The Smartest Person I Know

One day, I hope, I will be the smartest person I know. If I can (I’m sure I can’t) I will be the smartest person in the world. Arrogant? Hubristic? No, I don’t believe so, though certainly it is at best aspirational, and unlikely nearly to the point of impossibility.

That’s my goal, and I think it’s a good goal to have. It’s a high bar, obviously. I’ve met some smart people in my life, and in reality I have no desire to upstage them or outshine them. I love that they are smarter than I am, and I bear them no ill-will for their brilliance.

Still, I think it is no insult to them, is maybe indeed a compliment to them, for me to set my mind to competing with them.

In a way, it is my way of recognizing my debt to them, communicating my admiration for them, my sympathy with their goals.

Socrates in a few places encourages his listeners to adopt this attitude of intellectual competitiveness. I think it is the best sort of competition there can be.

I want to be better at Greek than any of my amazingly talented friends and professors, though I know I am currently a long way from that. I want to have a mastery of modern logic or economics that would impress authorities in those fields (I’m even further from attaining those goals!). I want to grasp the facts and patterns of history and be able to call them to mind readily when I need them.

I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll succeed in any of these goals, especially while pursuing them all simultaneously. I also don’t think any of them are completely impossible or out of reach, however unlikely. But most importantly, I have no doubt that in aiming for goals like these ones, I will make progress on a scale that I could never have imagined without such goals.

Strauss’s Phases of Human Thought

I realized that Leo Strauss seems to distinguish five phases of development within human thought. These can map to historical eras, and Strauss often does attempt to illustrate them in this way, but they are more sort of existential modes than historical periods. They won’t correspond exactly to historical periods, and they won’t always move predictably in the sequence outlined. Still, they are useful for understanding how and why different groups will thing or speak in particular ways.

The Cave. This is humanity’s original and default way of thinking. It is something like superstition. It wishes to explain the whole world in ways that bring order and comfort and meaning, and through social cooperation and competition a given group will come to inhabit a shared cave, a shared horizon.

The Cave and the Philosopher. Out of a given cave, certain people or small groups will find their way out into the light, into philosophy, into a sense of the meaning and importance of nature as nature. The philosophers who emerge in this way will look back to the cave and its inhabitants, and will understand the cave and the caves more completely than any of those inhabitants is able to.

Political Philosophy. The phase of political philosophy follows on the inevitable tensions and clashes between the philosophers on the one hand and the inhabitants of the cave (often referred to in the singular simply as “the city”) on the other. In this stage, the philosophers have come to grasp their responsibility to the city and their dependence on it, and have worked out ways to draw out potential new philosophers from the cave while causing minimal harm either to the city or to the philosophic community.

The Cave Beneath the Cave. A new sort of cave forms in the attempt at enlightenment, at bringing those in the cave into a greater awareness of and acceptance for philosophy. The city cannot understand philosophy as it is, and so must attach itself to a shadowy misunderstanding of philosophy. In this way they leave their original cave only to enter a new cave, and this time, their cave is a deeper one, further from the light of genuine philosophy. Convincing themselves that they have already exited the cave of superstition and have attained the full benefits of philosophy (or that apparently more successful portion of philosophy which is natural science), they are stuck behind new and stronger barriers which separate them from philosophy itself.

The Reading of Old Books. To exit from the deeper cave calls especially for a study of old books, the study of accounts of philosophy that predate the attempts at enlightenment. It is only in scrutinizing the original conflicts and negotiations between the philosophers and the caves that we are enabled to recognize the inadequacy of our deeper cave, and to find the genuine alternatives that are available to us and obscured from us. If “Straussianism” can be said to mean anything, perhaps it refers to this.

Having kids makes the future closer and more substantial

“Ten years from now” used to feel like a long, long, really long way away. Won’t I pretty much be an old man by then? Will I even still be alive when I reach that age? It was difficult to imagine, and there was no need to try.

It’s having kids that has upended my sense of perspective. Ten years from now my children will still be pretty young. And so will I! Right? I’ll be healthy and strong and with a whole life ahead of me!

Being able to think in terms of years and decades in that new way has had some big implications for how I think about my time and my habits in the short term.

Studying a language on Duolingo for two or three years years used to sound like a terribly long, tedious, painful, boring prospect. But if it’s easy to imagine a moment ten years from now, then that two-year stint ahead of me now is hardly a bump on the road.

If I have a reading project that will take years before it gives me any sort of impressive payoff for my studiousness, then looking at it from the standpoint of the present makes it feel futile and overwhelming. Looking at it from a perspective that’s rooted five years in the future, or ten, or fifteen, makes it something exhilarating. Just think how much I will know when this project is in the rearview mirror!

I’ve heard that it’s hard to sustain excitement over a long time. I find that that’s not necessarily true. If I can keep the longer perspective in view, and see who I will become, and how easy the process of getting there is as long as I’m patient, I find I’m invariably able to feel great anticipation.

And sustaining excitement like that is exactly what it takes to stick with a project and make it a reality, which makes subsequent projects all the more plausible and exciting. It’s a virtuous circle. One of many gifts I did not expect to receive from my children.

Don’t Worry about Flashy

Often, when we start learning to do something new, we begin with visions of how amazed people will be to witness our new skills or accomplishments. That’s what gets us started in the first place.

It’s good to dream about being fluently conversational in a language. It’s good to dream about being able to do cool things like a ninety degree push-up. (Have you heard of those?? Check them out; they’re absolutely the coolest.)

But don’t rush to those goals. Build a strong foundation, and then build systematically upon that. Embrace plateaus when they arrive and don’t give up before progress resumes. It’s slow work. The impressive stuff will come with time. And when it does come, it’ll really mean something.

In the meantime, don’t be embarrassed to admit that in your months of practicing you haven’t gotten around to learning anything impressive yet, if anyone asks. Make whatever excuses you feel you need to make, but in the end don’t be ashamed to admit that you’re not there yet. And don’t let embarrassment be a reason to give up.

Many will not realize it, but if you’ve been working for months or years on slowly learning something, and you haven’t yet given up on it, that’s impressive all by itself.

And if people are underwhelmed in the short term, they might be all the more impressed when eventually the hard work of persistent years finally begins to pay off.

Then again, maybe those people won’t be impressed. “Took you long enough!” But you’ll impress yourself. And you’ll impress all those who weren’t impatiently watching from the sidelines, those who see only the end result and hear the inspiring story of how it came about.

Don’t hurry, and don’t give up.

The worst thing about school

The worst thing about school is how short it is.

That might sound insane. And for most people, probably the point I’m making is irrelevant and school is actually just long enough, or perhaps even too long.

For the person who wants to get out of school and get on with life, school is of course not too short.

For the person who wants to get a good practical degree, in engineering or business or something of that kind, I’m assuming that you receive everything you should need in a degree and will not wish for more, or more time, in school.

For the person who really wants to think about how the world works, to look at the history of ideas and their expression and their clashes with one another, school is not long enough, not nearly.

To attain a really powerful level of education, it’s necessary to think and act and plan in terms of five or ten years at a time, in my experience. Learning languages, getting to know fields of study, getting acquainted and skilled with different methodologies or writing styles — to be done well, these things really require very large investments of time.

In postsecondary education, everything needs to be planned in one- or two-year segments, and so it may be that what is learned is not so much the substance of a thing as how to make a convincing facade of having understood something. Not a completely useless skill, perhaps, but hardly the goal of a genuine education.

It is only at the level of a PhD that these time constraints finally begin to expand slightly, and yet based on the nearly universal reports of the stress and anguish of students in doctoral studies, it seems that even here the required leisure is not quite made available.

I do not doubt that there is much, much room for improvement in the way formal education is structured in the world today, though I don’t have any confidence to propose specific practical changes at an organizational level. The best I can recommend is a change in mindset for students.

It’s important to see the short time of a college education as a starting point, a time for gathering resources that will support us on our longer-term autodidactic educational projects, rather than as an education complete in itself. I think I’ve managed to make this leap for myself, but perhaps only because of luck, on account of the opportunity that Covid provided. I hope many others will have the chance to share in the same sort of approach I have found for myself.

A Dynamic Incompatibility

There are two ways to engage with a set of opposing viewpoints that present themselves to us for evaluation: through bringing them together into a contest, or through something closer to cooperation.

The first approach tries to choose one of the two as the winner, as the right option, and to show why it is good and the alternative is bad. It can be (and should be!) as nuanced and balanced and fair-handed as you like; that doesn’t change what it is. It’s the winner-loser, right-wrong, yes-no approach. And sometimes this is the only reasonable way to deal with a question.

But only rarely are we forced to choose the first approach; such necessity arises in a practical situation with limited time and resources at our disposal. Most often, though, we choose that first approach without being forced, entirely freely, automatically and thoughtlessly, even though there is a second approach available which offers considerable advantages over the first.

The second approach puts off the decision of a winner indefinitely. A winner may surface, but not on any sort of predetermined timeline.

This second approach says that until there is a clear way to decide which of the two viewpoints is correct (or more correct), the two will be held together as live options. In the meantime, if there is a practical way of living as an agnostic then we will do so (for instance, living in such a way that the worst of either hypothetical can be prevented or curtailed).

With time, holding the two in tension can turn out to be not just the intellectually honest thing to do (withholding judgement in the absence of clear grounds for judgement), but also the most wise and advantageous thing to do. It can turn out that both are partly true, in ways that would never have become clear to us if we had rejected one of them outright.

So then, choose the path of lively, dynamic incompatibilities. Let paradoxes and apparent contradictions characterize our thinking, and see what unexpected syntheses might arise.

The Catholic Encompasses Western History

One reason why I’m grateful to be a Catholic is for the comprehensive way that Catholic identity encompasses the history of what we might call the Western world.

The first Christians lived in a context that was governed by systems of Roman administration, in which the universal language and the literary exemplars were Greek. Their heritage and their Scripture was Jewish, a Semitic people whose stories and traditions and thinking had been profoundly affected by the empires of the ancient world, such as the Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians. Deep in our roots, these things are familiar, and we are at home with them.

In the Church’s first centuries, Greek philosophy and literature grew to be more and more influenced by and intertwined with the growing Christian faith, until eventually they became one. Likewise, Roman society and government developed ever more points of contact with the Christian faith, until they became almost a single system that included both religious and temporal rulers.

We can think of the intellectual and cultural developments of the Middle Ages, of the West’s benefitting from and clashing against Islamic civilization, and similarly benefitting from and clashing against Eastern Christian traditions. We can call to mind the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, even the Protestant Reformation. These were all Catholic things, and while subsequent intra-Protestant developments are alien to the Catholic mind, the Reformation itself cannot be well understood, even by Protestants, without a knowledge of the Catholic backdrop of the story and indeed, of the Catholic currents of thought that informed and propelled the Reformers themselves.

Even the contemporary moment is a Catholic moment, although it can be more difficult to recognize it as such. The political institutions we possess, and the moral intuitions that we often invoke to justify them, have largely grown out of Medieval and Renaissance Europe; likewise the tradition of natural science, our artistic and philosophical context, our views of family and work and leisure. “Secularism” takes its name from a Catholic distinction between the rulers who have power in the present age as opposed to those whose first concern is for the eternal destiny of souls. Atheism in its many forms cannot help being derived from a reaction against Catholicism (or one of the offshoots of Catholicism), a reaction which itself speaks with the language of ancient Catholic mystical teachings about the darkness and absence of God.

To build on an oft-quoted remark of St Newman, we could perhaps say that the opposite is also nearly true — that to look at the history of the West (even in all its disfigurements and imperfection) with love, appreciation, sympathy, understanding, solidarity, admiration, rather than with hostility and contempt and alienation, is to be drawn inexorably toward thinking and living like a Catholic.

The person who loves Western history (not necessarily with a blind love, remember) does explicitly and externally what the Catholic does implicitly and internally. The external observer who can’t understand why either does so, may well be justified in such incomprehension. It is often unclear to us, even as its call is impossible to ignore.

Duolingo isn’t foolproof, but it’s amazing

When I see someone getting excited about Duolingo online, the immediate and universal response seems to be a collective pumping of the brakes. “Whoa, calm down. Sure, Duolingo’s not bad and all, but you know it doesn’t teach anyone any languages, right? You need to use other resources alongside Duolingo. Maybe instead of Duolingo. Maybe just give up now.”

The nay-sayers are half right. Duolingo doesn’t necessarily teach anyone a language. It’s not foolproof. But, it can.

It seems to me that there’s an implicit promise in the gamification that characterizes Duolingo: play the game, succeed in the game, and you will be learning languages.

This is an understandable assumption. But it is false, and to believe that misleading implication will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

Indeed, the more you focus on winning the game, racking up points and ascending the leaderboards in different leagues, the less likely you are to be progressing in the language. That will remain true as long as Duolingo is set up how it currently is. Buckling down and slowly learning a new language is not a good way to accumulate points in Duolingo.

To take an extreme example of how you could be doing “well” on Duolingo without learning anything, you could read the same “story” every day for ten years and do nothing else. Some of your statistics would be really impressive after that time, but your learning would be absolutely negligible.

But let’s take a couple more common mistakes. You could work through an entire language tree on the first level. You’ll reach the end after months of diligent work and have a pretty good overview of how the language fits together, but no depth of understanding.

Or you could do even better than that, take every unit of the entire language to level five or legendary or whatever, celebrate the completion of the language, and then move on to spend a couple years doing the same thing with the next language on your list. Why is this a mistake? If you abandon the language for a couple years, you’re likely to come back to with with much of it forgotten.

Duolingo is designed to be flexible enough to allow us to fail in these ways, because that same flexibility can be a great advantage in other cases. But none of these things mean that Duolingo can’t teach a language.

You can learn a language through university classes or private lessons, even though the same mistakes are possible there.

You can learn a language from studying independently with a textbook, if you have enough gumption, even though you can certainly make all the same mistakes there as well.

The real key, I think, is in allowing the gamification to support the use of some amazing language learning resources, rather than missing the language by getting too caught up in the game.

A Best Life in the Cracks

Demand your best life today, even if it has to be fitted into the cracks. Choose the best life.

What cracks? The cracks in a schedule. We all have obligations. None of us are as free as we wish we could be. The university student has classes and homework. The working parent has a job and a household. The obligations can consume our waking hours.

But we all have opportunities for leisure too, even if for now it’s just a few minutes at a time, scattered here and there throughout the day. The moments when we would normally scroll through social media, check the news, watch a video.

We can live any life in those cracks. We alone rule ourselves in those moments, unlike the rest of the time when we serve other masters.

We can live like royalty if we want, in those moments, or like soldiers, like scholars, like farmers, chefs, authors, artists, musicians, tyrants, philosophers, activists, mystics, anything at all.

What’s the life you would love to have, if your time were your own and finances were taken care of? Start training now, in case the opportunity ever arises.

Even if the opportunity never comes, that life will still infuse your existence, seeping through the cracks. What could be more worthwhile?

Education resists enthymemes

Enthymemes are the sort of partial and fragmentary reasoning that we find all around us. Often they arise as a short, single sentence that immediately exerts a persuasive force. Often they arrive wrapped in a story or a description.

The purpose of an enthymeme is to let us off the hook, to allow us to circumvent the need for thinking. If a syllogism makes a point in the course of three statements, the enthymeme will make that same point with only two statements, or only one, and leave the remainder of the syllogism implicit.

Let’s take an example. “Wow. The new budget focuses a lot on climate change.” Depending on whose mouth this statement is found, and before what audience, the statement will imply a second statement immediately behind it, either “and therefore the new budget is bogus” or “and therefore the new budget is encouraging to see.” But to reach either conclusion, a third statement, an intermediate one bridging from the first to the second, will also be necessary. “Whatever focuses a lot on climate change as a problem is encouraging to see / is bogus.”

The explicit statement might be unquestionable, might be objective and provable, and since nothing else is said the reasoning itself may seem equally ironclad. “They just said it focused on climate change, which is obviously true. Where’s the problem?” Even if the conclusion is made explicit, the enthymeme might appear very strong, at least to someone who wants to agree with it, since the conclusion seems to be based entirely and directly upon a statement that is firmly rooted in demonstrable reality. It’s only once the third statement is brought to light, the one most deeply concealed, that we can see more clearly how flimsy the argumentation is in itself and how much supplemental argumentation would be necessary to make the argument convincing.

In real life, syllogisms very rarely show up in their mature, elaborated, three-step formulation. Enthymemes are the medium of choice (or more frequently, are the medium of thoughtless resignation). But behind every enthymeme, the syllogism lurks, usually not difficult to find once we know how, and often revealing problems in an argument that are easily skated past when the syllogism is left partly implicit.

The fact that an argument appears in the form of an enthymeme is no disproof of it. Arguments that are perfectly true and perfectly reasonable can be communicated by way of enthymeme.

For a person properly educated, though, an enthymeme is a signal to pause and think, a reminder to resist (at least momentarily) the impulse to give assent to an argument. Enthymemes can conceal major problems in a line of reasoning. When listening to a weighty argument, it is prudent to agree to a point only after having searched out the hidden premises and weighed their value. To do otherwise just makes us the willing tools of others, the obedient dupes of whoever talks first or loudest.