Skip to content

Intolerable situations and political technologies

December 15, 2014

It’s far from obvious that poets have had anything insightful to say about politics. Some, certainly, have not; Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” quip is among the most idiotic claims ever made. But politics cannot be divorced from what we want, and poets, if they are experts in anything, are experts in the difficulty of knowing our own desires.

If I have political beliefs, these are perhaps they.


First example: in reading T.S. Eliot’s lectures on “The Aims of Education,” I came across the following passage:

Nobody dislikes totalitarian government more than I do; but it is not enough merely to hate it, or to concentrate our detestation upon its uglier manifestations elsewhere. We must at least recognize the existence of pressures which are modifying society everywhere, if only in order to be alert to counteract them and to accept nothing that we can do without. Not all men are moved by unscrupulous love of power, or by fanatical ideology: men sometimes find themselves in a position where they have to assume more power than they want–or in a position in which the assumption of power may plausibly seem to be the only way of meeting some crisis or relieving some intolerable situation. (Lecture 3, “The Conflict Between Aims.” Emphasis mine.)

At first its seems merely to restate that old proverb first, do no harm. Do not “solve” intolerable situations in a way that in fact makes them worse. To which we might respond, necessity is the mother of invention. Do not leave a problem unsolved just because the solution is difficult to find. This is the trouble with proverbs: they’re no good unless you know when, and when not, to use them.

But Eliot’s point is deeper than that. The desire to “relieve some intolerable situation” is given as an example of those pressures which are modifying society everywhere. Labeling a situation as “intolerable” exerts pressure: it forces persons in power to act, not so as to bring about the best outcome possible, but so as to demonstrate their righteousness, to show that they do not “tolerate” the situation.

People often imagine that democracy is the ideal solution to the political principal-agent problem, but in fact the perverse incentives created by ” intolerable” situations are at their worst in democratic regimes. The demos loves to brand situations intolerable, and to demonstrate their righteous refusal to tolerate it by voting out anyone who fails to make a similar demonstration.


This causes particular problems when technology makes the line between wishes and desires ever-more-difficult to discern. And so, second example: from W.H. Auden:

In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was also easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire. If, in order to hear some music, a man has to wait six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words, ‘I should like to hear some music,’ mean what they appear to mean, or merely, ‘At this moment I should like to forget myself.’ When all he has to do is press a switch, it is more difficult. He may easily come to believe that wishes can come true. (The Dyer’s Hand, “Interlude: West’s Disease.” Emphasis mine.)

Likewise, when a man has to wait six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words ‘The state of public education in this country is intolerable’ mean what they appear to mean, or merely ‘At this moment I should like to forget myself.’ When all he has to do is vote for someone promising change, it’s more difficult.

Which is to say: we can look at democracy, not as the One True Political System, but as a technological innovation. It’s superior to feudalism in the same way that recorded music is superior to its absence: it gives us more opportunities to fulfill our desires. This is a significant advance; Auden is no more anti-democracy than he is anti-microphone. But democracy and recorded music also share a flaw: they make it more difficult to know what our desires are.

Of course, saying this will accomplish nothing. Even if we believe it, we’ll walk away convinced that we know what we want; it’s the other guys who are confused. But all of us are experts in self-deception, at imagining that we’re acting on our principles, not our incentives.


There is no obvious solution. Even if Eliot called himself a “monarchist in politics,” neither he nor Auden put any stock in the dream of “an unincentivized incentivizer” (ctrl-F the phrase) who could make everyone else’s incentives neatly align. Or, rather, both thought that only Christianity could make straight our perverse incentives, our disordered desires; but both also knew that Christianity cannot do this by telling us what goals to follow. We all know the aphorisms; the trick is knowing which ones to apply when.

There is no obvious solution. If something looks like an obvious solution, chances are it just satisfies a hidden desire–a desire to triumph over our neighbor, a desire to declare ourselves righteous.

It would be fair, I think, to call this political vision a kind of conservatism. But it’s a conservatism that stands athwart history, not yelling “Stop!”, but asking, “Is that really what you want?”

With some quite personal purpose

December 8, 2014

One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author. –Paul Valéry

Those of you who follow this blog, not because you deem it to be Most Incredibly Wise, but because you know me well enough to judge my judgments (which, according to my most recent post, ought to be all of you) will be pleased (or irked, depending on the valence of your relationship with me) to hear that I passed my Fundamentals exam, and so will continue to wind my may slowly through graduate school a while longer.


While doing poorly on an exam in the liberal arts feels like an actual failure, the converse is not true; doing well brings with it a curious feeling of insubstantiality. You have not, after all, actually done anything useful, like built a house, or a computer program. You have not even (as in the sciences) contributed to the ability of others to do something useful; in the liberal arts what you do serves, by definition, no useful purpose. You have simply submitted to the evaluation of one’s elders, and been found worthy. What makes them worthy to find you worthy? If you’re prone to vanity or self-doubt (which are really the same thing), acing an exam in the liberal arts will provide no solace.

In other words: the liberal arts, unlike both trades and sciences, have no reliable feedback mechanism. Within a trade, you have a goal: make things that work; and if they don’t work, you’ve failed. Within a science, you have a goal: advance our scientific understanding of X; and, while you will be evaluated according to somewhat arbitrary criteria (i.e. whether your colleagues think your work “interesting” and “worthwhile”) you have good reason to believe (cf. again my most recent post) that success according to these metrics is at least strongly correlated with advancing towards the goal. But within the liberal arts, it’s not clear that you even have a goal–didn’t we say that there’s nothing they’re supposed to make happen?–and so, while the feedback mechanism resembles that of science, there’s no reason to think it correlates with anything.


Scientists often view humanities professors as mere careerists, as opposed, presumably, to the scientists, who do what they do For Science. In one sense, this is silly. Humanities professors probably seek career advancement to just the same degree as do scientists; no one wants to ‘sell out,’ everyone wants to put food on the table. The difference is that, for the scientist, career-advancement and Science-promotion go hand in hand, in a way that, for the humanities professor, they do not; but since the liberal arts don’t claim to be scientific, is this surprising?

Still, the ‘careerist’ accusation, while misguided, gets at something true. The activity of humanities professors is directed towards oneself in a way scientific inquiry is not. Again, as Valéry said, “One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose.” I borrowed this quotation from an essay of W.H. Auden’s titled, simply, “Reading”; he soon follows it up with the following:

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes.

To study the liberal arts is, among other things, to seek to purify (which is not to say expunge) one’s personality, one’s wishes and desires. Foremost among the desires to be purified is the desire for someone else to tell you what to desire. This is another reason why exams cannot tell you anything about your progress towards liberality. Other persons are almost never in a position to judge whether your desires have been made free, and if someone (more a psychoanalyst than an academic examiner) somehow arrives at that position, then the last thing he should do is reveal the judgment he have formed.


So why study the liberal arts in an academic setting at all? Well, yes, that is the question. It’s akin to another question, “why write poetry?”, which Auden answers in another essay, called “Writing,” as follows:

The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: ‘For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,’ what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: ‘You are to sing to the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can’t or won’t, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines.’ And the poor patient in his delirium cries: ‘Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona.’

But it’s far from clear that such an answer gives us any aid. Philosophy and philology and literary criticism are not poetry.

The spirit of science and the spirit of censorship

December 1, 2014

This amusing essay recounts an attempt to quantify the difference between the technical paper inventing bitcoin and the Time Cube, um, phenomenon; or, put differently, between hard-to-understand sense and easily-recognized nonsense.

The results were, unsurprisingly, inconclusive; it turns out that spam filters, while pretty good at recognizing the attempts of computers to get humans to pay attention how and to what they shouldn’t, are not very good at recognizing the attempts of humans to get humans (including themselves) to pay attention how and to what they shouldn’t. Nevertheless the “final results of the Bayesian classifier” are worth considering:

Words that suggest an article is bullshit, in order of the strength of indication, and case-sensitive, based on my own opinions of articles I found on the internet: entire, truth, No, upon, You, head, required, sources, widely, doesn’t, John, explanation, needs, step, 11, exactly, North, added, defend, completely, word, faith, willing, mentioned, 7, practice, again, thinks, attempt, multiple, meaning, established, dark.

Words that suggest an article is legit, in order of the strength of indication, and case-sensitive, based on my own opinions of articles I found on the internet: there.

In other words, the best easily visible sign that an argument is bad science, is that it puts a lot of effort into convincing you that it’s good science: it jabbers on about the “entire” “truth,” about how its “explanation” is “exactly” what its “widely” surveyed “sources” say, how it’s “defend[ing]” against the “dark” of “established” blind “faith” the real “meaning” of it all. Whereas real science doesn’t use rhetorical tropes to convince you; it just tries to get at what’s “there.”


But of course, this doesn’t teach us how to see through rhetoric; it just reminds us of our existing cultural conventions. “We” trust scientists (when they’re doing science, at least), and the scientists know how to see through any rhetoric used to mask bad arguments about their areas of expertise; this is what it means for them to be experts. So an anti-rhetorical ethos develops in the scientific community: don’t wax eloquent about defending the truth about whatever, just talk about whatever, about what’s “there.” Anyone who rejects the scientific community’s claim to authority will tend to reject this ethos. This, not anything about the styles themselves, prevents a great scientific advance from being published in the style of Time Cube, nor the disjointed delusions of a madman from being published in the style of a technical paper about encryption.

In fact, how, besides the cultural-rhetorical cues, do we even know that Time Cube should be considered nonsense? Seen from a certain angle, it looks more like an extremely eccentric, yet somewhat coherent, work of poetical philosophy. Perhaps Time Cube has, in fact, succumbed to our scientific-nonsense-filter because it wanted to do so. If anyone were actually trying to evade our scientific-nonsense-filters, it would be extremely easy. How lucky for us that no one tries!


People rarely write scientifically plausible pseudo-science, not because it’s impossible, but because no one has any incentive to do so. For it is written[1]:

If the climate skeptics want to win me over, then the way for them to do so is straightforward: they should ignore me, and try instead to win over the academic climatology community, majorities of chemists and physicists, Nobel laureates, the IPCC, National Academies of Science, etc. with superior research and arguments.

The academic climatology community”–and “the scientific community” more broadly–names a spirit, an “invisible hand,” a force guiding scientists to do science, and not just pretend to do so, by making “doing science” a necessary byproduct of pursuing one’s own self-interest. Why write up a scientific-sounding argument that’s not ‘real science,’ if it won’t be taken seriously by scientists until the relevant experts in the scientific community evaluate it? Why imitate the style of scientists if they choose to ignore that imitation?

In a real sense we can speak of a “spirit of science” which knows more science than any particular scientist is even capable of comprehending. A physicist does not know that the theory of evolution, say, is true, not really; but he knows that the biologists, rather than the skeptics, are the ones whose arguments should be trusted prima facie, while the skeptics’ arguments should be ignored. The spirit of science has whispered this knowledge in his ear.

The spirit of science is a spirit of censorship. Every pseudo-scientist who has had the doors of academia slammed in his face before the porters even heard his “argument” knows this.


“Censorship,” as we all know, “is evil.” But this is patent nonsense. We believe it because we don’t want other people telling us what to read; we can, we feel, perfectly well discern the good from the bad on our own. But the feeling and the ability are not the same thing, and may well be anticorrelated. How prideful is it to think that we are smart enough to see through the apparent healthfulness of the most appealing poison out there?

Opposition to censorship comes down to intellectual solipsism–the belief that “what I find persuasive” bears any direct relationship to “what is true.” I call this solipsism because it assumes either that what other persons find persuasive is irrelevant, or that they necessarily find persuasive the same things I do. The former makes it difficult to justify listening to other people at all: why not just make up arguments with a random text generator, and evaluate them? The latter makes it difficult to avoid thinking everyone you disagree with is, not just misguided, but evil: if they don’t actually find that argument persuasive (which they can’t, since I can see through it), they must be trying to trick me.

Arguments, like all words, do not come to us from the ether; they come from other people, and evaluating them is an inherently social activity. Reading a book is like accepting a gift[2]: why do it if you have no reason to think it’s not a Trojan horse? As Helen Andrews writes in First Things:

The perfect public sphere in which ideas compete freely until the truth emerges may be real or it may be mythical, but certainly that is not how it works in the individual human brain. I for one do not trust that my mind will arrive at the correct conclusion if I only jam it full of as many ideas as I can manage. Bad books are like bad company—they don’t make error inevitable, but they make it difficult to guard against. When the Index was abrogated in 1966, the assumption was that in the absence of a list of specific forbidden books, individuals would use the same basic rules to make their own judgments about what was prudent for them to read. How many of us can say we have been conscientious in that duty?

(And she could easily have backed up the claims about the brain with empirical evidence.)

The difficulty comes in finding a censorship regime that can actually provide a useful filter. This is an instance of the principal-agent problem: Given a job for which evaluating the quality of the job done requires the same expertise as doing the job, how can we delegate the job to someone else without getting cheated?

For the hard scientists, the problem is difficult, but can be solved through requiring scientists to make empirically verifiable claims, and penalizing them for making false ones, thus giving scientists an incentive to maximize their claims’ veracity[3]. With other topics, this solution does not work; not necessarily because no empirical claims are involved, but because, if they exist at all, they are few enough and far enough between that they cannot be used to steer our collective mind in the right direction. Just as evolution cannot produce adaptations if children do not bear sufficient resemblance to their parents. This is especially true for things like literature, which do not contain arguments for us to evaluate at all; and yet we must evaluate, or perish. Poetic difficulty is just a special case of the difficulty of all evaluation.


The principal-agent problem only arises if agent and principal do not share a relationship of trust. For this reason it seems like a plausible solution to read what your friends recommend. But how do your friends decide what to read? Either through their own friends’ recommendations, or through newspapers, blogs, academic syllabi, etc. Just channeling everything through friendship doesn’t solve the problem; it just slows down the rate of propagation for both knowledge and disinformation.

Better than reading what your friends recommend, is reading based on your friends’ recommendations. This is better, first, because the recommendations will themselves contain reasons, which you can evaluate; being told why a book is worth reading is much more valuable than being told to read it. Second, because, since you know your friends, you can evaluate their reasons in light of their character: their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

I take this to be the kernel of truth behind Blaise Pascal’s argument regarding how to approach texts that are difficult to understand:

If one of two persons, who are telling silly stories, uses language with a double meaning, understood in his own circle, while the other uses it with only one meaning, any one not in the secret, who hears them both talk in this manner, will pass upon them the same judgment. But if afterwards, in the rest of their conversation one says angelic things, and the other always dull commonplaces, he will judge that the one spoke in mysteries, and not the other; the one having sufficiently shown that he is incapable of such foolishness, and capable of being mysterious; and the other that he is incapable of mystery, and capable of foolishness. (Pascal, Pensées, #690)

If you think that someone is wise and good, and you don’t understand part of what they say–then maybe you’re the one who’s missing something.
Nevertheless, even this strategy does not solve the problem; and it’s not clear that any strategy can solve the problem, forget perfectly, but just adequately. For, to put it somewhat mystically, truth does not differ from falsehood in any particular feature, since every feature can be falsified; but only in its participation in the whole of Truth.


This post is something of a follow-up to my post last month about the power of words; and, in particular, to my use of the word “cult” to describe the LessWrong community. I’ve spent a decent (inordinate?) amount of time trawling their site so you don’t have to, as several links in this post demonstrate. The difficulty is that much of what they write has a great deal of value, even while certain aspects (and not only their treatment of religion) I believe to be woefully misguided; how, then, to cite them responsibly? The word “cult” is my attempt at prudent censorship; it communicates that they should be viewed with suspicion, and perhaps avoided (especially if you have heretical tendencies, as do so many of us in the present day), but also that they perhaps have something of value to offer. As Ross Douthat argued recently, perhaps the world needs more cults.


[1]: By one Scott Aaronson, but found by me in this massive catalog of “rationality quotes” from the archives of the LessWrong cultists. I may post about the literary genre of “rationality quote” in the near future.

[3]: This is, perhaps, why books are so often given as Christmas presents; and why there is something curious about giving as a gift a book you have not yourself read.

[2]: Though note that this incentivizes scientists to make boring, almost-certainly-true claims; the system is thus far from maximally efficient. But every large machine wastes much of its energy in the form of heat.

What the artist knows

November 24, 2014

In 1920 Jacques Maritain, not yet become a famous neo-Thomist, wrote a small book titled Art and Scholasticism. It sought through the scattered remarks on beauty and art found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas to justify the recent modernist revolutions in painting, music, and poetry.

Georges Rouault - Christ dans le Banlieu (c. 1920-24); Rouault and Maritain were good friends

Georges Rouault – Christ dans le Banlieu (c. 1920-24); Rouault and Maritain were good friends

“Recent” doesn’t really do Maritain justice. True, the work of Manet, Wagner, and Baudelaire, the founders of modernism[1], had been around for half a century; but the theorists of modernism to whom Maritain most often turns were still-living members of Les Nabis; and Picasso, Stravinsky, and Eliot, all of whom he discusses, were basically his contemporaries. Maritain was writing at a time when modernist art just meant the art that’s going on right now.

It’s difficult, I think, for us to imagine such a book coming out today. A scholarly analysis of contemporary art: of course. An essayistic justification of the artistic revolutions that began in the 1960s and have only just begun to crest–perhaps. An argument along these lines made by appeal to the philosophy of the 1260s–well, if it’s out there, I want to see it, and I hope it’s as well done as Art and Scholasticism.


Not being an expert, I can’t say how true the book is to medieval thought, but as a work of aesthetic philosophy I found it a quite compelling synthesis of the best parts of Romanticism and Classicism. Its first core idea, which we might call Classical, is that “art” is an intellectual activity:

The virtue of the craftsman was not, in their eyes, strength of muscle and nimbleness of fingers, or the rapidity of the chronometered and tailored gesture; nor was it that merely empirical activity (experimentum) which takes place in the memory and in the animal (cogitative) reason, which imitates art and which art absolutely needs, but which remains of itself extrinsic to art. It was a virtue of the intellect, and endowed the humblest artisan with a certain perfection of the spirit. (20)

Artistic virtue is knowledge of how to make something for a particular purpose; how to make something that can be an aid to doing something. But the “fine” arts, the arts directed towards beauty, make things that have no particular purpose, other than to be beautiful; they do not help us to do anything:

Art in general tends to make a work. But certain arts tend to make a beautiful work, and in this they differ essentially from all the others. The work to which all the other arts tend is itself ordered to the service of man, and is therefore a simple means; and it is entirely enclosed in a determined material genus. The work to which the fine arts tend is ordered to beauty; as beautiful, it is an end, an absolute, it suffices of itself; and if, as work-to-be-made, it is material and enclosed in a genus, as beautiful it belongs to the kingdom of the spirit and plunges deep into the transcendence and the infinity of being.” (33)

This plunge into transcendence leads us to the second, more Romantic, and more difficult, tenet of Maritain’s aesthetics: beauty must be understood as splendor of form, and the artist’s knowledge is the knowledge of how to bring the splendor into view. As a footnote[2] describes the artistic genius, it is

the altogether particular knowledge by which the poet, the painter and the musician perceive in things forms and secrets that are hidden to others and which are expressible only in the work–a knowledge which may be called poetic knowledge and which falls under the heading of knowledge through connaturality, or, as one says today, existential knowledge.(n130, 195)

The artist need not reproduce the appearance of things which he sees–a belief Maritain associates with Cartesian subjectivism–but rather the inherent intelligibility of the form he has in mind; a form associated with nothing in particular, which he arrives at through seeing more deeply; and which he may display through reproducing the appearances of things, but which is not located in the appearances reproduced, but in how he arranges and shapes them:

the beauty of a work of art not being the beauty of the object represented, painting and sculpture are in no way bound to the determined proportions and to the imitation of such a type. The art of pagan antiquity thought itself so bound because of an extrinsic condition, because it represented above all the gods of an anthropomorphic religion. (n61, 171)

This point–that, no longer worshipping anthropomorphic gods, we are free to plumb the depths of our creative power–gives artistry its religious overtones, which Maritain acknowledges as extra-moral and only half seeks to diffuse:

Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it. And just as the trace and image of God appear in His creatures, so the human stamp is imprinted on the work of art–the full stamp, sensitive and spiritual, not only that of the hands, but of the whole soul. Before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word. (60)

So, anti-mimetic, but also anti-expressive; the artist does not give shape to the world, or to his feelings, but to an idea. The artist’s task is to make this idea shine through as clearly as possible. As the supplementary essay “The Frontiers of Poetry” (1927) puts it:

Modern poetry is not going to free itself of language or of the work-to-be-made, but it must make transparent these intermediaries of the soul, it must make of matter, by dint of diligent attention and abnegation, a means of transmission that does not twist or mutilate its message. (150)


I quote so extensively because there is, I think, much to be learned here. But there are also dangers. For one, the lack of care taken to distinguish painting, music, and poetry from each other; do the things we say about any one really translate so easily to the others? For another, the belief in spiritual “progress,” as shown in this last quotation; Maritain explicitly rejects the idea that art can bring about Paradise, but his rhetoric still suggests that it will play a part, an idea we should always view with suspicion.

But, perhaps most importantly: I’m not convinced by this business about beauty as “an end in itself.” Or, rather, I can accept the thought that Beauty is an end in itself, just as Truth is; but that fact alone, it seems to me, does nothing to make either an end for us. At the very least, a more robust anthropology is needed before we can use these transcendentals to justify either the Scientific or the Artistic Revolutions.

The first step, I think, would involve attending to how we use the beautiful objects that we make. Maritain is, of course, right that we don’t do anything with them, not anything in particular. They do not serve us as the servile arts do. But we do live with them, and befriend them; and that’s something. Maritain was, it turns out, good friends with Georges Rouault, the proto-expressionist French painter, and he does not ignore the role friendship plays in artistic creation. But I wish he had paid it more attention.


[1]: My claim, not Maritain’s. Though obviously it’s an overly simplistic way of looking at things, I don’t think many people would say it’s wrong.

[2]: The footnotes must be read. They contain numerous additions, clarifications, and emendations made by the later Maritain as he saw modernism unfold.

We must call deaths, deaths

November 17, 2014

Consider David Jones, “Art in Relation to War”, The Dying Gaul, p. 153-55:

There is nearly always an attempt made in the minds of most of us to pretend that the loss of some admitted ‘good’ in any epoch is ‘worth it’ because of some quite other ‘good’ in the following epoch, and thus a legend of general progress is maintained, to the detriment of a true understanding of the situation. This is particularly noticeable where excellences of art and morals are confused and set off against each other–like a sort of profit and loss account. Again the people who ‘believe in progress’ and the people who look back wistfully are almost equally unreal, for both tend to ‘pool’ the perfections which all men desire, and both tend to hide the skeletons in their respective dream-cupboards. And when I say this, I mean we all do it to a large degree. I think we must make a conscious effort towards refusing to be fobbed off by talk of sublimation. We must call deaths, deaths, and admit a real loss. If we inherit advantages from such deaths–that’s all to the good, but the gain makes the loss no less real. This sounds trite enough, but there is in the matter of art and morals and the development of civilization a pretty rooted conviction that this transference of values can be effected and that there is a sort of accumulating credit to which we are heirs. I do not think this is true, although it no doubt contains a half-truth, or a truth on another plane. World’s history is more of a rake’s progress than the conservation of ‘goods’. It is a criminal dissipation of noble things.

When, to take an example from so very many, any civilized imperium is extended over a savage culture, it is the worst of delusion to suppose that a real death has not been inflicted and all the subsequent ‘goods’ accruing to the ‘civilizing’ of the people of that culture do not alter by one iota the reality of the thing done and no future development, development ‘in time’, can compensate. Incidentally this is why the word ‘justice’ in any profound sense has no meaning unless we pre-suppose a ‘divine order’, a supernatural economy, by which such words as ‘compensation’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘sublime-ation’ can have meaning–but that is another matter, we are speaking here of this world.

In our world, the loss of a thing as artistically formidable as say the culture of the Incas to two dozen Renaissance fire-locks and a few cavaliers is something which strikes a note of questioning and of despair in our hearts, which the comfortable arguments do no more than aggravate. We have no conception of the arithmetic by which such accounts are audited. It is ‘of faith’ that they are audited. That is the most we can say. I chose this outstanding and tragic example, not because it is unique, but because on the contrary it is a glaring example of something which is ubiquitous and universal and which is happening all the time in many millions of lesser ways–to lesser perfections of all kinds; it is, in fact, history, your history and my history no less than world history.

It is a kind of cowardice to look on history and not to despair if we confine ourselves to the natural order. Strictly within that order, ‘optimism’ is all right as an indulgent aid to a certain kind of morale, it can be objectively ‘all right’ only if we presuppose an ‘other-world’ order–‘call it what you like’, as the Cheshire cat said. Conceive it in what terms you like, it has to be conceded. Even if Utopia began tomorrow, even if the state were visibly ‘withering away’ (instead of which ‘So Jupiter me succour, it flourisheth more and more’), even if that quarrelsome pair, Liberty and Equality, could be finally got to set up home and Fraternity  be brought forth, the New Man would be a Sub-Man if he forgot to weep for the past: there is no decent escape from the lacrimarum vale, the lament for the makers is a world lament, like the weeping for Thamuz.

The watch that ends the night

November 10, 2014

To retread familiar ground: compared to the infinite, all finite quantities look pretty much the same. As Isaac Watts put it,

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

“Look the same” is not to say “look like nothing.” An evening can certainly look like nothing, a triviality, something we while away without even realizing it, but the night’s last watch, however short, is pregnant with meaning, and fills us with eager anticipation. And the moment in which the sun rises matters more than the aeon that precedes it. So a length of time has a meaning; yet its meaning is not in its length.


El Greco - The Opening of the Fifth Seal

El Greco – The Opening of the Fifth Seal

In one sense, Christianity poses the question: would you rather that your life be a wasted evening, or a vigil watching for the sunrise? And if this difference has nothing to do with how much of anything you have, then why, even if you must give up a thousand wasted evenings for just a chance at seeing the sun, would you hesitate? Your life matters, but how much life you live does not–only whether you live it well.

But of course, this is not the only question Christianity poses. It also demands belief in–well, in in a whole host of things, but in particular, it demands not just that we believe in, but that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead.” The resurrection of the dead–the abolishment of limitations on life–is the sun whose rising gives even the shortest night’s watch meaning because in fact it is the beginning of an endless day. Who would not spring to give up a thousand wasted evenings for just a chance at seeing the sun for endless years the same?


Francisco de Holanda's De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines

Francisco de Holanda – De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines

It’s easy to misunderstand the contribution of this second question to the argument. Pascal, entranced by the mathematics of infinity, thinks it suggested a simple calculation: if we can hang an infinite amount of happy time on one side of the scale, then nothing finite can balance it out, no matter how long we make scale’s other arm. But even apart from the incoherence of the thought experiment (since infinity is not a number–infinitum actu non datur), we have no idea how to quantify happiness, and the entire point of the first question was to show that more time is not necessarily better. So–why need hope for an eternal life play a role in in every good life?

But if we do not grant some role to quantity, to resurrection meaning more life, we’re left not with religion, but with philosophy. Plato wants to live in the truth–to see the sun, as it were–but he has no desire for his time-bound life to actually endure any longer than necessary. He thinks human life not simply benighted, but entombed; the sun can only be seen by leaving it behind altogether. Socrates drinks the hemlock with indifference, and with indifference tells his friends to dispose of his body according to the usual customs. The thought that his soul could only depart through horrific violence–that it would depart, not for Elyseum, but for Sheol–that the body left behind was still his own–that the soul might return to it–that it might rise again, and live forever, not just in truth, but in flesh–that only in this way could his life be a happy one–all this would be absolutely foreign to him.

While Plato does sometimes envision an eternal afterlife, a world outside the cave hospitable to human life, it’s only poetry, a way to gesture at the fact that only Being and Truth and Goodness are truly good. The philosopher’s heaven is pristine and lifeless. As for the Christian’s–well, as Flannery O’Connor said of another doctrine of the faith: “if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”


What, then, does the resurrection offer? The meaning of life without limit cannot be understood without knowing what limits our life. Time, does, certainly, but this is not bad in itself (not bad for the animals, for example); what subsequent limit makes it bad? The philosopher thinks it epistemic; the Christian, social. Our society is intrinsically unjust, and within such society no happy life is possible. The best we can hope for now is to live in anticipation of the rebuilding of the ruined city at the end of time.

What exactly makes society unjust is a topic for another day, but it seems important that it cannot be unjust simply because it fails to maximize happy times, or happy lives. Not only is it not clear what such maximization could consist in, but the absence of such maximization is beside the point: happy lives, in this city, are not just difficult, but impossible (sans divine intervention). And this impossibility is not why the city is bad (that would be circular), it’s a consequence of its badness. From the Christian point of view, the philosopher’s “happiness” is bad, not because it’s selfish, but because it’s false: even if the philosopher tried to help his fellows to follow in his footsteps, and he succeeded in building an entire society consisting only of such philosophers, it would be an unjust society, full of unhappy people.

Placing the emphasis thus, the night watch metaphor takes on added significance. Keeping watch, however solitary an activity, makes no sense unless we are keeping watch for someone, in the sense of agent-and-principal. (Otherwise it’s just staying up late.) We do not work on humanity (as a piece of clay), but we keep watch for it, and, when the sun comes, seek to wake it. For while the sun breaks over the horizon all of a sudden, it reveals clear signs of its impending arrival to those with eyes to see. For this reason all talk of a “blind leap” is misguided. The only leap required is that taken when the eyes are first opened. After that–well, as Wittgenstein says, “light dawns gradually over the whole.”

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

The many names of Turin Hurinson

November 3, 2014

Why do I write here under the (pseudo)pseudonym Turin Hurinson (more properly, Túrin Húrinson)?

When I began three and a half years ago, I gave two very simple reasons: “to preserve continuity with my previous journal and to mark the great influence J.R.R. Tolkien has had on my way of thinking.” Both remain true. But both, increasingly, seem inadequate. It’s one thing for a recent college graduate, unsure where his life is going, to want his future to have something to do with his past. It’s another for an advanced graduate student, done with classes and exams, more often the teacher than the pupil, soon (I hope) to begin writing a dissertation, after that (I dream) to get a job as an academic, to be still writing under a nickname adopted at the age of thirteen.[1]

Never fear; introspection is here with the answer.

* * *

It would be easy for me to drop the handle, and might well make everyone concerned feel a little less awkward. There’s really only one reason I don’t, and it has to do with the name’s meaning. Most people, of course, don’t recognize the name, and perhaps think it sounds vaguely high fantasy–and who takes that stuff seriously? But it refers to Túrin Turambar, the first tragic hero I ever took seriously (even if, when I first encountered him, I did not know what taking literature seriously meant). Túrin was the greatest human warrior in Middle Earth, and the most proud. As pride does, it led to his downfall–over and over. The tragedy lies in how he dealt with the second chance, and the third, and the fourth…. (For this reason it would make a bad play–it lacks the proper dramatic arc. Not that I don’t know people who have tried.) After his world fell apart about him, he always moved to a new land, adopted a new name, and attempted to build for himself a new life: first as Neithan, “the wronged”; then as Agarwaen son of Úmarth, “blood-stained son of ill-fate”; then as Gorthol, “dread helm,” and Mormegil, “black sword”; finally as Turambar, “master of doom.” The progression of names is a kind of magic, an attempt to rewrite the meaning of his life: broken from without; bound by the past; reforged from within; freed by the future. So Túrin would have us see him. But Túrin is the son of Húrin, whose family has been placed under a curse, and, as always happens, it was by refusing to acknowledge it that Túrin ensured his lineage would catch up to him. “Túrin Húrinson” is the name he never adopted. To use it would have been, one suspects, a potent anti-magic, a formula acknowledging his lack of power over his curse which thereby lifted it.

This does not, of course, mean that dropping the pseudonym would place me under the curse of Húrin. That the pseudonym is “Túrin Húrinson” of all names, though, seems to me not just an astonishing coincidence (I certainly didn’t have this meaning in mind when I called myself “Turin” in 2003 or tacked on “Hurinson” in 2006), but also a useful memento temporis. I may disavow some of what Turin_2003 said, and wish that others did not pay attention to it, but I cannot change the past, and cannot erase the fact the he said it.

* * *

Over the last decade-plus Turin has said some dumb things, and thought some dumb thoughts. Mistaken beliefs are not sins–though they may be symptoms of moral failure–so the rest of this post is not exactly a confession. But for a while now it’s seemed to me like a good idea to state explicitly, and in one place, some of the more important issues on which I’ve changed my mind since I first started subjecting the world to its contents. Don’t worry, I won’t make you read anything I wrote back then (not everything here I actually said online anyway). I will give enough context to make clear that I held these beliefs for real reasons, even if not for good ones.[2]


I’ll start with the position readers will likely find most alien. Turin once thought, and felt very strongly, that “Math ∈ God,” or perhaps “Math  God” (he was always a bit fuzzy about which exactly he wanted). I stand by the basic train of thought: math is true; truth is in God; so math is in God. But Turin clearly thought that this relation was of immense importance, such that, unless we made it explicit, we would remain confused about why to worship God rather than math. This no longer seems to me like a real concern; why would we think mathematics God, just because mathematics communicates truth, any more than we would think economics God, just because economics communicates truth? Whereas I now see reason not to emphasize this point, namely, that it encourages a “Platonic” mathematical metaphysics which I no longer endorse.


Second, for the position readers will likely find most repulsive. Turin once self-identified as a (non-Nazi) fascist; by this, he probably meant something like neo-reaction. The more shallow train of thought leading him here was: if fascists are bad because they kill Jews, but really only the Nazis killed Jews, what’s wrong with fascism per se? (Middle school teachers are not the best at answering this question.) The deeper one was: moral anarchy is bad. We need a way of telling which actions are right and which are wrong, and this appears to be the purpose of the state. But if it’s sometimes right to break the law, this falls apart. So it can never be right to break the law, ever. It might sometimes be right to change the law, but this has to be done through recognized channels. Those who work outside those channels (e.g. Henry David Thoreau, Antigone) deserve what comes to them. I can still sympathize with this mindset, but if anything I now have a tendency towards anarchism. The solution to Turin’s deeper worry, clearly, was to find a state-independent source of ethics. Which I concluded was Christianity, but that’s a different story.


These beliefs both reflect a strong tendency Turin once had to abstract away from the human person. We can see this more clearly in his afore-mentioned approach to literature. Influenced by too many poorly-reasoned essays by prominent authors, he thought that literature was, essentially, about running psychological and ontological experiments–what would such a person do in such a situation? what would a world in which such a thing was possible “be like”?–which could inspire useful generalizations about Humanity and Being. So, literature as philosophical counterfactual. (This was also his justification for preferring to read “speculative fiction,” i.e. books about things that couldn’t have happened in real life: good scientists seek out exotic subjects to experiment on.) Actually trying to write stories, and reading more and better ones, slowly brought him to see the inanity of this approach. I’m not able at the present date to give a straightforward argument for the value of literature (who is?), but if I had to try, I’d appeal not to the comparison of the life-world portrayed with our own, but to the encounter with the life-world and its inhabitants, an encounter I see as quasi-ethical.


The temptation to abstraction comes out also, unsurprisingly, in Turin’s approach to romantic love. Beloveds are like books, except that ideally one loves many books, but only one beloved. Turin recognized this, but was unclear on how, exactly, you were supposed to know which person to love without loving more than one. He also couldn’t tell how you could give reasons for loving someone which wouldn’t mean that you loved the reasons, not the person. He concluded that love ought to be unconditional: you were supposed to pick someone to love as if at random and stick with it, come what may. He grew out of this before actually pursuing anyone romantically, but was unclear what belief should replace it. He eventually realized that loving someone for no reason was no better than loving her for some particular reason (just like 0 is less than 1, but isn’t any less a number). He also realized that romantic love was less different from friendship than he had thought, since the goal was marriage, not perpetual angst. The point, it turns out, was to love her for herself.


The final major shift from abstract to personal took place in Turin’s views on intellectual property. From a young age Turin was exposed to the philosophy of Free Software and “copyleft” generally. He still essentially agrees with it; he still, for example, uses GNU/Linux, and thinks everything written more than, say, 20 years ago should be in the public domain. But originally his justification for this centered on the fact that mathematics was eternally true, and that anything you could copyright was just information, and so just a number–and how could you own a number? (…as if owning anything were straightforward.) I would now focus the argument, not on mathematics, but on poetry: copyright makes no sense, not sense because we owe works of art too little, but because we owe them too much. I would also acknowledge that, since the law is not an embodiment of morality but a tool for helping society function, there might be some place in it for copyright restrictions, so long as they were of limited duration, and acknowledged to be merely pragmatic.


I’m unsure whether to include here two additional shifts, because they demonstrate, not how Turin’s original idiosyncratic beliefs evolved to be still idiosyncratic but more justifiable, but how he bought into the “common sense” on certain subjects only to realize how silly it was. But perhaps this itself is a reason to find these shifts, too, noteworthy. So I’ll state the positions without giving the (hardly thought-out) reasons I found them plausible. First, I believed that allowing corporations to be “legal persons” was terrible, since that stopped us from regulating them the way they clearly deserved; second (and not necessarily consistently), I believed that regulation caused more problems than it solved, since the free market distributed goods most efficiently. I’ve since come to believe, contra the latter, that distributism makes some good points as well; and, contra the former, that there’s no other way to talk about corporations that makes sense.

* * *

[1] Oh, and soon to be a father (incidentally, check out my wife’s art!). Therefore irrefutably an adult, however strange that seems to all concerned.

[2] Reading Scott Alexander continues to impress upon me the importance of the principle of charity. I’d say “you should definitely read him,” except I’m not sure I should. Not because he’s ever less than eloquent, intelligent, and charitable, but because I often disagree with him, and eloquence, intelligence, and charity don’t stop his beliefs, when wrong, from being potentially dangerous. If you’re just reading casually it’s too easy to move unthinkingly from “he’s a good person” to “his beliefs are good.” So–you should read him, if you’re willing to put in the effort. In which case, he’s definitely worth it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 246 other followers