If I am wearing a shirt with pockets, I almost always carry a 3 X 5 notebook and a pen in my top left pocket. People sometimes ask why I carry it. I have a prepared response:
It's in case I get a good idea. Haven't had one yet, but you never know.
And if I am out walking around, another element of my schtick is my stick which is distinctive and also elicits questions. Ask me why I carry it and I have a line at the ready:
Time was when I needed it to beat off women; but now I just need it to keep from toppling over.
I have found that the second line doesn't go over as well. While both involve self-deprecation, which will often endear you to people, or at least blunt the blade of their hidden hostility, the self-deprecation in the second line comes too late for some.
So I cannot recommend the second line in all circumstances. The perceived machismo of the first clause of the second line will sometimes stick in the craw of a humorless feminist.
Perhaps the best advice I could give is to paraphrase a line attributed to the cowboy wit, Will Rogers:
Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
That of course is an exaggeration. But exaggerations are rhetorically useful if they are in the direction of truths. The truth here is that the damage caused by idle talk is rarely offset by its paltry benefits.
My mind drifts back to the fourth or fifth grade and the time a nun planted an image in my mind that remains. She likened the tongue to a sword capable of great damage, positioned behind two 'gates,' the teeth and the lips. Those gates are there for a reason, she explained, and the sword should come out only when it can be well deployed.
The barfly and the gambler, the flâneur and the floozy, fritter away their time. And they are condemned for so doing by the solid bourgeois.
But the latter thinks, though he may not say, that the pursuits of the monastery and the ivory tower, though opposite to the low life's dissipation, are equally time-wasting. Prayer, meditation, study for its own sake, translation and transmission of culture, the vita contemplativa, Pieperian leisure, otium liberale, moral scrupulosity, mindfulness, the various disciplines of palate and penis, heart and memory, working out one's salvation with diligence -- all will evoke a smile from the worldly bourgeois fellow, the man of substance solidly planted in the self-satisfied somnolence of middle-class mediocrity.
He's tolerant of course, and superficially respectful, but the respect becomes real only after the time-waster has managed to turn a buck or secure a livelihood from his time-wasting by becoming a teacher in a college, say, or a pastor of a church.
We who are obscure ought to be grateful for it. It is wonderful to be able to walk down the street andbe taken for an ordinary schlep. A little recognition from a few high-quality individuals is all one needs. Fame can be a curse.
The unhinged Mark David Chapman, animated by Holden Caulfield's animus against phoniness, decided that John Lennon was a phony, and so had to be shot.
The mad pursuit of empty celebrity by so many in our society shows their and its spiritual vacuity.
It is sweet to do nothing, but only if if the inactivity comes like the caesura in a line of poetry or the punctuation in a sentence of prose or the rest in a piece of music. Inactivity extended stultifies. At least this is true here below. Genesis 3:19 may be read as 'sentencing' us to activity. Enduring contemplative repose comes later.
It takes intellect to discern that people are dominated by their emotions, but the intellectual who is capable of understanding this is often prevented from understanding it by his tendency to project his intellectuality into others. We often have a hard time appreciating that others are not like us and do not value what we value, or if they do, not to the same extent. My younger self used to make this mistake.
Material plenty allows the leisure to contemplate one's moral and intellectual and spiritual poverty. So money, far from being the root of all evil, is often conducive, and sometimes necessary, for the uprooting of some evils.
Related: Radix Omnium Malorum. This is one of my best entries. It definitively refutes the widespread notion that money is the root of all evil.
Professor X was a good teacher and colleague. Affable and self-effacing, he was well-liked by all. He was quick with a joke and to light up your smoke — at least back in the good old days when some of us smoked in our offices and the American Philosophical Association hosted a 'Smoker' at their annual conventions. But as the years wore on, Professor X, bereft of the stimulation of first-rate minds, became lazy and given to resting on his laurels. An early book, based on his dissertation, showed considerable promise, but a fair judge would have to conclude that he buried his talents rather than using them. He published nothing in the professional journals, sometimes opining that no one read them anyway. Like many, he became too comfortable. Tenure, often advertised as a bulwark of academic freedom, became in his case, as in so many others, an inducement to inactivity. He never progressed much beyond the level of his dissertation.
His real life was elsewhere, in family and friends and such hobbies as woodworking. Once, emerging from a year-long sabbatical cushioned on both ends by long summers with no teaching, he had nothing to show for his release time except a fine bookcase he had built. Like many of the long-tenured and unproductive, he was given to professional envy. When the distinguished philosopher Y came and read a paper for a paltry $200 honorarium, X questioned whether Y was worth so much especially given that this was a paper Y had read before other departments. X's scholarly inactivity was not for the sake of service elsewhere in the academic community: he had a knack for avoiding administrivia and such other academic chores as commenting on papers at conferences.
But now he has passed from our midst, and who among us does not have faults and limitations? Professor X's kindness and collegiality will surely remain in our memories. He will be missed.
Clearly friendship can survive deep disagreement if it is over some abstruse topic in the philosophy of language, say. The question I intend, however, is whether friendship can continue among those who find themselves in profound disagreement over matters that touch us 'existentially.' Politics and religion supply plenty of examples. Here too friendship can survive and even thrive. It may be worth reminding ourselves of this in these dark times.
In an optimistic piece entitled "The Value of Unexpected Friends," K. E. Colombini cites examples of prominent ideological opponents who were on friendly terms. The case that surprised me was the friendship of Ruth Baader Ginsburg with the late Antonin Scalia.
When Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly in February 2016, perhaps the colleague who mourned the most was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While they differed greatly in their day jobs, they formed a surprisingly deep friendship based on mutual respect and interests. [. . .]
“From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies,” Justice Ginsburg’s statement reads, in part. “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”
[. . .]
One of Scalia’s more famous quotes, shared often in social media these days, was given in a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people—and some very good people have some very bad ideas.”
[. . .]
Separating ideas from people, like hating the sin but not the sinner, is a challenging act, but it is one that is ultimately valuable. Taking the time to get to know someone—even the person we battle with—opens doors that help us understand not only the debated issue, but also ourselves, better.
While there are cases of ideological opponents who remain on good terms, there are even more cases in which they don't.
It is an evil state we are in, ignorant as we are of the ultimate why and wherefore.
The topic of birthdays came up among some friends. I said I don't celebrate mine: my birth befell me; it was not my doing. A female companion replied that life is a gift to which my response was that that is a question, not a given. It is not clear that life is a gift or even a good. Equally, it is not clear that it is a mistake (Schopenhauer) and something bad.
Human life is a problem the solution to which we do not know. One can only have faith that life is good, and I do. It is a reasoned not a blind faith. But that I lack knowledge and need faith is itself something evil. There are far worse evils, of course.
The issue of procreation -- pun intended -- makes the question concrete. To procreate deliberately and responsibly is to act on the conviction that conception, birth, and the predictable sequel are good. But that is not known given the powerful counter-evidence that pessimists provide.
So again one is thrown back on faith. To need faith is to lack knowledge and by my lights this lack is a privatio boni and insofar forth evil.
Readers will of course disagree with me and disagree among themselves as to what merits disagreement. This is just further evidence that our predicament is suboptimal.
If you want to think about the problem of evil in its full sweep you ought to include the evil of ignorance in all its forms. And you ought to bear in mind that evil is not a problem for theists alone.
You don't really want to go to that Christmas party where you will eat what you don't need to eat, drink what you don't need to drink, and dissipate your inwardness in pointless chit-chat. But you were invited and your non-attendance may be taken amiss. So you remind yourself that self-denial is good and that it is useful from time to time to practice the art of donning and wearing the mask of a 'regular guy.'
For the step into the social is by dissimulation. Necessary to the art of life is knowing how to negotiate the social world and pass yourself off under various guises and disguises.
Monks come in two kinds, the cenobites and the eremites or hermits. The cenobites live in community whereas the hermits go off on their own. Eremos in Greek means desert, and there are many different motives for moving into the desert either literally or figuratively. There are those whose serious psychological conditions make it impossible for them to function in modern society. Chris Knight is such a one, who, when asked about Thoreau, replied in one word, "dilettante." That's saying something inasmuch as Henry David was one monkish and solitary dude even when he wasn't hanging out at Walden Pond. Somewhere in his fascinating journal he writes, "I have no walks to throw away on company."
Others of a monkish bent are wholly sane, unlike Knight, so sane in fact that they perceive and reject the less-than-sane hustle of Big City life. Some are motivated religiously, some philosophically, and some share both motivations. I have always held that a sane religiosity has to be deeply philosophical and vice versa. I think most of the Desert Fathers would agree. Athens and Jerusalem need each other for complementation and mutual correction. Some of the monkish are members of monastic religious orders, some attach themselves as oblates to such orders, and some go it alone. Call the latter the Maverick Variation.
And of course there are degrees of withdrawal from society and its illusions. I have been called a recluse, but on most days I engage in a bit of socializing usually early in the morning in the weight room or at the pool or spa where a certain amount of banter & bullshit is de rigueur. I thereby satisfy my exiguous social needs for the rest of the day. Other mornings, sick of such idle talk and the corrrosive effect it can have on one's seriousness and spiritual focus, I head for the hills to traipse alone with my thoughts as company. But I am not as severe as old Henry David: I will share my walk with you and show you some trails if you are serious, fit, and don't talk too much.
I am a Myers-Briggs INTP introvert. Must one be an introvert to be a hermit? No. The most interesting hermit I know is an extrovert who in his younger days was a BMOC, excellent at sports, successful at 'the chase,' who ended up on Wall Street, became very wealthy, indulged his every appetite, but then had a series of profound religious experiences that inspired him to sell all he owned and follow Christ, first into a cenobium, then into a hermitage.
A tip of the hat and a Merry Christmas to Karl White of London for sending me to this Guardian piece which profiles some contemporary monkish specimens.
Time flattens the peaks of emotion and fills the valleys of despond. Tormentors from the past are now shades pale and insubstantial, too weak to haunt. Absence wins out over presence. One needn't work at the purgation of memory: time does the work for us.
People are astonishingly suggestible. But is suggestibility always bad? Belonging to a community of believers reinforces one in one's belief. If the belief is true and life-enhancing, then so is the suggestibility that promotes it.
Money, power, sex, and recognition form what I call the Mighty Tetrad of human motivators, the chief goads to action here below. Hillary specializes in the inordinate love of the first two, Bill in the inordinate love of the second.
0. At regular intervals we find in the popular press articles about how free will is an illusion or 'a trick the brain plays on itself.' Just today, in fact, two different readers referred me to two different articles on this theme. One was positively awful, the other merely bad. So I reckon it is time to dust 0ff, revise, and supplement an old post from 2012.
1. Could freedom of the will in the strong or unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense be an illusion? I will assume that free will and determinism are logically incompatible and that every version of compatibilism is false. My position is a mysterian one: it is plain that what we are libertarianly free and that free will is no illusion. But we cannot understand how this is possible given our embeddedness in a natural world that is macro-deterministic. What is actual is possible whether or not we can explain how it is possible.
2. Suppose A and B are mutually incompatible but equipossible courses of action, and I am deliberating as to whether I should do A or B. (Should I continue with this blogging business, or give it up?) Deliberating, I have the sense that it is up to me what happens. I have the sense that it is not the case that events prior to my birth, together with the laws of nature, necessitate that I do what I end up doing. Seriously deliberating, I presuppose the falsity of determinism. For if I were thoroughly and truly convinced of the truth of determinism it would be psychologically impossible for me to deliberate.
In the case of a morally significant choice, the sense that the outcome is up to me includes the sense of my moral, and not merely causal, responsibility for the outcome. So if it is the case that freedom of the will is an illusion, then no one is ever morally responsible for what they do or leave undone. But then moral responsibility is an illusion as well.
3. Determinism is the thesis that, given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. When I seriously deliberate, however, my deliberation behavior manifests my belief that there is more than one possible future, and that it is partially up to me which of these possible futures becomes actual. There is the possible future in which I hike tomorrow morning and blog in the afternoon and the equipossible future in which I blog tomorrow morning and hike in the afternoon. And which becomes actual depends on me. One may be tempted to say that the indisputable fact of deliberation proves the reality of free will. For to deliberate is to deliberate in the conscious conviction that the outcome is up to the one deliberating.
4. But then someone objects: "The sense that it is up to you what happens is illusory; it merely seems to you that you are the ultimate source of your actions. In reality your every action is determined by events before your birth." The objector is not denying the fact of deliberation; he is denying that the fact of deliberation entails the reality of free will. He is claiming that the fact of deliberation is logically consistent with the nonexistence of free will. The claim is that when one deliberates, one only seems to oneself to be deliberating freely, and that all the processes involved in deliberation have causal antecedents that necessitate them.
One mistake that popular writers, including philosophically inept scientists, sometimes make is to claim that on determinism, no one ever makes choices. But of course people make choices; what the determinist denies is that people make free choices.
5. To evaluate this objection, we first need to ask what could be meant by 'illusory' in this context. Clearly, the word is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. Hiking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mistake for a snake. In cases of perceptual illusion like this, one can replace illusory perceptions with veridical ones. Misperceptions can be corrected. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love and the sorts of illusions that leftists cherish and imagine as in the eponymous John Lennon ditty. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, life experience, 'due diligence' and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with the veridical.
But if free will is an illusion, it is not an illusion that can be cast off or seen through, no matter what I do. I must deliberate from time to time, and I cannot help but believe, whenever I deliberate, that the outcome is at least in part 'up to me.' Indeed, it is inconceivable that I should ever disembarrass myself of this 'illusion.' One can become disillusioned about many things but not about the 'illusion' of free will. For it is integral to my being an agent, and being an agent is part and parcel of being a human being. To get free of the 'illusion' of free will, I would have to learn to interpret myself as a deterministic system whose behavior I merely observe but do not control. I would have to learn how to cede control and simply let things happen. But this is precisely what I cannot do. Nor do I have any idea what it would involve.
So here is my first argument, call it the Semantic Argument:
a. A meaningful and 'newsworthy' claim to the effect that it has been discovered that free will is an illusion must use 'illusion' in its ordinary sense, otherwise one is engaging in word play. b. Illusions in the ordinary sense of the term can be seen through and corrected. c. The 'illusion' of free will cannot be seen through and corrected. Therefore d. The claim that free will is an illusion is a meaningless claim.
"But perhaps free will is a special sort of illusion, one that cannot be seen through and corrected." My challenge to a person who makes this move will be: Explain how living under this illusion differs from the reality of being a free agent!
At the very least, the objector owes us an explanation of what it means to say that free will is an 'illusion' given that it cannot mean what it ordinarily means.
6. Now for an Epistemic Argument. It would be nice if one could 'switch off' one's free agency and go on automatic. Many choices, after all, are painful and we wish we could avoid them. Sophie's choice was agonizing because she knew that it was up to her which child would remain with her and which would be taken away by the Nazi SS officer. Now which is more certain: that Sophie knows that she is a free agent morally responsible for her choices, or that she knows that she is a wholly deterministic system and that the sense of free agency and moral responsibility are but illusions? (Let us grant arguendo that there is some sense of 'illusion' according to which the claim that free will and moral responsibility are illusions is not pure nonsense.) The answer ought to be obvious: the former is more certain. One is directly aware of one's free agency, while it is only by shaky abstract reasoning that one comes to the view that free will is an illusion. Sophie is directly aware that it is 'up to her' which child she surrenders to the SS thug. This is the source of her agony.
My Epistemic Argument:
a. We are directly aware of our libertarianly-free agency, our freedom in the unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense. b. This direct awareness trumps, epistemically speaking, the proposition that all of our mental and physical processes are causally necessitated by events antecedent to our births. Therefore c. One is justified is believing that one is libertarianly free despite one's having no explanation of how this is possible given the (macro) determinism of nature.
7. Now for a 'Bad Faith' consideration. We are not free to be free agents or not. We didn't decide to be free. It is an essential attribute of our humanity. Thus we are "condemned to be free" in a famous phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre. The sound core of the Sartrean exaggeration is that being free is constitutive of being human. No doubt I can try to view myself as a mere deterministic system pushed around by external forces, but that is a mode of self-deception, a mode of what Sartre calls mauvaise-foi, bad faith. Determinism is "an endless well of excuses" as I seem to recall Sartre saying somewhere. Being free is constitutive of being human. Better, it is constitutive of being a person. If determinism is true, then, strictly speaking, there are no persons.
8. An argument from the Impossibility of Existential Appropriation. Connected with all of this is the impossibility of existentially appropriating the supposed truth of determinism. Suppose determinism is true. Can I live this truth, apply it to my life, make it my own? Can I existentially appropriate it? Not at all. To live is to be an agent, and to be an agent is to be a free agent. To live and be human is not merely to manifest a belief, but an all-pervasive ground-conviction, of the falsity of determinism. Determinism cannot be practically or existentially appropriated. It remains practically meaningless, a theory whose plausibility requires an exclusively third-person objective view of the self. But the self is precisely subjective in its innermost being and insofar forth, free and unobjectifiable. No one lives or could live third-personally. While it is easy enough to reduce others to deterministic systems, thereby depersonalizing them, I cannot do this in my own case. I cannot depersonalize myself. It is practically impossible. Granted, it is theoretically possible to view myself from the outside as merely another deterministic system, but then I am abstracting from my agency, an abstraction that deserves to be called vicious inasmuch as I am as much an agent , a doer, as a thinker. I am not merely a spectator of my life, although I am that; I am also the agent of my life. I observe life's parade, but I also march in it.
Indeed, I am a doer even as a thinker: I decided to think about this topic, and then write about it; I had to decide whether to write this on my weblog or for my personal files, with my computer or with paper or ink; at every step I had to decide whether to continue or break off, etc.
9. The mother of all oppositions. The ultimate root of the problem of free will is the amazing fact that we are at once both objects in a material world caught in its causal net and also subjects capable of knowing and acting upon that world. We can, and are justified, in viewing ourselves objectively, externally, and in a third-person way despite the fact we live, know, and act in an opposing first-person way. This object-subject opposition is the mother of all oppositions and perhaps the ultimate conundrum of philosophy.
If we look at the self from a third person point of view, then determinism has no little plausibility, for then we are considering the self as just another object among objects, just another phenomenon among phenomena subject to the laws of nature. But the third person point of view discloses but one aspect of reality, leaving out the first person point of view, when it is the latter from which we live. We are objects in the world, but we live as subjects for whom there is a world, a world upon which we act and must act. Subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable.
We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has ever explained this satisfactorily. What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them.
Let us say that a philosopher is a unitarian if he thinks he can unify these opposing points of view and aspects of reality by elimination or reduction of one to the other. My suggestion is that we cannot achieve a satisfactory Unitarian view. All indications are that the problem of free will is simply insoluble, a genuine aporia, and that we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact. It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory. Especially when one goes on to live one's life as if free will and moral responsibility are not illusions! Have you ever praised or blamed anyone and felt justified in doing so? Do you praise and blame deterministic systems?
Worry and regret form a pair in that each involves flight from the present; worry flees the present toward an unknown future, regret toward an unchangeable past. The door to Reality, however, is hinged on the axis of the Now. If access is to be had to the nunc stans it is only via the nunc movens. Past and future are but representations in comparison to the reality of the moving now.
We should anchor our thought in that which is most certain: the fact of change, the nearness of death, that things exist, that one is conscious, that one can say 'I' and mean it, the fact of conscience. But man does not meditate on the certain; he chases after the uncertain and ephemeral: name and fame, power and position, longevity and progeny, loot and land, pleasure and comfort.
Wealth is not certain, but the grave is. So meditate on death, asking: Who dies? Who survives? What is death? Who am I? What am I?
Death is certain, but the when is uncertain. Do not try to make a certainty out of what is uncertain, or an uncertainty out of what is certain.
"What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." (James 4:14)
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, tr. Craufurd, Routledge 1995, p. 75:
The infinite which is in man is at the mercy of a little piece of iron; such is the human condition; space and time are the cause of it. It is impossible to handle this piece of iron without suddenly reducing the infinite which is in man to a point on the pointed part, a point on the handle, at the cost of a harrowing pain. The whole being is stricken in the instant; there is no place left for God, even in the case of Christ, where the thought of God is then that of privation. This stage has to be reached if there is to be incarnation. The whole being becomes privation of God: how can we go beyond? After that there is only the resurrection. To reach this stage the cold touch of naked iron is necessary.
'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' There we have the real proof that Christianity is something divine. (p. 79)
We are spiritual beings, participants in the infinite and the absolute. But we are also, undeniably, animals. Our human condition is thus a predicament, that of a spiritual animal. As spirits we enjoy freedom of the will and the ability to encompass the whole universe in our thought. As spirits we participate in the infinity and absoluteness of truth. As animals, however, we are but indigent bits of the world's fauna exposed to and compromised by its vicissitudes. As animals we are susceptible to pains and torments that swamp the spirit and obliterate the infinite in us reducing us in an instant to mere screaming animals.
Now if God were to become one of us, fully one of us, would he not have to accept the full measure of the spirit's hostage to the flesh? Would he not have to empty himself fully into our misery? That is Weil's point. The fullness of Incarnation requires that the one incarnated be tortured to death. For if Christ is to be fully human, in addition to fully divine, he must experience the highest exaltation and the lowest degradation. These extreme possibilities, though not actual in all, define being human.
The Crucifixion is the Incarnation in extremis. His spirit, 'nailed' to the flesh, is the spirit of flesh now nailed to the wood of the cross. At this extreme point of the Incarnation, doubly nailed to matter, Christ experiences utter abandonment. He experiences and accepts utter failure and the terrifying thought that his whole life and ministry were utterly delusional.
Familiarity and social proximity have their positive aspects, but they also breed contempt. No man is a hero to his valet. Nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua: No prophet is accepted in his own country. (Luke 4:24) Few bloggers are read by their relatives. Social distance, too, has positive and negative sides. One negative is that people are more ready to demonize and abuse the distant than the near-by. Internet exchanges make this abundantly evident. On the positive side, distance breeds respect and idealization which can taper off into idolization.
What is almost impossible to achieve is justice in our relations with others, near and far, falling into neither favoritism nor contempt, demonization nor idolization. Four extremes to avoid if you would be just.
A. Inordinately favoring one's own; being partial; overlooking or downplaying their wrong-doing. Tribalism. Nepotism. Clannishness. Chauvinism. Racism. Class-identification. Blut und Boden mentality. Example: John Gotti's children thought him a good man despite the fact that his good qualities were overshadowed by his murderous thuggishness. Their blood-ties to him blinded them to the fact that he was an evil man.
The conservative is more likely to make this mistake than the liberal.
B. Contempt for one's own; being impartial in violation of duties to kith and kin; treating them exactly as one would treat an outsider, if not better. A vacuous internationalism that ignores real differences. Example: the deracinated 'open borders' types who will not understand that a nation has a right to its culture and heritage and the preservation of its culture and heritage.
The liberal is more likely to make this mistake than the conservative.
C. Demonization of the other, the foreigner, the stranger. Xenophobia. Irrational hatred of the other just because he is other.
Some conservatives are prone to this. But of course leftists lie viciously when they brand conservative opposition to illegal immigration as xenophobic.
D. Excessive admiration of the other. Idolization of the far away. Idolatry. Romanticization of foreign lands and cultures.
Many liberals make this mistake. The young are more likely to make it than the old.
One reason to try to 'make it' is to come to appreciate, by succeeding, that worldly success cannot be a final goal of legitimate human striving. 'Making it' frees one psychologically and allows one to turn one's attention to worthier matters. He who fails is dogged by a sense of failure whereas he who succeeds is in a position to appreciate the ultimate insignificance of both success and failure, not that most of the successful ever do. Their success traps them. Hence the sad spectacle of the old coot, a good flight of stairs away from a major coronary event, scheming and angling for more loot and land when in the end a man needs only -- six feet.
Christopher Hitchens died on this date in 2011. Herewith, a meditation composed in August 2010, slightly revised.
I just caught the last third of an interview of Christopher Hitchens by Charlie Rose. Hitchens looks bad, the chemotherapy having done a nasty tonsorial number on him. But his trademark intellectual incandescence appears undiminished. 'Brilliant' is a word I don't toss around lightly, but Hitch is one to whom it unarguably applies. Public intellectuals of his caliber are rare and it will be sad to see him go. Agree or disagree with him, it is discourse at his level that justifies the high regard we place on free speech.
In the teeth of death the man remains intransigent in his unbelief. And why not? He lived in unbelief and so it is only fitting that he should die in it as well. He lived for this life alone; it is fitting that he should die without hope. God and the soul were never Jamesian live options for him. To cop out now as debility and death approach must appear to him to be utterly contemptible, a grasping at straws, a fooling himself into a palliative illusion to ease the horror of annihilation.
For what he takes to be the illusion of immortality, Hitchens substitutes literary immortality. "As an adult whose hopes lay assuredly in the intellect, not in the hereafter, he concluded, 'Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.'" (Here)
But to the clearheaded, literary immortality is little more than a joke, and itself an illusion. Only a few read Hitchens now, and soon enough he will be unread, his books remaindered, put into storage, forgotten. This is a fate that awaits all scribblers but a tiny few. And even they will drink the dust of oblivion in the fullness of time.
To live on in one's books is a paltry substitute for immortality, especially when one recalls Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's aphorism: Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt. "A book is a mirror: if an ape peers in, no apostle will look out." Most readers are more apish than apostolic. The fame they confer cannot be worth much, given that they confer it.
To live on in one's books is only marginally better than to live on in the flickering and mainly indifferent memories of a few friends and relatives. And how can reduction to the status of a merely intentional object count as living on?
The besetting sin of powerful intellects is pride. Lucifer, as his name indicates, is or was the light-bearer. Blinded by his own light, he could see nothing beyond himself. Such is the peril of intellectual incandescence. Otherworldly light simply can't get through. One thinks of Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre, and to a lesser extent Hitchens. A mortal man with a huge ego -- one which is soon to pop like an over-inflated balloon.
The contemplation of death must be horrifying for those who pin all on the frail reed of the ego. The dimming of the light, the loss of control, the feeling of helplessly and hopelessly slipping away into an abyss of non-being. And all of this without the trust of the child who ceases his struggling to be borne by Another. "Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." But this of course is what the Luciferian intellect cannot do. It cannot relax, it must hold on and stay in control. It must struggle helplessly as the ego implodes in upon itself. The ego, having gone supernova, collapses into a black hole. What we fear when we fear death is not so much the destruction of the body, but the dissolution of the ego. That is the true horror and evil of death. And without religion you are going to have to take it straight.
What would Hitchens lose by believing? Of course, he can't bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose 'the truth'? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. They bluster and whistle in the dark. But suppose 'the truth' is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this 'truth' be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system? How could truth be a value in a purely material world?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it? And if materialism is true, could truth even exist? It is not a physical thing or property. It is not empirically detectable. It is inherently mind-involving.
An abstract with the above title has been making the rounds. No doubt you have seen it, so there is no need to link to it, nor does it deserve a link. It is almost certainly a joke, and if not, then the author is a fool. But since I have just made a harsh allegation, perhaps you should see for yourself.
There have always been crises. Human history is just one crisis after another. The 20th Century was a doosy: two world wars, economic depression, the rise of unspeakably evil totalitarian states, genocide, the nuclear annihilation of whole cities, the Cold War that nearly led to WWIII (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962?), and then after the Evil Empire was quashed, the resurrection of radical Islam. Should we conclude that philosophy has never been justified? But then science has never been justified and much of the rest of what we consider high culture. For they have their origin in philosophy.
Perhaps you don't agree with my 'origins' claim. Still, plenty in life is of value regardless of its utility in mitigating whatever crisis happens to be in progress. Or do you think Beethoven should have been a social worker?
"But I have never done anything that requires forgiveness." Really? Then please forgive me for considering you either a liar, or deeply self-deceived, or an amnesiac, or insane, or a joker, or someone unfamiliar with the English language . . . .
An appeal to reason works with a few, and an appeal to self-interest with most. But then there are the hopelessly recalcitrant for whom only the appeal to force is effective. The only argument that reaches them is the argumentum ad baculum. Herein yet another reason to uphold Second Amendment rights.
Those who call for the repeal of the Second Amendment not only fail to appreciate its importance but also vastly underestimate the difficulty of actually repealing it. On the latter point, see Charles C. W. Cooke.
It is sometimes said that there are only two kinds of philosophers, Platonists and Aristotelians. What follows is a quotation from Heinrich Heine which expresses one version of this useful simplification. Carl Gustav Jung places it at the very beginning of his Psychological Types (Princeton UP, 1971, p. 2.)
Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems: they are also types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval period in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and their corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally, the Church eventually embraces both natures—one of them entrenched in the clergy, and the other in monasticism; but both keeping up a constant feud. ~ H. Heine, Deutschland
Plato, on the left carrying The Timaeus, points upwards while Aristotle, on the right carrying his Ethics, points either forward (thereby valorizing the 'horizontal' dimension of time and change as against Plato's 'vertical' gesture) or downwards (emphasizing the foundational status of sense particulars and sense knowledge.) At least five contrasts are suggested: vita contemplativa versus vita activa, mundus intelligibilis versus mundus sensibilis, transcendence versus immanence, eternity versus time, mystical unity versus rational-cum-empirical plurality.
Heine is right about the battle within Christianity between the Platonic and Aristotelian tendencies. Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, Divine Simplicity -- these are at bottom mystical notions impervious to penetration by the discursive intellect as we have been lately observing. Nevertheless,"Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult." But the dogmatic constructions, no matter how clever and detailed, never succeed in rendering intelligible the transintelligible, mystical contents.
When are people serious? When money is involved — their money.
My mind drifts back to faculty meetings in which half-listening colleagues doodled and dozed. But when salary considerations came to the table, the dullest among them pricked up their ears. Suddenly they became sharp and serious.
Anyone who reveals what he’s learned, Chris told me, is not by his definition a true hermit. Chris had come around on the idea of himself as a hermit, and eventually embraced it. When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."
Again I am astonished by the wild diversity of human types as between, say, Zelda Kaplan and Dolores Hart. Who or what is man that he should admit of such wide diversity?
Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue ends on this ominous and prescient note:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.
Conservatives answer in the negative, liberals in the affirmative. This may be the most important difference between the warring parties. Dennis Prager explains the difference very clearly here.
Liberals will object to the 'radioactive' Man in the above title borrowed from Prager. They think it excludes women. It does not. It only excludes women if you are a liberal.
This points up another key difference between liberals and conservatives. For a liberal, nothing is immune to politicization, and everything, including language, can be pressed into service as a weapon of culture war. No word or phrase is safe from being distorted for an ideological purpose. A particularly egregious recent example is the absurd suggestion that 'thug' is code for 'nigger,' so that if one rightly describes the behavior of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, on the night he died as 'thuggish' one is hurling a racial epithet. Conservatives, by contrast, aim to preserve and protect the language as a neutral means for the exchange of ideas.