My Russian Story

(Note: I composed, titled, and scheduled the following post long before Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Completely unrelated.)

A few years ago, when I started using Duolingo, I wanted to find a language that would be interesting enough to motivate me to practice.

There were a few prerequisites I came up with for choosing this language.

For instance, I didn’t want it to be anything too similar to English or too easy for English-speakers. I wanted it to be something exotic, something that James Bond would casually reveal himself to be fluent in to the amazement of all around. That ruled out languages like German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian.

I also didn’t want it to be something I’d taken classes in before. It had to be something I was starting fresh, learning completely on my own. I studied French in high school, and I did a semester of Mandarin in college, and I took a couple years of Greek and Hebrew and Latin, so all of those were out as well.

So I picked Russian. It took me a year to get through the Russian tree on Duolingo. It was hard work, and by the end I was far from being expert at Russian … but I’d learned a lot.

And then here’s the craziest part of the story. Once I finished the Russian course, I decided to erase my progress. All of it. I started again from scratch.

Why? Why in the world would I do that? (I still have to ask myself sometimes!) It was to prove something to myself, and to express my confidence in myself.

I knew that even in losing all I worked for, I would still keep the good habit I had built up. That was what mattered to me. And I proved that to myself. It was tough, and painful. And it felt very good.

Duolingo as Waging War

I’m in the process of trying to learn and maintain several languages on Duolingo. It’s so exciting! So worthwhile.

And it occurred to me just recently that it feels a little bit as though I’m a general with limited resources, trying to wage a war on multiple fronts.

In one language (I won’t name the languages, because they are modern languages beloved to modern peoples, and I won’t want you to imagine me approving of waging war against the actual countries or regions in which these languages are spoken, so I won’t tempt you), I have subdued the entire region, and I have it under my control, but just barely. At any time, the forces of forgetfulness could erupt in rebellion and take back some or even most of the ground I’ve gained. I must check in periodically to ensure that there is not too much unrest, knowing that the longer I can maintain hold of the language, the better are my chances of being able to continue to hold it into the future.

In a couple other languages, I have half the region conquered, but in each of these there is still half a country free from my governing, making my grip even more tenuous. As with the first language, in these cases I must visit periodically to ensure that I haven’t lost the ground already gained, and at the back of my mind I always know that at some point, when I have the energy for it and no other higher priorities pressing on me, I will need to take further steps in securing the parts of these languages in which I have not yet been victorious.

There’s another language which covers a vast region, but in which the inhabitants are very weak in resisting my forces. (It’s a long course, in other words, but thankfully the language is very similar to English and so not as difficult to learn.) I’ve been at war with this language for a long time, and it is three quarters mine. Because the language doesn’t fight back so vigorously, I don’t have to try as hard to keep the gains I have already made in it. However, this is probably the language I’m most excited to learn on Duolingo, and so the long, boring, endless war must continue to occupy many of my hours into the future.

And there’s another language, even easier to learn but with an even larger course, into which I’ve made some small forays but which must, for now, remain a future battleground. Once my current wars are further along, I will give my attention to this other language, and I will do so with gusto! For now, though, it will have to stay on the outer borders of my efforts, never really a focus.

Currently, that is how things stand with my campaign.

To war, my friends! Let’s learn some languages.

Conservatism, Romanticism and Classicism

Conservatism elevates the living political tradition of a community, and in principle at least, it advocates slow, modest changes to any problematic laws or institutions. Its central instinct is encapsulated in the lovely generalization that it’s much easier to break a good thing than to build one. It works on the assumption that it is better to preserve and improve an imperfect but practicable reality, than to replace that reality with a perfect but untested dream. This is an ancient approach to politics, and in it there is much wisdom, much prudence, much shrewdness.

However, to me it seems clear that it is also inadequate. It cannot be satisfying for any serious thinker in itself. This is so because insofar as it has any content, it is purely relative.

I am not saying I reject conservatism. It appeals to me greatly, and I’d say that overall I embrace it as an approach to how we should think about society and societal changes. Still, by itself it is not enough.

Conservatism judges things by newness and oldness. That is the main relevant distinction that makes a person a conservative. A thing is approved if it managed to last for a while. This doesn’t give us any real vantage from which to judge whether a thing is good or evil, smart or silly, timely or timeless or irrelevant.

Conservatism at its best might help us recognize and even realize the best regime that can come into existence in a given time and place. It cannot by itself tell us about the best possible political arrangements in any time and place, and without such knowledge a conservative will never be able give any wise guidance beyond the most basic.

It seems that the question of what to believe and what positively we should be aiming for can be answered in two basic ways. We can either look to the past, or we can look for something not yet attempted in our society. And if we do look to the past, it seems to me, there are again two paths we can traverse: we can either seize on a past reality (a romanticism, for eg democratic Athens, republican Rome, monarchic medieval France), or it can be a past ideal (call this classicism, for lack of a better word). Both of these can be amenable to conservatism and attractive to conservatives, but the distinctions are necessary.

It is not enough to be a conservative. It’s a good start, but from there we must also choose some definite orientation, to a particular future vision or past ideal or time and place in history, toward which we desire to move the world closer. Otherwise we will have not much more than nonsense, as our political views.

What Makes a Great Book?

There are realities that are beyond the capability of words to encapsulate.

These unutterable realities are of many sorts. They can be complex emotions, or patterns that exist only in the mind, or even immaterial, insensible truths that, even if they can be quantified or symbolized or assigned a name, stand beyond our grasp, communicated to us only as a glimpse, an intuition.

Many of these words can be named but not fully defined, never fully unpacked in words. “God.” “Grief.” “Paradox.” “Number.”

There are books that delve into one or more of these inexpressible, inexhaustible truths, and speak about them in ways that will confuse us and stretch us and fill us with moments of insight. Those books that do this most effectively, through their combination of form and content, are the great books.

In my view, what makes a great book is that it’s something that is beyond simple agreement or disagreement. Much education assumes that the first task is to understand a book like this, and then the second task is to decide if we assent to its claims or not.

Such an approach not only fails to hear a great book; such an approach actively forces us to silence that great book, to end its beneficial effects in our lives. Agreement or disagreement must be seen as only an imperfect stage in our engagement with the book, a stage that must inevitably be transcended, if we allow the book to continue its work in us. Our agreement or disagreement will always have to be expressed with a question mark, if the book is a great book and if we are good readers.

Find these books. Read them, read about them, read around them, and then come back and read them again. It is a task that will fill up a lifetime, that could fill endless lifetimes. It is the purest human pleasure, the greatest joy, and the foundation of the best sort of life.

Ignorance of Languages Limits Knowledge

Those who truly want to remedy their ignorance will have to move beyond the confines of a single language. It will be a lot of work, and it’s easy to make excuses and find ways to avoid the effort, but we have to stop fooling ourselves and start doing the work. Let’s take Kant as an example to illuminate this point.

A person can know seriously a lot about Kant without departing from English language resources. You could read every different translation of Kant’s work into English. You could read English commentaries, books written about Kant in English, journal articles arguing about different aspects of the interpretation and adjudication of Kant’s philosophical positions and how they relate to earlier and later philosophers’ work. You could be completely overqualified in understanding Kant on that basis alone. And that stuff is all great, and if an English-speaker wanted to understand Kant really really well then all those things would be at least commendable, or perhaps even necessary. But it wouldn’t be sufficient.

There would always be a shortcoming in understanding Kant, as long as (and insofar as) there is an ignorance of the German language that Kant wrote in. One’s original insights would be limited by that ignorance, and any new proposed insights would be uncertain because built on an inadequate foundation. As well, even any English treatments of Kant which hinge on an interpretation of the German will be impossible for the person who doesn’t know German to evaluate with any competence. That’s not even to mention that all German resources that deal with Kant will be inaccessible, or accessible only insofar as some other English speaker has summarized or translated them, in which case, we have to trust that the English speaker who did the summarizing or translating is not incompetent or biased. A true mastery of Kant’s philosophy is impossible without a knowledge of German.

The same limitations will hold true for every other thinker who writes in a language other than English, and even for every major English thinker whose thought has been treated by significant scholars who write their own scholarship in a language other than English.

In other words, the person who really cares about learning and growing in understanding will need to make the cultivation of languages a regular and permanent part of learning.

That’s not to say everyone needs to be a polyglot, or that no worthwhile or meaningful learning can take place in a single language. The point is only that there are necessary limitations on the person who only knows one language, limitations that fall away as more languages are mastered.

Where to begin, then? My list currently looks like this: English is an excellent starting point, and I feel fortunate to have grown up fluent in this language. Beyond English, there is German, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Turkish, Farsi, Swahili. And there are many more beyond that as well, but that’s my top list, and it’s already enough to keep a person busy for many years. The first seven on the list (up to Arabic) I arrived at by asking myself what languages I’d need to know to be on a par with Leo Strauss. I’m currently making some efforts (large or small) at learning the first nine languages on the list (up to Mandarin). Someone else’s list might look different than mine. Someone else might want to have Polish or Spanish somewhere high up on the list, or might want to have Sanskrit and Classical Chinese and Cree and ancient Persian and Aramaic as priorities. Those ones would all need to be on my own list as well, eventually.

The thinker who knows many languages is seen with a kind of instinctive awe, and my contention is that such an impression is not illogical but reflects an awareness of an inescapable reality about the intellectual life.

The point is, if we’re serious about wanting to learn as widely and deeply as possible, we need to make a list of languages, and start working at it, as soon as possible, and continue ceaselessly. The further we get, the better off we will be.

The Wisest of Left and Right

There are brilliant people on both ends of the ideological spectrum, and there are not-so-smart people at both ends as well. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, of course (for intelligence, not necessarily politics). Stereotypes suggest that the proportion of the less-intelligent people is more sizeable on the ideological right, and for all I know that may be true, but in any case it is irrelevant.

The unintelligent who engage in the debate from either direction will defend silly, caricaturish conclusions, by means of silly, ineffective argumentation. We all take delight in pointing out examples of this from the other side. If you think it doesn’t happen on your own side … then I guess there’s probably a decent chance that you are that person on your side!

I think it is worthwhile to think about the wisest people on both sides. I don’t know who they are. I would have to be one of them in order to make a reliable identification of them; otherwise, you’re just getting on ignorant person’s opinion about the brilliance of someone else, which is likely not to be worth much.

Even though I can’t name the wisest on either side, I think I can say some things about them that are going to be true.

For instance, their conclusions will be nuanced. They won’t be sloganeers, at least not when they are having an intelligent discussion. “More freedom.” “Tax the rich.” “More guns.” “Free university education.” “Smaller government.” They might support some or all of these goals, but not in straightforward, simplistic ways.

These wise people will base their political views on evidence, but their views will of necessity also grow out of a broad educational foundation, and out of their personal intellectual ability and good character. They will have studied economics, political science, sociology, comparative politics, war, history, yes certainly. They will also have studied moral philosophy and political philosophy, poetry and literature, will have ruminated long on these subjects, and will even have tried with all their might to become the sort of people that they believe (on reflection) that people ought to be. They will be people of exceptional intellect, and uncommon virtue.

Most of us will never become such people, even after a lifetime of study and sincere effort. If we are capable of it, however, we should seek to get as close as possible, and to use what we will have learned for the benefit of ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our political community, and of as many people as our influence extends to.

In the end, we must fail. But we will be better for having tried, and we will be glad for having made the effort.

Don’t Wait For the Scientists

We can’t trust in the scientists to save us.

It’s possible that scientists will develop a pill that eradicates obesity. But we can’t live as though that’s a certainty within our lifetimes.

It’s possible scientists will find a treatment that reverses atherosclerosis, or diabetes, or cancer. But we have to assume that they won’t do it as soon as we need them to.

Maybe scientists will give us a machine that fills our brains with whatever facts and figures we want to know. But probably not in the near future. We might as well start memorizing.

We have to make every reasonable effort to address the problems confronting us now, with the means currently at our disposal. Science has given us some incredible blessings, but it doesn’t march to our tempo.

Even if the scientists do find a way to make it happen, we will probably still be glad we learned to do it without their help. Science gives us fast vehicles, but people still take pride in being good sprinters, or knowing how to ride a horse.

A Life of Fasting

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are definitely days for fasting, in the tradition I hail from. The season of Lent as a whole, and also possibly (depending who you ask) the season of Advent, can be times of fasting and penitence as well. But at the same time, there’s no reason to limit fasting to these days and seasons.

Saints throughout Christian history have embraced fasting for much larger portions of the year, for the sake of purification, of prayer, of solidarity with the poor. Many people I know who take on some sort of a fast during Lent say that they hope it will be the beginning of a new little habit of self-control and abstinence which will endure even beyond the end of the liturgical season.

There are several things I’ve given up in recent years that I really believe have brought me closer to God. I was a bit conflicted about writing this post, because I don’t mean to look as if I’m judging anyone or bragging about myself. Obviously that’s not the point of fasting. Still, I decided that it might be worth sharing for whoever might happen to see it, because I do believe that it is important for us to learn to be a fasting people, and these are some generally simple changes I’ve found that are easy enough to make that they don’t cause a lot of pain and aren’t hard to sustain, but are sufficiently inconvenient or annoying that they often butt in to remind me why I’m doing them. This list isn’t about making myself feel good or look good, but about helping anyone who might be looking for a bit of inspiration. I hope it might be valuable! Here goes.

1. Meat. On Easter Sunday, I eat bacon and eggs and cheese. Special occasions are special occasions! So it feels weird when people that I know try to insist to me that I’m a vegan; that doesn’t seem like a very vegan thing to do. But for most of the year I do indeed seek to avoid (or at least minimize) consuming animal products and other rich or refined foods. This is something I did a couple times for Lent, and a few years ago I began to make it a more normal part of my life and routine. I try to centre my eating around vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and a small amount of nuts and seeds. This follows the example of the prophet Daniel, and of many other saints from Church history (eg St Benedict).

2. Alcohol. Booze is a popular thing to give up for Lent, something that I’ve tried myself for different Lents in the past. A little over a year ago I was curious to see if I could give it up more generally throughout the year, and although it was at first surprisingly hard to say goodbye to it (it’s sure a nice way to unwind after a stressful day!), I find I’ve really been happy living without it.

3. Tobacco. I have a tobacco pipe, and I used to love smoking outside with friends or while reading a good book. This was not a regular pastime for me, so it was less difficult to give it up, but it has still felt like a worthwhile sacrifice to make.

4. Food. I fast from all food for a portion of every morning. I eat breakfast mid-morning, at the same time every day, which doesn’t sound like a great feat, and I certainly don’t claim to be a hero of virtue, but you definitely feel the absence of food while waiting for the slow hours to pass before breakfast. Especially since:

5. Sleep. I try to wake up at the same early hour every morning, no matter what time I went to bed, no matter how little sleep I may have managed to get. I stay awake through the morning after my alarm goes off and never hit snooze, although on rare occasions I might let myself fall asleep in the early afternoon for a short nap, if I really feel I need it to make it through the day and if my schedule allows.

And that’s the list, for now! This post focuses on the negative rather than the positive spiritual practices, the things I’ve given up rather than the things I’ve chosen to add into my life and my regular schedule. Maybe that will be a list for another day — or then again, maybe not!


There are some people who have a knack for being convincing. They can share a thought in a way that has just the right mixture of succinctness, humour, humility, conviction, righteousness, and taunting against opponents, that it entrances the mind, makes it nearly impossible to resist in the moment.

I certainly do not have that knack, and never have. I’ve always been in awe of those who possess it, been attracted to their speech.

They aren’t always the best conversation partners, though. They’re usually wrong, for one thing — the very simplicity that makes their message so appealing, and the contempt for contrary views that lends their words such force, must conspire to ensure that they are giving only one side, dealing inadequately with the best arguments against their position.

What’s more, along with being wrong, they are used to being believed, habituated to being victorious. They are easily angered by disagreement. You don’t have to win an argument against them — just express reservations, withhold assent, put off agreement. It drives them mad not to have the confidence of everyone around them.

I admire them, and often wish that I could do what they can, especially when I see them arguing for something moral, noble, praiseworthy. I wish I had that power.

And yet, at the end of the day, I’m happy to surrender all their advantages, if it might allow me to avoid their faults.

I’d rather convince no one of the truth, while pursuing the truth wholeheartedly, than be someone who can rest happy in my half-examined opinions, persuading many and enraged at all who dare see differently.

If it’s a choice, then it’s an easy choice.