The Temptation in Moral Philosophy

I am as much an advocate for the importance of moral philosophy and virtue ethics as anyone, but I think it’s important to recognize that there is a very real temptation in it, which has the potential to disfigure and harm the person studying it.

The temptation is to see mainly other people in the things we are studying, to see the things we are studying mainly in other people.

“That vice? Oh yes, that reminds me so vividly of someone I know.” “This virtue? It’s certainly something I’d love to see more of in old so-and-so, who’s intolerable lately.”

The more we reflect on morality, the more we will recognize it in the world around us. Somehow, we often have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves.

And perhaps there is some foundation for this in many cases. Maybe in a given instance the moralist really is much farther along the path of virtue, and the other person could make the situation easier on everyone by summoning just a modicum of patience or courage or self-restraint.

Even in those extreme cases, however, we are not responsible for their behaviour, only for our own. Those situations are primarily opportunities not for teaching, but for growth, for excellence. If they want our guidance then we should offer it to them, but otherwise it is pointless to remark on their flaws. Their flaws are a challenge that can in fact bring out our own best qualities — our patience, magnanimity, wisdom, strength.

I am as guilty as anyone of finding fault with others. It’s something I’m working on. It’s a great trial, and an important chance to grow in virtue. Let’s commit to tackling this challenge, and to picking ourselves back up after every failure.

Is It Time to Increase the Difficulty?

Maybe you feel like you’re coasting, and you wonder if it’s time to challenge yourself in a new way.

I was reflecting this morning, and it occurred to me that an intuition of that sort marks an important moment for taking stock. I think there are a few questions to consider in that moment.

1. For one thing, it is worthwhile to ask whether the coasting is the bad or the good kind of coasting.

Coasting that leads to decay is bad coasting; if I was doing one push-up per week and getting progressively weaker over time, it’s time for a change.

Coasting that needlessly costs us our goals is bad coasting. If I’m running three times a week but not nearly covering enough distance to survive a marathon I’ve signed up for in a couple months (and if I don’t have a good reason for that neglect), then that’s not great.

But there’s good coasting too. An author who writes three pages per day could certainly be doing better, but at the end of the week she’s still twenty pages closer to having a finished book. A person who does ten minutes of language study per day, awaiting the moment when energy and capacity and inspiration come together to enable a commitment of fifteen or twenty minutes per day, is coasting well.

2. Another important consideration is why the coasting began to happen in the first place. Presumably before the coasting, at some point (even if it was long ago) we were pushing ourselves and getting out of the comfort zone. What led us to slow down, and are any of those factors still at play? Were there other commitments that we needed to give time and attention to? If we haven’t thought this through and dealt with any looming challenges, we have a much lower chance of succeeding this time as well.

3. And finally, there is the question of how to make things more difficult, if we choose to do so (as we may well). Spending more time on it? Choosing a variation that is more draining? Adding a second layer on top of what we’re already doing? Intuition and experimentation will probably be our best guides at this point in the process.

Classicism and Antibigotry Coexisting

If a bigot of European descent wants to find some thin veneer of respectability for objectionable views, it is likely that person will turn to the literature and accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Romans and maybe also Hebrews, and to the intellectual lineages connecting those ancient peoples to us today. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but if we’re honest, we know it’s true.

In turn, others may cast an eye of suspicion on anyone who is drawn to such subjects. Does this person like the Bible and Homer and Cicero merely because it is a justification for hating some demonized minority?

It’s not a completely stupid suspicion, either. If I saw a person walking down the sidewalk with, let’s say, a bloody knife, I’d certainly give a wide berth, even knowing that there are countless legitimate, innocent, harmless explanations that might account for the situation. Even though there may be numerous good reasons for studying the sources of European thought, if it is indeed a possible sign of evil thinking then it’s not unreasonable for someone to treat it with caution.

Still, that isn’t the full picture. It’s far more complicated than that. For instance, let’s think of the non-bigot, this person who looks at potential bigots with suspicion. Where does this antibigotry originate? If we believe the apologists for classicism, it arises from the European tradition itself, blossoming out of those very same classical sources. I believe Allan Bloom, for instance, makes this assertion somewhere in Closing.

The nomos-phusis distinction of the Greeks, the Hebrew teaching about humans as made in the image and likeness of God, the gospel message of love for neighbours and enemies and of the rejection of judgement, the Pauline proclamation of salvation for the Gentiles without their ceasing to be Gentiles, the vision in the Macedonian and Roman Empires of a civilization that could encompass and unite all peoples into a singular language and governmental structure and literary tradition — all of these elements eventually produced in some groups a thing never witnessed in all human history: a conscientious aversion to racism and sexism and xenophobia and all manner of bigotries, a thing that is indeed still taking shape in our own time.

Perhaps, however, that only means the tradition has transcended itself and rendered itself obsolete? Perhaps in the rejection of bigotry we must choose to reject our own literary and philosophical heritage as well, either because it represents too great a temptation to self-aggrandizement and xenophobia, or else, some might even say, because it is already in itself a massive instance of bigotry that cannot ever be justly celebrated once we have seen the need to jettison our bigoted impulses.

In my view, though, it is entirely possible both to resist bigotry and also to embrace a heritage, and I believe that in principle a great majority of antibigots today would agree; and the “classical” lineage would seem to be particularly well suited to such a synthesis.

Indeed, in theory at least, the study of classical texts could itself very well lead to or strengthen the rejection of bigotry. This might be the small upside of the bigots’ misappropriation of these ancient texts. Maybe the occasional bigot, out to flatter herself in the study of the great thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition, will end up educated out of her bigotry, even almost in spite of her own best efforts.

Was Leo Strauss an Atheist?

Leo Strauss argues for a certain agnosticism toward religious revelations, and yet he does so charitably, in contradiction to those who would merely mock or dismiss the possibility of divine revelation outright. There’s some reason to think that he was privately doubtful about the probability of genuine divine revelation, though I think perhaps less reason than is often supposed.

Is there any reason though, in Strauss’s eyes, to believe in a God apart from the question of revelation, in a divinity that may just as well not have revealed itself by intervention in human history? As far as I can tell, this sort of question is external to the investigation of political philosophy as Strauss committed himself to it, and so there is little indication of his conclusions.

We are left, then, with the question of whether it is really just to characterize Strauss as an atheist. Here’s my take: It doesn’t matter. Strauss may well have been an atheist. I am not. I still consider myself lucky to be an admirer and even an imitator of Strauss.

It doesn’t matter? How is that possible? Isn’t the theologico-political problem supposed to be a central facet of Strauss’s thought? How could that project be indifferent to the truth (or untruth) of divinity?

And yet, I think it can be, because Strauss is mainly interested not so much in the arguments for or against God or revelation (except to express a very reasonable agnosticism in contradiction of dogmatic atheists), but rather in the public and political consequences of different convictions.

If people believe or disbelieve in God and/or revelation, what will that mean for the city? What will it mean for the political community? What will it mean for the activities of any philosophers living in the political community?

For questions like these, what matters is not truth or untruth, but perception. If some people believe there’s an asteroid rocketing toward earth, that matters, whether or not there is an asteroid incoming. In the long run the asteroid itself matters too, of course, very much, but still it is certainly possible to investigate people’s beliefs about the asteroid, and the consequences and utility of those beliefs, in isolation from the question of whether the asteroid is real.

It is possible to think about the virtues of faith and the vices of superstition, and their place in the city, apart from the question of God. It is indeed worthwhile to think about such questions. And on those matters, Leo Strauss is an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance for all of us.

Progressivism is Reactionary

Progressivism is the opposite of reactionary, right? We tend to think so, but I no longer believe it to be true.

Think of the early leftists, surrounded by religion and royalty and privilege and hierarchy, roused to dream of something better.

The left today tends to care less about things like monarchy, focused as it is instead on family, marriage, gender, race, systemic oppression, microaggressions.

There is no utopian vision for progressivism, no master plan. One step is followed by another, but no one can know or control where it is headed. It is by nature a slippery slope, unmanaged, undirected. It is a tendency, but a reactive tendency.

We tend to think of conservatism as reactionary, and that’s certainly true. It is a reaction to the reaction. It aims to return to what came before, but it soon becomes characterized more by its hatred of progressives than by its love for what preceded them. All too much of the political spectrum’s right half is actually two degrees removed from reality. Desire to return or preserve is not sufficient, without a clear sense of what was good in the past and what was indeed in need of some correction.

Progressives see real problems with the existing or established order, problems that conservatism too often overlooks and denies.

Finding the problems isn’t the same as finding the solution, however, and that is commonly the failure of the left. Rather than seeking to improve a thing by strengthening what is weak or weakening what is corrupt, too often the impulse is to destroy, to replace, and this perhaps marks a failure to understand human nature.

Still, credit where credit is due. Reaction is not a bad response to injustice. The how might often be flawed, but the why cannot be faulted.

Tips for Duolingo

I love Duolingo, and I want to do some posts in the next while with reflections on it. In today’s, I offer some advice about how to get the most out of it.

I’ve made lots of mistakes in how I approached Duolingo over the last few years, and it’s taken me time to adjust my thinking and correct my unhelpful patterns. Hopefully my experience can be helpful for others earlier on the journey.

Here we go. Some practical wisdom.

(Note: some of these tips will be obsolete in mere years, or perhaps even months, given how often Duolingo introduces changes to how its app is set up. Still, I think that overall these should be helpful guidelines.)

Make it easy. An easy daily language-learning habit will still accomplish incredible things for a person, given enough time. It can’t be so easy that we’re standing still, but as long as there’s progress, however incremental, the habit is working. So make the baseline easy. You can challenge yourself to make the practice harder any day you want to, but the norm should be that the habit can be checked off for the day with minimal pain and inconvenience. That’s important because:

The streak is everything. Just keep practicing. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst day of your life and all you can manage is the easiest review lesson you can find. Just do it. Just keep doing it. Once you stop you’re not learning, but as long as you keep going, you always have at least the possibility of making progress. Just keep the streak going.

The streak isn’t everything. When you have a streak going, don’t let anything jeopardize it. If the streak does get broken though (whether because of forgetfulness or laziness or life circumstances), remind yourself that what you really care about is learning a language, not building a streak. Start a new streak immediately, from zero. Restarting like that will be the toughest thing to do in the moment, but after a few days you won’t be worried about your lost streak anymore.

Keep moving forward. I once saw someone online claiming to have kept a streak on Duolingo for multiple years without learning a single thing. This person claimed to be unable to read anything in the new language with comprehension, or to have even the simplest conversation in it. And it’s true — it is possible to get points by doing the same basic tasks over and over again, without making any progress, and a streak can be kept up indefinitely in this way. To some degree, in fact, Duolingo is set up to reward such behaviour, because you can get the same amount of points with far less effort by doing what you’ve already learned rather than making the effort of learning something new. And maybe on a rare occasion, that’s what we need to do, just to maintain our streak with the least possible effort because of bigger events happening in our lives preventing us from giving the time and attention we want to give. Generally, though, I hope it’s clear that if we want to learn a language, we need to keep moving forward, learning new skills, getting closer to repeating and completing the tree.

Feel free to switch between languages. Now, I wouldn’t recommend switching between two dozen languages, but if there are two or three top languages that seem most interesting, then jump back and forth at will. Sometimes a change of pace is needed, to give us a break, or to challenge us more, or to rekindle our dying interest. If moving to another language for a time is what can accomplish that, then by all means, do it!

It might be easier to add languages. This will sound weird, but stay with me. If you want to add volume to your language learning (when you’re ready!), I find it’s easier to practice one lesson each in two languages per day, than it is to do two lessons in a single language per day. I know, it’s really strange, and it sounds like the opposite should be true. But in my experience, it’s the way it works. Give it a try.

Move through a language very slowly, or very quickly. If you want to get every skill to level five before moving on to the next one, that’s great. I’ve done it, and it’s a fine strategy. If you’re in no hurry and you want to be thorough, it’s probably the way to go. But it’s generally not the way I have gone. I like to move fast, rocket toward a checkpoint, and then afterwards review the material more slowly and thoroughly. This seems to be a good way to stay motivated and to see rapid progress. This latter approach, though, leads me to my last recommendation:

Aim for the checkpoints. This one is especially true for people who are not patiently maxing out each and every skill before moving on to the next. It’s the insight that took me longest to grasp. Once a checkpoint is reached, then it is possible to practice all the skills since the last checkpoint in a leisurely way. If you leave a language and try a new one for a time and then want to go back to the first one, if you stopped short of a checkpoint then there’s no easy way to go back and review what you’ve learned before moving on to further lessons.

Biblical Faith, Classical Thought, and the Offspring of Their Mixing

I have a love for the biblical (Judeo-Christian) texts and also for classical (Greco-Roman) literature, and I sometimes feel a desire to explain why I think this pair of traditions is genuinely important. The other day, though, it occurred to me that whether or not a person appreciates the texts themselves, these two historic starting points have, in combination, certainly shaped our history and our entire world, in a profound way.

It seems to me that it is possible to treat all these things as results of the tension that exists between the heritage of biblical faith and that of classical civilization:

  • The medieval world
  • The Renaissance
  • The Protestant Reformations
  • Modern philosophy
  • The French Revolution and its successors
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • Capitalism
  • Modern liberal representative democracies
  • Socialism and the welfare state
  • Communism (as inspired by Marx and Engels)
  • And perhaps postmodern philosophy as well, as inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger, though I am much less knowledgeable about that chapter of philosophical history, so this point is only an intuition on my part.

Although I didn’t include it on the list, I think a case could even be made that we should include late pagan classical civilization here as well, insofar as it was influenced by or responding to Jewish or Christian thought. How far back that goes, is hard to say. Certainly after Constantine the classical pagan world was responding vigorously to Christian claims. But maybe as far back as Aristotle, who apparently knew of and was impressed by the beliefs of a Jewish man, or even earlier, we could begin to draw connections.

Indeed, there are many other things I could have added to the list — Islam, for instance, Rabbinic Judaism, the Church Fathers, the New Testament, the canon of the Hebrew Bible even. The list goes on.

To say that the biblical and/or classical traditions are not praiseworthy or admirable, is the right of any poor soul. To say that they are negligible, forgettable, unimportant, minor — is simply impossible.

Are Bodyweight Exercises Worth Doing?

I’ve recently been getting excited about the possibilities of bodyweight exercise.

Here’s the thing. I think it’s just kind of weird to start exercising with free weights without getting good at bodyweight exercises. That doesn’t mean we can’t do both, but to me, of the two the one that’s essential and shouldn’t be rejected is bodyweight exercise.

I know some people could be annoyed about that opinion, and I get it. Several years ago when I began getting in shape for the first time, I did some research and I myself began going to a gym and lifting free weights. I got pretty strong, and built up a decent amount of muscle. I could lift amounts of weight that made my friends surprised and impressed. That was cool.

And after all that time and effort, I still was not particularly good at push-ups, or lunges, or pull-ups.

That was not as cool.

True enough, in the long run you can’t get quite as strong with bodyweight exercises as you can with free weights, especially in some muscle groups.

Still, it’s possible to get pretty significantly strong with bodyweight exercise, and there is less danger. Think about it: I was squatting and deadlifting hundreds of pounds of weight, and yet I was incompetent when it came to doing proper unweighted lunges. That’s just weird! Isn’t it? And it’s not very practical.

Much better to build a solid foundation of bodyweight fitness, and then to progress to free weights and machines once there’s a need.

And that’s only if there ever is a need, of course. Most of us don’t (and shouldn’t) aspire to be able to deadlift a truck or to have biceps the size of bowling balls. We just want to be healthy, to be more than strong enough for our everyday activities, to look good at the beach. We each need to find that line for ourselves, and while for some it may require going to the gym to use weights, many of us will perhaps be surprised to discover that all we need is a bit of floor space in our living room and maybe a pull-up bar.

Let’s forget Covid, and the way it lately has caused gyms to be closed for months on end, and made bodyweight exercise the only real option for many people who want to keep exercising.

Even without that, bodyweight exercise is just way more convenient than using weights. It can be done anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to make a trip to the gym, or bring your workout clothes, or carve out an hour of your day. If necessary, a bodyweight workout can be broken up and scattered into the breaks in a day.

Anyone can get started, anytime, anywhere. All that’s needed is to find time to do a bit of research into it, and then launch right in.

It’s a habit, I’ve been finding, that offers big rewards for small efforts.

I’d Doubt My Own Existence Before Doubting God

There’s a particular reading of Descartes, somewhat fanciful, that I’ve arrived at, which has powerfully influenced my thinking. I don’t know if I’m the first person to come up with it; probably not. But I also have no idea to whom I could point in support of it.

It’s a reading of Descartes that is actually informed and inspired by a tired old refutation. Of course the one I have in mind is this: “But you’re assuming you know what the ‘I’ is! Don’t you realize that selfhood is incredibly complex and contentious and uncertain?” I don’t actually give much credit to this old takedown. I think there are plenty of resources within the plain sense of Descartes’s own argument for making short work of it.

However, with that said, I think it’s also possible to read Descartes in a different light, and very profitably, if we imagine that the smug old objection has indeed managed to land a meaningful blow against Descartes’s argumentation. “Goodness me,” says Descartes, “you’re quite right. Even the self cannot be indubitable. The thinking thing, the doubting thing, is itself not enough of a thing to be affirmed or even to merit being denied.” Let’s imagine, then, that the next step of Descartes argument as we have it in the Meditations, is a concession to this admission.

Whatever thing or things might be doing the doubting, we cannot say or know. What we refer to by words like “self” or “I” is a many-sided, ever-changing thing. It is many things, and it is never the same things. But at the very least, it is not nothing.

We cannot affirm the immediate thingness of the self, perhaps. But we must admit that self, even if it is only an illusion, still in its illusory being must signify or represent or indicate that there is something, and not nothing, although we can’t necessarily say what that something is.

But then how does that help us? Those fleeting, insubstantial somethings that we’ve indirectly discovered can be set aside without a second thought, for all the good they will do us. They aren’t nothing, but they almost might as well be.

And yet, if we can know without doubt that there is something contingent, conditioned, multiple and changing, then in that same instant and with the very same confidence, we can know that there is an unconditioned, absolute, necessary, unitary, changeless origin, standing just out of view. The former cannot be thought meaningfully apart from the latter, and if the former is known then the latter is equally known. There can be no changeable without the changeless, no contingent without the necessary, no multiplicity without a first unity. The former by its nature is dependent on the latter, cannot exist without the latter, cannot precede the latter, cannot even be thought or defined or explained without the latter. It is not a syllogism; this is a realm of thought that is above and prior to the segmented, orderly work of logic and mathematics, as Descartes has already made very clear. This is something much closer to mysticism. It is the original, immediate, self-grounding knowledge that overflows itself and breathes meaning and comprehensibility and connection into everything else that is.

This knowledge is the basis of all knowledge. The senses can be doubted, the material world, even the reasoning of the mind. None of them are able to stand on their own, to sustain themselves as their own ground. There is something more primal than any of these things. It is a sort of knowledge that is never entirely absent from our thinking, but is only very rarely noticed for itself. Perhaps it is a thing that can never be believed by a person if it is not yet intuited, and yet, once intuited, could hardly be again denied.

I don’t think there’s anything seriously problematic in the portion of Descartes’s argument that begins with doubt and leads up to the point of confidence in God’s existence. However, to imagine that there might be a problem with it is worthwhile, in that it gives a window into another beautiful and deep truth of human existence and human thought.

Ever since I realized the possibility of this second reading, I have said to friends on occasion, without any hint of irony, that I would sooner doubt my own existence than I could doubt God. I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

Slowly But ASAP

Living well is simply the art of pointing oneself in the right direction as soon as possible, and then beginning to move, no matter how slowly.

As long as we’re going in the right direction it’s okay to be creeping along at a snail’s pace. The important thing is just to get moving in the right direction as soon as possible. But that’s harder than it might sound.

It’s amazing how easy it is to waste years of one’s life moving the wrong direction, focused on the wrong things, or perhaps not really moving in any direction at all. I’m sure that most of us have looked back and found wasted years, even if they were wasted with the best of intentions. Far better to spend those years moving slowly in the right direction than to spend them standing still or going the wrong way.

It is most urgent, then, to discover who we want to be. Perhaps it is better to say that what we need is to discover what is the best life for a human to live, so that we can then pursue that life (insofar as it is possible according to our own particular capacities).

It is sensible to say that we should begin by equipping ourselves for the weighty task that stands before us. We need to train our body and mind and habits to carry us along the difficult path ahead.

What if the teenage years and twenties were spent not only preparing for a career but also studying languages, and pursuing health and strength and fitness, and learning about important moments of world history?

A person’s twenties and thirties could then be spent reading philosophy and literature and political rhetoric and such summaries of the natural sciences as would be useful for the project of understanding.

Think how that would set a person up to spend the rest of their life searching for, and living out, the best life for a human person?

A strong and healthy body, fuelled with ideal nutrition and formed by invigorating exercise, would support a resilient brain and a long life with fewer health challenges.

A growing collection of languages learned would open up wisdom and insight from all over the world and all through history.

Familiarity with the great minds and events of world history enables us to meet and test whatever ideas and proposals arise for our consideration in a way that is mature and sophisticated.

Perhaps we’re behind on the programme I’ve outlined. I certainly am.

It’s okay. As long as we’re moving in the right direction now, even if it can only be at a slow pace, we should take comfort in that fact.