, since he holds that existing things are always composite, while there is nothing composite about God.

But for me, Maimonides’s most interesting opinion was his explanation of rituals, worship, and animal sacrifices. As he points out, “what is the purpose of His worship, since God’s perfection is not increased even if everything He has created worships Him and apprehends Him to the utmost possible degree, nor is it at all diminished if there is nothing in existence beside Him?”

For Maimonides the purpose of religious practice is not to please God through worship, but to know Him by training the mind and purifying the soul. The reason that God commanded rituals and sacrifices was only because the original Chosen People were still accustomed to idolatry, and thus they would not have accepted the true religion if they were not allowed to practice their religious customs. The rituals were, therefore, a kind of transitional device, allowing the people to turn their thoughts from idols to the true God. I found this explanation remarkable, since it anticipates the modern, historical approach to religion, while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Maimonides insists that the exterior forms of a ceremony are totally irrelevant if the practitioner is not thinking of God. It is the mental state of the worshipper, not their ritual actions, that are essential. This doctrine also reminded me of Neo-Platonic mysticism, wherein the final goal is a direct knowledge of the The One through mental discipline. But Maimonides is not so straightforwardly mystical as Plotinus, as he places much more emphasis on rational argument and the holding of the correct metaphysical and theological opinions.

This book was obviously not intended for me, since I am a nonbeliever, and Maimonides considers nonbelievers beneath contempt and not even worth responding to. Thus this book was of purely historical interest for me. This is, of course, not a bad thing, and indeed as a historical document it is rewarding. But I cannot say I found it an exhilarating read, since I not only disagreed with Maimonides’s conclusions but with his methods and his premises. Nevertheless, I am very glad to have read the book, if only because I have been intending to ever since my trip to Córdoba, his birthplace, and stood next to his statue in the Jewish district of that old city. Just like walking through those crooked, cobblestone streets, reading this book is a voyage in time.

(Photo by Selbymay; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings

Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings

Medieval Islamic Philosophical WritingsMedieval Islamic Philosophical Writings by Muhammad Ali Khalidi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as one must protect unskilled swimmers from perilous shores, people must be shielded from reading philosophical books.

For a long time, I’ve been bothered by the tremendous gap in my philosophical reading. Most of the medieval period is simply a blank for me, an intermission that stretches from Boethius (480 – 524) to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Part of the problem is that, for a variety of reasons, in most of Europe not much notable philosophy was being written in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire; the major Christian philosophical project, scholasticism, didn’t get on its feet until St. Anselm (1093 – 1109) started writing. But another problem is that, owing to Western provincialism, most of the good philosophy written during these years isn’t read nowadays, because it was written by Muslims.

This collection was expressly put together to rectify this situation, and it does the job admirably. Now, instead of an enormous gap, I can move comfortably from Boethius to Al-Farabi (872 – 950), to Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna (980 – 1037), to Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111), to Ibn Tufail (1105 – 1185), and finally to Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1126 – 1198). This progression completes not only the temporal picture, but has the geographic advantage of leading from Baghdad to the Iberian Peninsula. We thus see the trajectory through which the works of Aristotle, preserved in Arabic translation, as well as copious commentary on Aristotle’s works, entered Europe, where they later gained ascendency.

The editor and translator of this volume, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, put it together for non-specialists. He made his selection with the hopes of showing the relevance of these thinkers to contemporary philosophical questions; but he also hoped to show something of the cultural significance of these philosophers. None of the selections is very long, and none is very difficult. It is a mere tasting, not a feast. For me, it was perfect, since I have only a layman’s interest in the subject.

My interest was ignited in medieval Islamic culture through my visits to Andalusia, where I was continually astounded by the beauty of Moorish architecture. If a culture was vibrant enough to build the Great Mosque in Cordoba, I figured, then they must have had some excellent thinkers too—which they certainly did.

In what follows are my brief summaries and reactions to each of the pieces in this collection. But before that, I want to add my reflections on the whole. What most struck me during my reading was how familiar were the styles and ideas. Truly, medieval Islamic philosophy does not represent some alien tradition, or a mere curiosity, nor were these philosophers mere preservers of the Greeks; rather, they should be regarded as an integral part of western philosophical history.

The fact that we still read Aquinas but seldom Maimonides and rarely Averroes has little to do with merit, and more to do with religious allegiance. All three of these traditions were engaged in similar philosophical projects—namely, the harmonization of faith with reason, relying heavily on Aristotle. Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the persistent Islamophobia (and Anti-Semitism) in the West would be less virulent if history were not taught in such a fashion that the contributions of Jews and Muslims to European culture were not so deemphasized. But I suppose that’s another matter.

Al-Farabi. Like nearly everyone in this collection, Al-Farabi was a polymath, writing not only on philosophy, but on music, math, science, and cosmology. But he is perhaps most important for being one of the first and most prominent Muslim philosophers to elevate Aristotle as the epitome of reason. His work in this collection is taken from The Book of Letters. It puts forward a schematic philosophy of history, during which he lays out what he considers the essential stages of historical development. Most striking is Al-Farabi’s elevation of philosophy. According to him, nearly every other discipline, practical or theoretical, stems from philosophy. Even religion takes second place. In Al-Farabi’s opinion, prophets do not access supernatural knowledge, but merely transform the insights of philosophers into metaphorical garb, so that common people can understand them. Indeed, for Al-Farabi almost all religion is just popularized, allegorized, simplified philosophy—Aristotelianism for the people, you might say.

Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, is the Thomas Aquinas of Islamic philosophy, except perhaps greater. An astounding polymath, he not only wrote encyclopedias of science and philosophy, but an encyclopedia of medicine that was still being used in Renaissance Italy. Like Aquinas, and like Aristotle himself, Avicenna was a great systematizer. He had a prosaic, orderly, and remarkably capacious mind, allowing him to compose encyclopedic works in many disparate subjects. In this collection is the short work, On the Soul, which is an investigation into the capacities of the human mind, with a special emphasis on epistemology. Unlike Al-Farabi, Avicenna didn’t consider prophets to be popularizers, but a kind of super-philosopher whose intellects intuit things faster than other people’s.

Al-Ghazali probably wouldn’t like being called a philosopher. He was, rather, a mystic who wrote against philosophy. Included in this collection is his Rescuer from Errors, which is a sort of intellectual autobiography. In it, he describes a crisis of faith he experienced when he realized that his religion was mere conformity. After doubting everything, he proceeded to study theology, which he found inadequate, and then philosophy, which he found slightly better, and eventually settled on being a mystic. This was by far my favorite work in this collection. Al-Ghazali is an excellent writer, and his procedure of radical doubt can’t help but remind one of Descartes. Indeed, if you’re inclined to doubt the existence of the world, becoming a mystic might be a more rational solution than the one Descartes settled upon.

Ibn Tufail (sometimes called Abubekar) was born in Moorish Spain, near Granada. In addition to being a philosopher, he was a novelist, physician, and court official during his lifetime. (Reading the biographies of these guys makes you really mourn the rise of specialization.) He contributes the longest section to this book, in the form of Hayy bin Yaqzan. Not exactly a work of philosophy, it is rather the description of a man born and raised in social isolation on a deserted island. The titular character, using nothing but his cleverness, manages to deduce the entirety of Aristotelian thought, and eventually becomes a mystic. I suppose this story was meant to demonstrate that revealed religion wasn’t necessary to reach the truth, but that a monotheistic mysticism could be deduced from experience. I found it quite unconvincing.

Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, was born in Córdoba (the same city where Seneca and Maimonides were born), and was perhaps the greatest Muslim philosopher after Avicenna. Interestingly, Averroes’s influence was bigger in Christian Europe than in Islam, because many of his key positions were seen as heretical. After his death came the trend known as Averroism, which held, among other things, that the individual soul is not eternal, only the universal soul which every individual shares. In this collection we find his The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a work written in refutation of Al-Ghazali’s work The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali attempted to demonstrate that belief in causes and natural laws was heretical; there are no laws, Al-Ghazali held, and no causes except the direct intervention of God. Averroes quotes Al-Ghazali in extenso, and then argues against him point by point. The final effect is of a real debate, since Al-Ghazali anticipated many of the rejections that Averroes brought against him.

Well, that’s it for my review. I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there is a lot of historical and philosophical value in these pages, and in Islamic philosophy generally.

(Cover photo by Timor Espallargas; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: City of God

Review: City of God

City of GodCity of God by Augustine of Hippo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once on the beach at Utica, I saw with my own eyes—and there were others to bear me witness—a human molar tooth so big that it could have been cut up, I think, into a hundred pieces each as big as one of our modern teeth.

I’m trying to think of books that might be equal to this one in importance to Western history: Plato’s Republic? the works of Aristotle? Euclid’s Elements? Homer’s epics? There aren’t many. This book arguably set the tone for the entire Middle Ages that followed. It is a vast, sweeping, powerful, and cockamamie book; it is a true classic.

Augustine wrote The City of God over a period of 13 years. He began the work when he was 59, and finished it when he was 72. The work was occasioned by the capture of Rome in 410 by the ‘barbarian’ leader Alaric, king of the Visigoths. It was a brutal defeat for the Romans, with much destruction, rape, pillage, and death. More than that, it was a symbolic defeat, the first time Rome had been taken by a foreign enemy in hundreds of years. Unsurprisingly, the remaining pagans blamed the newly ascendant Christians for this calamity. If the old gods were worshiped, the critics argued, this never would have happened. Rome was never taken when Jupiter was praised and when Nike, goddess of victory, was gracing the Curia of the Roman Senate. (The statue of Nike, the Altar of Victory, had been removed from the Curia by Constantius II, briefly reinstalled by Julian the Apostate, and then removed again.) In short, the Roman Empire was collapsing and it was all the Christians’ fault.

These accusations were what prompted Augustine to begin this work; but as the book grew, so did Augustine’s ambitions. By the middle, the beginning has been forgotten; and by the end, the middle is a distant memory. Because Augustine frequently interrupts his main points to indulge in lengthy digressions, the reader is often mired in pages and pages of side-issues and curiosities. Yet there does remain one vital central idea. It is therefore quite tough to give a fair impression of this book’s contents. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, if I focus only on Augustine’s main thesis, then it will make this chaotic jumble seem too unified and focused; yet if I lose myself in the details, then I’ll omit its most lasting contribution. I even have it easier than most readers, since I read an abridgment—meant to cut out much of the extraneous material. Even so, there is a new topic on almost every page. So I think I’ll follow Russell’s approach in his History of Western Philosophy and give you a taste of some digressions before tackling Augustine’s more major themes.

Early on in the book, Augustine considers whether virgins who were raped in the sack of Rome have lost their virginity. He argues that, as long as they did not consent and did not enjoy it, they are still virgins. Augustine even argues that being raped might have been a good thing for some of them, since it taught them not to be haughty about their virginity. (It’s frightening that, at the time, this opinion was considered quite progressive.) He considers whether the extremely long lifespans reported of some Biblical figures (such as Adam’s purportedly 900-year long life) should be interpreted literally, or whether, as some argued, 10 years back then was equivalent to 1 of our years, thus arriving at a more realistic figure for Adam’s age, 90. (Augustine thinks Adam did live 900 years.) In resolving this question, Augustine notes that there are several discrepancies in the ages reported of certain people in different versions of the Bible; specifically, the original Hebrew Bible said one thing, and the Septuagint said another. (For those who don’t know, the Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Bible, done by 70 Jewish scribes in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE at the behest of the Egyptian king, Ptolemy II. The legend says that all 70 scribes completed their translations separately, only comparing them at the end, and they turned out to be all miraculously identical.) Augustine concludes that, though the Septuagint was indeed divinely inspired, where it differed from the original Hebrew, the original should be trusted.

In a lengthy section, Augustine attempts to correlate secular history with biblical history, doing his best to place the events of the Old Testament in the context of Greek and Roman history. He even speculates on the possibility that Plato might have read parts of the Old Testament, since parts of Plato’s Timeaus are so similar to the Book of Genesis. Augustine is against judicial torture, thinking it vile and illogical to torture witnesses and the accused. He anticipates Descartes’s cogito ergo sum: “In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say; ‘What if you are mistaken?’—well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can be no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.” (By the by, Augustine also anticipated Kant’s subjective theory of time, which Augustine put forth in the eleventh book of his Confessions.) Augustine attempts to prove that living, physical bodies can, indeed, be tortured endlessly in the fires of hell, since, as everyone knows, salamanders live in fire, and peacock meat never putrefies. So what’s so miraculous about human bodies endlessly burning in the flames?

I actually can’t resist including a bit more about the peacock meat. Apparently, having heard from someone else that peacock meat never spoils, Augustine set aside a piece of roasted peacock meat when he was served it at a friend’s house. He observed this piece of meat for a whole year, noting that even after all that time it never began to stink; it only got dry and shriveled. Now, presumably the piece of meat had been thoroughly cooked and salted, so make of that what you will. While I’m at it, I also want to include a story Augustine tells about a friend of his who had hemorrhoids and had to have surgery. As the man was fearful of going under the knife, Augustine and several other friends had a loud and fervent prayer session before the surgery. (If I had to get surgery back then, I’d be praying too.) And the surgery was a success!

Now for some more meaty issues. Augustine formulates here the idea of original sin, arguing that Adam’s fall changed the nature of humankind, filling us with sinful desires and causing death to enter the world. Augustine thinks, for example, that before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose to have sex without any feeling of sexual desire; all of the physiological prerequisites for intercourse (to use a polite expression) were under just as much control as our arms and legs. In short, Adam could just choose to have an erection without feeling horny. But now, in order to reproduce, we are at the mercy of our desires, which we cannot directly control and which threaten to overwhelm our rational minds. Thus is the sorry state of fallen man. As a consequence of this belief, Augustine also argues that unbaptized infants go to hell; not being cleansed of original sin, they simply must. By the way, there are several memorable passages in Augustine’s extraordinary autobiography, his Confessions, where he chastises his infant self for being so greedy of food and drink, and so selfish of love and attention.

Several other ideas are connected to Augustine’s conception of original sin. Since humankind is fallen, it is impossible for us without God’s aid to do good deeds and to achieve salvation; salvation is granted from God, it is a gift of divine grace, not something we earn. Augustine also believed in predestination. God, being omniscient, foreknew which people would end up saved, and which would end up damned. So in addition to anticipating Descartes and Kant, Augustine also anticipates Calvin. (From what I hear, a lot of the Protestant Reformation involved a return to Augustine’s teachings, but I’m not so knowledgeable about this.) I should point out that these ideas weren’t commonly accepted at the time. Just the reverse: many people argued vociferously against these doctrines. Notably, Pelagius, an ascetic from England, argued that humans were not born already damned (or, in other words, there was no ‘original sin’ in the Augustan sense); that humans had absolute free will, and thus were not predestined to be saved or damned; and that the grace of God was not necessary to do good works. Augustine combated Pelagius’s ideas with his typical intolerant zeal, considering them heresies, and succeeded, after a long fight, in making his own opinions orthodox for a long time to come.

As befitting a great Christian thinker, Augustine also tackles some of the perennial problems of Christian philosophy. One of these is free will. Now, without free will, the entire worldview of Christianity collapses, since then there is no fair basis of separating people into the saved and the damned. Yet God is omnipotent and omniscient; this means that when He created the world, He knew exactly what was going to happen. So how can we reconcile these attributes of God with free will? Augustine does so by noting that, although God knows what you will do and whether you will be saved, His knowing doesn’t cause you to make the choices you make.

Augustine also addresses the so-called problem of evil. This is another classic paradox of Christianity, which results from trying to harmonize the undeniable existence of evil in the world with God’s omnipotence and His infinite goodness. If God was truly all-powerful and purely good, why is there evil in the world? Augustine makes several classic replies.

First, he notes that, by allowing some evil in parts of creation, the whole might be, by consequence, even better, as the resulting goodness outweighs the evil. In short, goodness is cheap unless it is tested with temptation; so the presence of some evil is necessary for the existence of good. Augustine also notes that God never causes evil directly, since it is only His creatures that choose evil. For Augustine, as for many others, evil doesn’t really exist; evil is a lack of existence, the same way darkness is a lack of light and cold a lack of heat. Thus, God never created anything evil; all existence, as existence, is good; His creatures, through their own perversity, have sometimes chosen evil. So even Satan himself, insofar as he exists, is good; though his nature has been corrupted by his wicked ways (this corruption presumably being some sort of deficiency in his existence). Augustine even plays with Aristotelian terminology, saying that evil never has an efficient cause (the direct, or proximate, cause of something), but only a deficient cause.

I know that my opinion is not worth nearly as much as Augustine’s in this matter, but I do want to include my thoughts. I don’t find Augustine’s answer to the problem of evil satisfactory. And this is because, even if God is not indeed the proximate cause of evil, He would still be the ultimate cause, since He created the universe with full knowledge that evil would result from His action. It’s like this: If I am a leader of a country, and choose to go to war with another country, I am not the direct cause of people dying—that was presumably the guns and other weapons. And arguably the soldiers on both sides do have some share in the responsibility, since each of them chose to participate, to fight, to kill, to risk their lives, and so on. Yet ultimately it was my decision to send all these people into battle, and I think I would share a large portion of the responsibility and (if the action were unjust) the guilt. If the war was indeed justified and necessary, and the result was good for the world, that would make the action excusable, but it would not negate all of the pain and suffering inflicted on the soldiers, nor would it make me any less responsible for their fate.

Besides, I find this whole business of balancing good and evil, as if weighing a scale, quite absurd. If an innocent person suffers, if a single child is abused or crippled by sickness, how can any amount of goodness elsewhere make that okay? Here’s an example. Imagine there are ten people on an island with very limited food. There is only enough food for each person to stay alive, but not enough to make them energetic and happy. So when all ten people are living there, eating the food available, the total satisfaction-level is around 40%. Now, if nine of them ganged up on the last one, and killed and ate him, it’s possible that, even though there would be a lot of pain inflicted on that one man, the joy experienced by the remaining nine of having real meat, and the extra resources freed up on the island by having one less person, might in the long run make the general satisfaction-level higher—perhaps 60%. Does that justify killing the man? I think not. My point is that the happiness of the many cannot be balanced against the misery of the few, like an accountant balancing an earnings report.

Now, I know this review is already extremely long, but I haven’t even gotten to Augustine’s main thesis—the City of God. Augustine divides up humankind into two metaphorical cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Members of the City of Man are swollen with pride; they think that they can achieve happiness in this life, through satisfying their bodily desires or by practicing human virtue; by creating peaceful cities and just laws; by trade, wealth, power, fame, and wisdom. Yet, noble as some of them may be, this goal is pure vanity. In this life, we are too beset with troubles and uncertainties to have real happiness. States try to create justice, but their laws are frail human creations, constantly failing to attain their goal of absolute justice—since so many sinners go unpunished and so many innocents are unduly condemned—with the result that the laws are always being changed, updated, reformed, and differ from country to country, from place to place, all without getting any closer to their goal. The Stoics attempt to achieve happiness through virtue alone, without any hope of heaven; and yet how often do painful disease, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a scheme, the unquenchable passions in our breast overwhelm our reason and cast us into abject misery? Members of the City of God are not exempt from any of these miseries. However, they know that they are mere pilgrims on this earth. They place their hopes, not in this life, but in the life to come. Thus they are not misled by the vanities of earthly happiness, but act in harmony with God’s will to achieve salvation.

This doctrine, though simple enough, proved to be immensely influential. Augustine not only separates church and state, but subordinates the state to the church. Temporal authority is just the product of consensus, while the authority of the church comes from God. The resultant history of the Middle Ages, with the rising political power of the Catholic Church, owes much to Augustine for its intellectual justification and formulation. Again, the importance and influence of this book could hardly be overestimated.

After spending so much energy reading, summarizing, and responding to this book, I am almost at a loss for how to make a final evaluation. Augustine is obviously a genius of the highest order, and even now it is difficult for me to avoid be sucked into the endless labyrinths of his mind. This is especially impressive to me when I consider that I am not a Catholic, not even a Christian, and disagree with almost everything he says. More than that, although I have immense admiration for his originality and his brilliance, I often find his perspective unhealthy, intolerant, dogmatic, and generally unappealing. Perhaps what I like least about Augustine is his incredible, I would even say his morbid, sense of sin.

In his Confessions, there is a famous section where he berates his child-self for stealing a peach from a peach tree. From his rhetoric, you would think that he committed a genocide; even after all these years, he seems wracked with guilt and filled with shame. To me, as I suspect to many others nowadays, this is absurd, even a bit childish. I admit a part of me wants to admire him for feeling so bad for his misdeeds; but when I really think it over, I do not even find this admirable. The sense of sin is, in my opinion, an unrealistic and unhealthy way of thinking. I think the whole idea of sin is wrong-headed. Sins are not mere bad deeds or mistakes, but, in Augustine’s view, the byproduct of our ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful’ nature, with the power to actively corrupt and taint our immortal souls. In other words, sin is a reflection of our ‘true self’, or at least a part of it, and acting out these evil impulses makes us unworthy human beings, fit for eternal torture.

This makes no sense to me. Sometimes people commit bad actions; but, to me, it is more sensible to focus on why the action was bad, rather than how the person is evil for committing this action. For example, if I get angry and say something hurtful to my friend, I can respond to it by isolating what I said, figuring out why I said it, determining why my friend thought it was hurtful—which requires empathy—and then apologizing to my friend and trying to learn from this experience. Or I might, as Augustine would, start thinking about how I have done an evil thing, pray incessantly, beg God for forgiveness, and for years afterward torment myself with the thought of this wrong action. The first is adult and responsible, the second is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. To me, this endless chastisement for bad actions is immature on many levels.

First, the sin is attributed to your ‘sinful nature’, rather than to a habit of yours or to a mistaken assumption, which I think is plain hogwash, and which also doesn’t help you focus on what really caused the problem; nobody is inherently evil or good: we have bad or good habits, and can change them if we want. Second, since the sense of sin makes people obsess about whether they will be damned or saved, it makes people think about their actions through an intensely selfish lens—their own fate—rather than promoting good behavior through empathizing with those around you. So in summary I find the idea of sin to be counterproductive to living a happy and ethical life.

This is what I find most intensely unattractive about Augustine’s personality. Yet, if I am to practice what I preach, I must not condemn Augustine the man for this behavior, but only a bad habit of thinking he developed. And if I am to weigh everything lovable and unlovable in the scales of my affection, I must admit that I find Augustine to be one of the most compelling personalities and extraordinary thinkers in all of history. This is not a book for just Catholics, or even just for Christians. This is a book for everyone, for all of time. So to repeat the words that lead to Augustine’s conversion to the faith, Pick up and read, pick up and read, pick up and read.

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Review: Aristotle’s Physics

Review: Aristotle’s Physics

PhysicsPhysics by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the ancient thinkers that medieval Christians could have embraced, it always struck me as pretty remarkable that Aristotle was chosen. Of course, ‘chosen’ isn’t the right word; rather, it was something of a historical coincidence, since Aristotle’s works were available in Latin translation, while those of Plato were not.

Nonetheless, Aristotle strikes me as a particularly difficult thinker to build a monotheistic worldview around. There’s simply nothing mystical about him. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, and his eyes are level with the horizon. Whereas mystics see the unity of everything, Aristotle divides up the world into neat parcels, providing lists of definitions and categories wherever he turns. Whereas mystics tend to scorn human knowledge, Aristotle was apparently very optimistic about the potential reach of the human mind—since he so manifestly did his best to know everything.

The only thing that I can find remotely mystical is Aristotle’s love of systems. Aristotle does not like loose ends; he wants his categories to be exhaustive, and his investigations complete. And, like a mystic, Aristotle is very confident about the reach of a priori knowledge, while his investigations of empirical reality—though admittedly impressive—are paltry in comparison with his penchant for logical deduction. At the very least, Aristotle is wont to draw many more conclusions from a limited set of observations than most moderns are comfortable with.

I admit, in the past I’ve had a hard time appreciating his writing. His style was dry; his arguments, perfunctory. I often wondered: What did so many people see in him? His tremendous influence seemed absurd after one read his works. How could he have seemed so convincing for so long?

I know from experience that when I find a respected author ludicrous, the fault is often my own. So, seeking a remedy, I decided that I would read more Aristotle; more specifically, I would read enough Aristotle until I learned to appreciate him. For overexposure can often engender a change of heart; in the words of Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” So I decided I would stick with Aristotle until I loved him. I still don’t love Aristotle, but, after reading this book, I have a much deeper respect for the man. For this book really is remarkable.

As Bertrand Russell pointed out (though it didn’t need a mind as penetrating as Russell’s to do so), hardly a sentence in this book can be accepted as accurate. In fact, from our point of view, Aristotle’s project was doomed from the start. He is investigating physical reality, but is doing so without conducting experiments; in other words, his method is purely deductive, starting from a few assumptions, most of which are wrong. Much of what Aristotle says might even seem silly—such as his dictum that “we always assume the presence in nature of the better.” Another great portion of this work is taken up by thoroughly uninteresting and unconvincing investigations, such as the definitions of ‘together’, ‘apart’, ‘touch’, ‘continuous’, and all of the different types of motions—all of which seem products of a pedantic brain rather than qualities of nature.

But the good in this work far outweighs the bad. For Aristotle commences the first (at least, the first, so far as I know) intellectually rigorous investigations of the basic properties of nature—space, time, cause, motion, and the origins of the universe. I find Aristotle’s inquiry into time particularly fascinating, for I’m not aware—at least, I can’t recall—any comparatively meticulous investigations of time by later philosophers I’ve read. Of course, Aristotle’s investigation of ‘time’ can be more properly called Aristotle’s investigation of the human experience of time, but we need not fault Aristotle for not thinking there’s a difference.

I was particularly impressed with Aristotle’s attempt to overcome Zeno’s paradoxes. He defines and re-defines time—struggling with how it can be divided, and with the exact nature of the present moment—and tries many different angles of attack. And what’s even more interesting is that Aristotle fails in his task, and even falls into Zeno’s intellectual trap by unwittingly accepting Zeno’s assumptions.

Aristotle’s attempts to tackle space were almost equally fascinating; for there, we once again see the magnificent mind of Aristotle struggling to define something of the highest degree of abstractness. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with a good definition of space. It’s hard, right? The paradox (at least, the apparent paradox) is that space has some qualities of matter—extension, volume, dimensions—without having any mass. It seems, at first sight at least, like empty space should be simply nothing, yet space itself has certain definite qualities—and anything that has qualities is, by definition, something. However, these qualities only emerge when one imagines a thing in space, for we never, in our day to day lives, encounter space itself, devoid of all content. But how could something with no mass have the quality of extension?

As is probably obvious by now, I am in no way a physicist—and, for that matter, neither was Aristotle; but his attempt is still interesting.

Aristotle does also display an admirable—though perhaps naïve—tendency to trust experience. For his refutation of the thinkers who argue that (a) everything is always in motion, and (b) everything is always at rest, is merely to point out that day-to-day experience refutes this. And Aristotle at least knows—since it is so remarkably obvious to those with eyes—that Zeno must have committed some error; so even if his attacks on the paradoxes don’t succeed, one can at least praise the effort.

To the student of modern physics, this book may present some interesting contrasts. We have learned, through painstaking experience, that the most productive questions to ask of nature begin with “how” rather than “why.” Of course, the two words are often interchangeable; but notice that “why” attributes a motive to something, whereas “how” is motiveless. Aristotle seeks to understand nature in the same way that one might understand a friend. In a word, he seeks teleological explanations. He assumes both that nature works with a purpose, and that the workings of nature are roughly accessible to common sense, with some logical rigor thrown in. A priori, this isn’t necessarily a bad assumption; in fact, it took a lot of time for us humans to realize it was incorrect. In any case, it must be admitted that Aristotle at least seeks to understand far more than us moderns; for Aristotle seeks, so to speak, to get inside the ‘mind’ of nature, understanding the purpose for everything, whereas modern scientific knowledge is primarily descriptive.

Perhaps now I can see what the medieval Christians found in Aristotle. The assumption that nature works with a purpose certainly meshes well with the belief in an omnipotent creator God. And the assumption that knowledge is accessible through common sense and simple logical deductions is reasonable if one believes that the world was created for us. To the modern reader, the Physics might be far less impressive than to the medievals. But it is always worthwhile to witness the inner workings of such a brilliant mind; and, of all the Aristotle I’ve so far read, none so clearly show Aristotle’s thought process, none so clearly show his mind at work, as this.

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Review: Letters from a Stoic

Review: Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic (a selection)Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs.

One of the most persistent criticisms made of modern philosophy is that it isn’t useful. The critics have a point. Modern philosophy largely concerns itself with a variety of theoretical problems. Even though many of these problems do have practical ramifications, many do not; and regardless, the debates can often get so technical, so heated, and so abstract, that it is difficult to see modern philosophy as the path to wisdom it once professed to be. People don’t have time or patience for logic-chopping; they want useful advice.

Those of this persuasion will be happy to find a forerunner and a sage in Seneca. As the opening quote shows, he conceived philosophy to be, above all, the giving of good advice. Seneca thus finds a perfect vehicle for his thought in the form of the letter. Although this book apparently consists of the private correspondence between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, it is obvious from the first page that these were expressly written for publication and posterity. This book should rather be thought of as a collection of moral essays and exhortations.

Even in translation, Seneca is a master stylist. He is by turns intimate, friendly, self-deprecating, nagging, mundane, and profound. He has an enormous talent for epigram; he can squeeze a lifetime into a line, compress a philosophy into a phrase. He is also remarkably modern in his tolerant, cosmopolitan, and informal attitude. Indeed I often found it difficult to believe that the book was written by a real Roman. Montaigne and Emerson obviously learned a great deal from Seneca; you might even say they ripped him off. The only thing that marks Seneca as ancient is his comparative lack of introspection. While Montaigne and Emerson are mercurial, wracked by self-doubt, driven by contrary tides of emotion, Seneca is calm, self-composed, confident.

Perhaps because of his professed aversion to abstract argument, Seneca is not a systematic thinker. Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and Seneca apparently would agree, for there are many inconsistencies to be found in these pages. Sometimes God is conceived of as an impersonal order of the universe, and at other times a personal deity; sometimes Lucilius is advised not to take the opinions of friends and family into account, other times to do so. Seneca’s metaphysical arguments are weak and confused affairs; he is not one for disputation. But for all this, there is a core of good sense contained within these pages, which Seneca himself summarizes:

No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned. Pleasure is low, petty, to be deemed worthless, shared even by dumb animals—the tiniest and meanest of whom fly towards pleasure. Glory is an empty and fleeting thing, lighter than air. Poverty is an evil to no man unless he kick’s against it. Death is not an evil; why need you ask? Death alone is the equal privilege of mankind.

Like Marcus Aurelius, a prominent statesman in troubled times, Seneca is very concerned with how to be happy in spite of circumstances. There is no satisfaction to be had through external goods, like fame and riches, because these cannot be gotten unless fortune is kind, and fortune is notoriously fickle. Even in good times, this can only lead you into an empty, meaningless competition, valuing yourself for something that isn’t really yours, causing you to ceaselessly measure yourself against others. You must rather become content with yourself, taking pleasure in life whether fortune smiles or frowns: “We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in externals.”

Of course, this is easier said than done, and Seneca does not have a fully worked-out system for reaching this state. He offers, instead, an unsystematic mass of advice. It is here that Seneca is most charming and helpful, for most other philosophers would not deign to offer such workaday recommendations and observations. Here is Seneca on negative thinking:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry.

It is in these sections, of plain, friendly advice, that I think Seneca is at his best. Certainly not all of his advice is good; every reader will pick and choose what suits them best. But much of Seneca’s advice is timeless, and phrased in deathless prose. Most refreshing is Seneca’s insistence that his advice is for action and not reflection. This is more than slightly ironic, considering that Seneca is often accused of being a hypocrite whose lifestyle was far removed from his doctrines; but, to quote a modern philosopher, “There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching.” So preach on, Seneca.

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Review: The Analysis of Mind

Review: The Analysis of Mind

The Analysis of MindThe Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you drop a weight on your toe, and you say what you do say, the habit has been caused by imitation of your undesirable associates, whereas it is brought into play by the dropping of the weight.

It is a puzzle of our modern scientific worldview that we have been extremely successful in explaining things remote from our experience, and yet have made comparatively little headway in explaining our experience itself.

We begin with physics, the king of the sciences. Here we are dealing with things like force, time, mass, charge—abstract qualities which we can define precisely and measure accurately. Using these variables we can, and have, constructed theoretical edifices which continue to astound me and the rest of the world with their surpassing precision and elegance. Yet it is in physics that we have found that our everyday notions are most flawed. Seemingly solid objects like tables and people are, it turns out, mostly empty space. Under certain circumstances, time slows down, objects become foreshortened. Space itself is not wholly distinct from time, but forms a four-dimensional fabric that bends in response to matter. And even our basic logical notions, like that of identity, fail miserably when confronted with the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics.

Things get a bit more orderly when we move up the scale of complexity from physics to chemistry. No longer are we dealing with matter in the abstract, but specific types of matter, with their own specific, recognizable qualities—smell, hardness, color. Here we can at least picture specks of matter, arranged into three-dimensional structures, changing and rearranging like grains of sand on a storm-tossed shore. Our ability to predict and explain the universe on this scale is less precise, and perhaps less elegant, than in physics, but it is nonetheless impressive. Yet as we climb the rungs of complexity from hydrogen to organic chemistry, up through biochemistry, we somewhere reach the frontier that separates life from inanimate matter.

Where we draw the line is, in part, merely a question of semantics; but it is also a scientific question, since we are interested in explaining the origins of life—and we can’t decide when life arose without deciding what life is. Viruses seem to sit right on this troubling boundary; but let’s put them to the side. We arrive, then, at bacteria, organisms too small to sense, but which still form the majority of life on earth, both in mass and variety. These little bitty dots of life float to and fro, performing their limited array of behaviors; and yet, simple as they are, do we have equations that could tell us exactly when a specific bacteria will divide, or exactly what direction it will turn next? And is not our knowledge of what life is even now so limited that we are still surprised, year after year, at the strange and inhospitable places we find bacteria happily residing?

Once we arrive at things like trees, mushrooms, bison, and baboons, all bets are off as far as predictive precision is concerned. It is true, we do have Darwinian evolution, which admirably and elegantly unites all of these phenomena into an orderly framework. Nonetheless, our knowledge here is qualitative, not quantitative; and when dealing with something like, say, animal behavior, biology sometimes approaches what can be called “natural history”—the mere collection of facts. Unlike in physics and in chemistry, where nearly every new particle or element is predicted beforehand—not only its mere existence, but its precise qualities, too—in biology, every new species discovered is a surprise. And even when we have good evolutionary grounds for predicting an ancestral species, the exact qualities of said species cannot be simply deduced from a theory; they must be inferred from remains and analogs.

Finally, we get to our own behavior—and here things get really messy. Because we humans exhibit such behavioral flexibility, we can’t quite decide where genetic influence ends and environmental influence begins. Nor can we even make definitive statements about the limits of our behavioral flexibility, as shown by the Westerners who were continually flabbergasted at the discoveries of cultural anthropologists. Moreover, our dominant theories of human behavior in the social sciences contradict one another. The premises of economics run counter to those of anthropologists; evolutionary psychologists and sociologists make different assumptions and operate within incompatible paradigms. Thus we are left with the ironic result that we can predict the behavior of an electron, which nobody has ever seen, with enormous precision, and yet cannot predict the behavior of our spouses, who we see every day, despite our most valiant efforts.

This isn’t a pretty picture; but the next step in our journey is even uglier. When we arrive at the threshold between body and mind, we are stumped completely. How does consciousness arise from a blob of neural tissue? How do chemical signals and electric jolts, when arranged in a sufficiently complicated network, give rise to awareness? How on earth do we explain choice, will, fear, hope? We reach for science, but here our typical scientific approach encounters an obstacle. Science, which is a method for achieving objective results, is being asked to explain subjectivity; a technique for paring away our biases and partialities, leaving only the truth, is being applied to the very center of our biases and partialities. In short, the only indubitable evidence we have of our awareness is purely personal, and yet such evidence—namely, eyewitness testimony—is inadmissible in the scientific enterprise.

In these paradoxical territories, where we cannot yet achieve satisfactory results using empirical research, philosophy makes its home. And here is where Bertrand Russell enters. Published in 1921, The Analysis of Mind is Russell’s attempts to muster the greatest science and philosophy of his day to explain the human mind. Relying not only on his own techniques of logical analysis, Russell draws on David Hume’s empiricism, William James’s psychology, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and the recently-developed behaviorism, quoting scientific papers more often than other philosophers. It is a valiant effort, and I’m not sure how much better Russell could have done given the knowledge available at the time.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of our own day, this book is quite clearly outdated. The most general flaw is that Russell doesn’t posit nearly enough complexity in the mind to account for the richness of mental activity. Again, this is as much the fault of Russell’s influences as Russell himself. Hume thought the mind was merely a succession of sensations and images; William James mainly relied on habit to explain human behavior; Freud divided the mind into the conscious, the unconscious, and the censor, reducing all motivation to the sex drive; and behaviorism, of course, attempts to circumvent the mind completely, explaining everything through observable actions.

Russell more or less attempts to put these theories together, fiddling with one here, another there, trying to find the right combination to account for the human mind. The result is, I’m sorry to say, supremely unconvincing. For example, a ubiquitous feature of human behavior is language, which certainly cannot be accounted for by mere stimulus-and-response, as Russell attempts to do here. Language is not a mere habit, the way that biting your nails is. This has been evinced by the extraordinary difficulty in constructing translating programs—something which, of course, was far in the future when Russell wrote this. Also flat-footed was Russell’s attempt to built up all the contents of the mind with mere sensations and images (imagined sensations). For example, how could you build up something like happiness from sights, sounds, and tactile sensations? Could you construct despair out of moonlight, a minor chord, and the smell of mould?

Most troubling, though, was Russell’s attempt at monism. Now, to backtrack a little, in philosophy two approaches have been offered to supplant the mind-body problem. The first is materialism, which considers everything supposedly mental to be, at most, the mere byproduct of something physical; and the second is idealism, which takes the opposite approach—namely, considering everything in the universe to be really mental. Spinoza famously tried to steer a middle course, and proposed that matter and mind were two forms of the same thing, a doctrine which has been called “neutral monism.” This idea was much later taken up by William James, and is put forward here by Russell, under James’s influence. The problem, however, is that in positing something intermediary and more fundamental than matter and mind, Russell does violence to both.

Russell’s solutions is essentially to reduce everything to sensations. Physics deals with the behavior of sensations from every possible perspective, whereas psychology deals with the behavior of sensations from only one perspective. Thus, a table in physics is just a table seen from every possible angle, under every possible light, and so on; and a single person’s experience is a successions of sensations—a table, a chair, a pizza—seen from one vantage point. Note the advantage: if mind and matter are just two aspects of the same thing, the mind-body problem is solved. In keeping with this view, Russell suggests that matter is, in his words, a “logical fiction,” which physicists merely posit as the glue to hold the data of sensations together. In his words:

Instead of supposing that there is some unknown cause, the “real” table, behind the different sensations of those who are said to be looking at the table, we may take the whole set of these sensations (together possibly with certain other particulars) as actually being the table. That is to say, the table which is neutral as between different observers (actual and possible) is the set of all those particulars which would naturally be called “aspects” of the table from different point of view.

I have very little sympathy for this view, as perhaps do most other people nowadays. Making sensations fundamental puts humans at the very center of reality. The world was around a long time before life arose, and thus cannot be explained as a collection of sensations. Moreover, our current understanding of physics requires that certain things, far outside of our experience, be treated as fundamental; and even though these entities are merely deduced, never directly observed through our senses, by using them we can formulate predictions of extreme precision and accuracy, which is the goal of science.

Russell might respond that, in the interest of applying Occam’s razor, we should ideally have a science that rests on directly observable data (i.e. sensations), since every microscopic particle we posit is an extra, hypothetical entity. Nevertheless, such a thing doesn’t seem possible—which isn’t surprising, considering that, so far as we know, the way we perceive the universe is accidental, limited, and imprecise, the result of the needs of an ape species living on a small planet orbiting an ordinary star. But Francis Bacon, writing 400 years ago, might have said it best:

But by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and deceptions of the senses; in that things which strike the sense outweigh things which do not immediately strike it, though they be more important. Hence it is that speculation commonly ceases where sight ceases; insomuch that of things invisible there is little or no observation.

In fact, the relationship of what we actually sense to modern physics is fairly tenuous. When we are, for example, running an experiment and using a detecting device, what matters is the information the device displays, not the sensations we experience. For example, the detector might display its readings in neon green lettering, in roman numerals, in Chaucerian English, in Egyptian hieroglyphics—in whatever language you want. These would all be quite different sensations, but would all signify the same thing. In short, it is what we deduce from our experience, rather than our experience itself, which is significant.

This, of course, brings us back to our initial paradox—namely, that we can deduce the origins of the universe from our experience, but we cannot explain how our experience arises from our brains. Well, at least Russell cannot; and if he can’t, what hope do I have?

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Review: Walden

Review: Walden

Walden & Civil DisobedienceWalden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau’s solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he’s an insufferable teenager.

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