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.

The Temptation in Moral Philosophy

I am as much an advocate for the importance of moral philosophy and virtue ethics as anyone, but I think it’s important to recognize that there is a very real temptation in it, which has the potential to disfigure and harm the person studying it.

The temptation is to see mainly other people in the things we are studying, to see the things we are studying mainly in other people.

“That vice? Oh yes, that reminds me so vividly of someone I know.” “This virtue? It’s certainly something I’d love to see more of in old so-and-so, who’s intolerable lately.”

The more we reflect on morality, the more we will recognize it in the world around us. Somehow, we often have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves.

And perhaps there is some foundation for this in many cases. Maybe in a given instance the moralist really is much farther along the path of virtue, and the other person could make the situation easier on everyone by summoning just a modicum of patience or courage or self-restraint.

Even in those extreme cases, however, we are not responsible for their behaviour, only for our own. Those situations are primarily opportunities not for teaching, but for growth, for excellence. If they want our guidance then we should offer it to them, but otherwise it is pointless to remark on their flaws. Their flaws are a challenge that can in fact bring out our own best qualities — our patience, magnanimity, wisdom, strength.

I am as guilty as anyone of finding fault with others. It’s something I’m working on. It’s a great trial, and an important chance to grow in virtue. Let’s commit to tackling this challenge, and to picking ourselves back up after every failure.

Is It Time to Increase the Difficulty?

Maybe you feel like you’re coasting, and you wonder if it’s time to challenge yourself in a new way.

I was reflecting this morning, and it occurred to me that an intuition of that sort marks an important moment for taking stock. I think there are a few questions to consider in that moment.

1. For one thing, it is worthwhile to ask whether the coasting is the bad or the good kind of coasting.

Coasting that leads to decay is bad coasting; if I was doing one push-up per week and getting progressively weaker over time, it’s time for a change.

Coasting that needlessly costs us our goals is bad coasting. If I’m running three times a week but not nearly covering enough distance to survive a marathon I’ve signed up for in a couple months (and if I don’t have a good reason for that neglect), then that’s not great.

But there’s good coasting too. An author who writes three pages per day could certainly be doing better, but at the end of the week she’s still twenty pages closer to having a finished book. A person who does ten minutes of language study per day, awaiting the moment when energy and capacity and inspiration come together to enable a commitment of fifteen or twenty minutes per day, is coasting well.

2. Another important consideration is why the coasting began to happen in the first place. Presumably before the coasting, at some point (even if it was long ago) we were pushing ourselves and getting out of the comfort zone. What led us to slow down, and are any of those factors still at play? Were there other commitments that we needed to give time and attention to? If we haven’t thought this through and dealt with any looming challenges, we have a much lower chance of succeeding this time as well.

3. And finally, there is the question of how to make things more difficult, if we choose to do so (as we may well). Spending more time on it? Choosing a variation that is more draining? Adding a second layer on top of what we’re already doing? Intuition and experimentation will probably be our best guides at this point in the process.

Classicism and Antibigotry Coexisting

If a bigot of European descent wants to find some thin veneer of respectability for objectionable views, it is likely that person will turn to the literature and accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Romans and maybe also Hebrews, and to the intellectual lineages connecting those ancient peoples to us today. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but if we’re honest, we know it’s true.

In turn, others may cast an eye of suspicion on anyone who is drawn to such subjects. Does this person like the Bible and Homer and Cicero merely because it is a justification for hating some demonized minority?

It’s not a completely stupid suspicion, either. If I saw a person walking down the sidewalk with, let’s say, a bloody knife, I’d certainly give a wide berth, even knowing that there are countless legitimate, innocent, harmless explanations that might account for the situation. Even though there may be numerous good reasons for studying the sources of European thought, if it is indeed a possible sign of evil thinking then it’s not unreasonable for someone to treat it with caution.

Still, that isn’t the full picture. It’s far more complicated than that. For instance, let’s think of the non-bigot, this person who looks at potential bigots with suspicion. Where does this antibigotry originate? If we believe the apologists for classicism, it arises from the European tradition itself, blossoming out of those very same classical sources. I believe Allan Bloom, for instance, makes this assertion somewhere in Closing.

The nomos-phusis distinction of the Greeks, the Hebrew teaching about humans as made in the image and likeness of God, the gospel message of love for neighbours and enemies and of the rejection of judgement, the Pauline proclamation of salvation for the Gentiles without their ceasing to be Gentiles, the vision in the Macedonian and Roman Empires of a civilization that could encompass and unite all peoples into a singular language and governmental structure and literary tradition — all of these elements eventually produced in some groups a thing never witnessed in all human history: a conscientious aversion to racism and sexism and xenophobia and all manner of bigotries, a thing that is indeed still taking shape in our own time.

Perhaps, however, that only means the tradition has transcended itself and rendered itself obsolete? Perhaps in the rejection of bigotry we must choose to reject our own literary and philosophical heritage as well, either because it represents too great a temptation to self-aggrandizement and xenophobia, or else, some might even say, because it is already in itself a massive instance of bigotry that cannot ever be justly celebrated once we have seen the need to jettison our bigoted impulses.

In my view, though, it is entirely possible both to resist bigotry and also to embrace a heritage, and I believe that in principle a great majority of antibigots today would agree; and the “classical” lineage would seem to be particularly well suited to such a synthesis.

Indeed, in theory at least, the study of classical texts could itself very well lead to or strengthen the rejection of bigotry. This might be the small upside of the bigots’ misappropriation of these ancient texts. Maybe the occasional bigot, out to flatter herself in the study of the great thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition, will end up educated out of her bigotry, even almost in spite of her own best efforts.

Was Leo Strauss an Atheist?

Leo Strauss argues for a certain agnosticism toward religious revelations, and yet he does so charitably, in contradiction to those who would merely mock or dismiss the possibility of divine revelation outright. There’s some reason to think that he was privately doubtful about the probability of genuine divine revelation, though I think perhaps less reason than is often supposed.

Is there any reason though, in Strauss’s eyes, to believe in a God apart from the question of revelation, in a divinity that may just as well not have revealed itself by intervention in human history? As far as I can tell, this sort of question is external to the investigation of political philosophy as Strauss committed himself to it, and so there is little indication of his conclusions.

We are left, then, with the question of whether it is really just to characterize Strauss as an atheist. Here’s my take: It doesn’t matter. Strauss may well have been an atheist. I am not. I still consider myself lucky to be an admirer and even an imitator of Strauss.

It doesn’t matter? How is that possible? Isn’t the theologico-political problem supposed to be a central facet of Strauss’s thought? How could that project be indifferent to the truth (or untruth) of divinity?

And yet, I think it can be, because Strauss is mainly interested not so much in the arguments for or against God or revelation (except to express a very reasonable agnosticism in contradiction of dogmatic atheists), but rather in the public and political consequences of different convictions.

If people believe or disbelieve in God and/or revelation, what will that mean for the city? What will it mean for the political community? What will it mean for the activities of any philosophers living in the political community?

For questions like these, what matters is not truth or untruth, but perception. If some people believe there’s an asteroid rocketing toward earth, that matters, whether or not there is an asteroid incoming. In the long run the asteroid itself matters too, of course, very much, but still it is certainly possible to investigate people’s beliefs about the asteroid, and the consequences and utility of those beliefs, in isolation from the question of whether the asteroid is real.

It is possible to think about the virtues of faith and the vices of superstition, and their place in the city, apart from the question of God. It is indeed worthwhile to think about such questions. And on those matters, Leo Strauss is an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance for all of us.

Progressivism is Reactionary

Progressivism is the opposite of reactionary, right? We tend to think so, but I no longer believe it to be true.

Think of the early leftists, surrounded by religion and royalty and privilege and hierarchy, roused to dream of something better.

The left today tends to care less about things like monarchy, focused as it is instead on family, marriage, gender, race, systemic oppression, microaggressions.

There is no utopian vision for progressivism, no master plan. One step is followed by another, but no one can know or control where it is headed. It is by nature a slippery slope, unmanaged, undirected. It is a tendency, but a reactive tendency.

We tend to think of conservatism as reactionary, and that’s certainly true. It is a reaction to the reaction. It aims to return to what came before, but it soon becomes characterized more by its hatred of progressives than by its love for what preceded them. All too much of the political spectrum’s right half is actually two degrees removed from reality. Desire to return or preserve is not sufficient, without a clear sense of what was good in the past and what was indeed in need of some correction.

Progressives see real problems with the existing or established order, problems that conservatism too often overlooks and denies.

Finding the problems isn’t the same as finding the solution, however, and that is commonly the failure of the left. Rather than seeking to improve a thing by strengthening what is weak or weakening what is corrupt, too often the impulse is to destroy, to replace, and this perhaps marks a failure to understand human nature.

Still, credit where credit is due. Reaction is not a bad response to injustice. The how might often be flawed, but the why cannot be faulted.