Josiah and Exile

I’ve been reading through some large chunks of the Old Testament recently. I get seized by the impulse to do so every two or three years. What caught my attention this time around was how close together the high point and the low point of the southern kingdom are. I’ve read these stories before, several times, but I can’t remember this fact striking me so powerfully in previous visits.

Josiah is one of the best, perhaps the very best, of the kings in the history of the southern kingdom, from the standpoint of the biblical author. During his reign the book of the law is discovered or rediscovered, which had been unknown to previous generations. The Passover is celebrated for the first time in centuries, from the sound of it.

And then a decade after Josiah’s reign, the Babylonian invasion has begun. Within a couple decades of his rule, it’s all over. Many people in Judah lived to witness both the discovery of the Law and the renewal of the Passover and the destruction of the pagan shrines that had been there since Solomon, on the one hand, and also the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the palace and of the temple and the deportation of the Jewish people, on the other.

Considering how important the Law and the Passover and strict monotheism were for the rest of Jewish history, the timing is pretty remarkable. A few years later with the discovery or a few years earlier for the invasion and the people going into exile would not have been anything like the Jewish people who have been so consequential to the history of humanity and the world.

Even as it was, it is surprising that these changes that were so recent managed to become so deeply a part of Jewish self-understanding before the exile. There was not a chance for the beliefs and rituals to become habituated or traditional. How did it happen?

On the other hand, perhaps a few more decades between Josiah and the exile would have also led to a Jewish people in exile very different than the one that history has given us. The kings after Josiah were closer to the model of Manasseh than Josiah, we are told. Perhaps another few decades would have folded the monotheism of Josiah’s reign (or stricter henotheism, as some would prefer) back into the polytheistic patchwork that prevailed before.

The prophets of our canon were surrounded by other prophetic schools who contradicted the biblical prophets and what they stood for. What a delicate set of circumstances it was that made them the ones whose voices have shaped our past and our thinking so profoundly.

PhD as beginning rather than end

I don’t know if I will ever have a PhD. The future is never certain. But I’m much more hopeful, and much more committed, now than I was even a couple years ago.

My mindset on what a PhD is has shifted substantially. Up until this past year, I’ve always thought of the PhD as the narrow point at the end of the educational funnel. You start out with the broadness of grade school, and become more narrow and focused while moving through undergraduate and master’s studies, and finally with PhD you are restricted to one narrow question which you have to devote years of your life to.

That framing is not appealing to me. There is so much to learn, so much to study, so much to receive from those who have been scrutinizing important questions ahead of us. I feel claustrophobic thinking of focusing on one thing relentlessly. Maybe one day I could make the sacrifice of not studying anything else, but not yet. For now there’s still so much that I don’t know!

Obviously that depiction isn’t entirely false. But it misses something very important.

My entire perspective changed when I began to think of a PhD as the first step into the life of scholarship. After completing a PhD, you are allowed, even encouraged, to research any question that is worthwhile and within your abilities. After a PhD, strenuous and wide-ranging reading and writing is an advantage, not a distraction. It’s the job description! A PhD is just the few years it takes to prove that access to the scholarly community and job market is something you should be able to handle responsibly.

If a PhD were the lens that focused a person into a laser that would never deviate from a very small circle, then I would feel great reluctance to consider it.

If it is a door, though, opening into a world full of the smartest conversations, then I find myself much more interested.

Virtue matters

We all have intellectual or abstract convictions, beliefs about the world. Some of us have more than others, some hold theirs more strongly than others.

We also have emotional reactions to things that do not always align with our intellectual convictions. Sometimes an emotional response betrays us, when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel strongly in a way that is at odds with our beliefs about the world. Other times, maybe we have little emotional response to an issue that we have strong intellectual commitment to, or vice versa.

And much of the time, we are suspended in an in-between moment, where we have intellectual beliefs about a thing but we haven’t yet encountered a situation that will reveal how our emotional experience will align with those beliefs.

For several years now, I’ve had a strong conviction about the importance of virtue. I’m attracted to the belief, I think there are compelling arguments for it, and it has been sometimes difficult but always worthwhile to act on that conviction when making decisions about the direction of my life.

Perhaps surprisingly, in those years I haven’t really found myself in situations where I’ve had a strong emotional response that reflected or opposed that conviction.

Recently though, there have been times when my dear son, still a toddler, is forced to choose between doing what he knows is right, and doing what is selfishly most attractive. He makes a choice that involves self-sacrifice, does it, but then afterwards he is grieved because in the short run, there is no benefit to him, only deprivation and emotional pain. Sometimes he feels the unhappiness very keenly, even as he sticks with his choice to do what is right.

My powerful emotional response is one that I’m glad to see in myself. I feel overwhelmingly proud of my son for this small but very significant act of virtue. And I long helplessly for the words to communicate to him that what he got was so much more valuable than what he gave up. It’s not just me as a parent wanting a peaceful life — it is a genuine desire to pass on to my beloved child what is most valuable.

On this matter, my heart and my head are agreed, as it turns out. And I am so grateful to know it.

Being right quietly

I go through phases where I think that I have all the evidence, all the arguments and rebuttals, to convince anyone of a truth that is obviously true. Anyone who’s willing to have a conversation with me about the subject should find themselves convinced, or at least humbled.

It is inexpressibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that in our world, that will just never be how it works.

Now, when there are people who are clearly aware of their own ignorance, and questing for an answer to an important question, then all the arguments and evidence and rebuttals will probably make a difference for the person.

But a great deal of the time, even people who present themselves in this way will have an answer chosen beforehand that they want to see triumph, and woe to you if you don’t get the right one. The person who is disposed to be a genuine sponge of learning is rare indeed.

It is also possible, if a person doesn’t care about a question or its answer at all, but has great respect for you, that the arguments and evidence can have an effect.

In basically all other discussions, we should resign ourselves either to not trying at all to convince the other person, or at least to not having any expectation of success. Practically speaking, for me what I’ve been trying to do lately is just allow myself to feel sad for the other person’s wrongness, while fighting my impulse to try and fix it. This is a lesson I’ve been learning for a lot of years, and it is still one I’m struggling to absorb fully.

If a person is convinced of a wrong answer, you are almost certain to fail in convincing them of a different one. Depressing, but true. That’s not to say the attempt couldn’t have some good outcomes — it’s possible — but at the very least they won’t be the ones you probably expect them to be.

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.