Preparing for lessons

I have this funny quirk, which sometimes works against me and sometimes in my favour.

I hate feeling like I’m wasting money. Like, really hate it.

I love to spend money on good things, when I can afford to. That gives me great pleasure. But in some areas, I hate the idea that I’d be paying someone else to do something that I could do for myself for free if I just knew how.

Take language study. I could probably hire a German tutor for a pretty reasonable price. But I never have. Every time I think about it, I end up wondering how much German I could learn for free on my own without any difficulty. Surely I should learn that much on my own before I start paying someone for lessons? And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years.

I find I think similarly about martial arts. There’s a part of me that has some interest in learning a bit about martial arts. But there’s a part of me that really wants to learn it for myself, teach it to myself as much as possible, before taking lessons. So I find I go through these phases of reading and watching videos, trying to grow in understanding.

In some ways, I’m an autodidact not through necessity or on principle, but just because I don’t want to use my money foolishly. I’m happy to spend my money — but I want to try to figure out as much as I can for myself first.

That’s what helped me learn to be an autodidact of the sort I am now. And to me, that all by itself has been truly invaluable.

Languages by the end of summer

My language goals this year are pretty exciting to me.

A few different things in my life might be happening around September, so I’ve decided to direct my language goals toward that moment. Rather than thinking about what I want to have accomplished by the end of 2023, it makes more sense practically for me to think about what I want to have accomplished by the end of summer 2023.

For German, Greek, and Latin, I want to be reading primary texts by then.

I think I’ll get there first with German, once I finish the graded reader I’m using. I’ll probably be reading German texts (with dictionary help) long before the end of summer. After lots of thought, I think what I want to spend time reading, at least at first, is some early Leo Strauss.

I should get there next with Latin. I think I should be able to finish my Latin book before the end of summer and make the switch. Once I do, I think I’ll either read Caesar or Cicero. My ambition is to read Cicero, but if it’s too ambitious to go directly there then I’ll start somewhere a bit easier.

I believe I should be able to finish my Greek textbook by the end of summer, but I feel less confident. As I’ve said before, it took me months longer to find a Greek resource that I liked than the other two languages took, so I’m quite a bit further behind. We’ll see how quickly I can make up the difference. Once I do finish, I think I want to read either Plato or Xenophon. I’d love to get good at reading Greek of Plato’s calibre — not the most difficult or elegant, but still something elevated. But if I can’t go straight there, then it might be better to go with someone like Xenophon first.

I’ve been putting a very little bit of time into French and Italian this past year, but I want to increase my efforts there. So far this year I’ve been putting more time into French and Italian every week. I want to keep that up in the next half a year. I don’t have a particular goal for how far along I want to be in those two languages by the end of summer, but I want to have stayed continuously engaged with them, so that by the end of summer I’ll be much better than I am now. The way I’ve thought about it for myself is to say that by the end of the summer, I want my French and Italian to be at a level where I could hypothetically improve them quickly to the point of being able to converse or read in them if I needed to.

Barring any big surprises this year, those are my language goals. I’m pretty excited about them.

Family and Books

A true friend is a valuable thing.

Still, sometimes the desire to have a friend can be a hindrance. If we want to have a friend so desperately that we’ll settle for someone who is a negative influence on our ability to practice virtue or to think clearly about important questions, then we have done ourselves real harm. In that case, the desire for a good thing can lead us to a bad decision.

But the lack of a friend is, on the other hand, a heavy burden to bear. To lose a friend, or to have no friend to lose, can be a difficult experience.

If there’s a chance to make or to work toward a friendship with someone who can be a pleasant and thought-provoking and virtue-encouraging presence, it is worth taking the chance, and making the effort.

When that’s not yet a possibility though, there are alternatives.

I’ve been lucky to have many good friends, and yet there are also moment of my life where I’ve been out of touch with some of my closest friends for a period of time, for one reason or another. During those times, I’ve reflected to myself that having a family, and a habit of reading great books of the past, can be a good way of strengthening oneself against being pained at the lack of friends.

Those two factors provide many of the comforts of friendship. Indeed, practically speaking, it feels to me like they turn good friendships into a privilege which makes a life immeasurably richer, but without which nothing important is lacking.

The close relationships within a family, and the exalted communion possible in reading the great minds of the past, each meet, in some of the deepest ways, the needs for which friendship is a response. They are friendships, of a sort. A life of family and good books is by itself able to be, I think, a life of abundant satisfaction, of bliss.

Conservatism with a new face

There are invaluable treasures buried in old books that few people read or comprehend today. And yet there’s a simultaneous prejudice against the ideas of the past, and especially against any appearance of love toward old ideas. What then can be done?

Many of us are convinced that there is value in looking to the past and seeking to learn from it, that previous generations had access to understandings and insights that are no longer so well grasped. For people in that situation, it is a wrenching experience to see all turning their backs on the accumulated wisdom of centuries without any serious consideration.

We can waste a lot of time trying to convince people that old ideas have just as much claim to our attention and respect and curiosity as new ideas do, if not more. In rare cases we might convince a person and change an entire way of looking at the world, but on its own it will not make much of a difference in the way things are done.

But something struck me with a new clarity a while back. We don’t need to convince everyone that it is good to look to the past for wisdom. We don’t need to make anyone else interested in the past, in order for the past to speak through us.

We need to focus less on convincing people to have the right attitude toward the oldness of an idea, and more on convincing people of the idea itself on its own merits. It doesn’t matter how smart the ideas originators were or how eloquent their early defenders. What matters today is how smart and eloquent their contemporary defenders are.

Most of us understand this on some level, but it’s so easy to forget, so hard to be disciplined enough to follow through on.

Maybe we need to find new names for old ideas, to introduce them in a way that is sensible for today rather than in the ways they were previously spoken of.

Might this be true of the word virtue? That’s a hard pill for me to swallow. It’s hard to find an equivalent word or phrase today that captures the resonances of virtue. Then again, I suppose the word doesn’t resonate for most people in quite the way it does for me. Virtue is so central for the way I think about the world. I suspect this question is something I need to give some more thought to.

Is virtue easy?

Is virtue a difficult thing, or an easy one? Is it something we have to work at for years before we have any chance of attaining it in any measure, or is it something always by our side, just waiting for us to reach out and grasp it? Is it the work of a lifetime, or of a moment?

I’m going to use a bit of a narrow definition of virtue here. I want to limit virtue here to courage and self-restraint, that is, being able to deal with pain and fear of pain, and with pleasure and desire for pleasure.

A fuller definition of virtue would include the ability to know what is the right and the wrong thing to do, in general and in particular situations, which would inform us which fears and pains are worth avoiding and which we ought to endure, which pleasures and desires are worth gratifying and which need to be resisted. That’s not the definition of virtue I’m thinking of here.

In other words: in a situation in which we know what is the right thing to do, how difficult is it to overcome fears and resist temptations in order to do that thing? That’s my question.

CS Lewis has a discussion of psychoanalysis in Mere Christianity, which I can’t help thinking of at this point. He proposes that a virtuous action requires contextualizing. For someone who is by constitution full of rage, to attack a person without deliberately causing lasting physical damage might be a relatively virtuous act. For a naturally cool-headed person, by contrast, an unnecessarily barbed comment might be an act of vice.

Another way to speak of it might be in terms of progress. We each have a starting point, morally, psychologically, socially. Are we getting better from that point? Are we getting worse? Taking actions that make us better are virtuous, even if from an objective standpoint they are still bad.

On that account of virtue, virtue is easy. It just means not giving up even while failing. It is always within our grasp. It is always a single thought away.

To succeed fully, though — to be the master of one’s desires and fears, pleasures and pains? That is the end goal of virtue, and that is something not easily attained. It is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps even then it is beyond many of us. Still, it’s worth wanting and it’s worth working for. The time to start is now.

Thoughts on Archetypes

I read recently in a very bright thinker that every morality is as a whole oriented toward some particular type of person as highest, whether that be the priest or the fighter or the merchant, etc.

Something about that account appeals to me. And when I try to think it through, it is not hard to see how it would fit for different things. The Christian faith glorifies the hermit or the person in religious community. Our present political system implicitly glorifies either the business owner or the worker, depending which side of the partisan line you’re on.

I feel the attraction for all those types. At times I may have felt drawn to one or another of those above all others. Thus, I think different moralities or moral models can probably overlap in a single person, even if one model always has to be the primary one, at least for a given moment.

Overall, I think I’m less drawn to those I’ve mentioned, but there are three or four that I feel more strongly drawn toward. These are the farmer, the soldier, and the scholar, and perhaps the rhetor/politician. I am most drawn to the scholar role for myself at this moment, and that’s probably the one I esteem most highly, most often, in general. The other two or three seem very central and compelling to me as well though. Perhaps a morality can have both a primary type and also some secondary types to give it a bit of distinctiveness.

The farmer transforms the natural world into the cultivated world, a wild beauty into a structured beauty. The farmer has food for self and family and community. The farmer is rooted in the earth, and those roots have the tendency to stretch across generations.

The soldier is a perpetual need in a world of fallible humanity. The soldier keeps the community safe, and constantly strives to perfect bodily capacities and a certain kind of social structure in ways that the rest of the community can learn from and benefit from.

The scholar is the guard of the sum of human knowledge and discovery. The scholar sifts through masses of information to discern what is most important, what is most urgent, what is most useful. The scholar finds joy in contemplation of truth.

And the good politician binds the community together, learning from the scholar and setting a direction, healing social wounds as they appear.

These are the types that make my heart sing to think of.

Can you overpower burnout?

If you push yourself hard enough, and then push yourself harder, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. Those who try pushing as hard as possible and then give up, have just proven that if you don’t push through the pain, you’ll never accomplish anything. That’s a common motivational message. I don’t really buy it.

I know that if I push too hard, I will eventually find myself all but forced to give up, which means I’ll end up in the same situation as before or even worse, and now without any motivation or hope to change. I know that because I’ve experienced it — many times.

What I do not yet have any reason to believe is the hype which says that simply trying even harder and then even harder again, or leaving yourself without any other options, solves the problem. I’ve gotten inspired to enact such advice too many times to count, and it’s never been anything but a disaster. Maybe it works for other people; I doubt it, but I can’t say for sure.

Sleep three hours one night, without any naps the next day, and with a little coffee you’ll probably be miserable but functional. Do it a few days in a row and you won’t be yourself at all. Try to make it your new normal and (assuming you find a way to avoid just giving up) you’re probably going to end up in the hospital before long.

The examples could be multiplied. Trying harder is not the way to succeed. It’s just not. Consistency is the trick. Slow and steady really is the winner when it comes to real life. Sometimes circumstances take the choice away from us, but whenever we have the choice, we should choose the small, frequent, sustained habit rather than an immense effort that cannot last.

Getting good at this one thing makes so many amazing possibilities attainable that would otherwise be unimaginable. This is the way.

More thoughts on Greek and Latin

I mentioned recently that I’m making good progress through the Greek and Latin textbooks I’ve been reading though. I was taking stock this morning and I think it’s not overoptimistic to guess that I will be done both textbooks sometime before the end of this year (2023).

Both textbooks have a sequel volume. (Hey! I think I just figured out where the word “sequel” comes from.) And I’ve been wondering whether, upon finishing the first volume of each, I should go straight to reading primary texts, or if it would be more responsible to spend time going through the second volume of the textbook before focusing on original texts. I’ve had an idea about what I should do.

I’m really excited to read the originals. It’s truly the reason I’m doing this. The sooner I can start reading the classics in the original languages with decent comprehension, the happier I will be.

On the other hand, I’m also very interested to be disciplined and gain an excellent understanding of the languages as soon as possible. I worry that if I make the leap too soon, I might find myself a sloppy reader, relying too much on resources to help me read, where if I had just stayed on the slow but careful road laid out by the textbooks, I could have come to the classics with a more sensitive and knowledgeable understanding of the language.

Here’s my newest idea, which I wanted to write down so I won’t forget. Once I finish volume one, I will read a short, unchallenging classic work, something from Xenophon in Greek probably and something from Caesar in Latin. I will try to read the entire text.

At that point, I might want to go back and read through the last couple chapters of the textbook again. Perhaps for a while this could be my pattern, jumping from a classic to the end of the textbook and then to another textbook.

Doing this will satisfy the itch to get into reading the classics. It should also keep me rooted in the textbook progression.

Most importantly, it will give me a chance to take stock. Just this morning, after about a year of reading the textbook every second day, I looked at a text by Caesar for the first time since 2021. The attempt definitely still took concentration and effort, but I was astonished at how much more easily I could fit the grammar of the sentences together, and how many more of the words were familiar to me. And I’m still only about two-thirds of the way through the Latin textbook!

I think the best way for me to tell how much need I have for the second textbook volume is to test myself on the classics, without at first releasing my hold on the textbook’s internal progression. Then I can pick up my textbook work where I left off, if I need to, or I could launch out into the classics to learn by doing, if I find that I’m ready for that.

Tu quoque: Conspiracy theorists are unreasonable, but really, aren’t we all?

There’s an old friend of mine with whom I spent many pleasant hours debating conspiracy theories over the last few years. I’ve mentioned him before, though never by name — he doesn’t talk to me anymore for some reason, so I have to play out some of the lines of debate without his input. I know, that’s not fair, but I’m not doing this to triumph in a debate, just to think through some of the interesting questions that were sparked by our conversation, for as long as they keep my interest.

My friend always started out a debate (and he was normally the one to get them started) with the assumption that he was right, was reasonable, and had the truth on his side, and that he could prove it.

The evidence always turned out to be of very poor quality, or to be employed in a way that showed lack of understanding of the evidence, as far as I could tell. I would walk him through it, explaining why this seemed to be the case. (And I’m pretty sure this wasn’t me being nitpicky — he really only had terrible evidence and bad arguments, which he even seemed tacitly to admit after each discussion, as we’ll see.)

It was endless, and however often he convinced me to be patient and give him another chance, it turned out that again his prize argument fell to pieces at a touch. It was amazing to me, not only that no matter how hard he tried or how many attempts he made he could come up with not a single good argument, but even more so that as this played out over months of discussion, the complete lack of proof, for convictions he was absolutely sure he would have no difficulty proving, bothered him not at all. It did not lessen his confidence in his conclusions by one iota.

This inexhaustible self-certainty took on two different forms. First and most obviously, at the beginning of every new conversation he believed once again that he could absolutely prove what he was claiming as true, past experience apparently completely forgotten or disregarded. No matter how many times he faceplanted, he would start over again with nothing but utter self-confidence. To me, that alone is simply marvellous.

But the other aspect was most visible at the end of each conversation, after his shiniest new piece of evidence had turned out again to be the most foolish of fool’s gold. He wouldn’t ever explicitly admit that the argument was bad, though sometimes he would admit it by implication (“how was I supposed to know that that quote in the picture came from a ten year old article that was completely unrelated to Covid?”).

But once he had clearly lost the day, he switched to full-on attack mode, as predictable as a coo-coo clock. Well sure, this argument is based on faulty premises, but so are all the counterarguments! Sure, my position evidently appears to be built on a tower of irrationalities, but you’ll never convince me that it’s the slightest bit worse than any conceivable alternative! I’ve got my evidence and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my anecdotes and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my narrative and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my media and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my scientists and you’ve got yours, and who could ever possibly know which side is right? He would manage to convince himself, in the blink of an eye, that everybody everywhere always is every bit as irrational as he was then, and that he’s not doing anything wrong or unusual, nothing but what is absolutely necessary, in thinking so unreasonably.

I believe it was CS Lewis who said once, in a very different context, that if you have to sacrifice rationality itself in order for your argument to succeed, then at the very least you can’t claim to have won the argument reasonably.

Where I differ with my friend is that while I’m also happy to admit that we’re both probably too ignorant to defend our views with any real depth, I don’t fatalistically accept that as the end of the story. From his view, if he’s irrational then that can only possibly mean that everyone else must be even more irrational. Any other possibility was straightforwardly inconceivable. This was simply one more way for him to avoid allowing any sliver of doubt or hesitation to interfere with the certainty that he had to profess so loudly and fervently. If he allowed any possibility that he could be wrong, then the moral certitude that came with his conspiracy theories would be flipped back around on himself, as he well knew.

His picture of the world, in the end, was a map of many different communities, each one trapped in its own little intellectual bubble, unable to escape, all without any real access to the truth. When he discovers, in those moments, that underneath it all that is what he really believes about the world, and in the moment before he’s managed to forget and pretend to himself once again that he really does believe in truth, which always happens to coincide with whatever he wants to believe — in those moments, he must think of himself as a grim, clear-eyed realist. It’s an ugly universe, but doubtless only someone as strong as I am could possibly recognize it for what it is.

But we can never throw up our hands and claim at all intelligently that it’s impossible ever to have any access to the truth. If you find yourself in that situation, you’ve made a terribly wrong turn somewhere. It’s possible to admit “I haven’t ever yet found a way of accessing the truth,” which is really all a person is ever actually claiming when they think they’re making the former claim. It’s possible to assert “I’ve never met anyone else who had access to the truth as far as I know,” which might just mean that you met someone who did but you weren’t yet able to understand when they tried to explain it to you.

But whatever we might claim, there is always a possibility of truth. There’s always a hope for truth. Any people who deny this have not actually seen the grim (or joyous) reality, as they’ll try to claim to anyone who will listen, but have only been the victim of a most pitiable self-delusion for which there can never be a rational ground.

Can’t always learn by doing

One frustration for me, in terms of studying languages independently, is how much time I’ve had to devote to language-learning, as distinguished from reading texts.

I had a thought, about a year and a half ago, that perhaps the best way to learn to read in other languages is just to read in them and figure it out as I go along! So I was reading, for instance, Homer, Aristotle, Xenophon in Greek, with the help of dictionaries and translations that I could consult when I got stuck.

It wasn’t useless. If I had done it for long enough, it probably would have borne some kind of fruit. But it was incredibly inefficient and frustrating, I found.

So over time my approached morphed to focusing more on graded readers. With Greek, for instance, I’m working my way through the readings from the Athenaze textbook.

And it is not frustrating in the same way as it was frustrating to try and read real Greek out in the wild, but now it’s frustrating in a different way. I want to be reading the real thing!

It feels like such a waste of time to read these artificial texts when there are books I want to read out there in this language. If I’m devoting so much time to the language, why can’t I spend that time doing what I want to do?

I’m finding myself in a similar place in terms of calisthenics. I have some goals for what I’d like to be able to accomplish in terms of bodyweight fitness, but I’ve hit a wall, where building my muscles can’t take me too much further if I don’t also lose some more weight. And losing weight is a big job, especially when you started off as heavy as I was. It doesn’t feel like what I want to be focusing on right now — it feels almost like a distraction!

Sometimes there’s just preparatory work, a lot of preparatory work, that has to be done before the real thing can really start to happen. It’s not as exciting. But I’ve been thinking lately about how embracing that reality, however annoying it might feel, is sometimes just the best way to get to the goals that really inspire us.