Progress and Reaction

I have heard people speak of reactionary thought or reactionary politics as inherently contradictory or incoherent, and I can understand the reasons for thinking so.

The idea here is that reactionary views, qua reactionary, are no longer identical with the original thinking that they purport to defend.

The most striking example that I can think of is the creationists who adopt the language and strategies and insights of modern science for the purpose of defending a more premodern account of the world and its history.

Still, the phenomenon is by no means limited to creationists. To some degree, it is true everywhere and always when there is reaction against some sort of novelty.

Is there ever such a thing as a non-reactionary traditionalism? Can we hold to an older idea without needing to think through how it opposes or overcomes newer alternatives?

I think that is a possibility. I think there is a less bellicose traditionalism that can exist, which simply enjoys itself and is unthreatened by, perhaps largely uninterested by, its contemporary challengers.

But perhaps sometimes the new thing that is born through a desire to hold onto the older reality may even be better in some ways, richer, if we are wise. If we can take the new challenge seriously and incorporate it into our response in a way that illuminates some aspects of the tradition that were previously invisible, we may be able to have the best of both worlds. Maybe sometimes, reaction is its own kind of progress toward something better.

Strength Training is for Weak People

I think it’s easy to assume that a person needs to be pretty mentally tough in order to become physically strong. Surprisingly, this does not seem to be particularly true. Strength training is pretty easy when understood, and not terribly difficult to understand. It’s as if strength training were perfectly designed for us people who might often end up weak by natural inclination.

I’m not saying that it’s only for weak people. It’s for strong people too, clearly, but presumably they’ve already figured that out, so they don’t need me to tell them.

Sometimes after a session of strength training there’s a bit of soreness, but generally nothing unmanageable. The strength training itself shouldn’t ever go too far into the realm of pain or exhaustion. And that’s the worst that can be said about it.

The point is, getting strong is way easier and less painful than a person would think who hasn’t already experienced it for themselves.

The clearest, most undeniable example of this is the deload week. You’ve been training for weeks now, and after all this time, you’ve gotta admit, you’re finally starting to feel sore and achy and weak. What comes next? Take it easy for a while. Just call it a deload week and be lazy for nine or ten days without any guilt.

And it’s brilliant! It’s brilliant because it works. After a deload week, you might find you’re stronger than ever, coming back fresh to all the exercises that had begun to weigh so heavily on you.

It’s almost as if strength training was designed specifically for weak and lazy people to be able to benefit from. I don’t deny that it’s entirely possible for strength training to be brutal and painful and hateful, and maybe sometimes that’s what is called for. But there’s also an easy way, and in the long run it works just as well.

Life in Community, Thinking about Morality

One of the first lessons we ought to learn when we begin thinking about moral philosophy and questions of justice and virtue and duty and rights, is that these are questions that need to be entertained only in the close company of intelligent friends, and often not even then — often, as if in the absolute privacy of one’s own thoughts.

Why is this? It is because morality, as well as being something that we can consider rationally, is something that gets drilled into us by our society and communities at a subrational level. The people around us (and we ourselves too, most of the time) have very strong, emotionally explosive commitments to certain moral convictions, for most of which we cannot give a single convincing argument.

And it’s not a bad thing for communities to inculcate moral standards irrationally into their young people. Indeed, it is a very good thing, a necessary thing. Without it, we would live in communities of vice and injustice and open crime. Some minimal level of dogmatic morality is necessary just to make a society functional. Tampering with that is the work of the foolish.

However, for the philosophical soul who legitimately desires to inquire into moral questions, to find what can be known with confidence about our moral obligations, this situation means we need to exercise reasonable caution in expressing doubts about moral dogmas.

This is not to say that the philosopher will always be an immoralist. By no means. But the philosopher is a questioner, and in any social context there will be things that are appropriately unquestionable.

Now, it is possible sometimes to think rationally about morality in a “safe” context, where the discussion is all about justifying the moral intuitions we already hold, where the questions never lead us away from what is comfortable and familiar. Even in that setting, though, there is some danger. Just by making morality the object of rational investigation, answering to the tribunal of reason, a risk appears that someone will begin to ask the wrong questions, or to find some of offered justifications to be inadequate.

It is a difficult thing, learning to navigate one’s obligations as a philosophical soul while remaining true to our social duties to those around us. It makes for an awkward transition, a series of awkward transitions, during the process of learning, and good teachers and guides are rare. Still, a sharp mind will discover a way, and having found it, will be prepared for a lifetime of joy in community and delight in thought.

Conquering Fear

There’s a bit of a paradox in the pursuit of virtue. A major part of the attainment of virtue consists in mastering one’s fear. The more I learn, the more important this aspect seems to me. And yet, at the same time, the pursuit of virtue entails desire for the good and aversion to evil — and what is fear but aversion to evils? It seems, then, that pursuit of virtue is the overcoming of fear through fear?

The difference, I think, is in how we conceive of evil. The fear against which we war is fear of pain, fear of evil as pain. Such an impulse, although it is often valuable and may lead us to some good decisions, is ultimately a lower kind of existence for the human person.

As humans we have the beastly and the divine within us. It is all good and valuable, but what is important is to make sure it is properly ordered. What is most divine, reason and contemplation, ought to rule, and what is beastly in us is in need of guidance. We are disordered if we are instead ruled by hatred of pain and lust for pleasures.

It is a difficult thing to have a well-ordered soul! It is a long path to travel, and even when we are quite far along it and may externally have an appearance of virtuous life, there can be countless smaller fears that still torment and master us.

We want people to treat us in a certain way. We want our day to go a certain way. We are afraid. We are looking to the future, seeing outcomes that end in some sort of pain, and we are cringing from them. If we could conquer fear of this sort, then many of our worst qualities and our worst moments would simply disappear.

If we could listen to someone speaking to us and feel peace, feel calm, rather than worrying and wondering and calculating and controlling, how different would that make us? If we didn’t fear judgement, or some subtle loss of status or respect, provoking anger, disappointment, misunderstanding, gossip, confusion.

The things that are really worth fearing are not things outside us that can hurt us. What should be feared are the interior dispositions that distort the world selfishly and remove us ever further from reality. We should fear the ordering of our souls that places reason under the foot of our lower, beastly impulses.

The Courage of Mystical Theism

To pursue truth in a philosophical manner demands that we have the courage to let go of our comforting illusions and be ready to face up to whatever reality exists within ourselves and beyond ourselves, however terrible it may turn out to be.

This does not mean that whatever opinion is ugliest must necessarily be truest, that the person whose view of the world is most dismal must always be correct and must be courageous. Such an approach can only be fallacious.

Still, when we look inward, if we are honest, we will have to ask ourselves whether we really are open to discovering truths that are uncomfortable, unpleasant, painful to bear. Perhaps we cling to safe beliefs, and if we’re honest we cling to them precisely because they’re safe. Probably all of us do this in one way or another, usually in ways that are invisible to our own perception. Certainly we should all assume that we do it, and appraise ourselves accordingly.

Atheists are among those who like to claim that they have seized upon such a courageous truth, and it isn’t hard to see why. Compared to the sort of theism which affirms that God is on my side and loves me and has good plans for me, atheism does seem like a grim realism.

And yet, the predictable smug reply of theists has been that the atheists are themselves holding on to a comforting belief that protects them from having to face up to a frightening reality. If there is no God, then maybe there is no eternity, no eternal judgement, no perfect and omniscient judge. To hold a belief which insulates us from considering the most terrifying of all possible futures certainly might appear to be motivated less by love of truth than by intellectual cowardice. Not a few theists have been quick to point this out.

Where does that leave us then? To believe in God is the work of a coward, but so is disbelief toward that God?

Agnosticism is not the solution to the problem. It is inconsequential, in the present conversation. An agnostic will either face up to the possibility of divine judgement and live as though it is a real possibility (in line with Pascal’s wager), thus fearing damnation and hoping in salvation, or else will avoid the question and live as though it doesn’t matter, joining the atheists of our earlier discussion. So agnosticism doesn’t get us any closer to a reasonable answer than we had previously.

Rather, the solution is mysticism. Mystical theism is the most courageous option out of all those so far surveyed. As stated, this does not mean it’s true, but it means at least that it’s not likely to be accepted as if true merely because it is comforting or safe.

Mystical theism means standing at the uttermost tip of reality, alone amidst the vast darkness of the primordial unknown, seen and not seeing, known but not knowing. It is the glimpsing of a terrible goodness beyond human morality, of irresistible power and incontestable justice. It is perfect fear and perfect awe and perfect love fused into a single, simple thought.

For and Against Literacy

It’s funny. I’ve never been particularly attached to literacy as an abstract idea. I think that a civilization could flourish and do well by its citizens even with relatively low literacy rates. I know that seems to make me a bit of an oddball in today’s world, where it is self-evident to so many that higher literacy rates are an unquestionable good.

At the same time, I do think that literacy is valuable for some things, and has even a central place in the cultivation of the best of human potential. So while I don’t think that everyone needs to be literate (hypothetically, at least), I think it would be much worse if no one were literate. Literacy isn’t good in itself for every person, necessarily, but it also must not be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth (not that there’s any danger of that happening in the near future).

So, why am I not an absolutist when it comes to the value of literacy? Reading is a hugely important part of my life, and so it might seem as if I would be more likely to overstate its importance than to downplay it.

To me, literacy seems like money, or firearms, or fame, in that it can be used for good ends, but can also be disastrous when misused. Not every person should own a working gun, as even the most ardent gun rights activists will admit. On balance, it might be better for most people to have firearms, or it might be the case that the dangers outweigh the benefits, in which case maybe it is better for most people not to. As we know full well, there are opinionated people on both sides of the question, precisely because it clearly is a valid question to ask.

Literacy, in my view, belongs in the same category. We underestimate how powerful the written word can be, and how much evil as well as how much good it can bring about. In our world, it would be hard to be a functioning, contributing adult without some basic level of literacy, and so we have no choice but to promote literacy and work to curb its dangers. In other circumstances, however, it is not clear to me that widespread literacy would need to be an urgent priority.

Think of the farming family who live on land that they own, learning skills and stories orally rather than from books. They work hard for two thirds of the year, providing food for themselves and enough extra to sell or trade for other necessities. In their leisure, they prepare food, they tell stories and jokes, they make music together. They can be wise and virtuous and just and happy, peaceful and prosperous and connected, without any need for letters. A vision of the world that treats literacy as a pressing need has no place for such a way of life, which, for me at least, is a serious problem.

Update on Gardening, 2021

The middle of winter seems to be my time for blogging about gardening.

This past summer, I took another step closer to my goal of being a competent gardener. I ask you to keep in mind that a single step doesn’t look very impressive on such a long path, especially when I’m starting out at a great distance from the goal. But every step in the right direction counts for something!

This year I made a raised bed, and started some plants from seed. I sowed the plants directly into the garden bed, and a lot of stuff grew! I even got to eat a tiny bit of it.

I was nervous that nothing would grow, so I tried broadcasting several kinds of seeds basically overtop of one another and waited to see what would grow. My great fear was that I would just have a box of dirt staring back at me all summer. That is no longer my fear!

Plenty grew. For the most part I had no idea what was what, so I couldn’t quite tell when anything was at the right age for eating. Except for the radishes. I caught a few radishes when they were at eating age.

I also tried leaving everything unwatered for a few weeks, once the plants seemed well established. I was out of town for that time, and so it seemed like a natural experiment to attempt. Although it was the very hottest part of the summer, everything survived except the peas. However, once I came back even the surviving plants were significantly less lush and strong.

And then we moved to a new house in the second half of the summer, so I had to tear out my ugly tangle of vegetation and replace it with some pretty potted plants to help our house sell. Thus the garden of 2021 came to an abrupt end.

I learned that I can trust the seeds to grow if I plant them at the right time, in a location where there is sunlight, and water them as much as they need. That will give me the confidence to try a more organized approach next summer. I also learned that overall the garden is pretty strong and forgiving of occasional neglect (though overall I was very consistent in caring for it this year, unlike the previous summer).

My hope for next year is to focus on a smaller list of plants and try to start getting good at raising them — perhaps kale and arugula, some legumes, maybe some potted herbs.

When It’s Easy, Make It a Little Bit Harder

The big secret is really pretty straightforward. To get good at something, just start doing it at a difficulty level that feels easy, and then over time make it harder. That sounds obvious, and it is. The rare thing is just to do it. But it’s not rare because it’s at all difficult — really, it could hardly be easier.

This is the basic principle of self-improvement. This is the formula. All we need is this and time (and the patience to use that time), and everything is within reach.

This has a couple important corollaries.

If it’s not easy yet, you don’t have to make it harder. (You can if you want, if there’s a good reason, but just as a matter of course, you don’t need to. You’re making progress already, which you know because it isn’t easy and because you’re still doing it!)

Similarly, if it’s unpleasantly difficult, you might even want to make it a bit less difficult, unless there is a strong justification for making it unpleasant. Generally, if we are patient and look to the long game rather than searching for quick progress, we’ll get farther in the long run. There’s no shame in pursuing our goals intelligently.

And if it’s neither easy nor hard — that is, if you know you should do it and just haven’t yet begun — then get started, and first of all figure out how to make it easy. Always start with easy. Once easy is established, start ratcheting up the difficulty, one notch at a time, slowly, until it begins to press out of the comfort zone. Then stay there, until it’s feeing easy again, and then repeat.

That’s all it takes.

The Child is Father of the Man

A line has stuck with me over the last couple years. “The child is father of the man.”

I don’t remember exactly who it was that said it, and it doesn’t really matter. Yes, I could just look it up, but so could you. I think it was one of the English Romantic poets.

The first point about the line is that it’s obviously wrong — it’s not the child who is father of the man, but vice versa.

On a deeper level, we notice that the full-grown man is sort of derived from the younger child he was earlier in his life, and so we notice how the obviously false statement is actually also true, in a way. So far, so good.

For me, though, recently there is another level of truth that has been standing out for me in the phrase. I’ve been thinking about how my children are changing me. They’re helping me to become someone different, or maybe not different, maybe to become more myself.

Several things I’ve wanted to do before, to learn, to accomplish, to become, I am finally making a real effort at. I started studying languages again a few months before my eldest was born, and I have kept up the habit on my own without any external pressure to do so, for the first time in my life. I started again a daily habit of reading the Bible a few months before my daughter was born, and I have kept that up too. I’m healthier, stronger, more knowledgeable. I’m so much closer to being the person who, ten or fifteen years ago, I could only have helplessly dreamed of being.

It feels strange to see that change coming about in me because of my children. I want to be that person for them. I want to know those things so I can pass them on, if my children happen to desire some of the same things that I have desired. I want to be able to show them that these things are possible, attainable, even if they don’t come naturally to a person. These children have given me the motivation to find a way to make it happen.

I want to be a good father to them throughout their lives, to form them as well as I can. But for now, they’re doing a pretty good job of forming me.

Excelling at Leisure

When is a job the best choice for us? When can we instead make leisure the centre of our way of life?

I was eighteen, when I finished high school a semester early. My plan was to spend the next half a year before college practicing music and getting ready for the music degree I was about to embark on. (I ended up changing majors a year later.) My parents were supportive. But I blew it. I wasted month after month with reading useless pop fiction and playing video games and entirely neglecting my music studies. My parents ended up encouraging me to get a job for the remaining summer months, which was the right decision.

Some people are ready for leisure, and some are not. For many of us, a job is as close to virtue as we can come. That’s not the ideal situation, but for many of us it’s just the reality. Of course, for most of us, most of the time, a job is a necessity for financial reasons. Even then, we should ask ourselves whether the job is holding us back from the many virtuous things we could accomplish with a bit more leisure, or whether the job is perhaps the only thing saving us from wasting our hours away on pointless, meaningless, wasteful activities.

One summer during college I was unable to find work, apart from occasional odd jobs. That summer I planned to drill my Greek and Hebrew skills, study ancient architecture and history and geography. Again, it was a bust. The summer months slid by with hardly a glance at the sorts of good habits I was planning to put in place.

But after graduating college, for the first time, I began to experience what it would be like to pursue difficult, worthwhile habits without a job or a degree program demanding it of me. For a few years after college, even while working full time, I was able to devote much of my spare time to reading difficult philosophical books from the history of Western thought. It was extremely challenging at times, but I could see the benefits of it, and I managed to stick with the reading program all the way to my planned conclusion.

More recently, I lost my job soon after Covid was recognized as a pandemic, and now I am a stay at home parent to two little children, one almost three years old and the other not even a year old yet. Ask any stay at home parent with little children and they’ll tell you it’s not leisurely by any means. Still, it has given me some flexibility in my schedule that would not have been as easy to find in a workplace. I’ve been able to focus especially on language-learning and on physical health and fitness. I know that I will probably need to go back to work sooner or later, but I am heartened to realize that it will be for the paycheque, for the income, and not because I would otherwise be wasting my time. Indeed, it’s my hope that whenever I do end up back at work, I might find some way to keep incorporating these good habits into my life. Even if I can’t sustain these specific habits then, though, I know that who I’ve become during this time will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

The key to excelling at leisure, I think, is realizing that there’s so much to learn, so much to excel at, and not so many years in a lifetime for acquiring these skills and and for studying this knowledge. We need to feel the sense of urgency that is justified by the nature of our existence. There’s so much to do, to learn, to become. Once we realize that, it will be clear that we have to start as soon as possible, be consistent in our efforts, and fit these labours into whatever parts of our day can be made available for them.