A good part of my intellectual struggle and burden throughout my life has been to find a view from outside of the modern world, from which to look at and evaluate that world.

It’s strange, in a way, that I have worked so hard to get my head outside of modernity, when there is so much about modernity that I appreciate. It is indeed my home. It is my community. In a way, everything that I have, I owe to it. Everything I am comes from modernity, and even the hints of an older world that have reached me are themselves filtered through the modern reality before they reach me.

I am grateful for modern medicine. I love the insights of the modern sciences. I respect the political achievements of modern nations. I am amazed by the scholarly achievements of the modern university.

And of course, it goes without saying that one can’t say a harsh word about modernity or technology these days without some little genius commenting that “lolol you know you’re actually literally typing on the internet right this second as you say that, it kind of undermines what you’re saying don’t you think.”

Still, I think that for the philosophical mind, there is a desire to step outside the accretion of assumptions that is everywhere and unquestioned in a given civilization, to find a standpoint that is not merely conventional and dogmatic, in order to see more clearly what is timelessly true and what is ephemeral. It is the question of nomos and physis; these things that my community believes, are they merely our tribal mythology, or are they the way the world truly is? We can’t answer that question from within the mythology itself, and so another standpoint, exterior to the society’s understanding, must be found.

I was fortunate in my youth to grow up with a sincere Christian faith, which helped shove a sort of wedge into my mind to compete with the modern assumptions about the way the world really is. It planted some questions early on, which enabled me to wonder whether modernity had the unquestionable, absolute authority to answer questions in the way that it seemed to claim for itself.

To be determinedly anti-modern is of course as irrational and pointless as it is to be mindlessly in favour of all things modern — probably even worse, if anything. There are many good things in the modern world, for which we should be grateful, and from which we ought to learn. To be predictably opposed to our society on every point is both irrational and irresponsible.

Still, the philosophical mind cannot be content with docilely accepting the account of the world that it receives from the surrounding society. Even if in the end a deep thinker ends up as the greatest apologist for a particular approach, it is still certain that such a judgement would be meaningless (and from the philosopher’s perspective, impossible) without having found some standpoint outside that approach to start from.

But how can we stand outside of modernity when it is so all-encompassing? And what will we find once we are there? Many possible standpoints are available. To entertain the possibility of religious revelation is one avenue, as I implied above. To imagine a good world without modern technologies is also an option. Proposed economic arrangements other than capitalism also offer a fascinating view from outside.

And what do we find? We find ourselves drawing closer to an understanding of human nature, to philosophy and political philosophy and the realities of epistemology, at the very least. Eventually, maybe we can say something worthwhile about this world in which we find ourselves.

Who Listens To Audiobooks?

I was in my early twenties when I first started listening to audiobooks, and I found it interesting to imagine how I might seem to others around me.

I had no car at the time, so I found it very convenient to listen to audiobooks as I walked through the city on my way from one place to the next.

And for some reason I never used headphones. Maybe it was a concern for safety … I don’t remember for sure. I was the nerdier version of that sort of person you might encounter today listening to music as he wheels his way down the sidewalk.

I would nestle my smartphone on top of my shoulder, under my shirt, where it was reasonably secure against falling to the ground and also close enough to my ear that I wouldn’t miss a phrase when an obnoxiously loud vehicle roared past.

And thus I walked through the city, a disembodied voice speaking from my shoulder like a well-educated little parrot.

I was listening to history, to philosophy, to economics, to fiction, to essays. But someone who cycled past me on the sidewalk, who heard not the content but just the sound of an audiobook, might be forced to supply the content in the form of a guess.

What could they guess? What sort of person striding down the street would care so much about a body of texts, and what would that person listen to? There were a few possible answers to the question that I could think of.

1. The Fundamentalist. Maybe they figured I was someone very religious, listening to revivalist preachers, sermons about hellfire, about the righteous and the wicked.

2. The Marxist. Or maybe they wondered if I was someone being brainwashed into the thinking of communism, learning to use terms like alienation and bourgeois and wage-slavery.

3. The Esotericist. Or maybe they thought I was someone who believed there was cosmic wisdom to be found in crystals and Eastern scriptures, learning to tap the energies of the universe through my oneness with the way of non-violence.

And maybe I was wrong in those guesses. Maybe they thought I was listening to something else entirely. I feel pretty sure, though, that not many could have guessed my real purpose.

I was setting out on the Arnoldian quest to find the best that has been thought and said. I was seeking to remake my mind. I wanted to be able to understand the thoughts of the brightest and wisest minds in the world, in all of history.

A big goal, I know. It’s a long path, which few of us will ever get anywhere close to completing, but it’s no less worth the walking. We’ll certainly never finish if we don’t get it started.

What’s Fascinating About Marx and Marxists

I know that the states that have called themselves Marxist have historically been brutal, bloody, unjust, and all but unworkable. I also don’t have strong opinions about Marx’s economic analyses and predictions, since although I have some familiarity with them, I don’t have the expertise to evaluate them intelligently.

When I look at the life of Marx, though, and the lives of some who followed him, like Lenin, one thing especially stands out to me, and that is what we might call the intellectually activist character of their labours.

I have to admit that I am amazed by the industriousness with which these thinkers committed themselves to learning and understanding, and on the flip side, to political action and organization. They worked feverishly, tirelessly, and there are times when I admire that quality about them.

I don’t think that most of us really ought to spend all of our time and our energy striving to change the way society is structured. A major part of our effort should go toward shaping ourselves into someone good, and forming a family, a community, investing in it and enjoying it.

And yet, something in me can’t help but believe that there is a time for trying to make the world a better place, in big ways, as well. There is a time for people like the abolitionists, let’s say for example. There’s something of that character in all of us, to one degree or another. And a great many of us never tap into it, certainly not after our mid-twenties or so.

We can look at the world around us, and we will see many examples of injustice, of unjust systems that are direly in need of reform or rebirth.

We won’t know how to fix them, at first, even if some of us might be tempted to assume straight away that we will. Thus the need for a disciplined and fervent study of the problem and the related issues.

And even once we think we have some sense of what needs to be done, it won’t be clear how someone like you or me can make a difference. And indeed, at first we probably won’t be able to do anything of worth. We’ll need to perfect our hearts and minds and bodies for the job. We’ll need to cultivate a network of people who might be able to help us. We’ll need to perform the actions that might make a difference again and again, let them accumulate, let our skill grow, give more and more opportunities for our efforts to catch hold.

This isn’t the only thing we should be doing with our lives, but it is a good thing to do.

And it’s possible. We can find examples of it from history. For that, if for nothing else, we can thank people like Marx and his followers.

Do People Believe Virtue is Most Important?

I don’t think most people believe virtue is what is most important.

I don’t think that’s what most parents teach their children, not by example and not even by word. We tell them to decide their futures and resolve their problems by doing what will get them ahead in life, what will set them up with money, will leave them respected, will keep them safe. We don’t tell them to decide based on what will be best for the kind of person they are becoming, regardless of those other considerations.

I don’t think it’s what most teachers give their students. They want knowledge for us, skills, security, insight maybe, power and influence, but to see them extolling virtue is rare, in my experience.

I don’t think it’s what most leaders tell their followers. They tell us to get what’s owed to us, to get vengeance, to shame our enemies, to proclaim our greatness, but not to face up to what makes us bad people and try to be better. And I can understand that.

I think even religious leaders don’t try to make this case. They assume that we want what’s best for ourselves and our families, defined as vindication, satisfaction, future happiness.

It’s not what one coworker says to another. We encourage one another to pursue pleasure and protect our rights.

It’s not what most friends say when commiserating.

What if it were?

The Platonic Proof of God

It seems to me that there’s an approach to thinking about divinity which is rarely mentioned today (though perhaps it has been growing in popularity just recently), which is powerful and beautiful indeed.

This approach is the Neoplatonic journey to the One, the movement of the mind toward that which is purely simple and indivisible.

Onewardness is a common direction of human thinking. It seems to me, indeed, that it might fairly be spoken of as that which most characterizes human thinking, and surely it is precisely this onewardness that makes human thinking so unique and powerful.

When we see a jumble of unlike things and find their interconnectedness in a single system, we are taking what is many and bringing the many into unity, by means of our thinking. Our ability to speak of ecosystems or communities highlights this human capacity to unify.

The opposite also shows the same thing; when we look at a coherent whole and mentally disassemble it into its essential parts, we are taking what is many and drawing forth the unities that are obscured by their participation in the multiplicity, and again we accomplish this by way of thought. To speak of the organs which compose an organism, or of strata or atoms or indeed of parts, shows this human ability and human yearning to find the unities behind multiplicity.

When we class multiple individuals together into a universal abstraction, we are once more taking the many and bringing them into a kind of unity. Speaking about biological kingdoms, families, genera, species, is an example of how we engage in this sort of simplifying work.

And again, our ability to move in the opposite direction is a sign of the same thing. When we begin with an abstraction which encompasses many things, and we recognize the individuality of a given instance of that general abstraction, we are taking the many and transforming it into one. Asking an infant to point to “a tree” is an example of this ability to move from the general (treeness) to the individual (that thing right over there).

So human thought is always striving toward the one. To think is itself almost able to be defined as a striving after the one. We are constantly confronted by the many, and straining to replace it with greater unity and simplicity of different sorts.

Well then, we find ourselves faced with two questions:

1. Do these mental steps toward greater unity correspond to deeper levels of unity that exist within reality, or are they nothing more than self-deceptions created within the human mind? And,

2. Is there an extreme limit to onewardness, or does it continue on without end? In other words, is it like straightness, where something can get straighter and straighter until it reaches perfect straightness and cannot be made any straighter? Or is it more like bigness, where something can keep getting bigger and bigger without ever reaching a logical point of maximal bigness?

The Neoplatonist takes the former position in each of the two questions. The unities in our minds bear at least some kind of resemblance to the way things are in reality, and there is a most-unified Something toward which all of the other, lesser unities point us.

The Neoplatonic answers to these questions seem entirely coherent to me. In fact, truth be told, any answers other than the Neoplatonists’ seem like they would be incoherent.

But that’s a post for another day.

A Rumour of Wisdom

When I was younger, I heard a whisper of a rumour. It was a rumour about where wisdom was to be found.

I heard that long ago, there was a succession of thinkers, and in their thoughts can be seen glimpses of that wisdom which encompasses and indwells the world.

Out of one part of those thoughts grew all the mighty technology and terrible machines of the modern world, all the wonders that so impress us today. And I heard that this one part of their thought, which has expanded into such a marvellous enterprise in our past, was only the smallest and lowest part of what they knew.

Originally these thinkers were Greek, but their later successors often also wrote in Latin and Arabic and other languages.

Their writings are often translated, though sometimes not, or sometimes only poorly. Even where good translations are readily available, the ideas are highly difficult to assimilate, requiring many years of toilsome effort to make progress in.

And it’s only a rumour. Few people I’ve ever met have made any progress at all in that sort of learning, and even for those who have, they can often only impart some small portion of what they’ve learned.

Who would stake everything on a rumour? What if you gave your life to learning these things and in the end found only vanity and emptiness?

Still, so many of the other rumours of wisdom that float around today are more easily dismissed. This one at least seems like one of those that may be true. And this one hopeful glimmer will necessarily attract many who thirst for wisdom.

If this is where wisdom is to be found, it is everything. For many of us, then, it will seem worth the risk.

Books for Health and Strength

So you want to be healthy and strong? I know a couple books that might help.

We all feel inspired to improve our bodily condition at certain points in our lives. The doctor gives a suboptimal piece of news. The movie’s attractive protagonist is transformed through struggle and determination. An unexpected glimpse of oneself in a mirror or a photograph forces a confrontation with reality.

But inspiration and motivation aren’t enough. We won’t reach the destination if we can’t even find what direction to turn in, or which path to embark on. On the questions of diet and exercise, there is a veritable mountain of competing advice available, and a shocking level of misinformation floating around. Everyone wants to make a buck, and the best way to do so is apparently by telling people what they want to hear and offering some new spin.

So the trick, then, is to cut through the noise and find the truth.

I think these two books offer a great deal of help in that respect. You might not want to hear all of what they have to say, but it’s my conclusion that they are nonetheless worth hearing out.

One book offers guidance on the science of exercise, and one on the science of diet. Neither is a how-to manual. The exercise book doesn’t give a full workout regimen, and the diet book won’t offer a list of meals to eat. But they give the guidance which will make it possible to choose exercises and foods wisely, which in my experience is far more valuable.

The First 20 Minutes, by Gretchen Reynolds, is a book without parallel about exercise science. It blasts away some common myths, and it explores many of the benefits of exercise and the best and worst ways to exercise. An inspiring and informative read.

My second book recommendation is How Not to Die, by Michael Greger (not to be confused with his followup book How Not to Diet, also a pretty good read but not where I’d recommend beginning). How Not to Die is an amazing book. It is very challenging to most of us who read it, but it also makes an effort to be welcoming. There are almost certainly problems with the kinds of food we come to eat, including problems we had no idea were anything wrong. This is the book that will tell us how to change our eating for the better, and it will break the news to us in a gentle, clear, and winsome manner.

If you want to live a long life, to preserve your brain’s health, to feel good and strong, to be able to think clearly and without hindrance, then these two books are the place to start. They cut through the noise and lay out a path which is perhaps not easy, but at least clear.

Learning A Language Well Enough

I’ve realized that there’s a particular point in the language-learning process that I’m excited to reach with every language on my list.

“Good enough.” That’s the first big goal.

Obviously, “good enough” is not the end goal of language learning, but rather “proficiency,” whatever that might mean for a person’s particular goals, is the true aim.

Still, “good enough” might very well be the most important milestone on the road to proficiency. What does it mean? For me, “good enough” basically means being able to puzzle my way through a given short text in the target language, without being forced to give up.

I want the language to be good enough that I can read through real texts, slowly, with appropriate supports.

Currently, I’m nowhere near good enough with Arabic to add it into my reading rotation. I can’t quite even pronounce the script consistently, let alone consistently recognize eg the difference between a verb and a noun. With Russian, though, the gap between me and “good enough” is not nearly so wide. I’ve studied substantially more Russian than Arabic currently, and so at some point in the next while, if my schedule will allow, I hope to review a bit and work Russian into the cycle of languages that I read regularly.

Once I’m good enough with a language that I can begin reading in it and learning by encountering it directly in texts, then, in a way, I can coast. All I need to do is read, and keep reading. If I read a lot then I’ll learn more quickly, and if a little then I’ll learn more slowly, but all I need to make sure to do is to keep reading the sorts of things I want to be able to read.

Reading real texts in a language is incomparably useful for learning that language. It gives a sense of what the language is really like, what sorts of sentence structures are actually common, which words are important, which tenses are less common to see. Reading texts enables more targeted learning, focusing more on the most important components of the language rather than learning the whole thing evenly.

Besides, reading texts in other languages is the whole purpose of learning languages, for me. I might as well start on it as soon as I can.

So I’m most excited to get my languages to that point.

You’ll Be Good at It

It can be an exciting thing, or a frightening thing, to realize that the things we’re doing regularly right now, if we keep doing them for the next few years, are things we’ll get to be very good at.

It can be reading and reflecting on philosophical texts. It’s astonishing how much a text changes over the course of a few years of practice. Something you read early on will make so much more sense when it’s read after half a decade of reading other philosophical texts.

It might be a language that we’ll be better at. It doesn’t matter how bad you think you are at languages. If you are constantly, repeatedly spending time studying one, it will eventually start making sense, and probably a lot sooner than you’d fear.

Maybe it’s exercise. Barring a serious injury, a couple years of running or lifting weights will change your body and soul, and will leave you considerably more capable than at the beginning.

Then again, it’s not only the good things we do that will grow within us.

Maybe being passive-aggressive is what we’ll be good at. Maybe it will be self-righteousness, or procrastination, that will become our expertise.

We have so much power over our future. Don’t think about the things that you’ll do this year, or by Christmas, or by next month. Think about today.

Make today the kind of day you can be proud of. Or at least make it one step closer to that kind of day.

Make that small change and hang onto it, and once it’s getting easy, make a second change. Don’t rush it. There’s no hurry. Make a small improvement and cling to it, and that’s more than enough.

Learn to change the day today, and you’ll simultaneously learn to change your entire life.

Do something you can be proud of today. And then do it again tomorrow.

Whatever we do day by day will be who we are, and what we’re great at, in just a few years. What will those things be?