Tag Archives: Philosophy

Marginalia, no.348

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

I’m convinced that we have Schopenhauer to thank for all those over-serious European films where people mope around wintry granite cities and have loveless relationships and opine about how suicide is the only really logical option. I don’t appreciate his general philosophy but there are some colorful vistas on the way to hell, and reading Schopenhauer is (like watching those awful movies) a sick kind of fun.

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Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

In his biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton has only a few things to say about the “Dumb Ox” himself, but that’s the way it is with all his books: the ostensible subject is most of the time fondly neglected for the atmosphere surrounding it. From most writers this would be intolerable, but from Chesterton, somehow, it’s better than tolerable, because almost no one else is so fun to read. Chesterton’s Aquinas is no vague hypothesizer of miniature angels traipsing about in Nana’s sewing kit, but the champion of common sense philosophy, out to rescue medieval Christendom from the slow creep of Platonism, and to return it – with some help from Aristotle – to an affirmation of the reality and value of the material order, and a reasonable sense of our place within it.

Regarding our place within it, Aquinas – and Chesterton – insist that we are at home; that the material order is no catastrophe but essential to human beatitude; that a ghost is no more a complete man than a corpse is; that the senses are windows through which we perceive an actual world beyond, and into which light shines to show us ourselves; that the will is free; that we are kindred to other animals while at the same time elevated by intellect; that human reason has “a divine right to feed upon facts.” My grasp on medieval philosophy is weak, but I know that Chesterton is simplifying things. I also know that the compellingly baited lures of our own “age of uncommon nonsense” (Chesterton’s phrase) are sometimes difficult not to swallow. But I’ll happily take this antique sanity over the sort peddled today by persons like John Gray in Straw Dogs.


Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium.

Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett and his ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail. There’s some buzz these days about Thomas Nagel’s attack on this arch-materialism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I have not read and am not qualified to comment on, but Andrew Ferguson’s recent piece for The Weekly Standard gives a summary.

Whatever your personal take on the issue, it’s hard to avoid the sense while reading Straw Dogs that Gray is slowly dismantling his own argument without realizing it. For example, after assuring us of our utter unexceptionality compared to other animals, he goes on to admit at least three exceptions. Per Gray, human beings do, in fact, differ from animals in possessing a sense of selfhood (and hence an understanding of death), in the complex conflicts of their interests, and in their means of employing language.

I’m less sure of these particular points of divergence than Gray is, actually. I’ve known animals with what seemed remarkable notions of their own selfhood – and I could trot out a half-dozen anecdotes suggesting that certain animals, at least, do have a notion of what death means for an individual. But in my opinion, despite the obvious fact of our basic commonalities with other animals, there comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences. No bacterium will ever write a book arguing that bacteria are essentially equivalent to human beings. The fact that Mr Gray’s book exists seems to contradict its own premise.

His strict determinism I find equally unconvincing. According to Gray, determinism extends into the realm of the intellect. There is no free play of mind. People are no more responsible for their perspectives or beliefs than they are culpable for their actions. If this is so, of course, then there’s no point arguing. There’s no point trying to convince anyone to change his mind about anything, and Gray himself can take no credit for his own accidental illumination. Nonetheless, I insist that I can choose to punch a stranger in the face or not. I can likewise choose to endorse Gray’s notion of determinism or not, and the choice I make will have consequences. It will inform my view of life, my interactions with others, my own behaviors and choices. If this is so – if I can freely make even small and relatively inconsequential adjustments in my perspectives or ideas, and if these changes can change me in ways that I would not have changed otherwise – then strict determinism is false.


I do give Gray points for his critique of the supernaturalism implicit in popular forms of naturalism today, by which I mean the tendency among certain materialists to pretend that the natural world is a closed system outside of which human beings operate almost as if they were themselves gods. “Cities,” Gray counters, “are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.” Per Montaigne, nothing can be anything but according to nature. However, the lesson for Gray should be to amplify his sense of what nature is – to broaden it to encompass personhood, intellect, moral responsibility, love – rather than to reduce his estimate of man.

In the end there’s something cynical and false in Gray’s posturing as he steps down from the mountain to address the human animals that crowd non-volitionally around him: “You don’t want to hear it, dear species,” he seems to say, “but the sad truth is that no one – absolutely no one – got it right except for Schopenhauer, and of course me….” Chesterton, referring to the John Grays of his own day (1933) writes: “No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind.”


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Reading Notes: Carl Becker

The goal of philosophy in the eighteenth century was to dismantle corrupted and corrupting civic and religious institutions and to reshape the individual and society according to objective standards of nature. In place of St Augustine’s defunct city of God, the philosophers would build a heavenly city of their own, presided over not by an enthroned Christ and his saints, but by glorified Reason and the immaculate judgment of enlightened posterity.

In The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Becker (former professor of history at Cornell University, deceased in 1945) argues that although the animating spirit of the period is still, to a degree, felt today, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were actually nearer in their presuppositions and ideals to medieval precursors than to ourselves. I think he’s only half successful in demonstrating this, but the book hardly suffers for it, thanks to the author’s nimble synthesis and pleasant William-Jamesian prose.

The four lectures that make up the book were originally delivered at Yale in the early 1930s. The first and fourth of them haven’t aged so well. Becker’s sense that religion has definitively spent itself as a moral and social force in the West seems premature and weakens the first lecture. In the fourth, his speculations about the future history of the Communist Revolution, and what it may come to mean for future generations when its lessons are generalized across western society, also feels flat.

Becker’s second and third lectures – the best parts of the book – focus on the eighteenth century’s radically revised notions of nature and history. Nature, in the broad sense of the term, encompassing mankind and the material order as a whole, is no longer approached by way of metaphysics. It is no longer things as God intended them to be but as they are not due to sin and the devil. Instead, nature becomes things as they actually are and as they reveal themselves to empirical examination. History, severed from sacred myth and the burden of a transcendent, unified narrative, becomes an object of critical inquiry.

By looking to nature (things as they are) to discover the essential elements of human identity, and by reading history as a long cautionary tale, what aspects of society do not invite revision? The past, for Enlightenment thinkers, becomes a story of mostly Greek curiosity smothered under two thousand years of superstition. Nature, encountered in the unfamiliar cultures of the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific, shows us the arbitrariness of our own institutions and customs. What’s to stop us from turning the whole cart over and starting again? God may not condemn us for our failure, but posterity will honor our success.

There are problems, of course. If there is no God, and if man is inescapably a product of nature, then Christianized western culture is a product of nature too. It could hardly be otherwise. How can we therefore accuse it of deforming man? Whatever is must be according to nature. And then by what measure is any cultural status quo, or any particular innovation, to be judged? Becker teases out these ironies rather effectively. “They denied that miracles ever happened,” he says of the philosophers, “but believed in the perfectibility of the human race.”

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Marginalia, no.278

It is true of ideas, as of men, that they cannot fight unless they occupy the same ground: ideas that rush toward each other on different levels of apprehension will pass without conflict or mutual injury because they never establish contact, never collide.

~ Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers

This is perhaps not what Blake had in mind when he wrote that “opposition is true friendship,” but the phrase comes to mind. The outright infidel is always a stranger, reasoning from alien assumptions to alien conclusions. You are a ghost to his knife. The heretic, however, is always dear – a brother, child, friend – and draws blood.

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Marginalia, no.269

The white blackbird exists, but it is so white that it cannot be seen, and the black blackbird is only its shadow.

~ Jules Renard, Journals

Platonism is more than the instinct that things might be better. It’s the insistence that in fact they are better: it’s just that things at their best are invisible. This becomes a handy notion, allowing me to claim the superlative qualities of the ideal person I imagine myself to be, while still allowing me, when I fail in one respect or another, to blame my shadow.

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Marginalia, no.262

‘What’s the procedure,’ I said. ‘I suppose you lurk in a bush till a bird comes along, and then you out with the glasses and watch it?’

~ P.G. Wodehouse, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen

My father likes to fish. We used to drive into the Sierra and camp in rustic fashion at some mountain lake where Dad would spend all day fishing and my brother and I would join him for an hour or two before running off to explore the surrounding peaks. Very occasionally, it seemed to me, he caught something. I never had my father’s patience for fishing, though I admired it as a style of philosophy, which is roughly what he considered it to be. I take my kids bird watching instead. Like lake fishing, the activity can sound comical in bare descriptive terms, but the philosophy, I think, is equally admirable.

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Savage Philosophies

My paternal grandfather’s sympathies were evenly split, I think, between cowboys and Indians. When he died, my grandmother begged me to take a few items from his closet. I kept a button-up cowboy shirt with a nighttime western scene stitched on the back. It was too large for me and I’d never seen him wear it, but it reminded me of him. Grandpa used to tell us kids that the bypass scars on his chest and leg were won in a Great Plains ambush, the marks of Indian arrows and tomahawks. When he wasn’t being attacked by Indians, he was reading about them. Visiting as a boy, I would browse for hours through his well-fingered copies of Black Elk Speaks and National Geographic’s World of the American Indian. He and my aunt (during her New Age phase) once attended a sweat lodge ceremony together.

I think it was in a Guy Davenport essay that I first read a reference to Henri Frankfort’s Before Philosophy. I bought a dollar copy, an old Pelican paperback, at a used bookshop near my office. In the book, Frankfort and his co-authors attempt to reenter the mind of pre-rational man through a study of Egyptian and Mesopotamian metaphysics, politics and ethics. They want to chart the transition from an “I-Thou” relationship between man and nature to an “I-It” relationship – a movement from experience conceived in terms of encounters with living forces to a world where natural phenomena could be understood in terms of impersonal cause and effect. Frankfort doesn’t touch on it, but it occurs to me that the European settling of the Americas – in which my yeoman farmer ancestors were early participants – was, among other things, a conflict of these two perspectives.

A similar thought must have occurred to Davenport, who was also fascinated by Native American history. His essay titled “Finding” – about his father’s obsessive collecting of Indian artifacts – is one of my favorites from The Geography of the Imagination. Apparently this sort of amateur archaeology is still popular in the South. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Unnamed Caves” (from Pulphead) explores the illicit artifact trade in Appalachia, a thematic homage to his hero Davenport, I’m sure. Though born in the South myself, I’ve lived most my life on the west coast where, for some reason, it never occurred to me that I might find any arrowheads lying around. It was more popular among the suburban cul-de-sac kids I knew to compare notes and see who had a higher fraction of Indian blood in his family. Through my wife, my children have managed to accumulate more of it than I was ever able to justify for myself.

The de-enchantment of the world must be a painful, difficult thing however it comes about, but while the transition occurred in the Old World by a slower process and largely as a revolution of ideas, it happened in the New World by invasion, forced displacement, re-education and genocide. In Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (a novel superior in every way to the movie based on it), Old Lodge Skins complains that although the “human beings” – that is, the Cheyenne – know that everything is alive, white men think that everything is dead. It’s a nice summary of the sort of distinction Frankfort has in mind. Chief Seattle, among other Native leaders, had similar things to say. Charles Eastman, who was raised among the still-nomadic Sioux but eventually took a medical degree from Dartmouth (and tended the injured at Wounded Knee), suffered the transition of perspective in his early education:

When the teacher placed before us a painted globe and said that our world was like that, that upon such a thing our forefathers had roamed and hunted for untold ages, as it whirled and danced around the sun in space – I felt that my foothold was deserting me. All my savage training and philosophy were in the air, if these things were true.

Such a thing, he says. Eastman wants to belong to both cultures at once. Among the elements that make his books so intriguing is how well or how poorly he succeeds one moment to the next.

In the final chapter of Before Philosophy, Frankfort identifies two historic exits from the “I-Thou” perspective: the monotheistic Jewish exit, where deity is conceived as starkly transcendent and the material world is God’s handiwork but never God’s self; and the Greek exit, where the personification of phenomena breaks down among the pre-Socratics and a proto-scientific perspective becomes possible for the first time. In the mingling of these two, Frankfort says, you have the germinal confluence of western culture’s past 2,500 years. Of course, it’s not really that simple. I wonder sometimes if Christian sacramentalism, for example, marks a counter-current. By insisting on God’s at least potential immanence in material objects (the Eucharist especially, but not merely) it does something, perhaps, to repopulate the non-human world. It never delivers one back to the full enchantments of pantheism, I suppose, but it may feed the same appetite by offering something approaching panentheism.

I spent the spring break of my junior year of college working at an elementary school on a Cree reservation in central Alberta. Though most of the white farmers in the surrounding country were Protestants, most of the Cree themselves seemed to be Roman Catholics. They were therefore sacramentalists. The difference made an impression on me at the time, but I couldn’t plumb the wherefore of it. It’s interesting to note that while Charles Eastman converted to a non-sacramentalist Protestantism which he never seems to have felt really comfortable with, Black Elk converted to Catholicism and spent the last decades of his life as a pious and successful lay catechist.


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Achievement Gaps

In A Mathematician’s Apology G.H. Hardy estimates that only five or ten people in a hundred can do something “rather well.” Considerably fewer are really gifted. We do not each have a valuable talent waiting for discovery. We may dream of making names for ourselves, but most “talents” are talents only by inflation, and many true talents are never valued. The influence of the cult of achievement extends even beyond its membership. Those who renounce the pursuit of worldly accomplishment often do so with other (more comfortably nebulous) goals in mind: sainthood, perhaps, or self-realization. They’re chasing the same fox by another tail.

Hardy’s calculation is stark, and depressing. I’ve been working on a novel two nights each week for the past four years. I’m well into my third draft and hope to shop it around to agents this summer. Re-reading and re-writing it is a bruising, infuriating, ego-punishing business. What I’ve created is, I think, better than a lot of what gets published today, but that’s saying awfully little when 99% of what gets published is an unjustifiable waste of both writer’s and reader’s time. Almost every book ever written more than deserves its inevitable oblivion.

My book surely will too. Though I’m bold enough to say that it’s “better than many,” I’m not going to fool myself and say “better than 99%.” It may beat fifty or even sixty percent of the schlock printed these days, but I won’t bluff any higher than that. Even if I succeed in getting it published, it’s not something to be too ridiculously proud of. If writing it has taught me anything, it’s that I am no Herman Melville or Henry James. Tonic as it may be to fess up to that inadequacy, my sickness is such that I plod on anyway. I’m even making notes for a second book. Ambition isn’t going to let lack of genius stand in its way.

I may be neglecting avenues for achievement that are better suited to me. Hardy writes that “poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry.” I know nothing about cricket or Bradman, but I’ll agree that you don’t give up on a first-rate talent merely because it happens to be for a second-rate activity. I manage to make a living in the business world without much effort. What might I achieve if I focused my ambitions in that direction? But most days it’s a struggle even to fake a tepid enthusiasm.

According to Hardy, first-rate minds care only for creation. If second-rate minds care for it too, so much the worse for them. They would do better, he says, to restrict themselves to the very second-rate tasks of criticism and appreciation. “Appreciation.” The term, as he utters it, drips condescension. But I want to say that Hardy gets it wrong here. He shows his scheme of values to be debased. It may be that I’m too democratic-minded, or just plotting myself an escape from Hardy’s sentence, but I hate the idea that the worthiest of human endeavors is beyond the reach of most people. Surely it’s not only scarce things that can have ultimate value?

Appreciation, in the sense of pure enjoyment, seems to me a better candidate than creative accomplishment for the title of “man’s true work.” It may sound Jeffersonian (“pursuit of happiness”), or Epicurean, or bourgeois of me to say so. I don’t mean that people with leisure are morally superior to those without it. But though it’s not an idea that lends itself to proof by argument, I do believe that, other things being equal, there’s no nobler human aspiration than simply to enjoy and delight in things. To appreciate a particular face, a meal, a tree, a note, a book, a fact, an idea is something available to most of us. To enjoy something to the limit of one’s capacity is better than to create it.


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Everyone Is Doing It

Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.


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Marginalia, no.231

That is so, said Cebes.

~ Plato, Phaedo

We want to object. Socrates’ interlocutors, as Plato supplies them, are often unsatisfying in this regard: they surrender a mile as easily as an inch. Which may actually be an argument for the reliability of Plato’s reportage. Any philosophic horse will tell you that gadflies are only dealt with in one of two ways: by a well-aimed but ultimately ineffective swish of the tail, or by granting them all they want in the hope that they’ll just go away.

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