Read books as you wish your favourite books were read

We all have books and authors that we despise, that make us roll our eyes or wrinkle the nose just at the thought of them.

We also all have authors and books we love, I hope it is safe to say.

How annoying is it when someone scoffs at a book or writer whom we love? There will always be someone, who will always be able to find reasons to criticize, reasons which it will never be fully and decisively possible to prove groundless.

And yet! And yet, those people are wrong, and are needlessly missing out on something great. The reasons they give for disagreeing miss the point, are conjured out of nothing in order to explain why they dislike a thing that they would find to be a delight, if they would only give it a proper chance and do a bit of work to understand it.

The person who loves a book sees it more truly than the person who hates it. There’s a level of understanding that’s possible that transcends the experience of loving a book, but it takes a lot of work and even it requires some sense of love for it, at least at the beginning.

I shouldn’t be annoyed at the people who hate the books I love, when I know that I hate books just as ignorantly and irrationally as they do. I just hate different books, for entirely different (equally bad) reasons. Those books that I hate I’ve never put in effort to understand, never really tried to see what truth might be found in them.

“Why would I bother wasting my time studying such a pile of trash?” That’s exactly what they are saying about my beloved books, too. And clearly, it assumes the very conclusion that it has not yet done the work to prove.

But in a way it gets to the heart of the matter. It’s about time. We don’t have the time (at least not right now, not all at once) to study all these fields, all these perspectives, all of these different traditions, to the point where we can understand them from the inside and see their inner logic. That limitation is just a reality, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. But for some reason we get so defensive, and we try to push our own shortcomings onto those books and authors that really haven’t done anything to earn our animosity.

We should just admit that we haven’t yet had time to study a thing well enough to speak intelligently about it. We should do that with the vast majority of subjects, and we should do it impartially, without any malice. And for whatever book or author we are currently lucky enough to be enjoying, we should do our best to understand it from the top down and from the bottom up, and to find as much intellectual joy in it as it’s possible to have, before we move on to the next item on our list to work on.

Discovering friendships

It’s interesting to experience the way friendships form, develop, strengthen, and dissolve, and occasionally recover, over time.

We might form a friendship quickly, at the intersection of compatible personalities, shared views, and time spent in proximity.

Many such friendships will turn out not to be deep enough to survive the passage of years, as people move from one city to another for family or education or career.

Even those deeper friendships that do survive the rolling on of time, though, will likely be exposed to serious stresses as situations change. It seems to me that new sides of a friend will often be revealed in the course of minor intellectual disagreements, most often, in my experience, of an ideological sort.

Those are the moments that can begin to reveal a person’s depths, and show who they really are. Seeing how people respond in such moments will offer a far more fulsome sense of their character.

I’ve been shocked in the past by how many people (ideologically to the left of me and to the right of me alike), whom I’ve considered dear friends, have rapidly decided in a conversation that if I won’t agree wholeheartedly with some one or another of their views, then they don’t care to preserve the friendship. Such an approach to friendship is not natural to me, I suspect, although perhaps something like it was more characteristic of me in my teenage years and early twenties.

Often those who at first appear the most delightful and virtuous of friends reveal another, more dismaying side in harder seasons of friendship. It’s always a surprise, and frequently painful.

It’s too easy to fixate on that part of the story, though. The disappointments have two upsides. One is that, very rarely, and always very slowly, a new friendship can grow up in place of the old. Cautiously, fearfully, it can sometimes be possible to rediscover what brought about a friendship in the first place, though I don’t know if it will normally be able to return to its original strength when there is a memory of the pain that has been intentionally inflicted in the past.

But the other miracle that happens is the real treasure: One’s truly virtuous friends rise to the surface, as time passes. It might not always be the person we’d expect. A disagreement arises, and the person is willing to respect the other person rather than digging in on ideology, and a new era of friendship and admiration is born. Such friendships, rare beyond all explanation, become as precious and beautiful in the friends’ eyes as silver and diamonds, even if, often, it would be awkward to recognize this gratitude out loud.

Habits become easy

The other day, I had some language reading I needed to get done, and the day busily slipped away, leaving no time for study.

Evening arrived, and I was lying in bed, deeply tired. In the last ten minutes before I tried to fall asleep, I read a paragraph of Greek, half a page of Latin, and a page of French. (I’m pretty sure those were the languages I had planned to read that day.)

It probably took ten or fifteen minutes to complete it, and the next day I picked up my reading and continued in my languages schedule for that day.

It was a bit dreary to do that reading when all I wanted to do was close my eyes. And it was especially annoying when the last word in the Greek paragraph couldn’t seem to make sense no matter how I looked at it.

But it wasn’t overwhelming. It wasn’t paralyzing. It wasn’t brutal. It was just an annoying point on my checklist for the day that I needed to get done.

What makes that so marvellous to me is the knowledge that if I keep on doing those bits of reading every day, then it won’t take long (years, maybe, but not decades) to be reading comfortably in those languages.

These habits were hard in the beginning. It was particularly difficult when I hadn’t yet settled on resources that would work well for me. It took a lot of fruitless searching and experimentation before I found the system I now have in place.

But once the hard work of establishing a good habit is done, it’s not so hard. It’s just a daily little annoyance that will someday yield dividends.

School and expectations

It’s amazing how little it’s really possible to learn over the course of a semester.

A person doing a PhD takes a tiny fragment of a field and devotes years to learning about it.

A person who takes a semester-long class, by contrast, tackles an entire subfield, or even (in introductory classes) a whole field, and tries to get a sense of it.

No matter how much time we have in the day, and no matter how hard we work at it, there’s only so much that can be accomplished in four months. And it’s a very rare person indeed who has the leisure to take a single class in a semester and has no other responsibilities to worry about, let alone the discipline to stay focused within such lengths of time.

It’s a hard thing for me to remember. It’s strange to work so hard at a class and then leave it with only at best a most basic grasp of its subject matter.

There’s a part of me that such classes only make sense in the bigger context of a life devoted to continuous, endless private study.

Deferring to the experts

What’s at heart of being a philosopher rather than a sophist, of being a lover of wisdom rather than one who claims to be wise? It is the recognition of one’s own ignorance.

We shouldn’t claim to know, or assume we know, what we really don’t know. That’s what it comes down to.

Thus, far and away the easiest way to spot those who are furthest from philosophy is to see if they think they know more than the experts of a field.

It is impossible to seek wisdom if we think we already have it. Ignorance of our own ignorance is the greatest barrier to the quest for wisdom, and of course in itself it is the very opposite of wisdom.

All of that seems completely sensible and unobjectionable in itself, probably. Often, though, we try hard not to think about the consequences, what it would mean if this were true.

I used to think that deferring to the experts was just a cop-out, and it confused me when so many of the most highly educated people I knew, those for whom I had the greatest respect, would grow hesitant and reluctant when asked a question that might stray from their own area of expertise, would hasten to defer to the training of their colleagues.

What I realize now, though, is that this was precisely the sign of how well they were educated, and how well their education took. Perhaps they are not philosophers, but at the very least they are not entirely lacking in the quality that is most basic and most necessary in the constitution of the philosopher. That’s more than the vast vast majority of us can honestly claim.

Now, deferring to experts doesn’t mean claiming that they’re right. It’s not that simple. At most, it means allowing that they have the best chance of being closest to the truth, but really it doesn’t even have to be that much.

Deferring to experts only means recognizing that they are not as near to ignorance, in their field of expertise, as we are.

But even that small admission requires great humility, and more good sense than most of us are able to show.

This also relates to the value of the scholarly consensus. Scholarly consensus is experts weighing in on the conclusion of experts. For a person without knowledge to feel superior to and liberated from such consensus reveals a marvellous absence of self awareness, of recognition of one’s own ignorance.

An important clarification at this point. To say that those who refuse to defer to experts are far from philosophy, is not the equivalent of saying that those who do defer to experts are at all close to philosophy.

For instance, all of us love to lay claim to the pronouncements of the experts — when those experts happen to be in agreement with us, or saying something that we are delighted to hear. Those are the good experts, the ones who can stand up against the nefarious influences, who can ask the right questions and accept the obvious and undeniable truth when it presents itself. We all love to do that. The important and revealing question is, what do we do when we encounter expert consensus that doesn’t harmonize with what we want to accept as true.

So when someone rejects the view of experts as definitely false, on the grounds of their own meagre research and powers of reason, without any openness to being wrong, then that is a very good indication that they are about as far from philosophy as it is possible to be.

For me, this was one of the sad, but beneficial, outcomes of all the controversy around Covid. There were a number of people who I thought were closer to having philosophical souls, who turned out to be very far indeed even from the vaguest approximation of a philosophical starting point.

Studiousness to find self or world?

Do we study primarily to find the truth about the world outside of us, or to find out more about who we are? Both can be desired, and both can be achieved, but which one is or should be the main thing?

It’s strange, because I feel like I switch back and forth. One day I’m convinced it’s about the truth outside, and a month later it feels like it’s all about a sort of self-discovery. Until just recently, I couldn’t understand the reason for the waffling, and the answer to the question posed above.

I had an insight: I think there’s a sort of chiastic structure to true studiousness. It begins as outward-looking, then turns inward, and then returns to an external focus. This happens on a large scale, but the structure also duplicates itself in smaller cycles within that larger intellectual journey.

I think we have to start as outward-looking. People don’t really tend to begin studying philosophy or theology for instance (the two subjects I’ve spent the most time studying) simply in order to understand themselves better. We want to know something about the big, confusing world, want to know how to handle ourselves well in weighty conversations, want to be knowledgeable.

But necessarily, if we’re thoughtful, we will quickly be turned inward. What was it that led me to this field of study in this first place to look for answers? Why am I more compelled by this one school of thought than any of the others, even though at this moment I cannot yet articulate an ironclad argument for preferring it? Why are these words and terms meaningful for me, and what meaning did they carry for me in the time before my studies?

We come to realize that the intellectual traditions we’re now consciously and strenuously studying have already been subliminally shaping us and our society for lifetimes and centuries. The study of the questions becomes a kind of self-discovery. What have I always assumed, and why, and are there people who don’t assume it or is this starting point a part of being human? This stage can be so exciting and significant that it feels like our genuine reason for studying, even if on its own it could hardly motivate a single person to set out on the journey.

And then there’s another inward step. We start to build our minds. We start to assemble a new set of assumptions, convictions, proofs, starting points — new beliefs that are considered from the outset, weighed, articulated. This is always done with assistance from outside ourselves, but it necessarily happens, when it happens, inside, alone, with painstaking effort.

And then lastly, with a new inside formed by years of diligent study, we are able to look outside ourselves again. We are able to search for truth with the ability to fight against our unborn tendency to filter the truth into forms that are most agreeable. Having begun to understand ourselves, we can begin to understand the world around.

Untangling the God Debate

There are two questions that often get mixed up with one another: One is, is there a God? (to which the answer can be yes, no, or I don’t know), and the other, is religion a good thing, eg because it’s true or because it’s socially beneficial? (to which the answer can be a more or less emphatic affirmative or negative, but which practically doesn’t really allow us to opt out of choosing an answer).

There’s very good reason why these two often get tangled together, but the fact is, they are almost entirely separable, and so mixing them up can lead to real confusion. “Do you believe in God?” is a question that can very quickly lead to just such confusion.

I think there’s in fact a spectrum of positions, and it goes something like this: antireligious atheist, antireligious skeptic, religious atheist, religious skeptic, religious theist, antireligious theist.

We’re most familiar, certainly at this moment in history, with the antireligious atheist, and the religious theist (of one stripe or another). We naturally assume that these things go together. If you believe in God or gods, then you must be religious, and if not then not. If you are in favour of religion then you must be a theist, and if not then you won’t be.

We have some faint memory of something that was once called deism, which we think of as the clockmaker God who walks away from creation and never looks back, and most of us basically just lump that option in with the irreligious atheist. It’s just an atheist in disguise, and atheists don’t need to disguise themselves anymore so no wonder you don’t run into many deists anymore!

It feels so obvious to us that the binary views of the world that we know are the only two reasonable option that we never even pause to consider that maybe there are more possibilities than we’ve allowed, or that by oversimplifying as we have we may have misunderstood something fundamental.

We tend to think that if you convince an atheist that religion is necessary, then you will have made a new theist. That’s not necessarily true. We tend to think that if you convince a theist that religion is false or harmful, you will have made a new atheist. That likewise doesn’t have to be true. There are several mistakes like these which we habitually make. We can’t even begin to think clearly about the question, as long as such basic distinctions are beyond our reach.

Don’t be the best at anything

Don’t worry about being the best in the world. You’ll probably never get there, and even if you do, the whole process probably won’t be that enjoyable.

Still, do strive to be constantly improving, in at least a couple different areas of life.

By having more than one focus, more than one realm of mastery that is being developed, we have a chance of being “the best” in a different way, in a healthier and more enjoy able way.

Try to be the best at the intersection of two (or more) skills. If your two passions are marathons and chess, then be a better chess player than any other marathoner. There will be marathoners who can run faster, further, stronger than you, but they’ll all know you and respect you as a remarkably skilled chess player. And be the best marathoner of all the chess players. Sometimes you’ll lose at chess, but all of those chess players will know they couldn’t outrun you in a million years.

It is not hard, it seems to me, to be exceptional in one field by mastering another relevant field. If you’re a theologian, study theology fiercely, yes, but study another field as well, economics, let’s say. Get really good at economics on your own time, and be able to speak theologically about economics as no other theologians will be able to do.

Set these sorts of lesser goals. See how much more attainable they are and how much more they will benefit you for the same expenditure of effort.

And as the garden of skills grows, we might become with time well-rounded, knowledgeable generalists. The world could benefit from having a few more folks of that sort, I think.

Space on the Right

Let’s say that “the left” is a spectrum including Marxism and its many varieties and successors, socialism, and all manner of egalitarianisms, especially radical egalitarianisms.

Let’s say that the centre (or centre-right, depending on your preferred terminology) is liberalism and capitalism, has more of a focus on individual rights and liberties, and is generally comfortable with some version of plutocracy, defending the rich either as deserving of their wealth or as playing a useful role in society, or both.

Those two categories seem to encompass all the possibilities that proceed out of the Enlightenment. Anything new that arises in the Enlightenment inheritance takes a place in, and fights for recognition among, the ranks of one or the other of those two.

The right, then, insofar as we are able to think of a position to the right of libertarianism within our present horizon, will be a massive basket containing all that came before the Enlightenment, and all that has developed since the Enlightenment that is outside the tradition of the Enlightenment. It is a bizarrely diverse array of standpoints, as diverse as the world is diverse, and diverse in a way that the centre and the left never can be. Even still, there are some points of family resemblance between the variety that can find a home on the right.

(The “conservative,” who favours the status quo and who prudently fights for at most incremental change in the great majority of situations, does not fit into any one of these three containers, since it can become whichever one is dominant in a given time and place. Chinese conservatives after the death of Mao, for instance, were the Maoists.)

These three can coexist in a single person in any combination, though given the polarizing and combative nature of political belief, it can sometimes require great personal effort to overcome biases in order to seek out the treasures to be found outside one’s primary camp.

And yet, there must always be a primary camp. However much we try, we will not be able to be a perfect and unbiased blend of the three, I feel sure. There must always be a starting point, a fundamental standpoint to which we can return in order to evaluate new ideas.

For me, the starting point is on the right, since in my view the pre-Enlightenment diversity represents something more human, more conformed to human existence, than does the Enlightenment and its children. I believe that it is easy, and even natural, to have a position on the right that is free of (for instance) the racism so common within the contemporary right, since that racism is itself, in its modern origins, a progressive fruit of Enlightenment rationalism.

The place I occupy on the right, however, is also deeply open to being informed by the best of the left and the centre. I am no admirer of capitalism or plutocracy, but I do believe that the free market is an incredibly powerful tool that can be wielded for the good of society. Modern economics has got it basically right, as far as it goes, and even though it may sometimes be necessary to transgress the rules of what is best in purely economic terms, it is important to know those rules and accept them as true within their given framework. Liberty (specifically negative liberty) is likewise not an absolute good, but it is a necessity to some extent in every society, and it can be a potent force for good if well apportioned.

I also doubt the value of equality as an absolute ideal, and yet I am an eager student in particular of what the left has to teach about the invalidity and injustices of capitalism’s division of rich from dependent poor. The left has also been a remarkable source of insight that shakes up some of our habitual assumptions about who “deserves” to be unequal and about whether our treatment of problem cases is really as effective as we think, a source of insight in ways that are sometimes less helpful and sometimes more, but from which I feel privileged to be able to learn.