It has struck me that studying languages can be a little bit similar to the experience of studying chess.
I’m not that serious about chess these days, and to be honest in fact I’m pretty rusty, but I went through a phase some years ago where I was studying different openings and tactics every day. At that time I was frequently playing chess games online against random opponents. It had an interesting, unexpected side effect.
As a result of all that study and practice, my mind was full of meaningless bits of chess all day. I would be eating dinner and would suddenly imagine a rook lift, out of context, or a bishop move that would check the king on a certain square.
I didn’t imagine these things deliberately, and they didn’t have any particular purpose, but they continued popping into my mind anyway. I suspect it was part of the process (or a harmless effect of the process) of my mind digesting and making meaning out of the positions that were still relatively fresh in my memory.
Just recently, as I’ve been studying German a little bit more intensely, I’ve started noticing something very similar going on. I have little meaningless bits of the language floating about in my brain.
The other day it was jeglicher and unerbittliche, and then yesterday niedrigere. Today it’s abgetane. Something about these words causes them to snag on the fabric of my consciousness and get caught there.
The words roll around in my head all day, always in the background but never fully gone. I taste them with my mind, drum their rhythms, scrape fingertips across their varied textures, chime their pure vowels, feel the rumble of their jostling consonants underfoot.
I suppose whatever we’re focusing on and putting time into must leave a sort of mental residue, more powerfully in proportion to how much work we put into it. Judging such residue might be a good way to get a sense of what holds a central place in our lives at any given moment, and of whether we’re happy about it.
There’s probably no language that I’m more excited to read fluently than classical Greek.
I’ve spent time studying ancient Greek in the past, but I’m somewhat rusty with it by now, and it’s not the next language up on my roster to review. Still, I am hoping to get back to it within the next year or two (after spending some time in the next while strengthening my German and French).
I wrote in a previous post that there are a number of people in the West who wish they could learn Latin, because Latin held such a place of importance in our history and still somehow has a powerful hold on our imagination and identity. I mentioned there that Greek has a similar place in our history, but somehow also a weaker grasp.
The exception that I didn’t mention is how there are some groups of Christians who are strongly attracted to Greek because it allows access to the New Testament in the original language. (It also lets us read the ancient translation of the Old Testament in Greek, which is super cool, but people generally seem to get less excited about that thought.)
I have to admit, though, that personally what makes me most energized to study Greek is the thought of being able to read the Socratics, and their contemporaries, and their predecessors and successors. Philosophy and rhetoric, history and epic, tragedy and comedy. It sounds wonderful.
The age of Socrates was a fascinating time, and the events and thoughts and phrases of that time have echoed down the ages, ever since, ever relevant.
There are other languages and ages that I’m looking forward to immersing myself in. The Hebrew of the prophets. The Latin of the scholastics. The Italian of Renaissance Italy, perhaps. The German of Kant and those who came after. The French of the early 20th century.
If you told me that one of those other languages and its window into intellectual history seemed most fascinating to you, I would not try to argue the point. I too am attracted to all those paths, and hope to make my way to them eventually.
For now, though, for me, having not yet really mastered a single one of these languages or literatures, the moment that towers over all the others is Periclean Athens, and the intellectual movement which eventually found its centre there.
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Can you believe it’s the end of the month already? Where did the time go?”
Time passes. It’s what it does.
And we have a choice about how we can live our lives. We can live in a way that makes the passage of time a sadness, or in a way that makes it a victory.
So often it seems a sadness. As time passes we lose things. We lose our youth, and with it, perhaps, some of our health, our strength, our beauty. We lose many of the friendships and relationships that characterized a more vibrant phase of our life. We lose some of the knowledge that we once worked so hard to memorize.
But there are also gains. We might gain wisdom. We might gain aged friendships that are stronger and deeper than the multiplicity of youthful friendships they replace. We might be more established in a career, might have more financial stability.
And if we set up our lives so that day after day and month after month we are brought irreversibly closer to our goals, then each passing span of time is a reason to celebrate.
If we are constantly trying to improve ourselves and our situation, and finding ways to make this happen as automatically or as effortlessly as possible, then time becomes a friend and an ally.
Start improving diet and exercise. Then a month gone is a month in the right direction. Study a language every day. Then a passing year is a year closer to mastery of that language. Read good books. Write.
Time will slip past no matter what we do. We might as well try to make that fact a reason for celebration rather than just for grief.
The other week, something encouraging happened. I made a note to myself to write it down, because I was so excited about it and I wanted to preserve the memory.
It was a Monday. I had spent the day busily bustling around, and made an extra effort to get through a to-do list that seemed especially long that day.
In the early afternoon, my to-do list was growing shorter and less urgent, and a moment arrived when anyone else in the house was either sleeping or otherwise occupied, so that I had some time to myself. Time to spend however I liked!
Many days I would have taken a nap myself in a moment like that and felt no shame in it. Other days I might have sent messages to friends to keep in touch, or perhaps simply scrolled through social media looking for something interesting to read.
This day, however, as the time of freedom approached, I was looking forward to having a chance to review a piece of academic German writing that I’ve been reading through slowly with a friend.
The house was quiet. I made some coffee. And then I sat down and spent an hour reading German, looking up the words I didn’t remember, reviewing my list of unfamiliar words when I needed a little break, and then diving back in and reading more.
It’s not the first time something like that has happened in my life, but those experiences are rare.
It’s not rare for me to study languages, especially in the last couple years. But to rush to spend an extended period reading from a text, that is more uncommon.
The best parallel I can think of from the past is one time when I read John’s entire Apocalypse in Greek on a bus trip from Saskatchewan to BC. At the time I had hoped that was the beginning of a new habit, but in fact it was the end of one.
But a decade later, after much effort, I’ve gotten there again. I was, in that moment, relieved — relieved to have the chance to do something I felt good about wanting to do! And I’m relieved by that relief.
I can’t say what it means for the future, if anything, but I do feel good about who I’m becoming right now.
What we today tend to focus on as examples of morality truly are moral issues, but they are only the very barest beginnings of moral consideration.
For instance, there’s a realm of behaviour that is uncontroversially understood to be wrong, even evil. To raise a question about this realm is to be recognized by all sides as having a damaged mind. Included in this category would be matters like murder, different varieties of nonconsensual sex, and corrupt business practices.
There is also a set of contested moral questions, in which one party tends to take the side of tradition or convention, and the other the side of liberation from tradition, with each party feeling true morality is on its own side, representatives summoning as many arguments and examples as possible in support of their conclusion. Included here are varieties of consensual sexual practices, certain instances of the taking of human life, and the distribution or redistribution of money.
This same bifurcation, of uncontroversial and controversial moral convictions, can be found in smaller ways in our own private lives. Think of alcohol. Pretty much everyone agrees that to drive drunk is a terrible thing. There isn’t any such consensus on other uses of alcohol. Some are fine with drunkenness as a part of life, and at the opposite extreme there are others won’t touch a drop.
When we think about morality today, we tend to take the controversial cases as representative of moral fervour. We live out our moral duty by being faithful to our side of the debate, whether that means a peaceful and clear sobriety or an iconoclastic Dionysian frenzy, whether it takes the form of a traditional sexual ethic or a transgressive promiscuity, whether by working hard for a bigger paycheque or scaling down costs in order to live within a smaller income.
The same thing is true, perhaps even more true, in the political sphere. To fight for morality is to fight over laws about marriage and gender, over laws concerning abortion and euthanasia, either fighting for sanctity or for emancipation, and always feeling like the voice of justice is speaking through us.
Those liminal cases are important. We have to decide what we care about and how much we care about it and draw our lines in the sand.
But it seems to me that the reason why they’re important is so often lost.
We speak as though each decision is the doorway to happiness. We may even believe that a life of satisfaction is just on the other side of doing the right thing, or seeing the right thing done.
But happiness is not there. Happiness doesn’t come from making one choice, or by accepting one rule. Those choices and rules are only there to make it possible for us to pursue the sort of moral life which will actually lead to happiness.
What we think of as morality, with its promise of happiness, is only the outer entrance to the way of morality.
To pursue the moral life and the happiness that can come from it, is to commit ourselves to the life of growing in virtue. It is to embrace years and decades of trying to become better than we are, of seeking to be our best in all the situations that may arise.
No one will ever force us to do all that work, which is why most of us will never undertake it.
But we can be inspired to take up the challenge for ourselves. We can find inspiration in examples and words, in stories and encounters.
But first we have to realize that morality goes much deeper than we often assume.
There’s a mathematical way of listening to music that most people aren’t aware of.
The major and minor scales have seven degrees each. (If you just thought, “but a scale has eight notes from bottom to top!” you’re right, but the eighth tone is actually technically the first note repeated again, an octave higher.)
It doesn’t matter if the scale starts on a C or an Eb or an F#. The seven degrees of the scale will relate to one another in the same way. That’s why we can transpose a tune from one key into another and it sounds basically the same (or it does to the great majority of us without perfect pitch, anyhow).
In music theory, they sometimes refer to each degree of the scale by its number. “Dropping from the five, down to the three …” And each of the seven notes, each number, has its own characteristic feeling within the scale.
-The one is a place of rest.
-The seven is unrest, straining for the one.
-Five and three are also peaceful, though in the end even they long to resolve to the one.
-The four and the six are less urgently restless than the seven, each tending to fall to the more restful degree below itself (the six down to the five, and the four to the three).
-The two is a bit ambivalent, happy to move either down to the one or up to the three.
(Incidentally, I wrote this list to describe the tendencies within a major scale, but it is also true of the harmonic minor.)
Because of this set of tensions and tendencies, it is possible to learn to hear a musical tune as its numbers. We can train ourselves to recognize where a note belongs within the context of a song’s scale when we hear it.
My experience, which I know some others have shared, is that it can be helpful to start by focusing on the deepest notes in a song (e.g. the bass guitar), since they tend to stick out from the rest of the music, inhabiting their own sonic space, and they often (though not always) move around a lot less than the notes of the melody.
Some people will say that learning to hear music like this is a useless exercise. That’s not strictly correct — being able to hear music like this has made me an immeasurably better piano player than I would have been otherwise, for instance, which is a pretty cool skill to be able to pull out at a party.
But for the most part, it’s true, this is a useless ability. But I believe it’s a beneficial and worthwhile useless ability. Sometimes the useless things are also the most beautiful things. Don’t make this a top priority, but don’t be afraid to do it, don’t think it’s out of reach, and don’t ultimately treat it as a waste of time.
One of my favourite fictional series is Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. I love it partly because of how well-written it is, and partly because of how it inspires me to strive to educate and improve myself.
In the books, learning magic is a little bit like learning high-level mathematics, and a little bit like learning complicated old dead languages. (Indeed, learning dead languages is actually one component of learning magic, in that universe.) It is arduous, slow intellectual work to improve at magic, but those few who can be disciplined enough to do it will find themselves able to change the reality around them with a word, a gesture.
This sort of story really appeals to me, largely because it points to a set of profound truths about the world we live in.
-Knowledge, words, languages, have power, power that can (if used rightly) make life better for ourselves and also for others within our relational reach.
-These things are difficult to master, really requiring decades of effort for most of us to make meaningful headway, and often with only meagre rewards in the short term.
-We can make faster progress once we have a sense of what we need to learn, but even then the only way forward is brute force, just putting in the time and effort and being consistent. Read and reread, learn and relearn, think it through to the point of understanding and then think it all through again.
We can study languages, and philosophy, and rhetoric, and the techniques and output of the great writers and thinkers of history. Without that study we cannot hope to change things in the world, certainly not in a way that is at all responsible. With such study, though, we just might.
The vast majority of people will not know that this is a reasonable choice to make; of those who do, a still smaller fraction has the capacity and the determination to follow such a course of studies down its twisting and exhausting path.
Do we have what it takes? Can we put in the time and effort now in view of the great advantages we will possess later? If we think about how we spend our time on an average day, we probably have our answer.
When we begin to study philosophy, we read what others have written about it. At that beginning point, there is a pair of opposed errors, either of which we can easily fall into: contempt for what is old, and contempt for what is new.
Some people beginning to enter into philosophy will think that things written a century ago are already ancient history, and that anything older will certainly be not much better than a systematization of superstitions.
Others will believe (often under the guidance of some contemporary thinker or school of thought) that any major thinker more recent than Duns Scotus, or Plotinus, or Aristotle, is just some shade or another of trendy garbage that has lost touch with the original, ancient philosophical impulse.
My own bias is to say that “contempt for what is old” is by far the worse of the two errors. It’s an understandable error, and it even contains some traces of truth, but not enough to justify it. The person with a love for the past has deep roots. The person who idolizes the present will have become ridiculous and worse in only a decade or two.
Still, in the end they are both errors. They are both, indeed, obvious errors. Each denies rationality to a group of people on the basis of prejudice rather than of proof.
Don’t reject the great minds of the past. There is so much wisdom and insight and beauty there, often of a sort that we cannot easily find today apart from their help.
But also don’t reject the leading minds of the present day. Just remain agnostic about them until there’s a chance to study them in more detail. We don’t need to say “They’re so awful,” in order to justify putting off thinking through their work in favour of what will seem like more basic or valuable or pressing studies. We can instead simply say, “That sounds fascinating, and I hope to be able to spend some time looking into it someday, but it’s simply outside my knowledge so far.” We can escape those situations without being rude or arrogant and simultaneously without jumping to unjustified conclusions.
And if we never get around to reading this or that random contemporary thinker, it’s definitely not the end of the world. But we really should try to grow more familiar with contemporary philosophy when the moment is right. There will be some insights that we couldn’t have had without their help, and also it opens up the possibility of becoming part of that contemporary conversation if we ever choose to do so.
To despise either the old or the new is a barrier to effective engagement with philosophical learning.
Mysticism is not simply an object of philosophical investigation. It is, in a way, the whole goal of philosophy.
Now, mysticism is indeed something that philosophy can investigate. It’s true that the philosophy of religion examines the testimony of people who claim to have mystical experiences and probes into the questions of language and reality that arise in light of such experiences. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t the whole relationship of philosophy and mysticism. This is philosophy looking down, reflecting on written records of a particular phenomenon. But philosophy can also, metaphorically speaking, look up from itself toward mysticism.
We can speak of mysticism in a narrow way and a broad way, and both are legitimate. The broader view will not speak specifically of God but of the entire realm of existence toward which we are ignorant. We cannot begin to grasp the many truths that are unknown to us, and we have no way of knowing whether the area of our ignorance might include anything beautiful, anything powerful, anything dangerous, anything glorious, and so the nature of our ignorance, if we dwell on it, can inspire strong feelings and intriguing, often unanswerable, questions.
The narrower account of mysticism will focus on a smaller part of our ignorance. We do not know, and perhaps never can fully know, what is the source of existence, what is the highest truth, the goal of that human longing which is never fully satisfied by finite enjoyments. The narrower kind of mysticism reflects on our ignorance of the deepest origin, perfection, end, of thought and of human existence and of all things, an ignorance which we will never entirely eradicate in this life, and in so reflecting it casts us into questions concerningwhat might reasonably be called the divine, though some will prefer to avoid that term, which is okay too.
The thing that I want to emphasize here is that these matters, this investigation, these questions, are not merely something that reside outside of philosophy, something done by other kinds of people that can be analyzed by philosophy. This sort of work exists at, and belongs at, the very heart of the philosophical project. Such wondering is proper to philosophers, both in the broader and, perhaps even more so, the narrower sense.
Philosophers peer into our ignorance, with no presumption that such ignorance can or will be overcome. Most of all, philosophers attune themselves to the ignorance of the highest and deepest and greatest things, and stay there, not forgetting how little we know and how much there might be.
And to address oneself to an unknown absolute is itself, already, a mysticism, in the narrow sense.
I know, I’m wading into controversy. I want to share some thoughts about feminism. But actually, I should say up front that my whole approach to feminism aims to minimize the opportunities for controversy and self-superiority and bitterness, from all sides. It probably doesn’t succeed fully in that goal, but it’s the best thing I’ve found yet.
(In fact, maybe feminism is not as controversial today as it was half a decade ago. I know there are many feminists who, in trying to stay true to their feminism, are today considered regrettably bigoted, so please forgive me if I’m too far behind the times. See my post-script at the end of this post.)
I started out staunchly opposed to feminism. After some initial confusion and uncertainty, I had a professor who was very bright, very engaging, and quite dismissive of feminism. I remain indebted to this professor for so much of my intellectual development, but in some respects it has taken me several years to extricate myself from a few of his more flamboyant positions and think through the questions for myself. Thus, for some time I was convinced against feminism.
The first cracks in my anti-feminist position appeared when I observed how often my feminist friends would accuse those who were self-avowed non-feminists of being opposed to higher education for women and votes for women, since those things came from feminism. At first these accusations caused no trouble for my views, since they seemed an obvious instance of the fallacy of composition. Just because we call the people from a century ago by the same name as the people from today, that doesn’t mean they are or represent the same thing.
However, at some point it occurred to me that there was something implicit in the accusation which I had missed the first several times I encountered it. If not being a feminist meant you were opposed to women having higher education and votes, then was it also true that if you were in favour of higher ed and votes for women, you would be right to call yourself a feminist? The conclusion seemed to follow. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was something to consider.
Some time later, I heard a short staged debate on the radio between three women: a “radical feminist,” a “moderate feminist,” and someone who denied that she was a feminist. What was fascinating to me was the way the two feminists related to the non-feminist; everything she said about feminism, every reason why she didn’t like it or disagreed with it, was answered with something like “well you don’t have to believe that to be a feminist,” or even, “I’ve never met a feminist who believes that!” The non-feminist was very intelligent and brought up many of the points which were convincing to me, and many more besides: feminism thinks there are no differences of significance between men and women, or it thinks we should try to make men and women as similar as possible, or it thinks that women should be shamed for not being more like men, or it tries to hold men today guilty for what past generations have done. For each point, the other two didn’t try to defend the positions but simply said, you don’t have to believe that.
Hearing this debate was a real turning point for me. It helped me see the diversity in what had seemed the unified edifice of feminism. There is room within feminism for disagreement. It sounds so obvious, saying it now, but at the time it was a revelation! Being a feminist doesn’t mean signing off on a particular creed or agenda. There is a small non-negotiable core to feminism, and beyond that core there is room for debate.
So then what is this non-negotiable core? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says there are two basic propositions which must be affirmed by someone who wishes to be a feminist: that women should not be treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women, and that there are women in the world today who are being treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women. Thus, there is a normative and a descriptive component.
According to this standard, a great many people who don’t consider themselves feminists actually are.
It will be immediately clear what is lacking from the non-negotiable core: an account of fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice, goodness/badness. Different feminists will construe justice differently, and that is completely acceptable.
Why then waste time arguing about who’s a feminist and whether feminism is good or bad? Let’s all count ourselves feminists, since by this account we all are (or certainly we all should be). Then our quarrels will all become quarrels within the family, rather than conflicts between distinct tribes. That won’t solve all our problems, but it may bring us a considerable step closer to resolving our differences, and that seems eminently worthwhile to my eyes.
PS: It is my guess that I would try to follow this same approach with those other intellectual approaches which have been offshoots of, or greatly intermingled with, feminism, such as those contemporary theories dealing with race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. However, I have not thought this approach through as carefully in those areas and so for now that idea remains only a conjecture.