Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Savior

When Henry David Thoreau was a lad of seventeen, he walked down an empty road through a cow-dotted Massachusetts valley. The road forked. And as you might have expected, before each branch stood a woman.

The woman on the right was handsome, stern, dark-haired, and held a hoe in her hand. The other was just as beautiful, but with features mild as silk: her blue eyes and golden hair were crowned with a ring of roses. This one spoke first:

“My road,” she said, “leads downhill into a valley of eternal spring, where there’s a wood cabin for you staffed by nymphs and surrounded by winding gardens. You will never be hungry there, nor will you lack for music and literature. You might complain that there won’t be anything to your life once you’ve gone there. But go. You’ll be shocked at how quickly your superstitions against pleasure fade once you stop contorting your soul into righteousness. For my name is Vice, a name besmirched by narrow-minded Puritans who, unable to achieve real pleasure in their lives, enshrined renunciation and lived on its sickly-sweet exhaust fumes. Reject that narrowness, and live freely with me."

And now the second:

"My road is harsh and rocky and steep. You will forever toil in the ascent, nor can you expect any food and water except what you find buried in the dusty earth. Will you be rewarded? In one sense no: there is nothing here to delight the vulgar senses. But in another sense, there is nothing better for a soul than steady work, an abandoning of the trivial, and the sublimation of the desires to highest reason. Listen! That way is pleasure, but this way is Life."

Henry hesitated for a moment, looked both women in the eye, and then walked right off the road into the open meadow. He sang a tune to the cows as he went. When the road was far behind him, he laid down by a brook and fell asleep—still in his clothes—under a starry sky.

Moral. Ever since Hercules stood perplexed at the crossroads, his eyebrow-crinkling choice between virtue and vice has controlled our thinking for four thousand years. But there are more worlds than either Kant or Wilde could imagine; more meadows to explore than the ones carefully mown by the philosophers. More directly: be decent, and you can go wherever—and do whatever—you want. So have an adventure, but only if you wouldn't prefer sitting by the fire.

The original sin, which wasn't the choice, but the choosing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Lesson in the Lake: On Living and Not Living

The most frightening experience of my life, besides creeping through my bear-filled apartment at midnight to wake up my parents, was the first time I opened my eyes under a lake.

About six years ago, on a bright Maine morning in summer camp, I was swimming with a cohort of fellow fourteen-year-olds across the sunny lake, and having an excellent time. Ordinarily, my fear of open water keeps my eyes tightly shut whenever I duck my head under the surface. (I also keep to breaststroke, which involves plenty of exposure to the open air; plus it’s right-side up.)

This day, on the other hand, my impulsive curiosity got the better of me, and like Orpheus turning to see Eurydice, I stared directly downwards and forced my eyes open. Whereupon I, almost alone among mortals, was given a glimpse into the underworld.

There's nothing down there. Of course, a bass strolls by occasionally in the darkness, but the inhuman strangeness of fish only increases the feeling of isolation. And besides, overwhelmingly, the water is really empty. You can go down and down, and there’s just dark water all the way to the muddy bottom.

And what a lake really is is death—but not the grimly funny, hooded figure in the Seventh Seal. Nor is it the stern servant of God in Exodus. This is death as Solomon and Tolstoy saw it—not a thing, but the opposite of existence. When a person dies, the water insists, she descends into formless darkness, not into a land of happier human society. And the world of the living has its opposite, not in the fevered imaginings of mystics, but in the lakes and oceans that constantly lap our ankles. There are huge realms of emptiness that we can see by just looking down.

If you've never read this, by the way, read it right away.

Though it was harrowing, I'm glad I had my vision. That's because, as anyone who's ever outrun a charging hippo can attest, horror has a stimulating effect on our lives. If you spend your whole life living, it's easy to forget what it really means to live. Even a few seconds staring into Hades, on the other hand, is enough to make you realize what a strange and terrific thing it is to be alive. Too often we take the routines of our life for granted, and can be lulled into treating the patterns of human life that surround us as the real beams of the cosmos. Because we have breakfast at eight o'clock every day, breakfast starts seeming like something that just is in the world.

We fail to see the far more likely alternative to our life. The universe is filled with many worlds: above are billions of suns which, though they look like diamonds from afar, are really vast lakes of fire. Below are strange abysses filled with deep-sea anglerfish. Meanwhile, we grew out of darkness, and we're headed for the darkness of death.

In other words, it’s a wild stroke of luck that we can breathe and laugh and talk, and that comfort is within our grasp. Darkness should, after all, be the rule by all rights. A bus on a Sunday morning loaded with eighty year old women, Hungarian immigrants, and MP3’d teenagers is such a triumph of humanity, of lawful beauty, that it’s cause for tears of joy. It’s even an incredible fact that a concept as subtle and human as Sunday has real roots in the world.

So let’s live while we can, and not forget what not-living means.

There’s an old Jewish story that on the last day, God will drag the Leviathan from the deep and serve his flesh to the human race. It takes visiting the Leviathan’s kingdom to know what a delirious, happy vision this is. Life will triumph over the vastness of the sea, says the dream, and the world's end will be life and comfort, not bleak unhumanity. Look at that happiness, and try to tell yourself that you don't understand the impulse behind religion. Monotheism, for all their beauty, takes a stand against the seas.

Finally, take a look at this article on how deep-sea anglerfish mate. You'll never think of anglerfish the same way.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Defense of Distraction

I'm writing this in class. For a while I was paying attention to the professor, but my attention wandered and I suddenly had an idea for a blog post. Your forehead is probably crinkling in scorn. That's because you live by our society's monkish rule: thou shalt not lose focus.

I remember a conversation I had in 1999, when I was a first grader wearing purple sweatpants and chewing on the front of my shirt. I was squirmingly sitting one morning on the classroom rug when a girl came up to me. (That's a poetic invention: I actually don't remember whether she approached me or was already sitting next to me.) "I don't get it," she said. "How come you know so much stuff? You never pay attention in class." I was plunged into embarrassed silence for the next fourteen years.

From which I now emerge, because I've finally thought of an answer. Though, anonymous seven-year-old, you've spent more hours than me in quiet focus; though you've managed to hook your mind up to countless heavy plows, I've had more fun than you, and I'm none the worse for it.

I was born incapable of concentrating. It's the most obvious in class, in which only the rare teacher has been able to hold my attention for ten consecutive minutes. (At least, it used to be obvious—over twenty years, still embarrassed by that first-grade girl, I've perfected the art of pretending to be engaged while holding a private seminar in my head.) But it pervades my life: I can barely muster the mental strength to read a newspaper article to the end, and I can't go running unless I have an iPod or a friend to keep me interested. I once resolved to stay in Chicago for four years, and ended up joining a Latin-speaking colony in Rome.

On the other hand, a used bookstore will keep me
 rooted in place until I'm physically dragged out.

It's not that I find the world uninteresting: it's actually the opposite problem. The world is interesting, but it has a bad habit of offering lots of interesting things all at the same time. So I'm like the philosopher-donkey who, equidistant from two pails of water, couldn't decide between them and died of thirst. That's actually a bad analogy: I'm more like the philosopher-human who set off for the South Pole because he couldn't sit still in London drawing rooms any more, and then changed course in the Atlantic because he wanted to see the Amazon first.

It is, of course, annoying that I'm incapable of writing a paper efficiently. I also wish I could read a novel without forgetting to pay attention, or look up a word in a dictionary without reading every entry on the page. Or watch a play without lapsing into elaborate daydreams in the first act. 

But my tendency to wander also has advantages. Imagination is the biggest: I never, for example, have to sit bored in a white-walled synagogue, because in my mind’s eye I can always wander under the Southern Lights in Antarctica, tread the winding paths of Greek grammar, visit my grandparents in Connecticut, play Don Giovanni in my head with a full orchestra, or count off the sixteen counties of Maine from the top of Mount Katahdin.

It pays in even more ways to be distracted. Take conversations, for instance. There's nothing like a partner who's willing to abandon all decorum and run down every conversational side-road in sight. A friend and I once mapped out a conversation we had while wandering around Hyde Park for five hours. The result was a path that wound through modesty laws, math, and wonder at the universe, passing through countless spheres of human and unhuman existence. 

Now, before you lose interest, I want to urge you to agree with something: a lack of mental discipline is not a moral flaw. Insofar as it's a flaw at all, it's a practical flaw. Which is to say, there are a lot of parts of life that would be easier with a little more Sitzfleisch. It's sometimes useful to keep yourself from distraction when doing important things, like classwork and driving. But that's no reason to think that a soul is inherently better if it can do algebra and chop wood without stopping. It's better at precisely this: algebra and woodchopping. And if the world is just, we will never be held accountable for either one of those things. 

Consider this part of my dislike for virtue; that is, the rules that bind us to anything but being decent to each other. Written on the door of the computer lab I'm typing this up in is a frightening quote from Seneca: "Disgusting is the waste of time that happens by negligence." To that, I say: I think I'll look up the Martian moons on Wikipedia.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Mr. Nathan Goes to Rome

In a little less than a week, I'm hopping onto a plane to Rome. Once I'm there, I'm going to the Accademia Vivarium Novum, a tiny academy about five miles to the west of the city, where I'm going to be studying for the whole year. The academy is made up of only men. I'm not allowed to drink alcohol, wear bright colors, listen to non-classical music, or leave the academy if it's not Sunday morning. None of this is for religious reasons: it's a colony of secular humanists who do their best to cut themselves off from human life.

And here's the kicker: I'm not allowed to speak any language at the Academy except for Latin. As a concession to human frailty, it's sometimes okay to speak Ancient Greek. (If you doubt it, here's a video of the school's director giving a speech.)

Why am I going to such a bizarre place? Certainly not because I believe in the "Living Latin" movement. Latin, after all, is already spoken by a billion people all over the world—in Italy, France, Romania, Brazil, and Mexico, all of whose languages are vernacular dialects of Latin. Works of Latin literature, like Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and the Divine Comedy, are written and read by millions the world over.

All native Latin speakers.

And even if we ignore the fact that Latin has already spread across the world, it's strange that educated people should go out of their way to use a difficult, cumbersome means of expression. I don't buy the notion that Latin is somehow a purer vehicle of meaning than any other language: Mongolian, Nahuatl, and Pirahã are all just as good at saying a lion is eating my foot off or the virtuous life is the noblest or my hovercraft is full of eels. The claim that Latin is a better language than the rest is a superstition of the nineteenth century—and of some in the twentieth.

Nor am I going because I think the experience will "refine my soul" or anything as weird as that. No: it'll make me better at Latin or Greek, just like going to carpentry school would make me better at building cabinets. The real project of being a good and dignified human being has nothing to do with the skills that we do or don't cultivate. If anything, studying the classics will make me a marginally worse person—it will breed alienation from mainstream society, and make me less able to recognize what's good in it. It's a temptation that I'll have to avoid, just like Odysseus resisted the Sirens.

I'm going, in the end, because I think it'll be fun. Latin and Greek are fascinating languages in themselves, and there's almost nothing better than some of the stuff that's written in them. Do I really need an excuse for wanting to spend a year speaking them? It's like someone told me there's an enormous bowl of macoun apples waiting for me across the Atlantic, so I'm heading over to have some.

Now for some logistics: I don't know how much contact I'm going to have with the outside world. (In fact, I don't know that much beyond what I've already told you.) But there's a good chance I'll be able to respond to email. Also, if anyone is going to be in Rome on a Sunday this year, please let me know. I'm going to want to practice my English.

Is it odd that I expect to take so much pleasure from this? I'm told that some people like the taste of red deliciouses, which makes me just as puzzled as you are.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Steroids, Cavemen, and the Meaning of the Law

I wrote a post last week that tried to determine whether there should be a steroid ban in baseball. A friend of mine responded with this astute observation:
The thing is, steroids are banned now, and most of the debate is about how we should feel about those that do them anyway. Are they irredeemable cheaters who have tarnished the integrity of the game, or are they just people who broke rules who should be punished within the rules without all the moral outrage?
This question pricks the beating heart of one of the fiercest debates in history. Ever since Grorg was fed to a cave lion for bedding Thurg's wife, humans have been wracked with doubt about the meaning of laws and punishment. In general, there are two caves of thought.

Some hold that we have a moral obligation to follow the law as such. As citizens of a community, we're not just expected to act ethically. We also have an extra obligation to follow the laws—not necessarily because they represent justice, but because they're the laws, plain and simple. After all, when I joined the community—or when I grew up in it and didn't leave—I tacitly promised to obey all its rules. If I break any of the laws, therefore, I'm breaking my promise. The only way I can justify breaking the law is if I'm willing to call it unjust, openly violate it, and then walk into jail. 

This school of thought goes back to the Crito and the Hebrew Bible, and it's attracted thinkers like St. Thomas, Martin Luther King, and John Locke. ("I'm totally fine with what Edward Snowden did, a friend of mine recently told me, "but why the hell didn't he turn himself in for it?")

The second camp—to which Grorg surely belonged—takes a different view: the so-called realist theory of law. The laws, according to the realists, are nothing but tools that a community has at its disposal to enforce its moral convictions and keep itself safe. If a set of cavemen frowns on murder or sodomy, it criminalizes them. The law, though, is really just a tool: it shouldn't be worshipped any more than a hammer. (Realists might, of course, worship the moral end to which we put the law, just like a pagan will worship the idol he makes with the hammer.)

Moreover, say the realists, the laws are only worth following if we don't think we'll be punished for breaking them. It might still be in my interest to follow them even if I don't agree with them: if I remarry without getting a court divorce, for instance, I'll be prosecuted for bigamy. But if there's no enforcement, there's no obligation (besides a separate, non-legal moral obligation.) If there's no enforcement, in fact, it's as if there's no law at all.

When the laws are being made, by the way, the realist will do her best to have them express her moral preferences. She wants the full power of the state to protect her values. But once they're made, the laws don't determine her moral compass—all they do is influence her decisions.

This understanding of the law is just as ancient as the first, but it waited for a proud expression until Oliver Wendell Holmes's Path of the Law in 1897. There, Holmes made a point that shocked his audience at Boston College: the law is a reflection of a communities' mores, but it is not moral in itself. It must be framed, Holmes said, with "bad men" in mind: men, in other words, who only care about punishment and reward, not lawfulness for its own sake. This passage from Holme's essay is realism in a nutshell, and worth reading in full:
I think it desirable at once to point out and dispel a confusion between morality and law, which sometimes rises to the height of conscious theory, and more often and indeed constantly is making trouble in detail without reaching the point of consciousness. You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. 
This caveat, though, must be kept in mind:
I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men.
Though I'm sympathetic to both ways of thinking (Apollo has turned me into a fox!), I lean towards the realist camp. It's easy, after all, to be enthusiastic about the laws when you're surrounded by a cityful of turnstile-jumpers and pickpockets. So much so, in fact, that you might start attaching moral weight to the laws in themselves—we need an orderly society, after all! But there are two experiences that can cure you of that impulse.

The first is to leave civilization. From the top of Mount Katahdin, the only law that holds is the law of beauty, the sun, and chipmunks—the cosmic significance of city ordinances will weaken in your wondering eyes.

The second is to reflect on your own behavior. Chances are, you've had an underage beer, driven over the speed limit, or broken into buildings in college. Can you really say that you follow the laws on principle? Or does your moral compass turn without the statute-book's magnetic pull?

Maybe you've even snuck into Canada with half a dozen
foreign children in tow. Completely hypothetical.

Back to steroids, though, and my friend's question: how wrong was it for A-Rod to take steroids? Pretty damn wrong, I'd say, because he cheated. Do I contradict myself? Sort of: when it comes to sports, my opinion is completely opposite to my attitude to the law. I don't have any moral preferences when it comes to the structure of a game: the rules are just the rules, after all. They have no ulterior purpose. On the other hand, I put great value on fair play and good sportsmanship. My moral feeling therefore goes hand in hand with a person's willingness to follow the rules of the game. So someone who breaks the rules is a scoundrel, plain and simple.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Epicureanism and Us

Well over two thousand years ago, a man in Southern Europe came up with an attitude to life that shook his word to the core. It was then buried, with very good reason, for millennia.

The man was Epicurus, an Athenian living in the 3rd Century B.C. Epicurus' teaching was simple. It starts with two observations about the world:

  • In the first place, everything is made of tiny atoms. Is there an essence of a tree? No—just a collection of atoms that human beings call "tree" for their convenience. The gods might exist, but they, too, are made of atoms, and in any case they don't need to be around to run the show.
  • It follows that our souls are nothing more than the moving patterns produced by twirling particles. There is therefore no life after death. Once the atoms that make us up go their separate ways, that's it. No eternal bliss and no hellish torture.

What does this mean? Epicurus would reject that question. That the world is made of atoms doesn't mean anything; it's just true. But given the physical facts, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can, given how lucky we were to be born at all.

So, with no fear of punishment, should we live our lives like Don Juan; drinking alcohol, sleeping around, and ferociously mocking justice? Well, said Epicurus, living like that probably won't make us happy. We might be plagued by a guilty conscience, for instance. The true pleasure in life also doesn't come from wild Bacchanals—it comes from treating other people well and enjoying deep friendships. That kind of pleasure is steady, strong, and lasts a lifetime. To that end, Epicurus was the most self-controlled and righteous man of his day.

The doctrine caught on like wildfire: thousands of people found themselves suddenly liberated from the terrifying threats of their ancient religions by a philosophy that promised them relaxed happiness. By the time of Jesus' birth, Epicureanism was the most popular philosophy in the Mediterranean, and growing fast. Never have so many human beings openly embraced pleasure, denied the gods, and had such a good time doing it.

Epicurus bust2.jpg
A rare uncheerful moment for Epicurus.
Jew and early Christians, on the other hand, despised the doctrine. Imagine you're an early Christian who thinks that we're miserable because of our sins, and that because God loves us so much, he sent his only son to rescue us. Epicureanism knocks the legs off your entire worldview, in a far more insidious way than mere paganism. For Epicureanism doesn't just deny Christ: it denies sin, and thus the very need for salvation that Christianity is built on. It's only natural that you'd rather swat the Epicurean fly than risk its soul-destroying bite.

Monotheists therefore quashed Epicureanism as soon as they took the reins of the Western world, saddling it with slander that it's borne ever since. In Judaism, the traditional term for an evil heretic is an epikoros. And Christians succeeded in making us picture the Epicureans as slobbering, lustful aesthetes. (The OED defines Epicurean as "Devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.")

Despite a brief revival in the 18th century and another in the 19th, it's been mostly gone ever since. Pleasure is something that's always guilty - an impermissible departure from virtuous religion, simple decency, decent simplicity, or the iron cage of capitalism.

And that's the history of an unfairly treated worldview. Is it a worldview we can accept?

This is really two questions in one. First is whether we agree with Epicurus' scientific claims. The answer to this is pretty clear: we can't take Epicurus' physics that seriously, at least not at face value. The cosmos obviously look nothing like he imagined, and it's pretty clear he was just guessing when he pontificated about atoms. Nevertheless, his basic assessment of reality still holds water: the world is made of drifting particles, and our lives are made of elaborate combinations of those particles.

More controversial is how we should face that fact. Epicurus said: we happen to be alive, so let's enjoy ourselves. After all, if nothing will live after our deaths, what's the point in pursuing any goal besides our own enjoyment?

I don't think we should rush to that conclusion so quickly, in part because it isn't a logical conclusion at all. Part of the beauty of Epicurus' science is that it leaves the question of values marvelously open. We can pursue pleasure or some other good. We can order our lives in whatever shape we choose. Sure, pleasure is easy and tempting to endorse, especially since we don't have an instruction manual telling us what other values are worth endorsing. But that's where experimentation comes in: if we want to figure out what's good and evil, we should live our lives until we find out.

So here's my verdict: though Epicurus' insistence on enjoyment is a necessary correction to centuries of masochistic repression, it's a pretty narrow-minded response to the enigma of the world. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Dopey Debate over Steroids

There's a firestorm raging now over an incredibly boring topic: is it okay for athletes to use steroids? Strangely, this question seems to be much more hotly debated by loafer-clad academics than anyone who really cares about sports. But that aside, these are the two camps:

1) Sports are a great opportunity to test the limits of the human body. And how will we know those limits if we don't supplement our bodies with performance-enhancing drugs? Besides, they'd go along with the "natural" enhancers we already have, like weightlifting and protein shakes.

2) As Aristotle said, the human body was only meant to work within certain limits. If we tamper with those limits, we—like Eve or Prometheus—aspire to be something that we're not. That's an offense against nature and something we should steer clear of.

Both of these positions are off the mark.

Doping, in the first place, is currently against the rules of most sports. If I use steroids, I'm breaking the rules of baseball or curling, and the league has every right to punish me—or collect my urine to find out if I am. Using steroids is no different from corking a bat, and Aristotle aside, that's just cheating. Ecch.

Ecch on both counts.
The question at hand, though, is: should there be an anti-doping rule? And to that I say: who cares? The rules of baseball are what they are, and the only reason they're not otherwise is that they're not. Should a basketball hoop be 9.57 feet tall instead of 10? I don't see why not, though I don't see a reason to change the rule, either.

It's the same with steroids: the rules of baseball could be easily adapted to suit either modified or unmodified human bodies. Baseball has a rule against doping just like it has a rule against balking, even though it could very easily allow either one.

So if the IOC is made up of Aristoteleans who only like natural, pesticide-free athletes, they should go ahead and ban steroids. And if they don't care, they should do whatever they want. It's on the players, though, to respect whatever the rule ends up being.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Fun, Interesting, and Useless Liberal Arts

President Roosevelt once paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes on the judge's ninety-second birthday. Entering his library, Roosevelt found the ancient Holmes reading Plato's Republic. "Why are you reading that?" he asked. Holmes replied: "To improve my mind, Mr. President."

In our fondness for Justice Holmes, it's easy to miss the stupidity of this answer. What did Holmes need to improve his mind for? He was ninety-two! Unless Holmes agreed with Plato about immortality (he didn't), he was either lying or being foolish.

This brings up an interesting point, though: what is the point of Plato and the liberal arts? There are more arguments in their favor than there are words in this post, and all of them are wrong.

The liberal arts teach you how to think and write.” Meh. The students who excel are the ones who already know how.

Literature, art, and philosophy make us better people.” Wrong! The Nazis were erudite murderers.

"Books are valuable for their own sake." I have no idea what that means. I'm starting to think it's just nonsense.

The liberal arts give you the key to our civilization.” Maybe the civilization of 1876. Today, it’s only okay to talk about Socrates at the University of Chicago—anywhere else, you’ll be carefully avoided.
"Cultivating the intellect lets us apprehend God and speak prophecies."
Why, then, do I study the liberal arts? Not because I want to prepare myself for the working world. (If I really wanted to do that, I would be learning economics and spending my summers in New York instead of Maine.) Nor to improve my cocktail-party schmoozing—I already know enough trivia for that. And least of all because I want to "improve my mind"—I'll forget most of my education soon, and anyway I'll be dead one day. So why make improvement my goal

No: I study it because I like it, and there’s nothing more to it. I study it because I like Plato and Thoreau and Calvin, and because I love Wittgenstein and Milton and Tolstoy. Those people make my life fun and interesting. They teach me new ways of thinking about life and death, and they give me a hint of beauty beyond the mundane world. They also save me from spending my time dripping millimeters out of a pipette or doing regressions to test the effect of SAT prep.

(Meanwhile, a happy accident makes me grateful and bewildered: my society deems it worthwhile to let me sit down with a book for four years, and end up with decent job prospects in the end.)

So that's the bottom line: it's fun to read good books. I suspect that Holmes really thought so, too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Seventh Day

Written beside the St. Croix River on July 28th, 2013.

And God said: let us make man in our own image. He will know good and evil, and he will know the godliness of beauty.

And let him see lights above him that wheel across the sky: a billion stars and a virgin moon that mocks the earth. Let him see Katahdin and Chesuncook, each terrifying in its bigness and holy unto something unknown. Let him read the thundering Bible and the sweet Symposium. Let him hear angel-song in the mouths of elven tenors. And let him sense the white leviathans that stir in the deep, forever half-hidden from him.

Let man behold all this, but let him be cut off from it. Let him be mired in pettiness and sick with earthly life. Let him sneeze and be restless and squabble with strangers at the airport. He may see the angels of heaven in his fevered visions—but he may not struggle with a single one.

And there was evening and there was morning—a sixth day. And God repented of the curse that he had laid on man. And God said:

Let him also have peace.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Down with Growth

“Cancer will help you grow as a person.” “Paddling on the Allagash River made me stronger in all kinds of ways.” “God wants us to be constantly making ourselves better.”

It’s settled nowadays that if there’s one thing worth valuing in our lives, it’s constant self-improvement. It’s not that great to be born into riches and take over the family business; it’s wonderful to start from nothing and become the richest car-seat salesman in the country. There’s little point in being an excellent pianist—there’s tremendous point in practicing every day to get better at Für Elise.

I’m working as a camp counselor now (the cause of this blog’s fallowness), and I’m surrounded by this ethos. The boys, after all, are in a stage of their lives when everything is moving in a straight line. As Adam gets older, he gets better at sailing. His conversations get more intellectual. His face grows a beard, his voice gets deeper, and he commands more respect. To Adam and his excitable counselors, it seems like human life is all about growing up and improving himself. That’s where the secret to happiness is.

But it’s just not true. The world is full of growth, but also full of decay. People are born and grow for the first twenty years, and get stronger and smarter. But then they start to decay: by fifty we can’t run as fast, by sixty we can’t think as fast, and soon we die and all the growth that we’ve accumulated gets buried in the grave. If we invent a narrative for our lives that requires us to constantly accumulate good character, professional accomplishments, and material goods, we’re not setting ourselves up to be happy.

File:Bench press.gif
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.
We would do well, then, to find ways of being happy that don’t involve polishing ourselves ceaselessly until it’s time to apply more polish. We must be happy both when we’re getting weaker and when we’re getting stronger. Even more importantly, we should focus on doing right by other people without worrying about what it means for our own “ethical development.”

A side-note while I’m talking about morality: Judaism has an annual Day of Atonement, a day that is filled with scripted confessions of sin. When I was growing up, I would finish the prayerbook on that day and be puzzled: if I’ve just finished repenting, why is it assumed that I’m going to need the same book next year? Isn’t it assumed that I’ve grown out of sinning now? But the rabbis who wrote the book were wiser than I was. Flesh is weak, and no one is really strong enough to improve himself to the expected level. It’s good enough, then, to sin and atone with the full consciousness that we’ll sin again despite our best efforts.

Back to the main point. Am I saying that I don’t like growth? Not at all. It’s a pleasure to watch children grow up, just like it’s fun to go to the gym every day and get steadily stronger. But I do want to help remove it from its place of culture-wide adoration. Growth is a pleasing part of human life—but it shouldn’t be our idol. After all, if it becomes our god, we will be deeply frustrated when we are denied it in the end. (Death, it seems, is always good at destroying idols.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

My Moral Theory: Ethics in the Imperative

Moral philosophers like to complain that you can't get an imperative demand out of only descriptive statements. That's true. So here's my solution: just like in the old days, stop pretending that it's an empirical question, and start with the imperative.


Don’t skin another human being.
Be as helpful as you can—to friends first, but also to strangers.
Don’t feel contempt for your family.
Don’t steal a subway ride.
Remember that doing the right thing has nothing to do with how you feel that day.

Don’t make people feel small, stupid, or left out. 
Don't uneasily tell someone you don't need any help if all you want to do is exclude them.
If you're standing and talking in a circle, step aside to make room for a newcomer.

Don't worship idols, whether money, beauty, or—most seductive of all—intelligence.

Be kind and not infantilizing to the old.
Praise other people behind their backs.
Prefer being kind to being right.
Support immigration reform. If you don't yet, then talk to an undocumented immigrant until you change your mind.

Visit sick people and mourners, even if you don't know what to say.
Give a tenth of your income to charity.
Don't slyly make an argument that is perfectly logical but which you know to be immoral.
Question your own motives, and trust other people's.
Cultivate earnestness over cynicism, and friendliness over eccentricity and prestige.

Does this bore you? Does this not have enough metaphysical support? Then I distrust you, and I hope you change your mind.

Is this too much to ask? Of course it is, for me as much as anyone else. That doesn't mean it can't be our ideal.

Does this seem too obvious to you? If only that were the problem!

Nathan didn't do any moral theorizing.
And David didn't need to be a philosopher to understand him perfectly

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Judaism and the Death of Feeling

This is my submission to the latest issue of Makom, the journal on Jewish studies that I'm the academic editor for. Read the full issue here.

Jewish belief used to be compatible with a scientific worldview. In the days when it was still possible to believe in physical resurrection, in man’s instantaneous creation, and in the historicity of the Exodus, it made sense to call Judaism a rationalist religion. Faith in the Bible needed no cognitive effort: no elaborate metaphors, no furious attempts to reduce it to merely “moral truth.” God really split the sea.

That is no longer true. If we take history seriously, we will conclude that the Exodus probably didn’t happen. If we take biology seriously, we will conclude that man came from pikaia and apes, not a special act of creation. The religion that can survive in the world must be able to survive the onslaught of empirical science taken to its logical conclusion.

For that reason, if Judaism is to live, it cannot maintain scientific dogma like it used to. Modern Jews can no longer believe that the Exodus really happened; nor can they believe that God interrupted history to tell his people not to eat pigs. Judaism must therefore be understood not as a set of dogmas that contradict science; but as a relationship between man and the world. A Jew can have a vivid experience of God without forcing himself to believe doctrines that he doesn’t hold.

But this raises two problems. First, if Judaism is a matter of inner devotion, of individual orientation in the world, where is there room for communal experience? How can I share my attitude to God with other people if dogma is eliminated? Second, if religion is purely transcendental—if there is no such thing as a miracle—where is there room for an experience of God? Man does not live by abstraction alone.

Aesthetic experiences can solve both problems. A congregation united in song does not necessarily subscribe to any common dogma. It does, though, adopt a common attitude to the sacred, transcendent God. The raising of the sefer torah in a synagogue doesn’t ask for any belief, but for common reverence.

The Catholics have understood this for millenia: the solemn mass is a sublime communal union in a devotional attitude to God. Perhaps, as the historians say, Christ never rose from the dead. Even so, the congregation shares tremendous joy in its salvation from sin and its love for God.

The Jews, though, do not understand it. Walk into an Orthodox synagogue today, and you will likely find a grim scene. Tired men sway mechanically, mumbling under their breath. The man leading prayers trips over his tongue in his rush to finish the service in under half an hour (it would be awful if any longer, anyway). The few women in the room, penned in on the side, bury their heads in their books, their silently moving lips the only activity on their expressionless faces.

The situation in most Reform and Conservative synagogues is little better—the aesthetic poverty is almost as acute, but this time it is accompanied by congregational indifference. Most liberal Jews I know attend services only on the “High Holidays”, and even then they find the service boring, puerile, and long.
Guess which religion has more adherents.

The synagogue where I grew up is an exception. The Sabbath service takes place in a vast, august sanctuary. Flickering candles ring the scarlet tebah, and a choir chants magnificently from the loft. The sanctuary is just that—a sanctuary from the world, where a Jew can feel peace in the presence of God. (None of this, by the way, is an innovation: the congregation was founded in the time of Oliver Cromwell, and it hews strictly to traditional observance.) If Judaism is to respond to the problem of modernity, it must embrace this this kind of experience.

How is this to be done? Here is what I propose:

  • We should regularly sing the psalms. We should revive the Spanish piyyutim. More than that—we should write new religious poetry. 
  • Synagogue sanctuaries should be silent, beautiful, and dimly lit. 
  • We should write sublime religious music—and failing that, we should set our texts to melodies from the Western, Islamic, and Russian classical traditions. Reform and Conservative congregations that use instruments on Shabbat should move beyond the guitar.
  • Optional: Rabbis should wear ceremonial clothing, like most Christian and Muslim clergy. Not optional: Rabbis should speak to our souls, not just our intellects.

At the end of Monday-morning prayer, the shaliach tzibbur murmurs the opening verses of the Aleinu, and the congregation follows suit by rote, quickly lapsing into silence. “Hu elokeinu ein od, emes malkeinu efes zulato,” the tired, bearded men mumble under their breath.

But at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the choir exclaims:

Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.

                                                 Bow down, ye millions!
                                                 Do you sense your creator, O world?
                                                 Search for him above the starry vault:
                                                 Over the stars he must dwell.
Then a man can believe.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why Was Wagner Evil? A Lesson in Beauty and Morality

Yesterday was Richard Wagner’s two hundredth birthday, which prompted a mandatory debate in my dorm over whether the “man can be separated from the music.” (Wagner was a festering anti-Semite, and he himself claimed that his music was inseparable from the anti-Jewish principles undergirding it.) Can he? I’m going to completely ignore that question, because, in the end, we can do whatever we want. Wagner’s music is only inherently anti-Semitic if we want it to be.

But the fact that so many people take the question seriously is telling: to a lot of people, it’s upsetting that Wagner’s music is so beautiful. (Allegedly. I think it’s tuneless and boring.) It seems like we need some way of reconciling the transcendent beauty of the music with the evil of Wagner’s philosophy.

But we don’t, not at all. Goodness in music and goodness in morality are utterly different things. We are flawed human beings, and liable to associate the two. But we are also moral human beings, and that means that we're capable of distinguishing them.

The Greeks were seduced: they believed that beauty was inseparable from virtue, piety, and wisdom. Apollo’s godly beauty bubbled from the same source as his godly righteousness. It wasn't just the Greeks, though: as human beings, we're incredibly tempted to glorify beauty and call it virtue—especially transcendent beauty. At times, I confess, I have a hard time understanding how anyone who listened to Mozart could commit evil. Evil is vile, and Mozart is purer than anything!

 But I think we would do well to reject that worldview. Beauty is full of delight, and it can even “elevate the soul”—but it has nothing to do with goodness or justice. We’re obliged to recognize justice even if it’s not resplendent. Likewise, we must call out evil when it disguises itself in fine clothing, which it does often. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.

Music indeed elevates the soul—but it can elevate it in any direction that it wants. Wagner used it to instill deep affection for pagan, German virtues. The Aztecs beat their drums to turn mass murder into a thrilling, sublime work of art. The sirens sang lovingly to lure their prey to destruction.

Odysseus had the same problem as us.
Now, because music is so stirring, it's to our tremendous advantage if we use it well. I'm all for putting beautiful music into the service of moral goodness. That’s why I think that religions should learn from the Catholics and hold services with ethereal chanting, flickering candles, and soaring choral music.  (Hint: if atheists want to attract more human beings, they should do something similar.) The Civil Rights Movement did very well with its stirring music. But the Nazis sang moving songs too, and anyone who thinks that Nazi music is inherently ugly and grandiose is pretending. And in Casablanca, the French soldiers aren't justified just because they sing with more feeling than the Germans. So it’s fine to be deeply moved by We Shall Overcome, but we shouldn’t think for a moment that the justice of the Civil Rights Movement had anything to do with our tingling spines.

With that, here's some good music.