Why I can never be Tyrus Rechs

I recently completed my book review of Requiem for Medusa by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It took me a little longer than I would have liked. I first read the book on vacation in June, and I tried to start writing the review shortly after I got back, but I found myself stuck.

This was an unwelcome surprise, and one even moreso when I discerned that the reason I was having trouble was that I was disappointed. I like Cole and Anspach’s work, but I also like to be honest, so I decided to sit on the review for a while, and then re-read the book after I’d had some time to digest it.

I’m glad that I did, because I found out that the book itself is awesome. I also found an interesting take on the character and personality of Tyrus Rechs, and this is a good place to explore some of the interesting bits I left out of that book review.

This will be a bit more personal than I usually make my book reviews, but that I why I separated this into another blog post. Only regular readers need to suffer from my introspection, not random Amazon review readers. I am also going to give away all of the secrets of the series, less volume 9, Retribution, since I only just started it today. Consider yourself warned about spoilers.


I really liked Imperator, the Galaxy’s Edge standalone novel about Goth Sullus. The review I wrote for it is my favorite of the Galaxy’s Edge series so far. Sullus turned out to be Tyrus Rechs’ oldest friend, another practically immortal survivor of the twisted experiments of the lighthugger Obsidia. The impression I got from Imperator was that Casper Sullivan always lived in Tyrus’ shadow. While a capable warrior in his own right, no one looks badass standing next to the Tyrus Rechs.

I also got the impression that Tyrus and Casper both loved Reina, the woman who saved them from captivity on the Obsidia. And that maybe Casper felt he got out-competed by Tyrus here too. Thus, I wasn’t really all that surprised when Casper killed his oldest friend, because this is the way friendship turns into jealousy. And here, the reason is that I think Casper always wanted to be Tyrus, and he could never be him. They were just fundamentally different people.

Tyrus and Casper each instantiate an archetype of manliness. I’m going off the schema from the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, which I’ve found pretty informative, especially in explaining stories.

 King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Arthur – Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tyrus is the warrior, you can think of him as something like King Arthur. He’s epic, and strong, and dashing, and probably gets all the girls too.

Tyrus is a fundamentally simple man. You do the just thing because it is the just thing, and that is that. While there is something refreshing about this, Tyrus is also something of a blunt instrument. He is like the man with a hammer, except he has an autocannon. Every problem looks like something to shoot. Preferably lots of times. Tyrus is introspective enough to understand this about himself, but he is fundamentally accepting of himself as well. He can rest in his own skin.

Casper is more like Merlin, a more introspective and devious character, but also key to Arthur’s success. He can see further, and knows when discretion is the better part of valor. Arthur probably never appreciates Merlin, or stops to thank him for what he does.

As Goth Sullus, the politician and tactician Casper Sullivan becomes more truly what he is. He gains unspeakable powers from beyond the Galaxy’s Edge, the ability to peer into men’s minds, shape reality, bend all to his will. But….something is missing for him. The power isn’t enough, or in the service of the rightful King.

 The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

The Moirai – By William Blake - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

There are two more archetypes in this schema, which interestingly, Reina seems to fit both. The Lover, and the King. She is the love interest, and her name even invokes the sound of reign, which seems right as Reina represents what both Tyrus and Casper fight to preserve, even when they find her conducting vile experiments in another lighthugger, the Moirai, the Fates of Greek legend. I don’t yet know what happened to Reina, other than some hints in Imperator, so I’m interested to see what comes out of Retribution. [My guess, she is the Mother in the heart of the Cybar mothership.]

One of the things that surprised me most about Requiem for Medusa was that it portrayed Tyrus and Casper’s fundamental similarity and difference in the same way, at the same time. Imperator showed a Casper, as Goth Sullus, willing to blow up the whole galaxy to see justice be done. In Requiem, we see a Tyrus willing to do exactly the same thing.

Except, the way they both do that is characteristically different. Casper wants to see cosmic justice. Every mourner’s tear wiped away. Tyrus just wants to kill every bastard involved in setting up his woman, and everyone who happens to get in the way of that. Casper ruined the galaxy in his fool’s quest. Tyrus just ruined himself.

When I realized that, I realized why they were friends. In a way, they both wanted the same things, and just pursued those things in their own characteristic ways. Yet, at the end of the day, I realized that I just couldn’t identify with Tyrus Rechs, even though I had wanted to ever since I first met him in Galactic Outlaws.

Tyrus Rechs is a hell of a warrior. Steadfast, loyal, unmovable. Simple even. I respect him, but I found that I was disappointed that I can’t be like him for one simple reason:

I am Goth Sullus.

Linkfest 2018-07-30

 Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

Lord of the Rings by Frank Frazetta

The images from today's linkfest are Frank Frazetta illustrations of the Lord of the Rings. Frazetta was a prolific illustrator of comics, book covers, album covers, and paintings. His style is instantly recognizable to any fan of science fiction and fantasy, and perhaps is the epitome of SFF cover art. There are a lot of links this week about science fiction and fantasy works, so this just seemed right when it came through my Twitter feed. His children and grandchildren still benefit from his work, so please patronize their online shops.


THE MUD, THE BLOOD AND THE YEARS: WHY “GRIMDARK” IS THE NEW “SWORD AND SORCERY”

Warhammer 40k is the thing I had most often heard described as grimdark, but it turns out there is a wide variety of books that could be described by that label. I might have to check it out.


WHY WAS THE 20TH CENTURY NOT A CHINESE CENTURY?: AN OUTTAKE FROM "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

The first of two related Brad DeLong links this week. An nice capsule history of China's relative position in the world during the twentieth century.


Curing cancer statistically via mammography

Many modern diagnostic techniques, while quite accurate in absolute terms, can have false positive results in numbers higher than true positives because the actual occurrence rate of what is being sought is low.


A slightly gloating post, but arguably deservedly so, that self-published authors are overtaking traditional publishing at a rapid pace in science fiction and fantasy, with lots of graphs. Even more damning is the fact that much of the traditional science fiction and fantasy book sales of the traditional model are The Handmaid's Tale, currently trendy as an anti-Trump book.


Congress is giving the officer promotion system a massive overhaul

I once considered a career in the military. This is a big change in how promotions, especially the end of up or out.


DjT4HdHU8AA-czM.jpg

Robots and Jobs: A Check on Fear

A reasonable take, based on historical data about automation.


ARISTOTLE RETURNS

I might argue he never left, but there is a genuine neo-Aristotelian moment in analytic philosophy.



Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

I just received a handwritten thank you note from my mother, so this came at the right time.


 Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?

Pseudoerasmus tweets a chart looking at how few people were employed in the English agricultural sector in the eighteenth century.


THE MEIJI RESTORATION: A PROBABLE IN-TAKE FOR "SLOUCHING TOWARDS UTOPIA?: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE LONG 20TH CENTURY"

A counter-point to DeLong's piece on China above, but with a disputed claim about agricultural productivity in Japan.


Compulsory Licensing Of Backroom IT?

I would genuinely like to know if the claim that different executions of custom IT software are  a large differentiating factor in the market right now is true.


Dollars for Docs

Public records on payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies in the US.


“WHY ARE DEVELOPERS ONLY BUILDING LUXURY HOUSING?”

Some data on why it makes economic sense [for developers] to build expensive housing right now.


DjT4HdGUYAAh0vs.jpg

The Marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton

A beautiful reflection on the little touches that make Tolkien so great, and why the Fellowship was comprised of bachelors.


When Ramjets Ruled Science Fiction

Some of the most fun ideas in science fiction get disproven later. Ah well.


I need this for professional purposes.


The humanities are suffering from not being vocational.

 

DjT4HdGU8AAp7JQ.jpg

The Long View 2006-09-13: Animal Rights; Surveys; Der Waldzellspieler

As a Thomist, I am also an essentialist. Essences or forms, εἶδος, distinguish different kinds of things from one another. This idea is so rooted in Western thought that even people who oppose it often act as if they presuppose it to be true. When someone genuinely acts otherwise, it can be kind of weird.

Your dog does not want recognition of its doggieness; it wants tasty treats and to go for a walk. In fact, projecting human-rights categories onto animals is a greater assault on their natures than the outrages in which the leering Singer and Mason so shockingly acquiesced.
 Gallup poll data on American religious affiliation

Gallup poll data on American religious affiliation

There is an interesting bit on the rise of the Nones. Survey data is always tricky. The error bars are big, and how you ask the questions matter. In this case, many Nones still attend worship services at a particular place, on a semi-regular basis. The Gallup poll data for the image above didn't drill down as far as the address or name of the place people worship, which probably means this data overstates the case a bit.

"We find that just asking about religious preference, 33 percent of respondents said, 'I don't know about my religion,' " Dougherty said. "But five questions later, they gave us the name of their congregation."

I don't doubt that religious disaffiliation is occurring, but it might be happening more slowly, and represent a smaller shift in behavior, than it might seem.


Animal Rights; Surveys; 
Der Waldzellspieler

 

What is the philosophical engine for animal rights? The question occurred to me after reading this contribution from Wesley J. Smith at First Things:

I don’t agree at all with Gary Francione, the Rutgers University law professor who seeks to abolish all human use of animals, no matter how humane and beneficial to us—

Smith notes some sensible things Francione has said, but then continues:

[Francione] makes no distinction at all between that which is done to a human and what is done to an animal. In the Abolitionist essay, for example, Francione castigates Singer for having participated in the artificial insemination of turkeys, which the writer literally equates with the rape of women:...[Francione says] "I suggest that there is no non-speciesist way to justify what Singer and Mason claims [sic] to have done without also justifying the rape of a woman, or the molestation of a child, in order to see what those acts of violence ‘really involved."

The loathsome Kojève argued that there was an irreversible erasure of distinctions between classes of people over time because of Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic. Slaves want their humanity to be recognized; masters want the recognition of their peers. So, over time, the social and geographical range of "peers" tends to grow. This is a fishy notion on historical and anthropological grounds, but it's part of the reason why the principle of civil equality, which makes perfect sense in a racial context, has been deployed to attack the category of childhood and the gender component of the institution of marriage. What seems to have happened with animal rights is that the dialectic-machine has been left running even after it has used up all plausible material. Your dog does not want recognition of its doggieness; it wants tasty treats and to go for a walk. In fact, projecting human-rights categories onto animals is a greater assault on their natures than the outrages in which the leering Singer and Mason so shockingly acquiesced.

* * *

Yes, there is a Muslim take on Spengler (pbuh). Well, a Turkish take.

* * *

Baylor study finds religion thriving in the U.S., says a recent headline. Since Baylor University is in the religion business, this is another situation where we should not be surprised that a survey commissioned by the National Ice Cream Council finds that ice cream is America's favorite dessert. That, of course, does not mean that ice cream is not America's favorite dessert. In any case, we read:

In what researchers described as one of the most comprehensive studies of the U.S. religious landscape, the survey found that 89 percent of Americans attend a local congregation or affiliate with a denomination. The finding rebuts other national surveys showing that 14 percent or more of Americans were "religious nones"

Baylor researchers went beyond asking people to identify their faith or denomination and asked for names and addresses of any worship centers they attend, he said.

"We find that just asking about religious preference, 33 percent of respondents said, 'I don't know about my religion,' " Dougherty said. "But five questions later, they gave us the name of their congregation."

The confusion stems from the rise of nondenominational churches, he said.

This assessment does sound reasonable. There have been reports that secularism is the fastest growing religious orientation in America, but they do not chime with anecdotal evidence.

* * *

Some surveys are beyond question, like this one from the The Malthusian Institute:

"Our survey of households in seven U. S. regions demonstrated that few citizens have bothered to equip themselves with fireproof suits and extinguishers to deal with volcanic upheaval, solar flares, or the Lord's purifying flame," Malthusian Institute director James Olheiser said. "Almost no one is prepared for a sudden shift in the Earth's polarity or the eating of the Sun and moon by evil wolves Skol and Hati during Ragnarok."

Solar flares would not start fires, but they might bring down the electrical-power grid. Dealing with the eschatological wolves is a toughie, though.

* * *

Meanwhile, back in Bavaria, Benedict XVI continues to say very smart things, about which the press persistently miss the point. Consider this:

REGENSBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Pope Benedict invited Muslims on Tuesday to join a dialogue of cultures based on the premise that the concept of an Islamic "holy war" is unreasonable and against God's nature....Benedict several times quoted Emperor Manuel's argument that spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable and that acting without reason -- "logos" in the original Greek -- was against God's nature.

At the end of his lecture, the Pope again quoted Manuel and said: "It is to this great 'logos', to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures."...

Benedict, a leading theologian who has always drawn clear lines between Roman Catholicism and other faiths, also appeared to criticize Protestant churches and contemporary Third World theologians for not stressing the link between faith and reason clearly enough. ...Benedict stressed that his criticism of modern empirical reasoning "has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age."

"The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application"...

The bit about the Muslims is no doubt interesting from the perspective of the troubles of the current generation, but Benedict's attitude toward reason is important for the long term. What we should be thinking about here is not the dreary puppet-show conflict between science and religion, but the final assimilation of the Enlightenment to the Western tradition. The following excerpt from Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (quoted in The Second Religiousness in the 21st century) describes the era that Hesse imagined would follow modernity:

The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...[It had] become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

(Here is a full review of The Glass Bead Game).

For two centuries now, there have been Catholics, and sometimes even popes, who thought that the Enlightenment was what was wrong with the world. The better view, I have long held, is that we should extend to the Enlightenment, and to modernity as a whole, the sort of sympathetic understanding that we would extend to any historical era. As Hocking put it, historical progress consists in large part of the accumulation of "unlosables," of advances that survive the excesses of the ages in which they are made. Benedict XVI is suggesting that the unlosables of Western modernity, the music and the physics and the institutions of political liberty, can be preserved through the understanding of reason as the perception of the logos: reason is not naked logic, but faith in the fundamental comprehensibility of the world.

* * *

Incidentally, Benedict XVI likes at least one Hesse novel, according to this bit of text that has spread to a dozen Hesse sites:

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected Pope Benedict XVI, once said that Steppenwolf is among his favorite books because it "exposes the problem of modernity's isolated and self-isolating man". The protagonist, Harry Haller, goes through his mid-life crisis and must chose between life of action and contemplation.

As I have said before, it is easy to imagine Joseph Ratzinger as a Player at Waldzell.

There is a Waldzell Institute, by the way, whose name is taken from the Game Center in the Hesse novel, but I don't know whether Cardinal Ratzinger ever attended one of their conferences.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Freedom & Necessity

 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel  By Jakob Schlesinger (1792-1855) - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615903

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

By Jakob Schlesinger (1792-1855) - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615903

A failure of my philosophical education up to this point is that I never quite got to modern philosophy in my graduate studies. I've got Hegel sitting on a shelf 5 feet from where I sit, but I haven't been in any kind of hurry to rectify that.


Freedom & Necessity
Steven Brust and Emma Bull
TOR Fantasy (Tom Doherty Associates), 1997
$6.99 (paper), 589 Pages
ISBN 0-812-56261-5

 

A Hegelian Allegory

 

You don't find many 600 page epistolary novels in the science fiction racks. You also don't find many current novels anywhere at all that seek to illustrate the operation of the Hegelian dialectic in life and history. "Freedom and Necessity" is all those things, with the added distinction of being the only book in my experience whose characters' principal recreation is reading Hegel's "Science of Logic." We are not dealing here with existentialist fiction, but with a Hegelian allegory.

"Freedom & Necessity" is apparently a minor publishing phenomenon. Steven Brust ("The Phoenix Guards") and Emma Bull ("War for the Oaks") are both noted fantasy writers. The tale they tell, however, is a fairly straightforward historical melodrama. It is set in England in 1849, and is chiefly concerned with the conflicts among the younger cousins of the intricately interrelated Cobham, Voight and Callendar families. Some of these people want red revolution, some are part of a murderous occult group straight out of "The Golden Bough," and some just want the family inheritance. All of this intrigue is intended to illustrate concretely a set of philosophical propositions that otherwise would be too stupefying for words.

Most of the story treats of the history and adventures of James Cobham, the Byronic eldest son. In fact, the bare bones of the book is that James moves from Non-Being (he is mistakenly thought dead as the story opens) through Becoming (as he learns the dark secrets of his family history) to completed Being (which takes the form of his reunion with the love of his life and their son in, for some reason, Baltimore, Maryland). James's problems are not entirely family-generated. For his whole adult life, he has been a confederate at the street-fighting level of the radical Chartist movement, whose members spooked the establishment of the Industrial Revolution with their demands for universal male suffrage, labor legislation and, at the extreme end, the abolition of the monarchy. In the aftermath of the failed pan-European Revolutions of 1848 (which also included a minor uprising in Ireland), people like James are in more than usual danger of being imprisoned or transported. In addition to threats from the British government, certain agents provocateurs in the pay of Prussia are trying to foment labor unrest in Britain in order to induce the forced repatriation of political fugitives from the recent rebellions. Chief among the fugitives is Friedrich Engels, an important minor character who loses no opportunity to press his acquaintances to read "The Science of Logic."

Despite these early modern trappings, the thesis to which James's life is the antithesis is thoroughly archaic. For several generations, his family has been involved with a dark cult, rather misleadingly known as "the Trotters' Club." Although some of his allies among the younger cousins are opium-using mystics who have a generic idea of what the Trotters' Club might be up to, James himself had always been singularly incurious about why his side of the family is so oddly lacking in adult males. The real conflict in the story, we learn by the end, has always been between James and his father. Under the rules of the cult, one must kill the other. The authors appear to be trying to suggest that Hegel's ideas chime well with the great themes of mythology. That, at any rate, would seem to be the logical inference to be drawn from the fact James ultimately becomes the wounded Fisher King and is transported like a Celtic hero to the uttermost West.

If nothing else, this book is a useful reminder that there was always a great deal more to Hegelianism than dialectical materialism. Despite the fact most of the characters chatter about "class consciousness" like assistant professors, "Freedom & Necessity" is hardly a Marxist tract. James and his allies do go to meet "the workers," but he meets them on midnight rendezvous as if they were leprechauns, shy of the company of ordinary mortals. The workers impart a kind of primordial wisdom that he and Engels puzzle over like messages from Delphi. James is startled when Engels remarks offhandedly that, of course, one can choose one's own class. That was how James the squire's son and Engels the successful industrialist could both really be proletarians. So much for the principle that class is a function of the relationship to the means of production.

"Freedom & Necessity" really is about what its title suggests. The problem of freedom, from a Hegelian perspective, is how we can be free in a world in which the outcome of any choice we might make is predetermined by physics and history. The answer is that, as our knowledge increases with experience, so the measure of our freedom does, too. This happens because real choice is possible only when we know the actual context in which we choose. The discovery of the "actual context" is the "Becoming" of history. It is also the "Becoming" of the story. We go through 500 pages worth of soap-opera revelations about family scandals, political assassination, bastardy and infanticide before we find out the only real issue, the only point on which choice is relevant, is whether James will kill his father or his father will kill James. There are, I suppose, briefer ways to make this point, but in the Hegelian universe prolixity is often the functional equivalent of concreteness.

Is the exercise worth the effort? Most of the book consists of long letters between the principal characters, supplemented by excerpts from their journals and actual news articles from the Times of London in 1849. The authors do succeed in making all the characters sound different, which is no small accomplishment. However, this does not necessarily make them sound interesting, particularly one long-winded opium-using cousin. Quite aside from the viscous effect that often attends a narrative composed of personal letters, this is one of those novels whose action tends to occur in situations where there is lots of mud and not enough light. The snappiest parts to the story are the ones where everyone just talks about Hegel. I can easily see how "Freedom & Necessity" might become an undergraduate favorite. Persons who are simply interested in its philosophical message, on the other hand, might do better just to read "The Science of Logic."

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Freedom & Necessity
By Steven Brust, Emma Bull

Engineering Design

The way in which you design is probably driven by personality and circumstance. Personality shapes what you like, and circumstance shapes who your teachers and mentors are. With those limitations in mind, I like to explore what is possible in engineering design, what works and what doesn't.

I tend to like to get something approximately right, and then iterate to something almost completely correct as fast as I can using that first one as a learning experience. Today I learned that this approach was once described as the "New Jersey" approach in programming. Its contrary was called the MIT approach, since that institution emphasized these elements at the time this term was coined.

 

The New Jersey Approach

  • Simplicity-the design must be simple, both in implementation and interface. It is more important for the implementation to be simple than the interface. Simplicity is the most important consideration in a design.
     
  • Correctness-the design must be correct in all observable aspects. It is slightly better to be simple than correct.
     
  • Consistency-the design must not be overly inconsistent. Consistency can be sacrificed for simplicity in some cases, but it is better to drop those parts of the design that deal with less common circumstances than to introduce either implementational complexity or inconsistency.
     
  • Completeness-the design must cover as many important situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases should be covered. Completeness can be sacrificed in favor of any other quality. In fact, completeness must sacrificed whenever implementation simplicity is jeopardized. Consistency can be sacrificed to achieve completeness if simplicity is retained; especially worthless is consistency of interface.

The MIT Approach

  • Simplicity-the design must be simple, both in implementation and interface. It is more important for the interface to be simple than the implementation.

     
  • Correctness-the design must be correct in all observable aspects. Incorrectness is simply not allowed.
     
  • Consistency-the design must not be inconsistent. A design is allowed to be slightly less simple and less complete to avoid inconsistency. Consistency is as important as correctness.


     
  • Completeness-the design must cover as many important situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases must be covered. Simplicity is not allowed to overly reduce completeness.

 

 

Lots of engineers like the MIT approach, and the author of the piece argues that despite this attractiveness, the New Jersey approach is superior, hence the catchphrase "worse is better." The way I've usually phrased it is "the perfect is the enemy of the good." I think this is a rule of thumb, and more useful in engineering than metaphysics.

Even though the context is programming, I think this can be applied to other fields of engineering as well. A really good appreciation of both risk and tradeoffs is key to making the New Jersey approach work. Since you can't actually create a perfectly simple, correct, and consistent design, something will always be inadequate. Knowing what really matters, and what can be given up without really harming your business or the customer allows for more rapid development and release, and better responsiveness to the market. However, part of the the appeal of the MIT approach is that when the New Jersey approach really screws up, it can be catastrophic. Regulatory controls tend to push engineering in the direction of the MIT approach, in order to prevent and eliminate foreseeable disasters.

h/t Ken Shirriff

The Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

 N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.


The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99

 

This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review

 

Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson

The Long View: Being and Time

 Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger's star has dimmed a bit, but his heavy German prose is still famous.


Being and Time
By Martin Heidegger
Translated from the German Seventh Edition
By John Macquarie & Edward Robinson
First edition (Sein und Zeit) 1927

__________

HarperPerennial 2008
589 Pages, US$19.9
9 ISBN 978-0-06-157559-4

 

The philosophy presented in Being and Time is expressed in grotesquely obscure language, but the gist of it is intuitive: our understanding of our own mortality brings the world into focus for us, and it is only in light of that understanding that we honestly know anything at all. St. Augustine had some thoughts along these lines, as Heidegger points out with all due deference; so have several other people. Nonetheless, in the spirit of this work, let me present an authentic, primordial reading of the book, unencumbered by the vast machinery of critical appraisal it has occasioned, or by the loose ends that stick out of my own exposition.

* * *

Before philosophy, before theory, before even language, I know quite a lot about the world. What I authentically experience is "presence," or "being present," and moreover, being present in a world and a history. This book's word for that presence is "Dasein," literally "to be there" in German; a common term for "existence," it is here given a more esoteric meaning. Everything connected to Dasein is mine, but Dasein is not I.

In the authentic sense, the world is not just an assembly of objects from which a list of characteristics can be deduced or detected by study. What I really experience is an environment of equipment, things that are relevant to some purpose or another, even if only in the negative sense of being judged useless. Truth is the disclosure of the world and of events in a way that is always embedded in a purpose. That is truth, the most real being. This truth is mine, and it is not eternal. My being is the context of world and history in which I find myself; what has been "thrown" to me, to use the book's term. My being, then, is not an objective substance, but my existence.

Using this model, old philosophical problems are either solved or never arise. Rene Descartes' and Immanuel Kant's flawed efforts to demonstrate that there is an objective world outside the solitary self are unnecessary, because there is no inside and outside: Dasein encompasses the world in the first instance, and "I" is just another tool for which it has a purpose. Other people are primordially present just like the "I" is; there is no deeper level of experience that could bring us behind or below these things. Language is made possible by this immediacy. I understand the Others because I already know what they could be saying.

This understanding of being that has just been explained is fully experienced only rarely, however. Dasein tends to fall into inauthenticity, in which it identifies with the Others and not with its own primordial experience. This is the public world, the eternal world, the world of conjecture and abstraction. It is also, for the most part, the world of the Western philosophical tradition. This tradition forgot the quest for being to some extent even as early as Plato and Aristotle; the Pre-Socratic Greeks understood primordial Being, but that history is not explored in detail in this book.

This presence that makes the world, Dasein, is "care" in the sense of "anxiety." This anxiety is generated because authentic Dasein is turned toward death. This orientation toward death makes Dasein, our immediate experience authentic, because it makes me shake off the public concerns of the Others.

This awareness of death is not the same as the surmise that at some point in the future I will probably not be living. The defining characteristic of this anticipation is that it precedes knowledge of the world; it is indefinite with regard to mere clock time, the time of the Others. The approach of death is how the world is, it is not a fact in the world. (Heidegger did not use this very un-Kantian expression, but it seems to follow from the book's argument.) Neither is the anticipation of death experienced as simply being morbid. Dasein speaks to the Self (which again, is not quite the "I") in the form of the conscience. What the conscience says is that we are guilty, and we are guilty because we are finite.

Anticipatory resolution toward death is the ultimate authenticity. "Resolution" here means the readiness to accept this anxiety in the face of death. This resolution provides the stability that is constitutive of the authentic Self.

The author understands that his analysis is circular; his model of the world requires a definition of the Self that could apply only to the sort of world he posits. He does not take this as an objection, however. Any analysis of being is going to have this character, we are assured.

In any case, Dasein is the presence of the future and the past, with the future in its authentic form as the orientation toward death. Primordial temporality, then, the temporality I know before all theory, is directed toward the future, a future that is finite. But Dasein is not just temporally finite; it is also historical. Heidegger's system allows for a kind of Beatific Vision: called "the moment of vision," it is a rapture of Dasein that reveals authentically the situation of one's world and time (as distinguished, presumably, from what Others say about it, or what contextless theory would suggest).

My understanding, then, is grounded in the future, but when I understand, I understand in some particular state of mind, in some mood. That is grounded in the state of having-been or done something; it is the past as an aspect of my present. Again, Dasein is temporal. It sees a world with a temporal horizon that transcends it. Space and time are united and made meaningful as aspects of the accessibility of the equipment of which the world consists.

The resolution we have just discussed, which accepts the finite possibilities of my Dasein, accepts the particular inheritance that has been "thrown" to my Dasein. On the personal level, Dasein is fate; in being with others, not necessarily in an inauthentic sense, it is destiny. There can be a historical "moment of vision" as well as a personal one.

The authentic appropriation of history accepts the past and "repeats" it. This does not mean simply carrying out the past again in the present, but rather taking the past as a proposal to which a rejoinder can be made. The desire for progress plays no role in this process. The authentic historical sense, then, understands the past as the recurrence of possibilities. Its understanding makes of the past an implicit critique of the public present, because it makes "today" no longer the authentic present. The inauthentic sense, in contrast, understands the past in terms of the present. That makes the past a burden.

* * *

This summary does not do justice to the depth of Being and Time or to the ways that Heidegger relaxed and expanded his views in later years. Neither does it dwell on the famous fissures in the system, notably the unresolved tension between the depiction of the Others as chattering soul-stealers and the necessity for authentic understanding to accept the historical heritage of mankind. I also will not trouble readers at length with complaints about the book's notoriously neologism-ridden language, a black forest in which participles do unspeakable things to gerunds on the dark floor while mutant adverbs gibber in the branches. Here is a fairly lucid bit:

Dasein exists as an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is itself an issue. Essentially ahead of itself, it has projected itself upon its potentiality-for-Being before going on to any mere consideration of itself. In its projection it reveals itself as something which has been thrown. It has been thrownly abandoned to the 'world', and falls into it concernfully.

This works better in German, but not much. The book repeats Count Yorck's defense of obscurity in philosophical prose; easily comprehensible language, it seems, is easily comprehensible only because it communicates the public and the superficial. Readers may be reminded of "The Tale of the Emperor's New Clothes."

It would also be out of place here to consider the author's biography in detail. For the benefit of the record (and of the crawling cybernetic devices that so unsettled the author in his later years), let us simply note a few points:

Martin Heidegger lived from 1889 to 1976. He taught at the University of Freiburg and at the University of Marburg. As a young man, he was a member of the Society of Jesus, though he was never ordained. The fact that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Duns Scotus might not be irrelevant to his idea of good philosophical writing. He left the Jesuits, and served for health reasons in a noncombatant post during the First World War. He was a member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, with varying but subsequently embarrassing levels of enthusiasm. After the war he was rehabilitated and continued teaching.

All I would like to do now is raise a few underemphasized ways in which Heidegger's system fits into intellectual history.

The philosophical species here is called "existentialism," which belongs to the genus "phenomenology." That latter approach to understanding appeals to the actual phenomena of experience. It is, perhaps, the polar opposite of scientific reductionism. It was hardly new, even when Heidegger was writing; Hegel was a phenomenologist of sorts. Nonetheless, self-described phenomenology was one of the growing points of European philosophy in the first half of the 20th century. To some extent, it simply reflected a general characteristic of the period. What Heidegger was doing was not so different from what the natural-language philosophers were doing at the same time, or for that matter what some of the pragmatists were doing.

As we noted at the beginning of this review, philosophies that structure the world in terms of an eschaton are not new, either. The structure has some force, irrespective of the merits of the argument for it. While reading this book, I was reminded of the device of "tonic drive" in music. The sense of time in music can be made meaningful by rhythm, in which the ear learns to expect the next beat. The classical way in Western music to create a sense of time, however, is to end each cadence with the tonic of the key. The expectation of that end turns noise into music, like the anticipation of death creates the world.

Heidegger's philosophy is related to the science contemporary with it. Heidegger's view of the dynamic Self is not so different from Freud's view of the matter, and in some ways it is even more reminiscent of Jung's. These two are not cited, however, though we do get some citation to early, pre-Freudian personality theory. Even more interesting is the way that Heidegger's model of truth as Dasein's disclosure of entities chimes with the contemporaneous development of quantum mechanics, which holds that reality becomes certain one when observation collapses the wave function. Werner Heisenberg was Heidegger's friend at some point, but it is not clear who might have been influencing whom.

More obscure, but perhaps more provocative, parallels can be found in the similarities between elements of Heidegger's system and that of esoteric Tradition, principally though not exclusively as represented in the philosophy of Heidegger's contemporary, Rene Guenon. Both were convinced that Plato roughly marks the point where Western philosophy departed from the contemplation of Being in order to gossip about the eternally expanding vacuum of mere ideas. Both had a horror of mechanism and quantification, and of what the modern world's embrace of these principles meant for the future. (Guenon's apocalyptic masterwork, remember, is called The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.) Parallels show up even in the details of their work, such as their insistence that time and space are meaningful in a way that geometry and clock-time simply caricature. Both were oddly fond of the adjective "primordial," at least if their translators are to be believed.

And then, of course, there is Julius Evola, sometime ideologist for Fascist Italy, and by most accounts the black sheep of the Traditional family. His system almost seems like Heidegger re-expressed in alchemical terms. Evola's formula for immortality involved not just resolution towards death, but the resolution to actually die. His late work, Ride the Tiger, is about the cultivation of the authentic self in a world where history is breaking down. By any reasonable reading, it is a form of existentialism, with only residual esoteric content.

These points I have mentioned concern matters that were in the philosophical air of the Western world in the 1920s and later. To the extent there was direct influence, it was likely to have flowed from the better known writer to the more obscure. In any case, we see again that thinkers reflect their period, however eccentrically.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Marcus Aurelius: A Life

 Bust of Marcus Aurelius  By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Another Roman history lesson, courtesy of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius. 

I have been slowly re-reading [for probably the twentieth time] G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, and I also find Chesterton's description of Classical Rome strikingly allusive. For Eastern Christians, the Roman Empire was a living presence until 1453, but for Western Christians, with the outsize influence of St. Augustine, the Fall of Rome is far more distant. 

For Catholics especially, Rome is both the model of all future states, and the tyranny that executed Christ and a memorably large number of his followers. No one has ever captured that tension as well as Chesterton.

Another thing that strikes me about The Everlasting Man is how well Chesterton's anthropology and archaeology aged. The sections at the beginning about the Lascaux cave paintings sound like the comment section of Greg Cochran's West Hunter. For a guy whose education was in art and literature, his views on science were very robust.


Marcus Aurelius
A Life

By Frank McLynn
Da Capo Press, 2009
684 Pages, US$30.00
ISBN: 978-0-306-81830-1

 

No less an eminence than Edward Gibbon laid it down that the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from A.D. 161 to 180 (Marcus was born in 121) was the happiest era in the history of mankind. The author of this long, rambling, thoroughly entertaining biography, Frank McLynn (a noted historical biographer and sometime visiting lecturer at Strathclyde University), will have none of it. Though he plainly admires his subject, calling him conscientious, careworn, and courageous, he judges that the reign of Marcus was the ragged end of a long period of ideological fossilization in a society being gradually undermined by demographic decay and a deteriorating strategic situation. Marcus continued the run of competent good government that the empire had enjoyed since the accession of Nerva, the first of the Five Good Emperors, in A.D. 96. However, in Marcus's time the structural unsustainability of the empire began to become manifest. When Marcus died in 180, the empire under his son and successor, the variously degenerate Commodus, broke out in a toga-party from which it never really recovered. Rather than being the happiest time in human history, the reign of Marcus was simply the last period in Roman history when the greedy and complacent upper class, stultified by their educations, and the degraded and brutal urban proletariat, mollified by deliberately erratic imperial subsidies and blood-drenched public spectacles, could pretend that their world was working normally and would continue to do so forever.

The notion that Marcus Aurelius marks the halftime of the Roman Empire is not a new idea. The author is well aware of the revisionist wars that have riven the study of Roman history since the 1970s. He addresses many of the issues that have become controversial, but he does not try his readers' patience by fighting with his sources or by trying to argue away the glaringly obvious. On demographic issues, he sides with “the upper range of the minimizers,” so that the population of the empire during the Antonine Dynasty (the time of Marcus and his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, who reigned from A.D. 138 to 161) was probably around 70 million and not the fantastically larger figures suggested by some of the revisionists. About depopulation, he holds that it was certainly happening in Italy and that the process had important consequences.

He also lays great stress on the Antonine Plague that afflicted Marcus's later years and which he says may have killed at least 10% of the imperial population. It certainly exacerbated the manpower shortages of those years, as well as probably killing Marcus himself while on campaign in the Danube region. Galen himself was Marcus's physician (though he prudently avoided going on campaign with the emperor), and from Galen's studies of the disease the author surmises that the plague was a form of small pox. Except maybe it was small pox plus something else. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Revisionism occurs in part because we have just enough information to raise a question but not enough to answer it.

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Just as important as psychology, the author is also keenly interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. In modern times, Marcus Aurelius became the most widely read Stoic philosopher of the ancient world, this because of the compilation of his reflections (probably written on that last campaign in the Balkans) called the Meditations. The perennial popularity of the Meditations stems in part from their quotably aphoristic style, in part (at least during eras when such things are popular) from their pantheistic element, and in part from their appeal to the agnostically inclined as a source of ethical principles without an overtly religious basis. This biography makes clear how profound a mistake it is to view the emperor as a polite deist; he shared in no small degree the growing embrace of the numinous that characterized his century. It also makes clear the extent to which Marcus shared his time's philosophical eclecticism. Of the Four Schools that received public support, Epicureanism and Stoicism were losing their popular audience for being too theoretical and remote from real life; Platonism and, to some extent Aristotelianism were gaining support in no small part because they were friendlier to religious experience. Marcus's Stoicism incorporated quite a lot of Platonism, but not in a way to fill the inherent gaps or resolve the original tension in Stoicism; the author explains these points in remarkable detail. He also explains how Stoicism formed the emperor's attitude toward government.

Marcus got to be emperor because he was chosen when a small child by his distant relative, the emperor Hadrian. The book recites the dense web of family relationships that characterizes all genuine Roman history. The web grows even denser, perhaps, in the second century, since the senatorial class did not reproduce itself and made up the lack of living heirs through adoption; the practice of frequent divorce and remarriage exacerbated the complexity. Readers of this book will soon appreciate that the institution of “co-emperors” was not an innovation of Diocletian. Hadrian had two, one of whom did not live long, the other being the future emperor Antoninus Pius (all these people underwent complicated name changes when the emperor adopted them and again when they assumed the throne, and then sometimes again when they died; we may dispense with these matters here).

“Vespine” is one of the kinder adjectives that the author applies to Hadrian, who reigned from A. D. 117 to 138. That emperor is known in every high-school history text as the one who withdrew from those “empire at its greatest extent” borders created by his predecessor Trajan to more defensible lines. In graduate school, he is known as the emperor who was so upset that his catamite drowned himself in the Nile that he had the fellow deified. The author takes every opportunity to remind us that, although there was quite a lot of same-sex activity during this period of the empire, nonetheless early 21st-century ideas about homosexuality, much less “gayness,” simply cannot be mapped onto that era, and the emperor's behavior was considered scandalous. The emperor was vindictive and bore grudges, though he maintained a carapace of amiability until his personality decayed in his last two years. He humiliated the Senate in various ways, including the execution of its more unsatisfactory members. He humiliated Rome by spending as much time as possible traveling about the empire. Worst of all, he was a know-it-all polymath who was often wrong but whom it was not at all safe to correct. On the upside, though, a sympathetic historian might say that he was one of those unhappy people who are better than their nature. He at least took his role seriously, and he is not counted among the “Good Emperors” for no reason. He was a good judge of character, if we may judge by his selection of Antoninus and Marcus to succeed him.

Antoninus Pius was a dutiful senator who, by middle age, had never done anything very interesting and who ascended to the imperial throne apparently determined to maintain that record. Like his predecessor and his successor, he was a “Spanish” emperor, a man descended from Roman colonists in Iberia. As the author points out, he seems to have been the only Roman emperor who never waged a war. He was also the last emperor who was able to spend practically his whole reign in the neighborhood of Rome. He swore never to execute a senator; his greatest conflict with the Senate arose in connection with the deification of Hadrian. Antoninus did not like him either, but he felt the honor had to be bestowed for the sake of the imperial office. Beyond that, he rationalized the legal system at the margins and provided sound fiscal management, though the author claims that disaster relief and army bonuses left the treasury largely empty by the time Marcus succeeded him.

Marcus's biological father died when Marcus was young. “Verus” was the family name. Hadrian called the boy “Verissimus,” a play on his name that meant “most true” or “most trustworthy”; or perhaps in this case, as the author seems to suggest, it meant “For God's sake, Marcus, do you have to be right about everything all day long?” We know quite a lot about Marcus-the-student because his correspondence with his tutor Fronto has survived. Marcus never had much of a sense of humor, but the author suggests the letters show that he was by far the more intelligent of the correspondents, and sometimes he makes a witticism that goes over the old man's head. Fronto's notion of style seems to have gone against every precept of good usage that teachers of English composition have been trying to drill into their slacking students for sixty years. He encouraged euphuism, verbosity, archaism, and an arch use of literary references. He also, by the way, encouraged the use of Latin.

Latin was Marcus's working language all his life, but it was not the language he favored for philosophical discourse. The Meditations are written in Greek, a language in which the emperor was proficient but not, the author tells us, a master of style. This had some implications for his philosophical development. Seneca, who had lived about a century earlier, is generally thought of as the other important early imperial Stoic, but he wrote in Latin and seems to have made little impression on Marcus. For Marcus, the great exponent of Stoicism was Epictetus (A.D. 55 to 135), a former slave to one of Nero's freedman. He wrote no books, but he taught in Greek, and his lectures are preserved in that language.

Epictetus had suffered in the persecution of philosophers by the emperor Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81 to 96, and who sometimes is regarded as a type of Antichrist. The philosopher was keener on duty than on the cosmological points that often engaged the Stoics, and one of the duties he discerned was a special one for emperors not to be tyrants. He also assigned the Roman Empire a higher ontological status than it had ever had before. The empire for Epictetus was cosmopolis, a universal polity that was part of the natural order of things, like the existence of the human race itself. Being part of the universal order had political implications, which Marcus was not slow to draw. The whole universe was a single unit in which each part affected every other. (The author makes much of the relationship between the Stoic version of holism and Whitehead's notion of prehensions; some readers may be reminded of quantum entanglement.) It was eternal but limited in time, since it moved in a great cycle that repeats itself absolutely. Nothing, then, could ever really change. The social order of the empire was natural and irreformable.

The part of the wise man in an essentially pre-determined and unalterable world, therefore, was to attend to the one thing in the universe that he could alter, which was his own internal states of mind. He must do his duty, but suffer neither joy nor despair at the outcome. This variety of fatalism conduced to an even temper and a certain measured asceticism in one's personal life. It also made thoroughgoing reform literally unimaginable. It made progress unimaginable. The author almost frantically draws our attention to the fact that Marcus's Stoicism, most of it derived from earlier thinkers but some original with him, eclipsed hope and deadened curiosity. And Marcus was the best the empire had to offer.

Marcus stayed with the Emperor Antoninus in central Italy as his deputy and aide for more than two decades before becoming emperor himself. He was given responsible work to do. Early on, he displayed a predilection for turning appointments that another man might have treated as an empty honor or a sinecure into real jobs. This part of his career made him thoroughly familiar with the technical aspects of administration, as well as with a big-picture view of the empire. It had the drawback of ensuring that Marcus would know the empire only from his paperwork. He had never been abroad, in the sense of outside Italy, and he had no military experience at any level. Nonetheless, when repeated crises afflicted the empire during his reign, he would perform better than any other imperial hot-house flower in world history.

The Emperor Marcus did have a private life. Unfortunately for historians, it was one of those private lives to which the term “exemplary” might apply and not leave much more to be said. He had 15 children by his only wife, Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus. That number was as extraordinary then as now; a typical Roman matron might have three. The survival rate of the imperial children was not unusual, unfortunately: of those 15, only six lived to adulthood. The author detects a genuine nihilism in the Roman upper class brought on in part by numbers like these. The upper class really did not care much about the future because they could not reasonably expect their direct descendants to be living in it. This assessment by the author is a little counterintuitive. Why should the Romans have been peculiarly depressed by what until the 19th century been the human condition? Still, when we judge Marcus's embrace of the Buddhist view that “he who has no love has no woe,” we should remember how many children he buried.

Marcus in office continued Antoninus's policy of constitutional punctilio, particularly toward the Senate. The author observes that Marcus's treatment of that body had less in common with how an American president might treat Congress than like how a scrupulous British prime minister might treat the monarch: the queen is kept carefully informed on every issue and deferentially asked for permission she has no power to refuse. Nonetheless, the author also notes that the trend toward absolute monarchy that had been apparent even under the Good Emperors continued in Marcus's time. Though it had been a long time since the emperor could not have his own way and his own way of having it, still the more tactful emperors had been in the habit of seeking a “senatus consultum” from the Senate regarding any important initiative. Essentially, that was a resolution from the Senate advising the emperor to do what he intended to do anyway. The senatus consultum would be the citable law. Under Marcus, however, his “oratio” to the Senate, an address in which he explained his acts and intentions, increasingly was treated as law. Under another emperor the expansion of this practice might have caused some unease, even in the second century. However, this was Marcus Aurelius, Mr. Constitution himself, so there was no reason to complain.

Roman emperors were a font of advisory legal opinions to pretty much anyone who cared to ask for one. They also conducted trials themselves. If they were as hardworking as Marcus, they would hold long proceedings and not just summary hearings. Marcus favored widows and orphans, in that he took care to amend the law to ensure that the beneficiaries of wills were not defrauded by their administrators or disinherited by technical error. Unlike his master Epictetus, he had no philosophical objection to slavery, but he did strengthen the presumption in the law (to use a later Common Law term) in favor of manumission. He also lent his own money to encourage landholding in Italy, quite likely in order to try to break the trend toward huge slave-worked latifundia that disturbed even the Roman sensibility.

Marcus suffered fools gladly, a duty enjoined on him by his Stoic convictions. This applied both to his work as a magistrate and as a scholar. Yes, it was safe to tell this emperor to his face that he was in error about something, or that he had done wrong. The satirist Lucian flourished during his reign because Marcus refused to take offense, even if he generally could not take a joke. A duty even grimmer than enduring stand-up comedy was the funding of and attendance at the spectacles that the people demanded; to refuse either was to risk insurrection. Marcus was not a sentimental fellow, but he had no interest in seeing animals slaughtered or criminals executed, and he seemed to think that if you've seen one chariot race you've seen them all. He learned, as Caesar had before him, that to do paperwork at the circus was to enrage the crowd. He hit on the trick of holding cabinet meetings in the imperial box during games. The people thought he was being one of the guys, and he managed to get some work done.

However, the author repeatedly reminds us that Marcus was on the side of the “big battalions,” of the class of large landholders for whose benefit the empire more or less openly operated. Even the kind of land reform that had occurred at earlier stages of the empire seemed beyond the range of possibility, or maybe beyond the range of imagination. Citizenship became increasingly devalued as the empire aged. In the first half of the first century, the author reminds us, the Roman citizenship even of the provincial tent-maker St. Paul was enough to activate an elaborate system of due process that kept him alive for many months until he could be tried at Rome. In Marcus's day, such a man would have been given a short hearing locally and probably executed on the spot. A few decades after Marcus, and citizenship would be bestowed on all freemen in the empire alike, not as a matter of civil equality but to spread the liability for direct imperial taxes. Under Marcus, the law increasingly recognized wealth and birth as dispositive of the rights individuals enjoyed and the duties to which they were obligated. A process of 500 years of legal evolution toward universal citizenship reached its logical limit at about the time it became irrelevant. This was just the kind of phenomenon that Marcus's anti-historicist education disabled him from seeing.

Keeping as always his attention on the things he could actually control, Marcus adopted one Lucius Verus as his junior colleague. He thereby honored Antoninus's wish to honor the plan of Hadrian to include Lucius in the succession plan, though Hadrian seems to have been the only person in antiquity who saw much merit in Lucius. Lucius was not a vicious man, but he was a party animal (“pansexual debauchee” in the author's delicate phrase). The emperors maintained separate courts at Rome, which from their descriptions must have been a bit like meetings of the Sensible Party and the Silly Party respectively. At Marcus's court philosophers of various sorts, usually as bearded as Marcus himself, could be found holding seminars on the perennial questions. Some shaved their heads as an added sign of seriousness. Lucius's court, in contrast, was Animal House with real togas. Nonetheless, when the test came, Lucius did not do too badly.

Marcus had barely settled into office when the first foreign shock struck the empire: the Parthians had invaded the eastern provinces. Rome had been at war with Parthia on and off since the late Republic, but this was the first war the Parthians had started. Hadrian's withdrawal from Mesopotamia had perhaps created an illusion of weakness, while the responsible Romans in the east had made a hash of the control of the succession in the client kingdom of Armenia. In any case, something had to be done fast, and Marcus made the surprising decision to send Lucius to do it.

Lucius took his time getting to the east, stopping at every city where a good time was to be had, especially if it involved the theater; he was a patron of thespians, to put it politely. Eventually, he made his base at Antioch. He had brought as good a staff as the empire had ever produced, however. He had the wit to endorse sound strategy when he saw it, and he made sure the Roman drive to the east had adequate logistics. The Parthians were creamed. As the author points out, Trajan and Hadrian had had comparable success; the empire had worked out the tactics to defeat Parthia long ago. Parthia remained an irritant because its feudal society was not of a kind that the empire could assimilate. The real problem would come in the next century, when Parthia collapsed and was replaced by the lethal menace of Persia. Meanwhile, though, Lucius was able to collect the credit for the successful campaign and return to Rome. Marcus indulged his request for Senatorial thanks for conquering territories he had not actually much bothered. Lucius's flacking was done by old Fronto as the campaign's historian, so perhaps Marcus felt the need to be even more than usually patient.

So far, so good, but the peace of the empire by that point was being hollowed out in certain areas. Several regions, particularly in the Balkans, southwest Anatolia, and part of western Africa were chronically infested by bandits by the late second century. As for Italy, the author characterizes the situation there as a great deal like that in 18th-century England: an exquisite aristocracy living in a landscape in which they did not dare to travel the roads, even during the day, without a formidable armed escort. That state of things, too, was probably a declension from the days of St. Paul, but the change did not constitute an urgent emergency. That was provided by the first of the German invasions.

The author provides us with a brief history of Roman relations with Germania, the loosely defined region north and east of the empire where the leading elements in the various tribes and kingdoms spoke a Germanic language. The empire had abandoned the attempt to expand east across the Rhine for much the same reason that Hadrian had abandoned Trajan's project of directly annexing Mesopotamia: the economy was too poor and the population too sparse to pay for the region's occupation or civil government. By Marcus's time the Rhine had long been a quiet frontier, however, and most of the empire's frontier troops were stationed on or near the Danube. The polities to the north of that line were not so primitive as they had been or so disorganized. They wanted the benefit of economic contact with the empire without political control. Since negotiation had not served particularly well with Antoninus's rather isolationist government, they decided to try organized plunder under the new emperor.

The extent of the coordinated raids from what is now southern Germany was serious enough: the invaders reached the neighborhood of Aquileia, from which they could have threatened the major cities of northern Italy if they had had a strategic plan. More alarming still, however, was the fact that the empire once again had a major war on its borders that it did not start. This time, the emperor went to organize the defense himself, bringing Lucius in tow to keep him out of trouble. (When Lucius died a few years later, Marcus chose not to complicate his succession plans for his own son Commodus by picking another adult colleague.) It was a difficult campaign, made more so by the fact there were no objectives whose capture might defray the cost of the war, or for that matter whose capture might decide the issue politically. In such a case there is no workable objective but extermination, or at least reaching a degree of superiority where extermination can be plausibly threatened. Marcus eventually was on the verge of complete victory along these lines, but then had to reach a compromise peace.

In another portent of things to come, the governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, had declared himself emperor. He was under the impression that Marcus had died, an impression that may have resulted from a miscommunication from Marcus's wife Faustina, who seems in any case to have been provisionally ready to marry him. Trying to look as unruffled as possible, Marcus sauntered from the Danube to Rome and then to the east, with the avowed intention of clearing up the misunderstanding. In the event, Governor Cassius was killed by one of his own men, and Faustina died on route with her husband to the Levant, not altogether impossibly of natural causes. Marcus exacted no terrible revenge on Avidius's family or his few supporters, though a few executions were inevitable.

There were a few years of peace, and then the settlement that Marcus had created on the Danube began to fall apart. He initiated another campaign, this time a bit further east in Dacia. This went more smoothly than the first war, but was hampered by the outbreak of the plague. To that disease Marcus himself succumbed. He went through with the project of having his son Commodus succeed him, despite the fact it was apparent to everyone that the young man had not turned out well. Perhaps the emperor's Stoic fatalism at last persuaded him that the fate of cosmopolis was among the things he could not control, no matter what he did.

In some ways, the most interesting evidence of the great change that occurred to the empire in the second century is the mutation in imperial iconography. The earlier Good Emperors had favored the use of the heroes of Roman history on their coinage. Under Marcus, the figures tended to be religious or mythological. And then there is the Tale of the Two Columns. Trajan's Column (which this book does not discuss in detail) is an essentially political document extolling the emperor's numerous if ephemeral conquests. Marcus Aurelius's Column (which the author does discuss) also deals in large part with military matters, but depicts these events with significant supernatural intervention. The depiction of the first German war recounts the Lightening Miracle, in which Marcus is reported to have called down a thunderbolt on an enemy siege machine, and the Rain Miracle, in which a Roman contingent is depicted as being saved by a providential deluge. The water god shown creating the deluge does not look like any iconography before or since, or perhaps not until the 20th-century comic book.

The second century was a time of the stirring of the spirit. The author reminds us on several occasions that there was a general drift throughout the period toward monotheism among the educated, so that men like Epictetus often spoke of God in the singular. (Marcus rarely did, though. When he alluded to a Supreme Being, he normally used some pantheistic locution.) On a popular level, the era was full of wonder workers, preachers, and prophets of all sorts. Some of these last bore apocalyptic messages that another emperor might have taken in bad part: to predict the end of the world could reasonably imply a threat to the world's ruler. When such people were brought to Marcus's attention, however, he dealt with them indulgently. The exception to his attitude of toleration involved Christianity, of which Marcus is remembered as one of the most vicious persecutors.

This is more than a little odd. The author recites for us the history of the Roman attitude toward Christianity, of which the most striking feature is the general trend toward toleration under the Good Emperors. Trajan endorsed the policy of one of his governors of requiring reputed Christians to sacrifice to the Olympians to prove their loyalty, but forbade that the governor (Pliny the Younger, to be precise) to hunt down Christians to question. Hadrian and Antoninus had required strict standards of proof for the fantastic crimes of which Christians were routinely accused; local persecution of the sect was clearly disfavored by the imperial government, even if not quite forbidden. Then Marcus the humane philosopher came to power, a man who believed that logos governed the world, and persecution broke out everywhere. In some places, notably Lyon in Gaul, there were horror-shows in which hundreds of people were sent to the arena without a shred of due process. In other places, little Pilates tried to weasel their way around the law by offering the accused technicalities to snatch at, which even more disconcertingly the accused often refused to do.

No decree or rescript from Marcus survives ordering a general persecution of Christians, but it is certain that he knew what was happening. Some of the victims were locally prominent Roman citizens, and in any case, Marcus would have received many queries about these proceedings as an ordinary part of his legal work. Furthermore, there was a flurry of sophisticated “apologies” for Christianity, some of them addressed to the emperor himself. Even some of the Christians seemed to believe that the emperor would relent if only someone told him the tenets of their religion and that they prayed for him daily. We know for a fact that at least one person did tell him: Athenogoras delivered his apology to Marcus in person at Athens in A.D. 176. It did no good. The persecution eased under Commodus partly because he had a Christian mistress and partly as an aspect of the general paralysis of government during those years.

The author argues, persuasively, that the persecution of Christianity was the correct thing to do in the context of Marcus's world view. There were second-century Romans who opposed metaphysical monotheism; Tacitus comes to mind. However, the empire was willing to tolerate the monotheism of the Jews, even though the Jews had launched two catastrophic revolts against the empire, since it was the monotheism of a self-limiting sect. The Church, in contrast, claimed to be a cosmopolis in just the way that Epictetus's empire was cosmopolis: an eternal community that rightfully laid claim to the final loyalty of all mankind. In the light of such claims, it was irrelevant that Christians prayed for the emperor. To promise to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's is to imply that there are things that are not Caesar's. That is the sort of claim against the state that the Classical world, from first to last, was never able to accommodate.

Something more was at work in the second century than can be explained by political theory, however. Something new was trying to enter the world, and conscientious, careworn, and courageous Marcus Aurelius was moved to stop it. I recommend this book to all students of the period, but one of its effects has been to increase my appreciation for the treatment of its period in G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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Marcus Aurelius: A Life
By Frank McLynn

AI Winter

 Logistic regression run amuck

Logistic regression run amuck

Scott Locklin shares my general dubiousness about artificial intelligence in general, and trendy analysis techniques in particular. He suggests that the surfeit of gassy marketing claims about machine learning techniques will eventually kill any actual technological progress in the field by making everything disreputable. Lest you think Locklin and I are alone in this, Locklin provides additional examples:

A Man Called Ove Book Review

 A man called Ove, I mean Carl

A man called Ove, I mean Carl

by Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, 2015
337 pages
ISBN 978-1476738024

This is a funny, funny book. I cannot remember laughing out loud quite so much, quite so often, with any other book I've read recently. Ove's responses to the ordinary annoyances of life are purely reactive, with no self-reflection at all.  I'm blunt and outspoken, by any standard, but even I would pause before saying and doing the things that Ove does when the world wrongs him. But I want to do them.

This book is also deeply sad, because it accurately reflects the injustices of this vale of tears. Ove is a man who finds himself thwarted at every turn, by forces outside of his control. Ove is a man who doesn't fit the world in which he finds himself. He would be OK with that, if only the world would stop pestering him about it. 

Ove is the kind of guy I want to grow old to be. He is gruff and particular, and most of all wants to be left alone. His mastery of invective and dogged determination in the face of opposition are a force to be reckoned with. His sense of justice is implacable. I imagine other people find him, difficult.

That whole package sounds pretty unappealing, or least I think it does to normal people. It sounds like fun to me. The experience of this book is discovering why Ove's sweet and free-spirited wife, the opposite of him in so many ways, and intrinsically more likable, loved him so dearly.

She loved him not despite his personality, but because of it. In Aristotle's Categories, chapter 10, Aristotle talked about all of the different ways in which things could be opposites. The four different ways are called correlatives, contraries, privatives to positives, and affirmatives to negatives. The one of interest here is correlatives, opposites that only make sense in relation to each other. The example Aristotle used is the terms "double" and "half". Each of those only describe a thing in relation to something else. Ove and his wife Sonja only make sense in relation to each other.

They are pure types of masculinity and femininity. Ove loves order and efficiency. He has a great knack with machinery, but finds other people strange and incomprehensible. He could probably go days without speaking. Sonja is spontaneous and out-going. She is gentle and encouraging, and loves to take in strays of all kinds. These tendencies in isolation can easily become destructive. In combination, they become something beautiful and perfect.

In addition to being a paean to sexual complementarity, A Man Called Ove is a book about the value of life, especially lives that seem valueless. In combination, Sonja's gift of seeing worth where others see none, and Ove's dogged determination to see justice done, produces miracles.

I cried at the end. I want to be like Ove. 

My other book reviews

 

A Man Called Ove: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

The Long View 2005-05-02: Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence

 I demand to see my attorney!

I demand to see my attorney!

I remember being struck by this story when it came out. If your human-mice hybrids start acting too human, the obvious solution is to just kill them all!


Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence

 

No, deranged scientists are not trying to create human-mouse hybrids that have squeaky voices and demand to see lawyers to get them released from their cages. However, the scientists' lawyers do have a contingency plan, just in case:

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.

There is more to humanity than cytology, so no doubt Stanford is correct in dismissing the possibility that the mice will be even partially human in any serious sense. On the other hand, if the mice do start to manifest human behaviors, might it not be a better idea to stop cutting their skulls open and begin being really nice to them?

* * *

For those of you who cannot wait for the news, here's an item dated November 9, 2008, by Stuart Taylor Jr. of National Journal, entitled How the Republicans Lost Their Majority:

In a succession of blockbuster 5-4 rulings, the Bush Court in 2007 approved state-sponsored prayers at public school functions such as graduations and football games (overruling the 1992 decision Lee v. Weisman); went out of its way to overrule Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 decision that had recognized a constitutional right to engage in gay sex; and struck down key aspects of the Endangered Species Act as unconstitutional overextensions of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce.

Then, this June, the same five justices banned consideration of race in state university admissions, overturning another 2003 precedent (Grutter v. Bollinger); this ruling sets the stage for a dramatic plunge in black and Hispanic enrollments at elite schools. Two days later, the same five-justice majority overturned Roe v. Wade, holding that it was up to elected officials to decide whether to allow unlimited access to abortion, to ban the procedure, or to specify circumstances in which it should be allowed or banned.

This last decision roiled the country and immediately transformed many elections -- for state legislature, governor, Congress, and the presidency -- into referenda on abortion. Republican candidates at all levels found themselves facing a politically impossible choice that put many on the road to defeat: Those who declared their support for a broad ban on abortion scared moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Those who opposed such a ban, or waffled, were deserted by much of their conservative base.

As I have noted before, the reversal of Roe would, and probably will, be a net boon for the Democrats, but not for the reasons this piece suggests. That decision has been an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party for 30 years. If the court deconstitutionalized the question, then Democratic candidates around the country would be able to adapt their platforms to the views of their constituents. That would leave them free to focus their campaigns on economic issues, where it is not at all clear that the Republicans have an advantage. In other words, it would turn the clock back to about 1960, when the Democrats usually won.

* * *

On a not entirely different note, there is a new book by Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel (Great Discoveries), which was favorably reviewed by Polly Shulman in yesterday's New York Times. I've been reading about Gödel for years (I have a review of another biography here), but the review helped to clarify some points for me. Shulman notes:

The dream of these formalists [of the early 20th century] was that their systems contained a proof for every true statement. Then all mathematics would unfurl from the arbitrary symbols, without any need to appeal to an external mathematical truth accessible only to our often faulty intuition.

This reminded me that the main thrust of phenomenology during this period was in the same direction: toward a philosophy that was completely immanent, with no transcendent elements. For existentialists, and for postmodernists who hold that the only truth is intersubjective, immanence is still the last word in sophistication. (In a foggy way, the notion even wafts through legal theory.) What the review, and apparently the book, remind us of is that, in formal logic, this project collapsed:

To put it roughly, Gödel proved his theorem by taking the Liar's Paradox, that steed of mystery and contradiction, and harnessing it to his argument. He expressed his theorem and proof in mathematical formulas, of course, but the idea behind it is relatively simple. He built a representative system, and within it he constructed a proposition that essentially said, ''This statement is not provable within this system.'' If he could prove that that was true, he figured, he would have found a statement that was true but not provable within the system, thus proving his theorem. His trick was to consider the statement's exact opposite, which says, ''That first statement -- the one that boasted about not being provable within the system -- is lying; it really is provable.'' Well, is that true? Here's where the Liar's Paradox shows its paces. If the second statement is true, then the first one is provable -- and anything provable must be true. But remember what that statement said in the first place: that it can't be proved. It's true, and it's also false -- impossible! That's a contradiction, which means Gödel's initial assumption -- that the proposition was provable -- is wrong. Therefore, he found a true statement that can't be proved within the formal system.

Thus Gödel showed not only that any consistent formal system complicated enough to describe the rules of grade-school arithmetic would have an unprovable statement, but that it would have an unprovable statement that was nonetheless true. Truth, he concluded, exists ''out yonder'' (as Einstein liked to put it), even if we can never put a finger on it.

Note that this does not mean the truth is unknowable, only that some truths are unknowable solely through logic. Again, we are back to Aquinas.

* * *

Speaking of which, anyone in the New York area who is interested in a Latin liturgy for Ascension Thursday (May 5) might consider Holy Rosary Church in Jersey City. Mass is at 5:30 PM; the address is 344 Sixth Street And while I'm at it, here's my chant commercial again.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Is Mathematics Constitutional?

A recent popular [well, as popular as a massive book full of equations can be] exposition of mathematical Platonism is Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality. It even has practice problems in it with devoted communities of amateurs trading tips on how to solve them. Mathematical Platonism, or something much like it, really is something like the default position of many mathematicians and physicists.

Since I ended up an engineer, perhaps it isn't really surprising that I always found the moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas more appealing. 

There is a good quote in this short essay that I've used to good effect:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."
I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass.

Philosophy of science is a field in fine shape, but many fans of science try to use it as a cudgel upon religious believers. Insofar as that attempt is mostly ignorant of both science and philosophy, it isn't particularly illuminating.


Is Mathematics Constitutional?

 

The New York Times remains our paper of record, even in matters of metaphysics. For proof, you need only consult the article by George Johnson that appeared in the Science Section on February 16, 1998, entitled: "Useful Invention or Absolute Truth: What Is Math?" The piece was occasioned by a flurry of recent books challenging mathematical Platonism. This is the belief, shared by most mathematicians and many physicists, that mathematical ideas are "discovered" rather than constructed by the mathematicians who articulate them. Consider the following sentence:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."

I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass. The immediate philosophical peril to the world of the Times is more narrow. That is, it is hard to be a thoroughgoing secular materialist if you have to acknowledge that there are aspects of reality that cannot be explained as either products of blind chance or of human invention. Supreme Court Justice William Kennedy has even suggested that systems of ethics claiming an extra-human origin are per se unconstitutional. Judging by some of the arguments against mathematical Platonism presented by the Times piece, however, we may soon see Establishment Clause challenges to federal aid for mathematical education.

The best-known of the books that try to de-Platonize mathematics is "The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics," by the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene. His argument is that the rudiments of mathematics are hardwired into the human brain, and so that mathematics is foundationally a product of neurology. The evidence is various. There are studies of accident victims suggesting there may be a specific area of the brain concerned with counting, as well as stimulus-response studies showing that some animals can be trained to distinguish small-number sequences. (Remember the rabbits in "Watership Down," who had the same name for all numbers from five to infinity?) Relying on even more subtle arguments is a recent article by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez, "Mathematical Reasoning: Analogies, Metaphors and Images." [BE: the actual article is titled The Metaphorical Structure of Mathematics: Sketching Out Cognitive Foundations for a Mind-Based Mathematics] The authors suggest that numbers are simply extrapolated from the structure of the body and mathematical operations from movement. (The article is part of an upcoming book to be called "The Mathematical Body.")

I have not read these works, so it is entirely possible I am missing something. Still, it seems to me that there are two major problems with analyses of this sort. First, if the proposition is that mathematical entities are metaphysical universals that are reflected in the physical world, it is no argument against this proposition to point to specific physical instances of them. In other words, if numbers are everywhere, then it stands to reason that they would be inherent in the structure of the brain and body, too.

If Dr. Dehaene has really found a "math-box" in the head, has he found a fantasy-gland or an organ of perception? The Times article paraphrases him as saying that numbers are "artifacts of the way the brain parses the world...like colors. Red apples are not inherently red. They reflect light at wavelengths that the brain...interprets as red." The distinction between things that are "really red" and those that "just look like red" has always escaped me, even in languages with different verbs for adjectival predicates and the copula. Doesn't a perfectly objective spectral signature identify any red object? In order to avoid writing the Monty Python skit that arguments about perception usually become, let me just note here that the experience of qualia (such as "redness") has nothing to do with the cognitive understanding of number. Like the numbers distinguishing the wavelengths of colors, for instance.

There is a more basic objection to the physicalistic reductionism at work here, however. Consider what it would mean if it worked. Suppose that proofs were presented so compelling as to convince any honest person that mathematics was indeed nothing more than an extrapolation of the structure of the nervous system, or of the fingers on the hand, or of the spacing of heartbeats. We would then have a situation where we would have to explain the "unreasonable effectiveness" of the human neocortex, or even the universal explanatory power of the human anatomy. This would be anthropocentrism come home to roost. You could, I suppose, argue that we only imagine that the human neurological activity called mathematics lets us explain everything; the reality is that we only know about the things that our brains let us explain. Well, maybe, but then that suggests that there are other things that we don't know about because our brains are not hardwired to explain them. Maybe those are the things that are really red?

There are indeed problems with mathematical Platonism, the chief of which is that it is hard to see how the physical world could interact with the non-sensuous ideal forms. (John Barrow's delightful "Pi in the Sky" will take interested readers on a fair-minded tour of the philosophy and intellectual history of this perennial question.) The most workable solution is probably the "moderate Realism" of Aquinas. He held that, yes, there are universals, but that we can know about them only through the senses. This seems reasonable enough. In fact, this epistemological optimism is probably the reason science developed in the West in the first place. There may even be a place for Dr. Dehaene's math-box in all this, if its function is regarded as perceiving numbers rather than making them up. What there can be no place for is the bigotry of those who believe that science exists only to support certain metaphysical prejudices.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Obvious Proof

I think there are better arguments for classical theism than the Argument from Design, but as eminent a philosopher as Antony Flew was eventually convinced by it. Philosophical atheism is a respectable position, but many of atheism's most vocal defenders are not actually espousing that position, but rather a juvenile and reactive atheism that does them no credit. For those individuals, a psychological explanation may have merit.


The Obvious Proof: A Presentation of the Classic Proof of Universal Design
by Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman
CIS Publishers, 1993
$13.95 Hardcover, $10.95 Paper
141 Pages

 

Is there such a thing as an honest atheist? Maybe not, according to Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman (both of whom are writers, the latter with a physics degree). This short book (really an extended essay) does not add much new to the Design debate. What it does do is try to turn the intellectual tables by interpreting atheism as a species of willful irrationality.

The thesis of "The Obvious Proof" is that the scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature is at least as great as the evidence that would normally persuade us that something is artificial. The authors' benchmark for common sense in this matter is the black obelisk buried beneath the surface of the Moon in the film "2001," which audiences around the world immediately intuited to be a product of intelligence. (This argument is set out more briefly at the website The 2001 Principle, where you can also order the book.) The authors present a useful summary of several popular treatments of the Anthropic Principle in cosmology and the extraterrestrial "seeding theory" of the origin of life on Earth. However, the book does not attempt a comprehensive presentation of the Argument from Design. (Among other things, such a presentation would require a discussion of the evidence from chaos and complexity studies that the natural world is in large measure self-organizing.) Rather, the authors assume that Design is such an obvious explanation for order in nature that the reluctance of certain scientists to accept it can have only a psychological explanation.

The explanation that the authors favor is the Gestalt psychology principle of "cognitive dissonance," which causes people to reject empirical information that does not fit into their mental categories. The authors sometimes seem to equate intellectual cognitive dissonance with Freudian repression. (Perhaps the distinction may not be hard and fast. In any case, a more purely Freudian explanation for atheism was developed a few years ago by the psychologist Paul Vitz.) What the authors are talking about here is not a failure of the imagination among scientists, which is what cognitive dissonance normally implies in a scientific context. Rather, they seek to define the reasons for the emotional reluctance found among at least some scientists to accept the theistic implications of empirical research.

The five emotional grounds the authors present for this reluctance are rather intriguing. Three are things you might expect: the desire for complete moral autonomy, outraged intellectual pride faced with the unknowable, and mere intellectual habit. One of the others, however, is the ontological anxiety that might occur should you accept that you are a product of another will. It's an interesting point: a meaningless universe is less threatening than an arbitrary one. The most engaging reason for atheism, though, is almost a kind of shyness. If God exists, then He must have abandoned us, since otherwise He would not be so enigmatic. Do you really want someone to exist who probably does not like you?

"The Obvious Proof" could be taken as a commentary on Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's commentary on Maimonides' commentary on the beginning of the Decalogue. Maimonides concluded from the words "I am G-d, your Lord, Who took you out of the land of Egypt," that there is an actual duty under Jewish Law to believe in God. Such a commandment is reasonable, according to Rabbi Wasserman, because the existence of God should be obvious even to a boy by the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Those who deny the evidence for God, according to this view, do so because they have intellectual or emotional "investments" in a non-theistic universe.

It is certainly true that some scientists have a psychological ax to grind on the question of the existence of God. (My suspicion is that a disproportionate number of these people write popular science for just this reason.) It is probably also true that the perception of design in nature is a matter of intuitive common sense. However, intuitive common sense, even when it is correct, is not the same thing as a rigorous philosophical proof.

 

End

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: On Tyranny

 Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss

 Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Political philosophy is my favorite after natural philosophy. The question of how we are to order our lives together is perennially interesting, although most people probably prefer a less theoretical approach

Leo Strauss is also fascinating because of his association with the idea of esoteric writing. John pooh-poohs the idea here, but I'm coming around to it.


On Tyranny
By Leo Strauss (with Alexandre Kojève)
Edited by Victor Gourevitch & Michael S. Roth
University of Chicago Press, 2000
335 Pages, US$18.00
ISBN 0-226-77687-5

 

If Leo Strauss were the Great Cthulhu, this book might be The Necronomicon. In reality, of course, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago for many years, and this book is an anthology. Strauss is considered the font, if not quite the founder, of modern Neoconservatism, which is widely believed to be the secret doctrine that actuates the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. The book does not really support that thesis. Here we see Strauss advising the wise to avoid instigating revolutions, much less the democratic world-revolution that the Bush Administration is keen on. Also, while Strauss concedes that world empire might be inevitable, he also says it would be an unfortunate institution, and not one likely to last. The book is really about the relationship of philosophers to politics, and whether the philosophy of the Greek classics has the resources to define it properly. The treatment of the nature of history is extensive, but incidental.

The centerpiece of the book is a study that Strauss first published in 1948, On Tyranny. It closely analyzes the dialogue Hiero, by Xenophon (430-355 BC), a student of Socrates. (The volume also contains a translation of the dialogue, which is just 18 pages long.) Strauss is answered by a long review from Alexandre Kojève, entitled “Tyranny and Wisdom.” (Kojève, a Russian émigré born Alexander Vladimirovitch Kojevnikoff, knew Strauss in Strauss's native Germany. Later, in Paris, they were both starveling immigrant scholars. Kojève became a French civil servant and played a prominent role in organizing the first GATT treaty (precursor to the World Trade Organization) and the European Community (precursor to the European Union); he also seems to have been a Soviet spy.) Strauss answers Kojève in “Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero.” The rest of the book, about 90 pages, is taken up with the correspondence between Strauss and Kojève from 1932 to 1965.

Xenophon is one of those ancient authors better known for clarity than for depth; his dialogue Hiero would seem to support this characterization. It sets out a supposed discussion between the poet, Simonides of Ceos (circa 556-468 BC), and Hiero I (died 466 BC), tyrant of Syracuse and master of Sicily, on the advantages and drawbacks of being a tyrant. We should remember that “tyranny” is a term of art in classical philosophy. It refers to “monarchy without law,” a situation that often arose when a democracy went sour. Tyranny was generally considered the most defective class of regime. However, it was also recognized that there were good and bad tyrannies. Simonides makes it his business to improve Hiero's.

Simonides asks apparently ingenuous questions, such as whether tyrants ate better than private persons, or had better sex lives. Hiero answers by detailing the miseries of the tyrannical condition, in which wretched excess cohabits with personal insecurity. When they get to the question of public honor, which is basically about Hiero's desire to be loved, Simonides can suggest ways in which tyranny can be modified to Hiero's advantage. Though of course Hiero cannot dispense with the mercenaries on which his government depends, Simonides advises Hiero to use those mercenaries to ensure public safety. As a general matter, he should be seen to spend his own fortune on public amenities, rather than use public money. The public should not seem him inflicting punishments. Rather, he should distribute prizes in competitions designed to promote patriotism. Thus could Hiero's life become happier, and the life of Syracuse greatly improved.

From this tiny acorn of a dialogue Strauss cultivates a mighty oak of interpretation. Starting from the plausible inference that Hiero is afraid of Simonides because the tyrant does not understand the perspective or motivation of the wise, Strauss draws general lessons about how philosophers in general should deal with politics in general. Simonides, in his capacity as a wise man, contemplates eternal things. To the extent that he seeks human approval at all, he seeks it from competent judges, which is to say, from other members of the wise. Hiero, in contrast, seems most worried about whether his catamite really loves him. In order for these mentalities to communicate, the philosopher must sometimes couch principled advice in terms of self-interest. As in this case, it is sometimes possible to advocate reforms as a way to realize a relatively noble desire, that is, Hiero's desire to be loved by his subjects. However, the gap between the philosophical and the political remains.

Kojève, in contrast, says that the gap will close at the eschaton, that is, at the end of history. This final term does not refer to clock time, but to philosophical history. Kojève elsewhere argued that “history properly speaking” ended in 1806, when Napoleon's victory at Jena ensured that the French Revolution would, in some form, spread universally. Since then, it has been all over, bar the shouting.

We may note that, adapting Kojève's thesis, Francis Fukuyama used the opportunity of the collapse of Communism in 1989 to argue in The End of History and the Last Man that even the shouting had ended, and that liberal democracy was the form of the “universal and homogeneous state” in which Kojève said history would eventuate. Kojève himself had been ambiguous. He sometimes suggested that it made no difference which side won the Cold War, since the same sort of final society would result in either case.

For Kojève, the motor of history is Hegel's famous Master-Slave dialectic. Slaves want their basic human dignity recognized. Masters want to be recognized by their peers. Thus, the Masters of the world have an interest in manufacturing peers. They extend the size of states they control to include neighboring states, so that the citizens of those states may also acknowledge them. Within the state, they gradually emancipate slaves, then women, then even children. The logical end of this process is, as we have seen, a state that includes the whole of mankind, and that makes no distinctions of any kind among its citizens. Thus, everyone may not be happy, but they will be “satisfied.”

Philosophy is a work-in-progress until history ends, according to Kojève, when we will understand everything we can understand. Because philosophy is essentially historicist, it is essentially atheist: there is no transcendent repository of final answers to which self-sufficient philosophers can look. Even if there were, it would still be necessary for philosophers to engage the larger society, since to do otherwise is to run the risk of solipsism and madness. The function of philosophers is to create models of ideal societies, and to propose from time to time how they might be implemented. Only in this way can the philosophers hope to emerge as the wise in the post-historical situation:

“One may therefore conclude that while the emergence of a reforming tyrant is not conceivable without the prior existence of a reforming philosopher, the coming of the wise man must necessarily be preceded by the revolutionary action of the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous state).”

Kojève also notes that there is a special affinity between the philosopher and tyranny. Philosophers can devote only so much of their time to practical matters, so they are necessarily people in a hurry. The same is true of tyrants who, being lawless, are also open to new ideas. Philosophers, however, simply are not competent to judge the method or the pace with which the tyrant implements their ideas. If philosophers could make that kind of practical judgment, they would be politicians rather than philosophers.

Strauss is horrified by this encomium of tyranny and atheism. To begin with, he insists that one sort of regime really can be preferred to another, and that in the circumstances of the modern world, there is no better option than liberal democracy. He also insists that philosophers do not seek this “recognition” of which Kojève speaks, but rather delight to contemplate the well-ordered souls of the wise (who can exist at any point in history), and to educate such souls among the young.

Thus, there is a community of the wise. They preserve themselves by convincing society that, however esoteric their discussions may be, they are not “atheists,” they do not despise what other men revere. The wise are not subversive or revolutionary, but helpful. The modest measures of reform that they may propose do the only sort of good that is possible in a world that will never be perfect.

However pure Strauss may insist the motives of philosophers to be, he seems to concede that something like the hunger for recognition may really govern history for other people. The result might even be the outcome that Kojève anticipates. Strauss, in fact, offers a sketch of the “Universal and Final Tyrant” that might serve as a gloss on the figure of Antichrist (or as a description of that recurring nightmare of Chinese history, the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi). On the other hand, he also says that this “end of history” is not really final. The homogeneity of the “universal and homogeneous state” will be a fraud, since it assumes a sophisticated philosophical understanding of the post-historical world on the part of everybody, everywhere. Moreover, such a world will simply not be satisfying, in Hegel's sense or anybody else's, because it will be purposeless. The empire of the Final Tyrant will be overthrown, perhaps in a nihilistic revolution that will be the only expression of humanism possible in that dark era.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Strauss is his exegetical method, particularly the detection of the “secret writing” that he made famous. This requires placing quite a lot of emphasis on silence, on what a text does not say.

For instance: in addition to his reply to Kojève, Strauss also replies to a review of On Tyranny by Eric Voegelin. Voegelin argues that classical political philosophy is incomplete, because it lacked, among other things, an account of Caesarism. Voegelin defines that as a post-constitutional situation in which a return to republican government is no longer possible. That makes it unlike tyranny, which could and did alternate with various forms of constitutional government. In reply, Strauss says that Caesarism is a kind of legitimate monarchy. It may sometimes be the best that a society can do. Here is Strauss's explanation for why classical philosophy did not address the issue:

“The true distinction between Caesarism and tyranny is too subtle for ordinary practical use. It is better for the people to remain ignorant of that distinction and to regard the potential Caesar as a potential tyrant. No harm can come from this theoretical error, which becomes a practical truth if the people have the mettle to act upon it. No harm can come from the political identification of Caesarism and tyranny: Caesars can take care of themselves.”

To another philosopher, the obvious answer would have been that classical philosophy did not address Caesarism because Caesar lived after the “classic” era of classical culture was past. To Strauss, the answer was that the ancients were omniscient, but tactful.

And then there's Kojève. As he got older, his interpretation of ancient texts became more and more whimsical. To be fair, he was no longer a professional academic after the late 1940s, but he began discovering secret writing in places where Strauss evidently feared to tread. In his letters to Strauss, he characterizes some sixth-century writings, including some by Julian the Apostate, as “Voltaire-like” exercises in disguised skepticism. From this he surmises that the classical philosophical tradition actually survived very late in an underground tradition.

That is a little like saying that the Middle Kingdom Egyptians were familiar with Faraday's equations, but just made sure never to write them down. The Socratics and the other schools of the golden age of Greek philosophy may have had all the esoteric doctrines you please: underground traditions would be plausible, because the aboveground effect of philosophy on Greek life was obviously so great. There was nothing like that effect in the sixth century, and no amount of secret writing will substitute for the lack of the schools and sages and controversies that we know existed 900 years earlier.

Though Strauss never says anything as foolish as Kojève, the chief impression I took from this book was the capacity for both of them to miss the real forest in their hunt for the secret trees. The key to the problem of modern tyranny is really another point that Voegelin raised in his review: ancient tyranny, at least in the West, lacked the millenarian component that we see in modern, ideology-driven tyranny. Voegelin had muddied his case by arguing that Machiavelli was significantly influenced by Joachim of Floris, a thesis that Strauss correctly rejects, but which does not diminish the fact that modern revolutionary tyrants do in fact have a strong apocalyptic streak. Kojève is left similarly clueless by his Hegelian psychobabble about “recognition,” despite the fact his theory is an eschatology.

On Tyranny is well worth reading for several reasons. However, there are far less constricted ways to approach the issues it addresses.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: God or Goddess?

 Burning graves

Burning graves

Another book review written more than twenty years ago that couldn't be improved upon much by subsequent events.

However, it does bring to mind Pope Francis' suggestion in May of 2016 that he would setup a commission to study women deacons in the early Church. Then, in June he joked 'We had a president of Argentina who used to say, and he would give this advice to presidents of other countries, “When you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission!”'


God or Goddess?
Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?
by Manfred Hauke
343 pp., $17.95
Ignatius Press, 1995
ISBN: 0-87870-559-2

Let my initial reluctance to review this book be a lesson to you. The author is a German priest who teaches theology at the University of Augsburg. (Back in the '80s, he wrote a definitive treatment of the Catholic position on women's ordination.) Physically the book is thick, with an austere cloth cover done in black and deep green. It looked like the kind of book a German professor would write, the kind that have titles like The Ontology of the Elephant (9 Volumes). This one seemed even less inviting, since at least the elephant book would have pictures of elephants in it, whereas the only amusement Fr. Hauke's book promised was a 47 page bibliography. Since a quick look showed that I probably agreed with its thesis already (the subtitle in the original German is "Feminist Theology in the Dock"), I really did not see why I needed to read yet another exposition of the question.

I was wrong. The book is lucid and tersely persuasive, not least because its tone is fair and nonpolemical throughout. Better than any other source I know, the author shows through logic, scripture and tradition just how the fashionable systems of feminist theology undermine the basic dogmas of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The book makes a good companion volume to Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, also published by Ignatius Press. The Steichen book is an excellent source of documentation; it damns Catholic feminism by letting it speak for itself. Fr. Hauke's book provides more complete analysis for this material. Among other things, he shows how feminist theology fits into the larger trends in 20th century philosophy, from Whitehead's "process" metaphysics to Sartre's existentialism. (He also makes clear the often overlooked point that feminist analysis is simply Marxist class analysis applied to gender.) Between them, the two books show pretty conclusively that feminist theologians (who are as likely to be men as women) do not want the Church reformed. They want her dead.

The debate over feminism in theology has become clarified to the point where it is hard to see how any informed person can be innocently deceived on the matter any longer. As Hauke makes clear, feminist theology is pantheistic in its essence. It rejects a transcendent God, because such a God would be in a position of hierarchical domination over this world. (Feminists depict this as a metaphysical projection of the system of "patriarchy," whereby men tyrannize over women.) It rejects Jesus as the incarnation of God, partly because feminists hold God to be already incarnate in the world, but mostly because the idea that history could turn on the life of a historical male human being is intolerable to them. Similarly, they reject the principles of the apostolic succession and of ordination as a sacrament because these things seek to extend this intolerable incarnation to the present day. The proposal to ordain women, in the minds of the people who have been most active in making the case for it, is a device for undermining the incarnational model of the priesthood. It is as simple as that.

Of course, there is a great deal else to be said about the specific schools of feminist theology and their tenets. Having rejected the teaching authority of the Church, feminist theology is fracturing in typical sectarian fashion, a process that feminists dignify with the formula of a "quarrel among sisters." Still, there are some nearly universal elements in the feminist critique of Christianity, such as the claim that the Church teaches the inferiority of women and the sinfulness of the body. Fr. Hauke explains the Church's true position on these matters with great clarity and freshness. However, the most important question, as he also makes clear, is more fundamental than the often spurious "justice" issues on which feminists prefer to dwell. If you believe what the feminist theologians say, then you no longer believe in a God worth praying to. Feminist liturgies seek to make it impossible to believe in such a God. That is what the arguments about things like "inclusive language" are really all about.

Among the interesting features of "God or Goddess" is the international perspective it provides on feminist theology. Even from Europe, it is clear that the phenomenon is predominantly American. Much of the book recounts the ideas of the "weird sisters" of American theology: Mary Daly, the post-Christian ex-nun, Rosemary Radford Ruether, the "moderate" who would retain the Church as a front for social liberation of various kinds, and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, who edifies her readers by rewriting Gospel passages to say what they should have said. These people seem to be almost as well- known in academic circles in Germany as they are in the United States, but their effect there has not been the same as here. Perhaps the most striking difference is that orders of female religious in Europe seem to have little use for feminist theology, in striking contrast to their American sisters. Indeed, feminist theology is less influential generally in the Catholic Church in Europe. Feminist theology is probably even more important than in America, on the other hand, in Protestant churches. In Germany, this means mostly the state Lutheran churches. Judging from this account, the effect is rather like that to be found in some of the more demented corners of the American Episcopal Church. (Doubtless the celebration of Walpurgis Night in a real Gothic cathedral has more historical resonance than when such things happen at St. John the Divine in New York. Plus there are better acoustics for the witches' choir.) However, German Protestantism is not without resilience: some of feminist theology's most committed critics are to be found in the evangelical churches.

Fr. Hauke provides a rare, cross-lingual discussion of "inclusive" language, its forms and rationales. While I have several philosophical objections to inclusive language, my primary problem with it is practical, since I work as an editor. Language that seeks to be gender- neutral clutters up sentences with unnecessary syllables. They break up the normal rhythm of English, so that the sentences become hard to say out loud. (Inclusive language is also an Overclass dialect marker, like saying "between you and I," but that's another story.) However, after learning what inclusive language does to the intricate clockwork of German grammar, I can no longer feel so sorry for myself. German is a highly inflected language, one in which "grammatical gender" plays an important role. If you start making arbitrary changes in the gender of German nouns, you will soon lose track of where the nouns fit in the sentence. Perhaps this is yet another consequence of the basically American provenance of feminism. At least among Western nations, the notion that language could dispense with gender entirely could not have occurred to anyone but an English-speaker, whose language almost does so already.

Feminist theology continues to enjoy many institutional successes. In the Catholic Church in the United States, it has the effect of driving the people in the pews to the evangelical churches, while politicizing the archdiocesan and national bureaucracies. However, no matter how depressing we may find these things at times, we should remember that the fundamental tenet of feminism is wrong: it simply is not true that ideas are no more than constructs that express social power relationships. Ideas are either true or false, and if you act on the assumption that false ones are true, then your projects will miscarry. Feminist theology is false, and it lost the intellectual debate some time ago. It can still corrupt people and institutions, but it cannot really remake them in its own image. As the truth reasserts itself, even its power to corrupt will gradually diminish. Fr. Hauke's book should prove instrumental in the long process of repair.

 

This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Fidelity magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

The kind of thing that John Reilly laments in this book review is alive and well. If you want a taste of it, check out New Real Peer Review on Twitter, which simply reprints abstracts of actual, peer-reviewed articles. A favorite genre is the autoethnography. Go look for yourself, no summary can do it justice.

I will disagree with John about one thing: race and sex matter a lot for many medical treatments. For example, the drug marketed under the trade name Ambien, generically called zolpidem, has much worse side effects in women than in men, and it takes women longer to metabolize it.

This effect was memorably referred to as Ambien Walrus. I find this pretty funny, but I delight in the sufferings of others.

You can't ignore this stuff if you want to do medicine right. The reasons for doing so vary, but you'll get a better result if you don't.


Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
314 pp, $25.95
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4

 

The Enemies You Deserve

 

If you are looking for an expose' of how political correctness in recent years has undermined medical research, corrupted the teaching of mathematics and generally blackened the name of science in America, this book will give you all the horror stories you might possibly want. There have been rather a lot of indictments of the academic left, of course, but this is one of the better ones. However, the book is most interesting for reasons other than those its co-authors intended. To use the same degree of bluntness that they use against the "science studies" being carried on by today's literary critics, what we have here is an expression of bewilderment by a pair of secular fundamentalists who find themselves faced with an intellectual crisis for which their philosophy provides no solution.

Paul Gross is a biologist, now at the University of Virginia but formerly director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They repeatedly insist, no doubt truthfully, that they have no particular interest in politics and that they are not programmatic conservatives. What does worry them is the increasing number of faculty colleagues in the liberal arts who take it as an article of faith that the results of empirical scientific research are biased in favor of patriarchy or capitalism or white people. The people who have this sort of opinion they call "the academic left," a catchall category that includes deconstructionists, feminists, multiculturalists and radical environmentalists.

The authors have a good ear for invective, such as this happy formula: "...academic left refers to a stratum of the residual intelligentsia surviving the recession of its demotic base." There has always been something rather futile about the radicalization of the academy, and in some ways the movement is already in retreat. The ideas of the academic left are based in large part on Marxist notions that were originally designed for purposes of revolutionary agitation. Revolutionary socialist politics has not proven to have the popular appeal one might have hoped, however. Marxism has therefore been largely replaced among intellectuals by that protean phenomenon, postmodernism. Although postmodernism incorporates large helpings of Freudianism and the more credulous kind of cultural anthropology, it remains a fundamentally "left" phenomenon, in the sense of maintaining an implacable hostility to market economics and traditional social structures. However, postmodernists have perforce lowered their goal from storming the Winter Palace to inculcating the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in undergraduates. The results of these efforts were sufficiently annoying to incite Gross and Levitt to write this book.

Postmodernists presume that reality is inaccessible, or at least incommunicable, because of the inherent unreliability of language. Science to postmodernists is only one of any number of possible "discourses," no one of which is fundamentally truer than any other. This is because there are no foundations to thought, which is everywhere radically determined by the interests and history of the thinker. Those who claim to establish truth by experiment are either lying or self-deluded. The slogan "scientific truth is a matter of social authority" has become dogma to many academic interest groups, who have been exerting themselves to substitute their authority for that of the practicing scientists.

The French philosophical school known as deconstructionism provided the first taste of postmodern skepticism in the American academy during the 1970s. It still provides much of its vocabulary. However, self-described deconstructionists are getting rare. Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, two of the school's progenitors, were shown in recent years to have been fascists without qualification at certain points in their careers, thus tainting the whole school. On the other hand, while deconstruction has perhaps seen better days, feminism is as strong as ever. Thus, undergraduates in women's studies courses are routinely introduced to the notion that, for instance, Newton's "Principia" is a rape manual. Even odder is the movement to create a feminist mathematics. The authors discuss at length an article along these lines entitled "Towards a Feminist Algebra." The authors of that piece don't seem much concerned with algebra per se; what exercises them is the use of sexist word problems in algebra texts, particularly those that seem to promote heterosexuality. The single greatest practical damage done by feminists so far, however, is in medical research, where human test groups for new treatments must now often be "inclusive" of men and women (and also for certain racial minorities). To get statistically significant results for a test group, you can't just mirror the population in the sample, you have to have a sample above a mathematically determined size for each group that interests you. In reality, experience has shown that race and gender rarely make a difference in tests of new medical treatments, but politically correct regulations threaten to increase the size of medical studies by a factor of five or ten.

Environmentalism has become a species of apocalyptic for people on the academic left. It is not really clear what environmentalism is doing in the postmodern stew at all, since environmentalists tend to look on nature as the source of the kind of fundamental values which postmodernism says do not exist. The answer, perhaps, is that the vision of ecological catastrophe provides a way for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones in a historical situation where social revolution appears to be vastly improbable. Environmentalists seem to be actually disappointed if some preliminary research results suggesting an environmental danger turn out to be wrong. This happens often enough, notably in cancer research, where suspected carcinogens routinely turn out to be innocuous. However, on the environmental circuit, good news is unreportable. The current world is damned, the environmentalists claim, and nothing but the overthrow of capitalism, or patriarchy, or humanism (meaning in this case the invidious bias in favor of humans over other animals) can bring relief. Only catastrophe can bring about this overthrow, and environmentalists who are not scientists look for it eagerly.

The basic notion behind the postmodern treatment of science is social constructivism, the notion that our knowledge of the world is just as much a social product as our music or our myths, and is similarly open to criticism. The authors have no problem with the fact that cultural conditions can affect what kind of questions scientists will seek to address or what kind of explanation will seem plausible to a researcher. What they object to is the "strong form" of social constructivism, which holds that our knowledge is simply a representation of nature. The "truth" of this representation cannot be ascertained by reference to the natural world, since any experimental result will also be a representation. Constructivists therefore say that we can understand the elements of a scientific theory only by reference to the social condition and personal histories of the scientists involved. This, as the authors correctly note, is batty.

The lengths to which the principle of constructivism has been extended are nearly unbelievable. Take AIDS, for instance, which has itself almost become a postmodernist subspecialty. The tone in the postmodernist literature dealing with the disease echoes the dictum of AIDS activist Larry Kramer: "...I think a good case can also be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority." Some people, particularly in black studies departments, take "constructed" quite literally, in the sense that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory as an instrument of genocide. Kramer's notion is more modest: he suggests that the extreme homosexual promiscuity which did so much to spread the disease in the New York and San Francisco of the late 1960s and early 1970s was forced upon the gay community by its ghettoization. This is an odd argument, but not so odd as the assumption that you can talk about the origins of an epidemic without discussing the infectious agent that causes it. The upshot is that AIDS is considered to be a product of "semiological discourse," a system of social conventions. It can be defeated, not through standard medical research, but through the creation of a new language, one that does not stigmatize certain groups and behaviors. (Dr. Peter Duesberg's purely behavioral explanation of AIDS, though it has the attractions of scientific heresy, gets only a cautious reception because of its implied criticism of homosexual sex.) The postmodern academy actually seems to have a certain investment in a cure for AIDS not being found, since the apparent helplessness of science in this area is taken as a license to give equal authority to "other ways of knowing" and other ways of healing, particularly of the New Age variety.

The postmodernist critics of science usually ply their trade by studiously ignoring what scientists themselves actually think about. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, for instance, has made a name for himself by subjecting scientists to the kind of observation usually reserved for members of primitive tribes. Once he was commissioned by the French government to do a post-mortem on their Aramis project. This was to be a radically new, computerized subway system in which small trams would travel on a vastly complicated track-and-switch system along routes improvised for the passengers of each car. The idea was that passengers would type their proposed destination into a computer terminal when they entered a subway station. They would then be assigned a car with other people going to compatible destinations. The project turned into a ten year boondoggle and was eventually cancelled. The French government hired Latour to find out what went wrong. Now, the basic conceptual problem with the system is obvious: the French engineers had to come up with a way to handle the "traveling salesman" problem, the classic problem of finding the shortest way to connect a set of points. This seemingly simple question has no neat solution, and the search for approximate answers keeps the designers of telephone switching systems and railroad traffic managers awake nights. Latour did not even mention it. He did, however, do a subtle semiological analysis of the aesthetic design of the tram cars.

Postmodernists regard themselves as omniscient and omnicompetent, fully qualified to put any intellectual discipline in the world in its place. They have this confidence because of the mistaken belief that science has refuted itself, thus leaving the field clear for other ways of understanding the world. They love chaos theory, for instance, having absorbed the hazy notion that it makes the universe unpredictable. Chaos theory in fact is simply a partial solution to the problem of describing turbulence. Indeed, chaos theory is something of a victory for mathematical platonism, since it shows that some very exotic mathematical objects have great descriptive power. The implications of chaos theory are rather the opposite of chaos in the popular sense, but this idea shows little sign of penetrating the nation's literature departments. The same goes for features of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics actually makes the world a far more manageable place. Among other things, it is the basis of electronics. To read the postmodernists, however, you would think that it makes physicists flutter about their laboratories in an agony of ontological confusion because quantum theory phrases the answers to some questions probabilistically.

On a more esoteric level, we have the strange cult of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem, first propounded in the 1930s. Now Goedel's Theorem is one of the great treasures of 20th century mathematics. There are several ways to put it, one of which is that logical systems beyond a certain level of complexity can generate correctly expressed statements whose truth value cannot be determined. Some versions of the "Liar Paradox" illustrate this quality of undecidability. It is easy to get the point slightly wrong. (Even the authors' statement of it is a tad misleading. According to them, the theorem "says that no finite system of axioms can completely characterize even a seemingly 'natural' mathematical object..." It should be made clear that some logical systems, notably Euclid's geometry, are quite complete, so that every properly expressed Euclidean theorem is either true or false.) Simply false, however, is the postmodernist conviction that Goedel's Theorem proved that all language is fundamentally self-contradictory and inconsistent. Postmodernists find the idea attractive, however, because they believe that it frees them from the chains of logic, and undermines the claims of scientists to have reached conclusions dictated by logic.

Postmodernism, say the authors, is the deliberate negation of the Enlightenment project, which they hold to be the construction of a sound body of knowledge about the world. The academic left generally believes that the reality of the Enlightenment has been the construction of a thought-world designed to oppress women and people of color in the interests of white patriarchal capitalism. Or possibly capitalist patriarchy. Anyhow, fashion has it that the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now that modernity is about to end, say the postmodernists, the idea is being refuted on every hand. Actually, it seems to many people of various ideological persuasions that the end of modernity is indeed probably not too far off: no era lasts forever, after all. However, it is also reasonably clear that postmodernism is not on the far side of the modern era. Postmodernism is simply late modernity. Whatever follows modernity is very unlikely to have much to do with the sentiments of today's academic left.

Granted that the radical academy does not have much of a future, still the authors cannot find a really satisfying explanation for why the natural sciences have been subject to special reprobation and outrage in recent years. In the charmingly titled penultimate chapter, "Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?", they run through the obvious explanations. It does not take much imagination to see that today's academic leftist is often a refugee from the 1960s. Political correctness is in large part the whimsical antinomianism of the Counterculture translated into humorourless middle age. Then, of course, there is the revenge factor. In the heyday of Logical Positivism from the end of World War II to the middle 1960s, physical scientists tended to look down on the liberal arts. In the eyes of that austere philosophy, any statement which was not based either on observation or induction was literally "nonsense," a category that therefore covered every non-science department from theology to accounting. The patronizing attitude of scientists was not made more bearable by the unquestioning generosity of the subsidies provided by government to science in those years. The resentment caused by this state of affairs still rankled when the current crop of academic leftists were graduates and undergraduates. Now they see the chance to cut science down to size.

While there is something to this assessment, the fact is that the academic left has a point. Logical Positivism and postmodernism are both essentially forms of linguistic skepticism. Both alike are products of the rejection of metaphysics, the key theme in Western philosophy since Kant. The hope of the logical positivist philosophers of the 1920s and 30s was to save just enough of the machinery of abstract thought so that scientists could work. Science is not skeptical in the sense that Nietzsche was skeptical, or the later Sophists. It takes quite a lot of faith in the world and the power of the mind to do science. And in fact, the authors note that Logical Positivism, with a little help from the philosophy of Karl Popper, remains the philosophical framework of working scientists to this day. The problem, however, is that Logical Positivism leaves science as a little bubble of coherence in a sea of "nonsense," of thoughts and ideas that cannot be directly related to measurable physical events.

Logical Positivism has many inherent problems as a philosophy (the chief of which being that its propositions cannot themselves be derived from sense experience), but one ability that even its strongest adherents cannot claim for it is the capacity to answer a consistent skepticism. In their defense of science, the authors are reduced to pounding the table (or, after the fashion of Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's Idealist philosophy, kicking the stone.) Thus, it is a "brutal" fact that science makes reliable predictions about physical events, that antibiotics cure infections while New Age crystals will not, that the advisability of nuclear power is a question of engineering and not of moral rectitude. Well, sure. But why? "Because" is not an answer. Without some way to relate the reliability of science to the rest of reality, the scientific community will be living in an acid bath skepticism and superstition.

The authors tell us that the scientific methodology of the 17th century "almost unwittingly set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries...[that] Newton or Leibnitz sought...to affirm some version of this divine order...is almost beside the point...Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here...Unless we are unlucky, this will always be the case." In reality, of course, it surpasses the wit of any thinker to set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries, or even entirely of his own generation. The scientists of the early Enlightenment did indeed scrap a great deal of Aristotle's physics. Metaphysically, however, they were fundamentally conservative: they settled on one strand of the philosophical heritage of the West and resisted discussing the matter further.

As Alfred Whitehead realized early in this century, science is based on a stripped-down version of scholasticism, the kind that says (a) truth can be reached using reason but (b) only through reasoning about experience provided by the senses. This should not be surprising. Cultures have their insistences. Analogous ideas keep popping up in different forms throughout a civilization's history. When the Senate debates funding for parochial schools, it is carrying on the traditional conflict between church and state that has run through Western history since the Investiture Controversy in medieval Germany. In the same way, certain assumptions about the knowability and rationality of the world run right through Western history. The Enlightenment was not unique in remembering these things. Its uniqueness lay in what it was willing to forget.

It would be folly to dismiss so great a pulse of human history as the Enlightenment with a single characterization, either for good or ill. Everything good and everything bad that we know about either appeared in that wave or was transformed by it. Its force is not yet wholly spent. However, one important thing about the Enlightenment is that it has always been a movement of critique. It is an opposition to the powers that be, whether the crown, or the ancient intellectual authorities, or God. The authors of "Higher Superstition" tell us that the academic left hopes to overthrow the Enlightenment, while the authors cast themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders. The authors are correct in seeing the academic left as silly people, who do not know what they are about. The authors are mistaken too, however. The fact is that the academic left are as truly the children of the Enlightenment as ever the scientists are. Science was once an indispensable ally in the leveling of ancient hierarchies of thought and society, but today it presents itself to postmodern academics simply as the only target left standing. Is it any wonder that these heirs of the Enlightenment should hope to bring down the last Bastille?

This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-05-05

Steve Sailer is getting more attention. This probably isn't good attention, but what can you do?

I still don't understand macroeconomics, but I am trying.

This is pretty good. 

The shift from male-dominated campus leftism to female-dominated is interesting.

A Thomist ruminating on the way in which we try to explain things we understand well in terms of things we don't understand well.

Rusty Reno argues that globalism/nationalism is the axis upon which the world will turn.

BD Sixsmith's somber memorial to the Bolshevik Revolution.

This makes me feel better that they aren't all dead. There is a counterpoint here challenging this research [which cites the faulty idea that you can alter the ratio male/female births by stopping having kids after you have a boy]

I like apocalyptic fiction. I am glad I never got around to The Road.

The application is a bit disconcerting, but I am amazed at the functionality/price ratio.

I expect that history will fondly remember Benedict XVI.

The Long View 2004-12-15: Good Ideas; Bad Reasons

 Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

I read State of Fear and I liked it. I also thought it was massively unfair. It was a fun story, given its premises. Taken as a flight of fantasy, it was a blast. If you think it was an unbiased representation of the facts....

Some of the action in the book takes place in Northern Arizona. Many of Crichton's books feature Arizona in some fashion. I remember reading something by him that one of his inspirations for his works was the natural beauty of Sunset Crater. I'm a sucker for books that mention Flagstaff or Northern Arizona in some way.


Good Ideas; Bad Reasons

 

The scandal of the season seems to be Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear. The book is based on the thesis that the hypothesis that global warming is caused by human activities, or even that it is occurring, is politicized pseudo-science. In an address last year, Crichton argued that global-warming belief is just one example of a increasing corruption of science. The paradigm case, he tells us, is the theory behind the search for extra terrestrial life (SETI):

[Consider the] Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

Most of the policy points that Crichton makes in this essay have merit. The nuclear-winter hypothesis was a propaganda scam. Second-hand smoke has never been shown to do any harm except to the people who are sued for claims that it causes cancer. The Malthusian "Population Bomb" argument is the Thing That Will Not Die, no matter how far it diverges from the facts. Nonetheless, regarding the one example of alleged scientific malpractice that Crichton discusses in detail, SETI, he is plainly talking nonsense.

There may or may not be space aliens, but the question is not undecidable. Certainly it is possible to make observations that would yield a good estimate of the number of Earth-like planets. The values for the final variables in the Drake Equation cannot be known a priori, but even they could be limited by whether signals are detected or not. In fact, to some degree they already have been.

If this is Michael Crichton's idea of science, we should take what he says with a grain of salt.

* * *

Meanwhile, the ingenious argument for Intelligent Design has gained a notable convert:

New York (AsiaNews/CWN) Anthony Flew, the British scholar who has been one of the world's most [eloquent proponents] of atheism, has conceded that scientific evidence points to the existence of God...Early this year, writing in Philosophy Now magazine, Flew had indicated that his commitment to atheism was wavering. He wrote: "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism..."...Flew--whose 1984 essay, The Presumption of Atheism, fixed his place as the leading proponent of that view--emphasises that he has not accepted Christianity. He said: "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian, and far and away from the God of Islam." He likened his current position to the deism of Thomas Jefferson, explaining that he is now sympathetic to the researchers who theorise about an 'intelligent design' in the working of creation.

The Argument from Design for the existence of God is the only major proofs, if I am not mistaken, whose critics never claimed to have refuted as matter of logic. Hume himself simply noted that it was an empirical question that was very difficult to answer. The recent Intelligent Design hypothesis claims to have solved by the empirical question by proving that biochemistry could not have evolved by chance within the estimates age of the universe.

Theism as a metaphysical postulate is actually a clarifying agent. If you assume that the universe is personal, or at least rational, you will find out more about it than would a true skeptic. In fact, I would argue that the great deadends in intellectual history have been caused by "fear of religion." In biology and the social sciences, the rejection of teleology in principle has hindered research for decades.

So, I don't think that Anthony Flew will come to much harm for having dropped his guard on the God question. However, with regard to the argument from design, Hume was right.

* * *

Whether or not there are space aliens, we can still look forward to strange things appearing in the sky:

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Top U.S. Air Force officials are working on a strategy to put surveillance aircraft in "near space," the no man's land above 65,000 feet but below an outer space orbit, Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper said on Tuesday.

Jumper said he would meet next Tuesday with the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gen. Lance Lord, to map out plans to get lighter-than-air vehicles into that region above the earth, where they could play a vital role in surveillance over trouble spots like Iraq...But in near space, such aircraft could carry out radar and imaging missions, carry communications nodes and even potentially relay laser beams from a ground-based source against a wide variety of targets, industry sources said.

That last bit is important. The tactic that will finally put paid to the strategic nuclear era is local defense of the targets. The lasers are more or less ready. One can imagine these relay platforms perpetually on station by the middle of this century, as prominent a feature of major cities as skyscrapers are today. Of course, the loss of nukes would make conventional intercontinental war possible again, but you can't have everything.

* * *

On the subject of strange forms of life, consider this bewildered report from the New York Times's Richard Bernstein on the long-awaited and perfectly predictable European rejection of immigration:

A Continent Watching Anxiously Over the Melting Pot: And so the question: why are Germans - and not just Germans but other Europeans as well - in such a state of anxiety and uncertainty about matters that have been more or less settled in the world's biggest country of immigration, the United States, for years? Why this discomfort with multiculturalism, this belief that assimilation, accepting the leitkultur, is the only way?

What planet does this writer live on? The issues in the United States are different, of course, but can even the Times not know that even most immigrants in America want immigration drastically reduced? And that people look on multiculturalism as a racket the nation can no longer afford? Just wait till 2008.

* * *

A parting threat: my Spelling Reform top page has been updated. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View: The Holy Roman Empire

The idea of the King holds great power in the West, even when actual kings and queens largely do not. For us Westerners, what the Emperor means comes from Rome through Charlemagne and Otto I. There is a mythical undercurrent however, that is far older.


The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer
German Original 1967
English Translation 1968
(By Janet Sondheimer)
Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers
309 pages, Various Editions & Prices

 

The Empire was not a state, but a system of dispensing justice.

We find that lucid formula near the end of this sprawling book by Friedrich Heer (1916 – 1983), the great Austrian authority on intellectual history. The formula is welcome, since there has always been some mystery about what the Holy Roman Empire was, as well as about what it was supposed to be. However, just as the formula comes late in the book, so it best applies only to the final phase of the empire, when the emperors were preoccupied with the defense of their solid Habsburg possessions in Austria and Hungry, and the empire was a sort of German United Nations that functioned through the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg and through the imperial courts. Even in the 18th century, however, the empire never lost its connection to the days when the emperors were priest-kings, who reflected an even more primordial past.

And indeed, just as there is some mystery about what the empire was, so there is some mystery about how to characterize this book. Heer's work is like a good film adaptation of a complicated adventure romance: it is filled with lyrical language and splendid images (wonderful graphics in this book, by the way), but it is really an illustration of the story rather than a retelling of it. A full history of the Holy Roman Empire would be almost a political and intellectual history of Europe. This “History of the Holy Roman Empire” is set out chronologically, and most of it is a narrative of the reigns of the emperors, but the effect is almost of a cycle of prose poems.

There are key dates and events in the political history of the thousand-year empire, naturally. The Roman imperial title was revived, or created, for Charlemagne in 800, and survived the rapid disintegration of his empire. Eventually it passed to Otto I, who was crowned in 962, which in many ways was the real beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a largely, but not exclusively, German league of princes, bishops, and municipalities. All were under the authority, if never quite the control, of a nominally elective king. The fundamental constitutional text of the empire was the Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356. Among other things, the Bull fixed at seven the number of imperial electors, the college of lay and ecclesiastical lords who elected the emperor; their number eventually rose to nine. In 1555, at the end of the reign of Charles V, the first round of the wars of religion ended in the long truce of the Peace of Augsburg. Through a combination of malice and stupidity, the truce collapsed into the Thirty Years' War in the next century. The war (wars, really) ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which made it possible for Catholics and Protestants to co-exist in the empire. The cost was a broad and precise definition of the rights of the German principalities that prevented the formation of a national German state. The empire was dissolved, under pressure from Napoleon, by the Emperor Francis I in 1806. Heer repeatedly assures us that the dissolution was beyond the emperor's power, and illegal; he's probably right.

The difficulty with telling the story of the Holy Roman Empire is that all the verbs and adverbs are attached in every generation to different nouns. The empire's center of gravity was generally in Germany, or Austria, but sometimes the emperors identified more with their possessions in Burgundy or the Netherlands, or in Bohemia. Charles V, the first ruler on whose domains the sun never set, was as Spanish as he was Burgundian or Austrian (though the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire were coincident only in Charles's person). The hold of Charles's family, the Habsburgs, on the imperial office was almost secure in the last few centuries of the empire. The various branches of the Habsburgs perfected the art of being everywhere present and nowhere a foreigner. The fact of being cosmopolitan did not make the Austrian Habsburgs chiefly concerned with protecting their most cosmopolitan title, however. They cared for the empire, just as they cared for their other possessions. At the end, though, they could let it go without diminishing their house's real power or influence.

Nonetheless, the empire does have a history, because there were constants. Heer tells us that the Ottonian conception of the empire characterized it to some degree until the very end:

“What could be finer, what more right and proper, than a Holy Empire conceived as a great federative league, based on trust rather than subjection, composed of friends from within and without (at their head the Pope, both as bishop of Rome and the king's friend), the whole under the leadership of the Emperor-king?”

Despite the empire's protean geography, there were some basics that all emperors struggled to retain. They all protected the jurisdiction of the imperial courts, for instance, and they all tried to secure communications through imperial territory. There was a small number of imperial rights they insisted on keeping, and to a remarkable extent they succeeded.

Political theory is relevant to the study of the empire, obviously, but the empire stays in our minds because it is where all those emperors in European fairy tales come from. Heer does not cease to remind us that the symbols and the functions of the emperors go back 5,000 years, to the first city-states with their eagle emblems and god-kings. The emperor was in some sense a universal ruler, in dignity if not in fact. His archetypical claim to deference had nothing to do with his power.

They emperors always did certain things. They hunted. They cured by touch, at least reputedly. They protected the Church. They made peace. More precisely, they had the duty to give peace. Also, the emperors, and the empire as a whole, were the restrainers of Antichrist. (Curiously, Heer does not cite II Thessalonians 2:7.) The German emperors played this role when they defeated a Magyar invasion of the West in 955 at the Battle of Lech, and thereby created the sense of “Germanness.” They played the same role six centuries later, when they were the only European rulers to offer serious, systematic, and ultimately successful resistance to the Turkish jihad aimed at central Europe. According to persistent myth, when the Emperor of the Last Days lays down his crown at Jerusalem after finally defeating Babylon, then the Antichrist will appear.

Sometimes, of course, the emperor was Antichrist, at least in the opinion of the pope. The tension between holy empire and holy church, both claiming divine sanction, runs right through the history of the West. Heer points out that the largely successful campaign by the popes of the 12th and 13th centuries to desacralize the empire was the basis of every other claim of right that would ever be made against the state. It also meant that the Church, the City of God, would eventually become just another political body: society as well as the state was ultimately desacralized.

Interesting as the medieval material is, Heer's book is most valuable for its treatment of the period after the Treaty of Westphalia. He points out that the empire's only “native style” was the baroque. Baroque art, politics, and philosophy were employed by the empire (and also by the Catholic Church) to preserve the world of images that the Reformation had begun to destroy.

The high baroque was a “festival culture,” colorful and profligate. Underneath the gilt and gemütlichkeit, however, there was an unshakeable foreboding. In Heer's telling, the good humor of Mozart's empire was an expression of the understanding that life is based on sacrifice, on self-sacrifice, which was to be carried out with style and without complaint. The music, the painting, and the overwrought architecture all reflected this. The result has never been to everyone's taste. Had Heer lived longer, he might not have been surprised that post-Habsburg Eastern European cities became the locales of choice for horror films.

Even in its final, Enlightenment era, the intellectuals of the empire expressed as philosophy something of that Great Chain of Being that was directly intuited by the medieval mind:

“The picture of the world presented by Leibnitz, his outlook on the world and the entire body of his religious and philosophical thinking, whether he knew it or not, is a eulogy of the Holy Roman Empire: his universe is one of a pre-established harmony, sustained by a regulated but voluntary harmony of the 'monads' (an expression he borrowed from Theresa of Avila). Just as in the Holy Roman Empire – as Leibnitz saw it – the princes, the imperial towns and all the other groups and individuals who were centered on the Emperor were supposed to work together in free and orderly fashion, so did faith and reason, God and man, nature and the supernatural, the smallest objects and the greatest, work together in the cosmos.”

The end of the empire as a political entity was overdetermined. Among the specific causes that Heer points out, I might mention just two. One was the theft of Silesia by Frederick the Great from the Habsburgs. The province was not that important to Austria, but it gave Prussia (which was founded by the Imperial Elector of Brandenburg, by the way) the human resources to carry out the long-term project of hegemony in Germany. More important was the fact that the emperors themselves were turning their backs on old Europe.

The greater cause of the empire's end was internal. Before the beginning of the age of mass revolution, the Enlightenment encouraged revolution from above. The 18th century was full of reforming despots, among the most radical of whom was the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He expropriated Church property and regulated the clergy in a way that the French Revolution would only imitate. He expanded the rights of religious minorities within his own territories. He attempted to elevate the peasantry, especially in backward Hungry, from serfs to freeholders. He promoted education and manufactures. And when he died in 1790, he realized that he had largely failed.

In every age the empire had its patriots, figures of the caliber of Dante and Goethe. Such people were also intense local patriots, with deep attachments to cities and small states. The universal patriotism of the empire complemented these native loyalties, because the empire was not a country, but an idea. Indeed, there is a sense in which the mere death of the political empire has in no way diminished its importance, or its hold on men's hearts:

“The crisis of the Empire and the crisis of the Church were terrifying to live through. In twelfth-century Germany and Italy the painful experience stimulated thinking men to attempt a philosophy and theology of world history. These writers, as they reflect on progress and decay, consciously or unconsciously hold up for us a mirror to the history of their epoch, the epoch which saw the rise and decline of the Empire and the rise of the Church...Underground eddies of this historical thinking reached Friedrich Hegel as he in turn reflected on world history in the last days of the Holy Roman Empire, and they re-emerge (some of them clearly identifiable) in his philosophy.”

One could easily extend that chain of influence to people like Francis Fukuyama, and to 21st century transnationalism and neoconservatism. The empire has its patriots still.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer

The Long View: Name the Present, Name the Future

 Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at  Zwiefalten

Integrated rococo carving, stucco and fresco at Zwiefalten

The identification of the present with nominalism ascendant is plausible, especially if you combine that with its handmaiden antinomianism.


Name the Present, Name the Future

 

The term "postmodern" is an unsatisfactory way to refer to the last few decades of the 20th century. (The era itself was not altogether satisfactory, either, though not for that reason.) Postmodern is a definition-by-negation, which is rarely a good idea: consider the sad example of those atheists who devote their lives to combating their nonexistent god. Moreover, there never really was much evidence that the period was moving beyond the modern era in any serious sense. In both its popular and elite forms, the "postmodern" spirit is largely a matter of living off the achievements of the modern age by making fun of them. Postmodernity is just modernity's late phase, rather like the rococo is to the baroque.

But then, what of the term "modern" itself? Strictly speaking, any era can (and does) call itself modern. When we speak of modernity, we usually have something more specific than "the present" in mind. Even so, the term is elastic. Modernity can mean the 20th century after the First World War, or the 19th and 20th centuries, or everything after Columbus. The macrohistorian William McNeill once plausibly suggested that the modern world system actually began in 11th-century China.

It makes most sense, I think, to consider that our modern world began with the French Revolution. The era is an episode within the Enlightenment, some of whose possibilities it realized and some of which it has forever precluded. Modernity has had a great deal in common with the Hellenistic Age of the Classical West and with the Warring States period in ancient China. It is a good bet that, like those epochs, it will last rather less than three centuries. Probably some watershed like 1789 lies in the 21st century, more likely in its second half than in its first. On the other side of it, history flows in another direction.

The future will look after its own nomenclature, but I for one find it hard to resist speculation about how the future will characterize our modernity. Even if we entertain the notion that there have been analogous periods in the past, still every such era must also be unique. "Warring States" would not be appropriate for the modern West, for instance, since the era has not been one of continual warfare, but of unusually long periods of tranquillity, punctuated by apocalyptic explosions. Herman Hesse made a better suggestion in "The Glass Bead Game," where modernity is seen from the future as the "Age of Feuilletons." That is just strange enough to happen.

Certainly the name would have to evoke the tendency toward analysis and reduction that has characterized the West these last two centuries. The great movements in intellectual life, from philosophy to economics, have been toward atomization, even as sovereign states multiplied in accordance with the principle that every little language must have its own country. The modern era is really the Age of Nominalism. As for its postmodern coda, these decades are simply the stage when nominalism achieved its natural culmination in solipsism, of language speaking itself.

This brings us to the age to come. There is ample precedent for naming undiscovered countries. "Brazil" and "Australia," for example, were appearing on maps before the territories were discovered to which those names finally stuck. ("Brazil" was a Celtic paradise, and "Australia" was the generic name for a southern continent.) In naming the future, it seems fitting to proceed with a little help from Hegel. Historical epochs really do tend to react against the excesses of their predecessors, though that is never all that they do. If the Age of Nominalism is the thesis, then any medievalist can tell you that the obvious antithesis will be an Age of Realism.

Maybe already we see the advancing shadows of a future that is more interested in synthesis than in analysis. These adumbrations take various forms, from the proposals for a "final theory" of physics to the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward world government. Perhaps we see a hint of the mind of the future in E. O. Wilson's ambitious, metaphysically naive, notion of "consilience," a universal structure of knowledge that would have a sociobiological backbone. More ambitious and not at all naive is the project outlined in John Paul II's "Fides et Ratio," which looks toward a harmonization of our understanding of all levels of reality, something not seen since the Thomistic synthesis. None of these projects is likely to have quite the results their proponents have in mind, but they may tell us something about the cultural climate of 2100.

 

End

 

An edited version of this piece appeared the symposium, "What Can We Reasonably Expect?" (First Things, January 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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