Wednesday, March 11, 2015

This Narrow Earthly Life

Goethe’s Faust is a dangerous thing to read if you have the faintest spark of youth in you. It’s responsible for more floods of hot blood in me than anything except the sublimest of Mozart’s operas. Here is my translation of part of my favorite scene: Mephistopheles has offered Faust all the delights of life. But it’s life itself that Faust wants relief from. 

*     *     *

I will suggest to you, in short,
that you put on these noble clothes of mine.
With them, untied and free to roam,
you’ll see just what this life can be.

No matter what I wear I’ll be in anguish,
hemmed in by this narrow earthly life.
I am too old to play its stupid games;
too young for freedom from my longing thirst.
What will the world allow to me?
Hold back! hold back! you must hold back!
That is the never-ceasing song
that tinkles in the whole world’s ears,
a song that hums our whole life long;
the hoarse refrain of every sunlit hour.
I wake up every morning filled with dread,
ready to pour out bitter tears,
for I must see another day, whose course
won’t slake a single wish of mine—not one
a day that chokes the subtlest throb of joy
with all its cautionary scruples;
frittering the lyric heat that stirs my breast
with countless little cares of life.
But when the night sinks down onto the earth,
I lie stretched out in fear upon my bed;
and even then I do not rest,
for wild dreams appall me in my sleep.
The god who lives within my breast
can deeply stir my soul down to its roots.
But when it comes to earthly strength,
he cannot move a single outward thing!
And thus my very being is a weight;
I wish for death, and I despise my life.

But even so death never is a welcome guest.

Und rathe nun dir, kurz und gut,
Dergleichen gleichfalls anzulegen;
Damit du, losgebunden, frey,
Erfahrest was das Leben sey.

In jedem Kleide werd’ ich wohl die Pein
Des engen Erdelebens fühlen.
Ich bin zu alt, um nur zu spielen,
Zu jung, um ohne Wunsch zu seyn.
Was kann die Welt mir wohl gewähren?
Entbehren sollst du! sollst entbehren!
Das ist der ewige Gesang,
Der jedem an die Ohren klingt,
Den, unser ganzes Leben lang,
Uns heiser jede Stunde singt.
Nur mit Entsetzen wach’ ich Morgens auf,
Ich möchte bittre Thränen weinen,
Den Tag zu sehn, der mir in seinem Lauf
Nicht Einen Wunsch erfüllen wird, nicht Einen,
Der selbst die Ahndung jeder Lust
Mit eigensinnigem Krittel mindert,
Die Schöpfung meiner regen Brust
Mit tausend Lebensfratzen hindert.
Auch muß ich, wenn die Nacht sich niedersenkt,
Mich ängstlich auf das Lager strecken,
Auch da wird keine Rast geschenkt,
Mich werden wilde Träume schrecken.
Der Gott, der mir im Busen wohnt,
Kann tief mein Innerstes erregen,
Der über allen meinen Kräften thront,
Er kann nach außen nichts bewegen;
Und so ist mir das Daseyn eine Last,
Der Tod erwünscht, das Leben mir verhaßt.

Und doch ist nie der Tod ein ganz willkommner Gast.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Chimera of “Moral Facts”

I want to make a comment on Justin McBrayer’s recent article, which was printed in the New York Times last week. “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” was posted on the Stone, the Times’s philosophy blog, which often prints articles that are so confused that they’re not worth rebutting. But this one was different for two reasons. First, it was tremendously popular, earning about five times the usual number of comments and getting shared a dozen times on my newsfeed. Second, it was not just wrong but revealingly wrong. 

McBrayer starts by complaining that the Common Core does not properly teach children to distinguish between fact and opinion. A fact, the new curriculum says, is something that can be proved with evidence. An opinion is just a feeling. So it’s a fact that the Aztecs sacrificed tens of thousands of human beings. But if you say it was evil, you’re just speculating.

Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.
McBrayer is uncomfortable with that, extremely understandably. In his opinion, it teaches children that anything not scientifically provable is up for grabs. And as soon as we divide the world into is-es and oughts, the oughts are liable to wither in the hot sun of relativism. If our moral principles can’t be proved, there’s no basis on which we can defend them except that they please our fickle instincts.

But you can prove an ought, says McBrayer. There are moral facts. You can demonstrate that it’s wrong to cheat on a test, that it’s wrong to lie about your homework, and that it’s wrong to make fun of the way Alexander talks. Moral precepts are empirical by the ancient meaning of the word: they can be put to the test. And because they are reasonable, they will come out unscorched. As McBrayer puts is, “The hard work lies ... in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do.”

We usually say that this kind of moral empiricism is characteristic of the Enlightenment. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the light of reason burst through the dusky firmament, and the old religious superstitions of the past were burned away. Human beings could think for themselves, and could learn to distinguish right from wrong by careful argumentation. Thus, the battle between divine right and consent of the governed was waged in reams of paper, and every moral and political question from slavery to free speech was disputed in the pamphlets. Even Kant, who denied reason the power to show the existence of atoms or God, insisted on the power of pure reason to discover the universal precepts that ought to control our behavior. 

But humanity’s search for moral facts is older. Most famously, within the Catholic tradition, it has long been held that since God rules the cosmos according to reasonable principles, we can, as reasoning beings, discover the natural rules of human conduct. If we are saved by grace the scales will fall from our eyes completely, but even pagans and Jews are deemed capable of seeing the way to good conduct. St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century founder of modern systematic theology, was therefore able to sort out the dictates of a natural law with beautiful syllogisms. Now, if we feel compelled to go earlier, we can find similar language in Maimonides and the other Arabs. We can even head all the way back to the sunny Athenian agora.

Moral empiricism has had a long afterlife, too. At the University of Chicago, President Hutchins was famous for standing up for the virtues of democracy in the face of fascism—and claiming moreover that democracy was empirically justified as a sure means to human virtue and happiness. (Pitch: everyone should read this book. It’s about this question, and it’s the best intellectual history I’ve ever read.) More recently, most of the modern rationalists have adopted utilitarianism as the empirically verifiable basis of the correct human ethics. We can’t prove the existence, they say, of any essential rights or duties: that’s a category error. We can prove the existence of desires, and that’s enough for us to derive an entire system of ethics. For if human beings take pleasure in the fruits of benevolence and are hurt by selfishness, then it’s reasonable for them to support—rhetorically and otherwise—a society in which malicious action is strongly discouraged. This consequentialism is scientific and provable; everything else is just a ghostly superstition.

This kind of argument—from Plato to Eliezer Yudkowsky—is fired by a deep worry, similar to the longing for religious certainty that consumed Europe in the sixteenth century. It is revealed here: 
Consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?
In a world in which empiricism is king, we’re afraid that any convictions that we have that aren’t based on facts will founder. So we look for those facts, and if we don’t find them, we say that we’ve been only temporarily thwarted in our search. Because science must come down on our side and not Abubakar Shakau’s. And even if we don’t have it all right, we want to be able to say that the demons in Treblinka had it wrong.

When I was in high school, I was consumed by this anxiety. I participated in a videotaped debate (thankfully lost to the sands of time) in which I argued with evangelical passion against the resolution that moral relativism is correct. On another occasion, I got locked in a titanic duel in class, which ended with my red-faced teacher declaring that “moral relativism is the foundation of the Ethical Culture School,” and with me sputtering that she was throwing away centuries of wisdom with a smirk. I wanted to know that it was wrong to steal, that I should sacrifice myself for other people, that I should live for my soul and not my belly. These facts were written into the cosmos.

But now I reject all of this. I reject moral facts. I do not do so by denying their existence, for that would mean falling into the same trap as the empiricists. (It’s not, in other words, as if moral facts could exist, but don’t.) I do so by throwing out altogether the question of whether there are or are not moral facts. 

Because the fact is, the world is just a piece of rock, and the stars just bags of hydrogen. The time is long past when we were so confident in our values that the trees and rivers seemed to assent to them. David Hume was the first to say this, with his is-ought distinction. And Wittgenstein followed him, saying that ethics are things we do, not things that we can establish.

So I am unsure precisely what McBrayer means when he says that we must weigh all the empirical evidence to find the moral facts. Where would you tell a grade schooler, wondering why cheating is wrong, to look? The Bible? A history textbook? The woods? But what if she thinks that all of our empirical evidence is irrelevant? I once sat down with a young camper of mine who’d just hit his friend in a moment of wrath. I asked him why he’d done it, and then I told him that uncontrolled anger didn’t suit the person he wanted to be. “But it’s exactly who I want to be,” he replied. “I’ve tried being virtuous before [I’m quoting verbatim], and it didn’t make me any happier. So why should I bother?” I lapsed into frustrated silence.

Here’s the problem: wherever our morals come from, they don’t come from the phenomenal world. I can bring up all the evidence in the world, and whether I’m talking to my camper or Achilles, I won’t be able to change any minds. Whatever is empirical can always be deemed irrelevant. 

And yet: we can still be moral people without either talking about “facts” or succumbing to relativism. For just as the facts don’t command us to be good people, they also don’t command us to leave off the whole business of morality altogether. Our convictions can still stand. All I mean to say is that they won’t be determined by phenomena over which we have no control. 

I think it’s better that way. For what if we put our hatred of stealing to the test and—it fails! We have nothing to stand on then. Better, then, that we declare independence from the world when we take a moral stand. This is stated explicitly in the gospel of John: the events that occur in the world can tell us nothing whatsoever about whether we are in the right. Only God can tell us that, for earthly life is just a dream of shadow. 

Morality, then, is like a set of eyeglasses. It is not predetermined by any phenomena in the world, but it does let us see those phenomena in a wholly new light. Tolstoy saw this clearly: His novels and stories are filled with characters who, inspired by goodwill, suddenly see the world with new eyes. Levin almost commits suicide upon deciding that the life is a stupid game, but sees it as something else entirely when he decides to sustain himself on loving other people. Ivan Ilyich, after a boring career and an unbearably painful illness, sees death disappear in the last moments of his life when he takes pity on his miserable family.

Neither of these characters discovers anything new about the world. But the world itself changes its color when there’s a sudden shift in their values. I think that these differences in sight, not any empirical judgment, are what separate us from Boko Haram; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the Nazis who killed him. I have had more empirical disputes with my best friends than with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who might very well be a man of great learning.

And when it comes to moral instruction, I think we can do much better than telling our children that there are ethical facts for them to discover. We can insist to them that they see the world properly. Thus, when David killed Uriah to take his wife Bathsheba, my namesake went to his court and told him this story: 
“There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he [did not] take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” 
And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 
And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”
That’s how you impart a lesson. It was no ordinary man, but a prophet who went up to Jerusalem, to insist on a moral principle that was eternal. He did not show anything to the king. Instead, he reminded David of what he’d known all along: that a man lives for God and not for himself; that pity is an essential part of our lives. One need not be religious to see the point in this. Even if we are godless, we can still see the world through our values, and our imperturbable convictions can have their expression in our lives.

So when we teach children, let’s give them moral teachings, not moral facts. I suspect, though, that this is beyond the power of the Common Core.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Revolt against the Modern World

On a Sunday night in January, I rode through Queens to La Guardia Airport, looking out the car window at the skyline of Manhattan. I’ve looked at its huge buildings lit up at night for twenty-one years, but it struck me then that I’d never seen anything so monstrous, so immensely ugly, so impersonal and uninhabitable. I live in New York, and there’s usually nowhere that feels more like home to me. But on the highway, looking at my home city, I felt like a wanderer on the earth.

With that on my mind, I got on a Boeing 737, and wedged between two unsmiling strangers, flew to Chicago—another cyclopean city—where some more rivers of traffic roared under an orange sky.

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain,
and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.

As I ate breakfast the next Monday, I read a bizarre article in the New York Times. George Monbiot, a left-wing environmental activist, had written a pointed attack on the narrowness of industrialized life:
We arose in a thrilling, terrible world. The African savannas on which the first hominids evolved were dominated by saber-toothed and false saber-toothed cats, giant hyenas and bear dogs. When human beings arrived in the Americas, 14,000 years ago, they found ground sloths the weight of elephants; a beaver eight feet from nose to tail; armadillos like small cars; giant lions and sabertooths; short-faced bears whose shocking armory of teeth and claws suggests they drove giant lions and saber-tooths off their prey. A bird in Argentina had a wingspan of 26 feet. Fanged salmon nine feet long migrated inland from the Pacific coast.
We carry with us the psychological equipment, rich in instinct and emotion, required to navigate that world. But our survival in the modern economy requires the use of few of the mental and physical capacities we possess. Sometimes it feels like a small and shuffling life. Our humdrum, humiliating lives leave us, I believe, ecologically bored. At times this sensation has overwhelmed me.
This article touched a nerve, but I haven’t been able to explain just why until now. Its basic point, which I’ve decided I agree with, is this:

Life in a city is lonely. We’re surrounded by human beings, but they’re all strangers. Especially in a metropolis like New York, there’s very little human warmth to be had on a walk down a busy street: no knowing winks, no nods of greeting, no enemies or friends. There’s a shortage of “third places”—neutral gathering spots where we can count on meeting our friends and family for warm, unplanned conversations. As a result, except insofar as we make a conscious effort to be around friendly people, our lives default to solitude, broken only by romantic partners and coworkers. This reserves a sense of tight community to those who either attend regular religious services or who have surpassingly good social skills.

Life in a city is also suffocating, what Monbiot calls “ecologically boring”. I’ve lived in Chicago for going on three years now, and I’ve never felt more hemmed in. There are no woods. The city is an enormous strip mall in its pleasantest parts. Carless, my only option for leaving Hyde Park is to hop on the CTA and ride a train for an hour and a half—to some other neighborhood of gridded streets, carefully planted trees, broken-glass-filled empty lots, and IHOPs. There are no stars.

We don’t know that there are no stars, though, because we spend all of our time inside. The forty-hour workweek keeps almost everyone in an office during the best parts of each day. We get up before the sun to ride the subway to work, where we fill out forms or take sandwich orders until the sun sets again. For almost all Americans, spending a week with the family is an extremely rare treat. And I don’t think I’ve met a single working college graduate who has any time to read for pleasure—or better yet, to spend a whole afternoon asleep with a book in his lap. All this for milk and rent. This state of affairs is so common that the ones who criticize it—Bertrand Russell, for instance—are treated as insane visionaries.

But imagine living a whole life in the woods and mountains, drinking from springs without a filter, learning the pattern of the stars as a catechism, shooting dinner and enemies with a wooden bow. Then there is not only freedom, in the sense of liberty to wander over a boundless land, but also clear, perceptible purpose—the love of your family, and communion with the waking sky and earth. This was the reality for the vast, vast majority of human history, and only stopped being so in the last few thousand years.

This picture is an obvious romantic fiction. But its purpose is not to persuade us that it’s better to be a hunter gatherer, at least not now that we’ve gotten used to the warm comfort of industrialization. It is meant to draw our attention to a lack of breathing-room and meaning in the temperature-controlled, wage-bound world that we do inhabit. As Monbiot recognizes in his article, this feeling of dissatisfaction dates back at least as far as the eighteenth century. (Actually longer, I’d say: Lucretius, writing in the first century B.C., hearkens back longingly to the freedom that humankind enjoyed before it built stone nests for itself.) What Monbiot does not mention, though, is that in the last few centuries it has been far more characteristic in its history of the Right than of the Left.

Now, our modern identification of the Right with conservatism is to some measure a result of our upbringing in an age and country where it’s been populated by polite segregationists and opponents of birth control. Above all, that is, by family-values Christians. But the true, noble, repulsive Right of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was fiercely, atheistically mystical; and far from Christian and conservative, it deemed Christianity another symbol of the modern world’s mediocrity. It did not want to preserve the power of polite society. In its longing for meaning, it was willing to sacrifice even politeness itself.

This revolt often took the form of paganism. The Norse gods were especially good for this purpose: with none of the classical calm of the Greek pantheon, they personified rage, doom, and passion. Woden, whose name comes from the Proto-Germanic word wōþ, or “rage”, was a particular inspiration. His wild berserkers—literally, wearers of the “bear-shirt”—were emblems of the cathartic madness that would save modernity from its increasingly gloomy malaise. Here is Heinrich Heine:
And should that subduing talisman, the Cross, break, then will come crashing and roaring forth the wild madness of the old champions, the insane Berserker rage, of which Northern poets say and sing. That talisman is brittle, and the day will come when it will pitifully break. The old stone gods will rise from a long forgotten ruin, and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and Thor, leaping to life with his giant hammer, will crush the Gothic cathedrals! —From Kant to Hegel
Wagner, meanwhile, wrote an opera about the old paganism—the Twilight of the Gods—which, by his own description, was meant to fill us with a sort of nihilist transcendence that makes our ordinary daylit lives seem colorless. Nietzche’s work is infused with the same sentiment: everything from the Birth of Tragedy to the Antichrist has a whiff of admiration for the old, strong gods, and a hatred of the sick pettiness of Christianity and post-Christianity. More sinister: Julius Evola, who helped Mussolini craft his racial laws, believed that humankind is living in the kali yuga, the spiritually dullest aeon in the cycle of the cosmos, and that only a heroic, radical return to a strict hierarchical society could save man from his degradation. Evola was an esotericist, who believed that the wisdom of tradition was always lurking among the true devotees of the gods, especially those of the Hindus. At the end of World War II, he was found walking through Vienna, casting spells to keep the advancing Soviets out of the city.

I, too, want to write a book of philosophy
with my head wreathed in flames on the cover.
And worst of all, there was Alfred Rosenberg, whose pan-Indo-European paganism was a main tributary of Nazi racial thought. Rosenberg thought that the Indo-European race, ennobled by the mysticism developed among the Indians, the Nordic peoples and the Persians, was the heir to an ancient and true religion. The Indo-Europeans had uncovered the secret to human flourishing, and were capable of seizing both godliness and happiness, if only they could break the heavy chains around their necks.  Judaism and Christianity, meanwhile, were poxes on the earth: they were responsible for all the dullness and alienation that had come to pervade Western societies. Rosenberg’s prose was as ecstatic as it was firm. In The Myth of the 20th Century, his magnum opus, he wrote in his conclusion: “This inner voice demands today that the Myth of blood and the Myth of the soul, of race, of me, of nation and personality, blood and honor; will alone—truly alone and uncompromising—pervade, carry, and control our entire life.” (Whichever Nazi owned my copy of the book before me underlined this sentence enthusiastically.)

Published in 1943 in Munich, and inscribed:
I keep this book on a very, very high shelf.
Why all this madness? Why were so many men and women swept up into such a fierce, fanatical hatred of the modern world, becoming almost childish in their destructive zeal? I think that they were reacting to the same thing that Monbiot saw when he wrote his article. It’s the same thing that Pete Seeger saw when he sang Little Boxes, and the same thing that Tolkien saw when he escaped to the world as it was before the elves went out to the West. It’s the unhappiness of the unenchanted world. When we industrialized, we took everything that was deep about our lives—our worship of the gods and fear of demons, our family rites, our sense of the terrible, our communal music, our hatred of winter and delight in the spring—and paved it all over with asphalt. In return we got central heating, three sure meals a day, and a tenfold increase in our population.

The ancient Romans found this just as alienating as the Germans, and their urban life was undergirded by countless secret mystery cults. Feasts of Bacchus abounded, which let a youth tie an ivy wreath around his wine-flushed temples and lose his soul to throbbing life, poured forth in its purest form. Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, a Greek adolescent who enslaves himself to the foreign goddess Cybele, and finally castrates himself to show his devotion to her. The poem is utterly incomprehensible until we realize what Attis is reacting against. It’s a sickening feeling that the tame, bourgeois world—the “forum, the stadiums, the gym, and the baths”—can offer only pale shades in comparison to a man’s most brilliant visions. The mysteries of wine, ancient song, and total devotion to a goddess are Attis’ escape, even though they destroy him.

I may have already let on that despite the nausea that right-wing paganism causes me, I suffer just as much from the boredom with colorless modernity that inspires it. But let me say this: for reasons that are obvious but important enough to repeat, right-wing reaction is dangerous and evil. Not only because it brings Hell onto earth, as in the 1940s, but also because it is closely associated with frighteningly illliberal hierarchies. A society that angrily destroys modern propriety is likely to overthrow egalitarianism along with it, which is bad news if you’re a woman, or Jewish, or trans or black or Spanish-speaking or gay.

I do, though, think it’s possible to confess frustration with the pattern of our urban lives without succumbing to the mystical temptations of Fascism. Monbiot, a leftist, attests to that. For my own part, my means of coping with industrialized modernity are partial and paltry. 

One of them is music. Riding a bus across the especially gray and flat parts of Chicago, a surefire way out from suffocation is to pull out my iPod, and drift into the Song to the Breeze:

What a gentle breeze will blow tonight under the pines in the grove. (And the rest he’ll understand. Of course, of course he’ll understand.)

Morgan Freeman’s character, on this very duet:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
This is one of the best descriptions of classical music that I’ve ever come across, and the fact that it’s in a popular American movie has always struck me as a piece of serendipity. It hits on the most important thing that music can offer us: an opportunity to briefly wake up from the smoky dream of real life.

But when I’m in a mood that’s more bitter than wistful, I’ll skip Mozart and play Tristan und Isolde, and escape the stony labyrinth of the Regenstein library on Wagner’s wax wings. (To my humanist friends: Omnia possideat, non possidet arie Minos.)

My other solution, similar to Monbiot’s, and unfortunately unavailable in Chicago, is to escape into the mountains—if only to see the stars. Who knows what they have to say! To me they’re silent, and far from reflecting any ordering mind in the cosmos, they’re symbols of the immense chaos that really holds the baton. But perhaps because of that, they give me a way out of the narrowness of my daily imprisonment in the human city.

Liquor, meanwhile is perhaps the most common means of revolt against the modern world, especially for us students in college. The wild, dark, loud parties which I disdained as a first-year are the closest that men and women of my age come to throwing off the yoke of the world. Standards of propriety, of sexual restraint, of politeness, modesty, balance, good taste, and health are swept away like a wood fence in the path of a surging river. When college administrators warn first-years that drinking to excess is dangerous, imprudent, and (as a subtext) unvirtuous, they hit the point exactly. Dionysus offers precisely an escape from safety, prudence, and virtue. He shows young people a path from these padded fictions to a world that feels alive, colorful, and warm.

But all of these experiences are only visions, only occasional purifications of the spirit. They only make life shine out for a moment. And the truth—for most—is a that a real escape is impossible. Some of us are born with the desire to live beyond industrialized aimlessness, but neither the creativity nor the tolerance for pain to do so. Our city makes us do everything by eighth measures. So be it.