Visiting an Ancient Cosmology

I used to travel to an ancient world for short visits. It took some effort, but it was worth it.

sunrise under sky
Photo credit:

For the Ancient Near Eastern world, cosmology was closely related to common human perception, as reflected for instance in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Above us, but not so far above us, was the sky, a layer of material that enclosed the world. Below us is the earth, which has beneath it the underworld, a shadowy, damp place, like the caves we sometimes find. Around the edges of the earth there is water, and this water wraps around all the way beneath the earth, holding it up.

Above the sky, not so far from here, is the realm of heaven, with God enthroned in the celestial court, surrounded by the armies of worshipping angels.

When we today tell ourselves what the world is like, we contradict our senses, saying that the world is huge and basically spherical, that compared to us the sun is what’s stationary, that the sky shows us outer space that’s extended out to mind-boggling distances, filled with countless stars of which most are invisible to us.

It’s a strange world we live in today. We take it to be superior to the world imagined by our ancestors, and from the perspective of science it certainly is.

But when I was younger, I used to walk by myself to the edge of the town where I lived, and I looked out over the fields, at the clouds bunched on the horizon and the streaks of light overhead, and I let go of what science told me, only for a minute.

Standing there, I let the world around me infuse itself with the mind of the ancient world, so that I might see what they saw, and remember with them what it meant to be them.

I stood on an expanse of ground that was held up by the waters deep below, and which hid a place of shadow and shades not far beneath me. I looked up at a sky that I could almost reach, if I could find a high enough mountain to scale. I looked around at a world that was laid bare, completely known and completely vulnerable to us and to the heavenly hosts above.

I’d guess that most could not imagine wanting to visit such a world, let alone making an attempt, due to our bias toward science. If, however, we cultivate an affection and respect for the ancestral, it is not such an unthinkable thing to attempt.

And I always found it refreshing, restful. To treat our senses as liars whom we must distrust and contradict is subtly tiresome. To call our senses faithful friends, in whose communications we can take a simple delight, is a real joy, even if it can only be savoured for brief moments.

Food and Thought

In recent years I’ve been researching different ways of eating and trying some out. For a long time I ate thoughtlessly, whatever felt good and was convenient, not giving much thought to my health.

flat lay photography of fruits on plate
Photo credit:

That way of eating seemed at the time like a sort of relief from the often stressful circumstances of daily life, but in hindsight I realized that it was probably only contributing to the stress.

The way of eating that I’ve settled on is in a way not so radical. It basically follows what public health guidelines have been recommending for some time now. I admit that early on I fell down the rabbit-hole of notions about how the public health community is living in the Stone Age and they probably just haven’t heard about the really good science that says that butter is back, bacon is brilliant, saturated fat and salt and cholesterol are all healthy and everything with carbs is bad. Thankfully, that phase of mine lasted only a year or two.

I find that eating well has had many benefits for me, but one of the most dear has been how it has helped me think more clearly. Thinking is less foggy, is less often painful, is less interrupted by the sorts of emotional responses that make it hard to keep perspective.

I’ve been trying to distill down the essence of the changes that I’ve found most valuable. A few practical recommendations, then, based on my research and experience:

  • More fibre. We eat extremely fibre-deficient diets, and rectifying that problem can do a lot for our health and for our sense of well-being. If you’re like me, you probably hear that and think of buying All-bran or Metamucil, something that’s refined the fibre to be by itself. Don’t do it. It’s both much cheaper and much healthier (and, believe me, much tastier) to get them as part of whole foods with all the other nutrients that naturally come with them. Whole grains (eg oatmeal), legumes (eg black beans), fruits (eg blueberries), vegetables (eg kale), and seeds or nuts (eg walnuts) are great healthy ways to get some fibre into the diet.
  • Less saturated fat. Saturated fat, along with trans fat and dietary cholesterol, are known to worsen the main risk factor for heart disease, so for that reason alone they’re worth avoiding, but those same components for the same reasons are bad for brain health (cutting down blood flow to the brain over time). Saturated fat is also extremely pro-inflammatory. So finding ways to decrease these things in our diet can be beneficial. They show up in processed food, in animal products (especially cheese), and saturated fat also is in some tropical oils like coconut oil.
  • Less salt. Blood pressure of course is affected by sodium intake, and also some cancers. Add minimally, and eat processed food and restaurant food more infrequently, since we can’t control how much salt gets used in those things. Chicken from the grocery store, incidentally, often has quite a bit of salt water injected into it, making it a significant source of sodium as well.
  • More antioxidants. Herbs and spices should be used generously! Berries and leafy greens are also good options. Antioxidants are protective for brain health, as well as all sorts of other parts of our health. It’s far inferior to get antioxidants by vitamin pills, not nearly as beneficial. There’s very little antioxidant presence in animal products.
  • Less oil. Even oil that doesn’t have much saturated fat in it is really pretty much nothing more than empty fat calories. Use sparingly.
  • Fewer refined carbohydrates. Added sugar, white flour, these are the sorts of things I’m thinking of in this category. They’ve had the healthy stuff (especially fibre, but not only that) removed and only the empty calories left behind. Not so good for us.

There are some other facets as well that are worth paying attention to — animal protein has some health downsides for kidneys and cancer risk, for instance, and some foods have more of the sorts of heavy metals and pollutants that we should be avoiding, and that’s not even getting into the disease risks that come from factory farming and the environmental benefits of some diets over others. It’s possible to dive pretty deep!

But I think that focusing on my above list of six things to watch out for moves us a long way in the right direction, toward being healthier and feeling our best. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve found to be an excellent resource.

I know some people might be critical of such a focus on food, or health, or risk. “Be brave,” they’ll say, “and just eat what you want! Stop living in fear! The body is made for man, not man for the body!”

If needlessly eating a diet that makes them feel unwell and dramatically increases the chance of ill health is how they manifest the virtue of courage, I will happily leave them to it.

Charismatic “Worship Songs”

When I was a teenager, the joke was that Christian music always seemed to be either old-fashioned or inauthentically derivative. If that was true then, I do not think it is true anymore.

Image credit:

Worship music has carved out its own genre, which might adopt certain conventions of other genres in one band or another, but which is held together by something that is its own and is not obviously stolen or smuggled in from other musical traditions. To someone on the outside looking in it might still seem kind of boring, or funny, I couldn’t say. But musically, I think, there is something distinctive and not intrinsically objectionable holding this genre together.

I’m not an expert on worship music. I haven’t listened to a great deal of it in the last few years.

But when I do listen to it, I love thinking the thoughts it expresses, thoughts often but not always adopted from the phrases of Christian Scripture, and to seek to join those thoughts to the thoughts that are rolling around in my own mind.

This attempt has taken different forms over the years.

For a time, I tried to ground these songs in the history of the worshipping community. Around that time I had been exposed to some opinions about how individualism and hyperindividualism are rampant in the Western world and are showing up even all over our worship songs, and we need to resist them. I actually regret being so accepting of a teaching that was really conceptually imprecise, and thereby quite misleading and destructive (more on that another time, perhaps), but it did open up for me the imaginative possibility of trying to listen to these songs in a way that was removed from my own personal experience.

And so, for instance, when I heard a lyric about how God has saved me, I wouldn’t relate it to some moment or event in my own life but would think of how these words might resonate in the Exodus, or the return to Jerusalem after Babylonian exile, or to those present at the events surrounding the life of Jesus.

These days, I tend to do something that I think is closer to what Christian thinkers have done since the early Church (though most of them would not have articulated it quite like this). I try to think through how the lyrics might resonate with an ancient Neoplatonist.

Neoplatonism (as we use the word today) did not yet exist during the very earliest years of the Church, but the intellectual seeds from which it was to grow were widespread and already flourishing. Once it did come into existence, it exerted a powerful influence on Christian thinkers.

To take one famous example, Augustine found the Christian faith unthinkable until he was first charmed by the viewpoint of some Neoplatonist writers. This certainly isn’t to say that Christian belief and Neoplatonic philosophy were thought to be identical, or even compatible on every point, but they did seem to be mutually illuminative in a unique way, and much of what has become traditional Christian theology bears the imprint of its engagement with Neoplatonism.

And so that intertwining has become characteristic of the way I often hear and think of worship music now. Something about the sound of it makes it really attractive for listening to and thinking through in this way.

I would recommend that it could be worthwhile, or at least interesting, for even an irreligious person to try listening to such worship songs with an open mind, if they aren’t stylistically too far from what is agreeable to the listener, to see what meaning and agreement can be found from that perspective, and to see whether there isn’t some kind of benefit from the experience.

And if that’s what I recommend to an irreligious person, then of course I will encourage any jaded or self-satisfied Christian friends who have a list of complaints about how such music is overly simplistic or emotionally manipulative, to consider giving it another listen and see if there isn’t something of merit to be found as well.

Mysticism and Religion

Does a Christian expect that ultimate reality, when and if we get to experience it, will really be like what we might experience or discuss in a church?

green ceramic mug beside book
Image credit:

Yes and no. When we hear about Moses and the prophets brought into the presence of God, hear of the disciples at the Transfiguration, of John seeing visions in Patmos, the Christian does not then think, “Oh yes of course, that’s precisely what I experience every Sunday at eleven.” There is a distance between the experience of ordinary Christian life and the direct and full awareness of God.

Still, the Christian understanding will want to insist there is some direct relationship between the prayers and teachings and rituals of the faith on the one hand, and that ultimate eternal reality on the other side. The faith stands as a preparation, an anticipation, an approximation, a guarantee, a glimpse.

As C. S. Lewis wrote, what the Christian faith says about God and the last things might be more like the outline of the coast on a map, than it is like the coast itself. Thus, it’s still valuable for its purposes, but it’s is completely impossible to get it confused with that toward which it is pointing us.

Still, that doesn’t mean that some kind of an experience of ultimate reality is not available in this life. As the list above (Moses, the prophets, the apostles, etc) should indicate, it is indeed possible from a Christian standpoint, even though human speech is not entirely adequate to communicating what may be found there.

So, in some way there is the possibility of a Christian mysticism. But then, what about non-Christian mystics? What is the relationship of their experience to reality, and to Christian teaching? What may initially seem like a deeply perplexing problem, here, turns out to have a simple answer.

We might first think that the Christian is faced with the unhappy decision of having to say either that the non-Christian mystic is some sort of misguided counterfeit, or else that Christianity itself is dispensable and unnecessary. However, the Christian is actually able to respond simply that on the Christian account, the divine will is free to bestow grace on whomever God wishes. Thus, we need not discount or reject the testimony of non-Christian mystics entirely, even if their interpretations of their own experiences won’t always line up with how a Christian would want to express them.

There’s been suspicion toward the term “mysticism” among some groups of Christians in recent decades, because it has come to be associated with a variety of strange and not-greatly-admired movements. Still, as a term with a long philosophical and religious history before the recent shift, and as a term that captures such an important part of the religious way of approaching the world, I really believe it deserves to be renewed.

Consistency + Flashes of Inspiration = Major Progress

Willpower. Habit. Feeling inspired. How does it all fit together? In my experience, the key is to build a consistent habit (or eventually, a bunch of consistent habits) so that when the moment of motivation strikes, we can be ready to make the most of it. Let me expand on that.

person holding blue ceramic mug and white magazine
Image credit:

At the beginning, a habit is born out of a combination of feeling inspired and a bit of willpower. “Wouldn’t it be cool to ___?” we think. We imagine what life would be like now if we’d started practicing that thing a year ago. And then we realize that it would be easy enough to practice it today. But that would be useless if we didn’t practice it tomorrow too.

In this way, a new habit is born. Many new habits of this sort don’t survive long, and that’s okay. I try not to stress about it. Don’t have too much riding on any one new habit. I just observe, and see which ones stick, and then nurture them as well as possible.

And it’s important to nurture it for as long as possible. We shouldn’t think of this as a thirty-day challenge or something, or as a practice that can be discarded once a certain goal is reached. It takes so much effort to establish a habit, that I would recommend finding a way to transition it into a new goal once the first is done. If the habit’s originally about writing a poem, for instance, well then, go on afterwards to write a second poem, or an essay, or a short story, or a memoir, but just keep the habit rolling!

Once the habit exists, it exists in a pretty minimal form. We want something that we’re going to be able to do consistently, no matter how we feel or how busy we are. If the goal is reading through something difficult, maybe the actual habit is reading a paragraph a day. We shouldn’t shoot for something ambitious like a chapter a day, because that will end up killing the habit and in the long run, it will accomplish a lot less.

However, I’m also not saying that, in such an example, we’d ever need to limit ourselves to reading only one paragraph. This is where inspiration comes back into it, and this is what can make a daily habit so powerful.

If all we ever do is that one minimal daily habit, it will add up over time. Let a few years pass and see how much has been accomplished that otherwise would never have been imaginable. Those years would have had to pass one way or another, and they might as well bring with them these sorts of effortless conquests. However, it can feel a bit slow.

The beauty of having a minimal goal in place is that we have a foundation for more extensive efforts to happen. Someone who’s not reading through Phenomenology of Spirit one paragraph per day might feel randomly inspired to read the book for a couple hours one day, but probably not. Even if that inspiration does strike, the person might well not act on the inspiration to start reading the book, thinking very reasonably that it would be a bit of a waste of time if there’s no followup, if it’s just a brief encounter with the book followed by months of forgetting what was read. And even if the person does sit down and read, that reading will be better than nothing but it probably won’t do all that much for the person reading.

Now, imagine instead that the person who’s already started reading a paragraph a day is seized someday by the random desire to sit down and read the book for an extended stretch. That day, we’ll far outstrip our planned one paragraph. Maybe that day we’ll read page after page after page. The inspiration, when it strikes, is easy to act on, because we’ve been in the habit of sitting down and reading that book every day for weeks and weeks now. And when we act on the inspiration, it is not an isolated incident; it’s a flurry of activity bringing us closer to the goal that we were going to reach anyways, but which is no longer quite so far away.

Put a small habit in place and stick to it consistently. The benefit is not only that we will eventually draw closer to our goals, but also that we will have put in place a framework that allows us to harness our flashes of inspiration when they strike, rather than having to watch them fizzle away. If we can do that, we will have gained a powerful resource.

God and the Burden of Proof

I have a thought that I’ve tried to express in the past, about who has the burden of proof when it comes to talking about whether there’s a God. I think my suspicion is correct, but for some reason I’ve never been able to articulate it in a way that seems to convince even other theists to get very excited about it, let alone persuading any of my less theistic friends. Here’s another attempt.

man's statue
Image credit:

“Burden of proof” is not a terribly philosophical way of speaking of the world, for the most part, but it’s a phrase that gets bandied about in these conversations quite a bit, so I think it’s worth discussing. I believe “burden of proof” language comes from a legal context originally, where “presumption” comes into play, as with presumption of innocence, for example. You’re typically presumed not guilty (in many legal contexts, at least), meaning that if someone wants to see you convicted of a crime then the burden of proof is on them, and if they can’t manage to prove it then you are taken to be innocent even if there is no actual positive proof of such innocence.

Atheists sometimes say that there should be an analogous presumption of atheism in discussions about God, where if God cannot be proved, then we take it that there is no God, even if we have no actual proof against a divinity. They claim that this is just the way we would treat anything else. Do you say there are penguins? Prove it to me. Do you say there are unicorns? Prove it to me. It’s not my job to prove the non-existence of unicorns. How would I go about doing that? In the same way, so the argument goes, I don’t have to prove the non-existence of God, but it is instead the responsibility of theists to prove that there is a God.

So far, this seems sensible enough. However, there is a distinction here that we need to draw.

  • Let us call a thing “contingent” where, if it is possible, then by definition it might not exist.
  • Let’s call a thing “necessary” where, if it is possible, then by definition it can’t not exist.

The great majority of the things we encounter fall into the former bucket, so it is not surprising that we are habituated to act with the assumption that all things must act like those things. Penguins are possible, and so they might exist or they might not. Thus, the burden of proof, if it falls to anyone, falls to the person wanting to say they exist.

But it is standard in philosophy to speak of God as belonging not in the former but in the latter side of the division, as (by definition) necessary, not contingent. God’s necessity means that if God is possible, then God will exist, indeed must exist, in every possible world, by definition, just because of what it means to be God.

Clearly, this means we can’t treat God like penguins and unicorns. We can’t say, “Well, there might be a God, but you’ve gotta show me before I accept it.” Instead, as soon as we’ve said there might be a God, we’ve already said that we accept that there is, and must be, a God.

This means that it doesn’t make sense to speak of the burden of proof resting with theists, despite what we hear so often. When we say that the burden of proof is on the people who affirm there are penguins or unicorns, we are tacitly admitting that we agree such things might exist, even if we are withholding assent on the question of whether they in fact do. For an atheist to make such an admission in the case of God, though, is equivalent to having lost the argument before it’s even begun.

So then, does this eliminate the burden of proof entirely as a consideration? It does not quite do so, actually, because now the person who wants to say that there is no God comes to be in the position of having to assert not only that God might not exist, but that God cannot exist (because if God can, then God does) — and that’s a much harder argument to defend than simply sitting back and saying, “If there’s a God, where?”

If we allow the standard assumption to prevail, that God might exist, just as penguins and unicorns might, then we find ourselves having to become by default, not atheists, as we expected at the beginning, but theists! The person who is arguing against the default position, then, is the atheist. In this way, the burden of proof has actually shifted to atheists, who will have to make a positive case that it is impossible for there to be a God, a claim which is not at all obvious and which will demand some sort of argumentation, some sort of real proof.

Now, let me straightaway deal with an objection that is not really an objection. “If we can say God is necessary, why can’t we also say that unicorns are by definition necessary and the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe in unicorns? Why can’t there be necessary worm-buffalo-trees? That’s ridiculous. Once you open the box, you can never stop the parade of ludicrous conclusions. Thus, it just doesn’t work to say that God is necessary.”

Now for one thing, this common objection shows some ignorance about the argumentation in classical theism that leads to the definition of God as necessary. The argument doesn’t say, “Well we really want to believe in God so what if we expand the definition of God to say that God is necessary then maybe we can keep on irrationally believing!” Rather, the argument says that on account of divine aseity, God must be absolutely simple, and this simplicity entails by definition the identity of God’s essence and existence, which is to say, it entails God’s necessity. There is absolutely no reason for thinking that having gotten this far on the classical account we’ve also had to throw the door open for people asserting the necessity of worm-buffalo-trees and the like.

However, even leaving that aside, this supposed objection is really only an attempt to win the argument by changing the subject. I’m not saying it’s done in bad faith — very often, in many different discussions, such illogical leaps are committed with great sincerity. They’re still quite illogical.

The theism question isn’t about whether there are necessary unicorns or necessary perpetual motion machines or necessary goblins. Each of those is another question, its own question, and even though we can generate an infinite number of such questions, that does not tell us anything about what we are currently focused on. Maybe there really is an infinite variety of necessary beings hidden away somewhere. Or maybe there’s not — but in any case, the people who are arguing about God do not need to care one way or the other, while speaking about God. Even if we could give a positive reason for thinking that all the other beings can’t be necessary, we are still left with the question of whether God can be.

Then again, if the rebuttal does not consist of something like, “How silly! Who could believe that?” but actually has specific arguments which would include why all necessary things (including God!) cannot be possible, then great! Let’s hear it. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s exactly the sort of rebuttal the atheist now needs to find, not because God isn’t necessary but rather, because by definition God is necessary, and so the burden of proof, if it is going to be on anyone, is on atheists, and so they must begin their search for arguments to support their position.

The fact is, theists, who (I’ve argued) do not bear the burden of proof, nonetheless have piles of proofs, millennia of demonstrations, mountains of arguments showing how inescapable it is that God must exist. (My personal favourite is the Platonists’ account of the One; more on this in a future post.) We have an overabundance of proofs even as we have no burden to provide them. Atheists, on the other hand, have always had very little more available to them than attempts to shift the burden of proof, and so when the burden of proof is restored to its proper side of the argument, their predicament is made precarious indeed.

The arguments against God are few and they are weak, as we quickly notice once we accept the correct placement of the burden of proof. The best-known is probably the problem of evil — how could a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow there to be evil or suffering in the world? And yet this argument has been flayed from every side, exposing its abundant, innumerable problematic assumptions. And beyond that solitary, limping line of reasoning against God, what else is there for the atheists to draw on?

The answer, I’m afraid, is that there’s really not much.

A Longing for Glory

There is something innate in human beings that desires to be honoured, recognized, admired, respected. Without that something, many of our greatest accomplishments would be unthinkable.

sepia photography of god's ray under stratocumulus clouds
Image credit:

In connection with virtue, I’m sure there are quite a few good habits that I never would have started on if I hadn’t convinced myself at the outset that they could lead me somewhere glorious, help make me into someone impressive.

I started trying to lose weight about five and a half years ago, and in that span of time I’ve lost well over a hundred pounds. I feel better now, I’m healthier, and I look more normal — but before I started, what motivated me was not any of those things, but the fantasy of developing an amazing, impressive, slim, muscle-bound body. I haven’t achieved it, and likely never will, but without that original desire I would never have started trying, and would never have derived the benefits I now have.

I started studying philosophy in large part because I was tired of losing arguments, or ending them deadlocked. I wanted to be able to win every debate, to fill my adversaries with shock and awe at my immense knowledge and logical proficiency. That’s no longer my primary motivation, and I certainly haven’t achieved it, but I’m glad that I wanted it enough to take action.

When I started studying languages again a few years ago, it was because I figured it would be inexpressibly cool to be fluent in some languages as strange, difficult, and important, as Russian and Mandarin and Arabic. (And truly, when I was doing my languages lessons once in the morning and my wife asked if I was some kind of a spy, it felt pretty glorious.) After getting a good foundation in Russian, some rudimentary Mandarin, and just scratching the surface of the Arabic script (what a difficult language to read!!), I switched gears to something less James Bond. I’m now using those same habits for learning to read academic and philosophical German texts. Still, I wouldn’t be doing that now if I hadn’t been formerly shooting for something to make me look a bit more impressive.

The longing for glory is often a cause of vice, folly, ruin, but Cicero was one thinker who saw how it can be turned to virtuous ends. Too much ambition will harm us, but in the right kinds and the right amounts it can lift us to feats that would otherwise be outside our ability to consider.

Heidegger somewhere points out the double meaning of the Greek word “doxa” (δόξα), which is at once glory and also opinion. I had never really thought about the connection of the two in this word before. Through the way we live in the world and the people we reveal ourselves to be, we place boundaries around the ways that other people can think of us. The opinions of others are guided to some extent by the reality of our life, and that is our glory.

In caring about the opinions of others, then, we turn our focus to ourselves, to shaping who we are, and to the glory or lack of it that flows from how we live. This can’t be everything, but if we do it within reasonable bounds, it can be a powerful incentive to beginning on the path to self-improvement.

Language Confidence

I’m getting pretty excited about language learning, lately, which has probably been obvious. There are moments, though, when I feel doubts.

woman covering her face with white book
Image credit:

Do I really need to learn these languages? Google translate is already pretty amazing at translating between many languages, and it will only get better. Maybe in a few years we’ll all be wearing Google glasses that will instantaneously translate for us any text we see and any phrases uttered within earshot.

It’s a lot of work to learn a language, and technology is bringing us to a point where, even though it’s never been so convenient to learn new languages, it’s also never seemed so strongly as if knowing many languages might not be useful for long.

We’ll doubtless be told that language learning is good for the brain, but that assurance only carries us so far.

There are plenty of other things we could learn that would be good for the brain but also useful. If we think language learning is useless, it won’t be enough to say that it’s one of many things that can be used for mental exercise.

So then we’re left with the question: is it still useful to learn languages, even with Google translate getting to be so unbelievably good?

Probably not, for most things. Let’s be honest. For most purposes, Google translate (and its cousins) is now, or soon will be, good enough.

But there’s at least one big exception that comes to mind for me immediately. For the task of thinking with the great minds of history, I think we still need at least a rudimentary knowledge of a handful of languages, and the more fluent we can become, the better.

This is because we will never see the text as clearly through a translation as we will through the original. It doesn’t matter how good the translation is, or how it is presented. We can’t really understand the subtleties and possibilities of the text without some comprehension of the language.

It’s a little like examining an object though a video feed, I think. No matter how crisp the pixelation, or how bright, no matter how many different angles we get to see the thing from, it will never be quite as good as holding it on our own two hands and peering at it through our own eyes.

No matter how good the translation is, it will never be as good as reading the original.

Without being able to read in the original language, we will never be as sure that we understand what we’re reading as we could be.

Without reading the original, we’ll never be able to speak as confidently about it as we wish we could.

Translations, and then Languages

I’ve talked a bit about language learning in previous posts. It’s something I happen to be pretty excited about at the moment, but it hasn’t always been such a big focus for me.

black text reflect on eyeglasses
Photo credit:

When I first started to get excited about familiarizing myself with the history of philosophy, I had done a little bit of language study, but I was still very far from being very fluent in any of the few languages I had studied.

And at that point I was realizing how little I knew of philosophy, how much I needed to learn. It felt pretty urgent! It was a burning need, which I could not put off for long. So after some internal struggle, I made a deal with myself:

I will stop studying languages for a little while, I told myself, so that I can focus on reading through the history of philosophy in translation. But then later, I will return to my study of languages so that I can revisit the study of philosophy, at my leisure, in the original texts.

I hoped I’d find a way to study languages on my own, years after college, and then also to get pretty good at them! How foolhardy does that sound?

I knew when I made that deal with myself that it was a dangerous move. “I’ll study the languages more later” is the kind of thing someone says when they have studied a language in school and are about to leave it behind forever.

I knew it was possible that if I left the languages lying unused for too long, I might never find the time or motivation to return to them. So I gambled. I gambled on my ability to follow through and find a way to get back into the languages.

And so far, the gamble seems like it may have paid off. For the past couple years I’ve been easing back into the study of languages, and in the past half a year I’ve been making excellent progress.

It felt like stepping off a cliff, way back then, and hoping for the best. It was the only way forward I could see that would allow me to secure the things I desired in the order in which I desired to have them, but it was never a sure thing.

After I graduated college it took me a year to read through the complete works of Plato in translation, which I did often in the evenings or during coffee breaks at work. Once I had finished that, I knew there was still Aristotle ahead of me, Plotinus, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Kant, and so many others. And I wanted to move on to those other thinkers as soon as I could.

I knew that I couldn’t leap directly into the original languages and spend half a decade trying to read through Plato in Greek. I was hungry to know the history of philosophy, and reading it in translations seemed the best middle ground between reading in the original languages on the one hand, and reading a book about the history of philosophy on the other (which would be much faster, but also inexpressibly shallower).

So I did it. It’s certainly not a fast path, but it is fast enough, and it’s thorough.

And because it seems to be working out so far, I’m glad I made the choice I did, and I’m happy to recommend the same sort of approach to others. I can’t say it’s always easy, but in my experience so far, I can say that it does at least seem to be possible.

Languages and Chess

It has struck me that studying languages can be a little bit similar to the experience of studying chess.

bishop chess piece on black rock at daytime
Image credit:

I’m not that serious about chess these days, and to be honest in fact I’m pretty rusty, but I went through a phase some years ago where I was studying different openings and tactics every day. At that time I was frequently playing chess games online against random opponents. It had an interesting, unexpected side effect.

As a result of all that study and practice, my mind was full of meaningless bits of chess all day. I would be eating dinner and would suddenly imagine a rook lift, out of context, or a bishop move that would check the king on a certain square.

I didn’t imagine these things deliberately, and they didn’t have any particular purpose, but they continued popping into my mind anyway. I suspect it was part of the process (or a harmless effect of the process) of my mind digesting and making meaning out of the positions that were still relatively fresh in my memory.

Just recently, as I’ve been studying German a little bit more intensely, I’ve started noticing something very similar going on. I have little meaningless bits of the language floating about in my brain.

The other day it was jeglicher and unerbittliche, and then yesterday niedrigere. Today it’s abgetane. Something about these words causes them to snag on the fabric of my consciousness and get caught there.

The words roll around in my head all day, always in the background but never fully gone. I taste them with my mind, drum their rhythms, scrape fingertips across their varied textures, chime their pure vowels, feel the rumble of their jostling consonants underfoot.

I suppose whatever we’re focusing on and putting time into must leave a sort of mental residue, more powerfully in proportion to how much work we put into it. Judging such residue might be a good way to get a sense of what holds a central place in our lives at any given moment, and of whether we’re happy about it.