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.

Nietzsche Not As Metaphysical But Political Philosopher

Nietzsche is either a strikingly poor metaphysician, or a brilliant political philosopher. I prefer to believe the latter is the truth, although I seem to be in a bit of a minority from what I can tell.

Not that most people who know of Nietzsche will say explicitly that he’s a bad metaphysician. They only say, in my (admittedly limited) experience, that he comes to metaphysical conclusions that might be true, on the basis of arguments that tell us nothing about metaphysics. And since he’s witty and entertaining and stylish and famous, that must presumably be okay.

What greater insult could a philosopher receive than to be praised condescendingly as a supremely entertaining fallacy-factory?

We could easily summarize a typically Nietzschean sort of thought in this way: Weak people want to escape this world, and so any theory that posits a world beyond this one is an invention born of weakness, and thus, no world exists beyond our own. Here is an example of how people want to read Nietzsche. He’s saying something about ultimate reality, on the basis of an argument that proves nothing about ultimate reality itself.

And at times, surely, that is how he sounds. Yet, it is important to keep in mind the Nietzschean way of writing philosophy. He is no Kant, no Aquinas, no Aristotle. Those philosophers are themselves often ambiguous, difficult, diversely interpreted, but without a doubt they are making some effort to be clear and consistent and comprehensible. Nietzsche is more playful than they, far more literary in his philosophical writing.

Nietzsche can be difficult to pin down. When is he being ironic? When is he being hyperbolic? When is he trying to invoke an idea or a mood indirectly through his statements? We are left with considerable latitude in how to interpret him.

I am certain he knew he would be read as a mere gigantic impish fallacy, and he chose to be happy with that. His writing reveals itself differently to different readers.

If we choose to read him sympathetically, to assume at every point that he actually knew how to recognize a fallacious argument and was trying to say something not fallacious, even if a piece of writing seems easily read as a fallacy, then quickly a pattern becomes clear.

Nietzsche is talking about us.

He’s not talking so much about the universe or ultimate reality or things as they really are.

He speaks about human nature.

He speaks about human thought as it stands in its many streams in the modern world.

He speaks about life and choice and perception and happiness. He speaks insightfully about those things. That, then, is how I’ll choose to hear him.

Effects of Being Your Best

Virtue is contagious. The harder we work to better ourselves, the more likely it is that the people around us will begin taking steps toward their own improvement.

Sometimes the spreading of virtue happens rapidly, especially if it is taking place in the context of a new friendship. Most often, you’re going to have to prove yourself.

Anyone can start a fad diet. Anyone can get a gym membership or buy a pair of running shoes. Learning a few words of a foreign language isn’t hard.

What’s hard is sticking with it. Will we give up after a month? After ten months? Do we think we’ll still be at it in two years? What about five years from now?

If we can consistently keep up a positive new habit for half a decade, we will see very significant changes in our lives. That could mean fluency in a new language, or mastery of a new skill or profession. It could be the difference between doing wall push-ups and doing planche pushups. Whatever it is, it’s enough to be something noticeable and impressive.

And the people around us will be watching. I was at one time morbidly obese, and whenever someone I knew started out on a diet, I myself would start silently rooting for them to fail. Their failure would mean my vindication, according to some warped logic.

But it only took seeing one person succeed, one person that I knew personally, for my mindset to change, and for me to commit to losing the weight.

It took years for the pounds to disappear (and even still the process isn’t finished), but it took mere minutes for me to decide to change my life and myself for the better, whatever it would take.

One person’s virtue can affect the lives of many, and especially of those people who are closest to us, whom we care about the most.

The Wildness of Divinity

There are some intelligent theists who are very confident that hell, if such a word means anything at all, will most certainly be unoccupied at the end of all things, and into eternity.

I do not deny absolutely such a possibility, though I believe that according to the texts and teachings of the Christian faith at least, it is highly improbable that “hell will be empty.”

However, one thing that I will never allow, nor even understand, is the utter certainty with which such people assert their conclusion.

Now, some people are allergic to any sort of certainties, and that’s not me. I don’t think that certainty as such is always mistaken. I only ask what is the basis for certainty in any given case.

The proponents of universal salvation are certain of their teaching because they think it is an inescapable consequence of God’s goodness. If God is good, they think, and of course God is good, then there is no possible world in which God allows some people to suffer forever.

Such an argument diminishes God. It replaces God with an idol, with an imagining of our own creation. It may be well-intended — I’m sure that it is. It may be able to reinterpret every line of Scripture and every Christian doctrine into alignment with its desired conclusion.

But its root is the desire for the taming of God. It tries to contain the incomprehensible, and so it has no standing.

God is good, truly. God is goodness itself. But God is not goodness as we have ever known goodness. God is not trapped by our understanding of what is good. The good as we know it is derived from and bounded by who God is, certainly, but the inverse is by no means true.

The goodness of God must not be tamed. It is a wild thing, unreachable. The goodness that we know is only the smallest part of God, is, by comparison, nothing at all.

If we think we have understood God, then we have turned away from God, toward a creaturely fiction to which we have given the name of God.

God as God is unknowable, overflowing all our categories, bursting out of our human theories and conjectures and speculations.

We can love this God who is beyond our minds, and we can fear this God, indeed, but we cannot intellectually capture divinity in any meaningful formula, in any combination of words or intuitions or images.

If we say we have determined what God must be like, how God must act, we have committed the ultimate arrogance. O humanity, remember what you are. Know yourself.

Maybe God’s plan includes an emptiness of hell, an abolition of hell. But we cannot expect it, cannot demand it, cannot just assert it. We will discover what the goodness of God means, with wonder and fear and love and adoration at every step of the way. That is all we can hope for.

I say this as someone who has thought through, and read, and discussed, carefully and seriously the arguments for universal salvation. I do not dismiss them lightly. But I’ve concluded that I cannot see a way ever to come to see things from their viewpoint, as long as I seek to let God be God.

A or B … or Both?

For some reason, our brains are easily tricked into accepting what I believe are called false disjunctions. Such and such group of people believes that A is true, and this other group believes that B is true. Which group is correct?

When I pose it in those terms, hopefully it is obvious that, and obvious why, this approach makes no sense whatsoever.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other! There is a very great probability that the answer is “both, actually.”

Should we strive for physical health or intellectual capacity? Should we believe that all people are equal in dignity or that people are unequal in ability? Should we want the government to cut wasteful spending or to do what it can to improve the conditions of its populace? Should we be at peace with the world’s imperfections or try to make the world a better place? Should we honour solitude and independence or life in community? Should we be kind to others or do what’s best for ourselves?

Both! Always and forever both! How can these questions even exist for a second without being laughed into obscurity?

Arguing about which is more important is also nothing more than a distraction. “Well sure, of course you need to have both, but when it comes right down to it and you have to pick one or the other, which will you choose?” The thing is, we can choose both. Maybe we can’t choose both at the same instant or with the same dollar, but if we say that both are important and that we have to find a way to address them both, then in all but the rarest of circumstances, that is precisely what is able to happen.

These sorts of questions don’t really have anything to do with what we do or should believe about reality. In my experience, they have much more to do with which groups of people we want to align ourselves with. It also often corresponds to the kind of life that is most appealing to us (which is to say, the vices we treasure and will find a way to justify to ourselves).

What happens when we start to answer that type of question with the sensible response, then? What happens when we insist on “both”?

For one thing, we find friends in places we would never before have thought to look, and that opens our eyes to see many things more clearly.

For another, our vices will begin to appear to us, seen for what they are, left with nowhere to hide. And that’s the first step to becoming a better person, which is the most important thing of all.

Extra-Modern

A good part of my intellectual struggle and burden throughout my life has been to find a view from outside of the modern world, from which to look at and evaluate that world.

It’s strange, in a way, that I have worked so hard to get my head outside of modernity, when there is so much about modernity that I appreciate. It is indeed my home. It is my community. In a way, everything that I have, I owe to it. Everything I am comes from modernity, and even the hints of an older world that have reached me are themselves filtered through the modern reality before they reach me.

I am grateful for modern medicine. I love the insights of the modern sciences. I respect the political achievements of modern nations. I am amazed by the scholarly achievements of the modern university.

And of course, it goes without saying that one can’t say a harsh word about modernity or technology these days without some little genius commenting that “lolol you know you’re actually literally typing on the internet right this second as you say that, it kind of undermines what you’re saying don’t you think.”

Still, I think that for the philosophical mind, there is a desire to step outside the accretion of assumptions that is everywhere and unquestioned in a given civilization, to find a standpoint that is not merely conventional and dogmatic, in order to see more clearly what is timelessly true and what is ephemeral. It is the question of nomos and physis; these things that my community believes, are they merely our tribal mythology, or are they the way the world truly is? We can’t answer that question from within the mythology itself, and so another standpoint, exterior to the society’s understanding, must be found.

I was fortunate in my youth to grow up with a sincere Christian faith, which helped shove a sort of wedge into my mind to compete with the modern assumptions about the way the world really is. It planted some questions early on, which enabled me to wonder whether modernity had the unquestionable, absolute authority to answer questions in the way that it seemed to claim for itself.

To be determinedly anti-modern is of course as irrational and pointless as it is to be mindlessly in favour of all things modern — probably even worse, if anything. There are many good things in the modern world, for which we should be grateful, and from which we ought to learn. To be predictably opposed to our society on every point is both irrational and irresponsible.

Still, the philosophical mind cannot be content with docilely accepting the account of the world that it receives from the surrounding society. Even if in the end a deep thinker ends up as the greatest apologist for a particular approach, it is still certain that such a judgement would be meaningless (and from the philosopher’s perspective, impossible) without having found some standpoint outside that approach to start from.

But how can we stand outside of modernity when it is so all-encompassing? And what will we find once we are there? Many possible standpoints are available. To entertain the possibility of religious revelation is one avenue, as I implied above. To imagine a good world without modern technologies is also an option. Proposed economic arrangements other than capitalism also offer a fascinating view from outside.

And what do we find? We find ourselves drawing closer to an understanding of human nature, to philosophy and political philosophy and the realities of epistemology, at the very least. Eventually, maybe we can say something worthwhile about this world in which we find ourselves.

Who Listens To Audiobooks?

I was in my early twenties when I first started listening to audiobooks, and I found it interesting to imagine how I might seem to others around me.

I had no car at the time, so I found it very convenient to listen to audiobooks as I walked through the city on my way from one place to the next.

And for some reason I never used headphones. Maybe it was a concern for safety … I don’t remember for sure. I was the nerdier version of that sort of person you might encounter today listening to music as he wheels his way down the sidewalk.

I would nestle my smartphone on top of my shoulder, under my shirt, where it was reasonably secure against falling to the ground and also close enough to my ear that I wouldn’t miss a phrase when an obnoxiously loud vehicle roared past.

And thus I walked through the city, a disembodied voice speaking from my shoulder like a well-educated little parrot.

I was listening to history, to philosophy, to economics, to fiction, to essays. But someone who cycled past me on the sidewalk, who heard not the content but just the sound of an audiobook, might be forced to supply the content in the form of a guess.

What could they guess? What sort of person striding down the street would care so much about a body of texts, and what would that person listen to? There were a few possible answers to the question that I could think of.

1. The Fundamentalist. Maybe they figured I was someone very religious, listening to revivalist preachers, sermons about hellfire, about the righteous and the wicked.

2. The Marxist. Or maybe they wondered if I was someone being brainwashed into the thinking of communism, learning to use terms like alienation and bourgeois and wage-slavery.

3. The Esotericist. Or maybe they thought I was someone who believed there was cosmic wisdom to be found in crystals and Eastern scriptures, learning to tap the energies of the universe through my oneness with the way of non-violence.

And maybe I was wrong in those guesses. Maybe they thought I was listening to something else entirely. I feel pretty sure, though, that not many could have guessed my real purpose.

I was setting out on the Arnoldian quest to find the best that has been thought and said. I was seeking to remake my mind. I wanted to be able to understand the thoughts of the brightest and wisest minds in the world, in all of history.

A big goal, I know. It’s a long path, which few of us will ever get anywhere close to completing, but it’s no less worth the walking. We’ll certainly never finish if we don’t get it started.

What’s Fascinating About Marx and Marxists

I know that the states that have called themselves Marxist have historically been brutal, bloody, unjust, and all but unworkable. I also don’t have strong opinions about Marx’s economic analyses and predictions, since although I have some familiarity with them, I don’t have the expertise to evaluate them intelligently.

When I look at the life of Marx, though, and the lives of some who followed him, like Lenin, one thing especially stands out to me, and that is what we might call the intellectually activist character of their labours.

I have to admit that I am amazed by the industriousness with which these thinkers committed themselves to learning and understanding, and on the flip side, to political action and organization. They worked feverishly, tirelessly, and there are times when I admire that quality about them.

I don’t think that most of us really ought to spend all of our time and our energy striving to change the way society is structured. A major part of our effort should go toward shaping ourselves into someone good, and forming a family, a community, investing in it and enjoying it.

And yet, something in me can’t help but believe that there is a time for trying to make the world a better place, in big ways, as well. There is a time for people like the abolitionists, let’s say for example. There’s something of that character in all of us, to one degree or another. And a great many of us never tap into it, certainly not after our mid-twenties or so.

We can look at the world around us, and we will see many examples of injustice, of unjust systems that are direly in need of reform or rebirth.

We won’t know how to fix them, at first, even if some of us might be tempted to assume straight away that we will. Thus the need for a disciplined and fervent study of the problem and the related issues.

And even once we think we have some sense of what needs to be done, it won’t be clear how someone like you or me can make a difference. And indeed, at first we probably won’t be able to do anything of worth. We’ll need to perfect our hearts and minds and bodies for the job. We’ll need to cultivate a network of people who might be able to help us. We’ll need to perform the actions that might make a difference again and again, let them accumulate, let our skill grow, give more and more opportunities for our efforts to catch hold.

This isn’t the only thing we should be doing with our lives, but it is a good thing to do.

And it’s possible. We can find examples of it from history. For that, if for nothing else, we can thank people like Marx and his followers.

Do People Believe Virtue is Most Important?

I don’t think most people believe virtue is what is most important.

I don’t think that’s what most parents teach their children, not by example and not even by word. We tell them to decide their futures and resolve their problems by doing what will get them ahead in life, what will set them up with money, will leave them respected, will keep them safe. We don’t tell them to decide based on what will be best for the kind of person they are becoming, regardless of those other considerations.

I don’t think it’s what most teachers give their students. They want knowledge for us, skills, security, insight maybe, power and influence, but to see them extolling virtue is rare, in my experience.

I don’t think it’s what most leaders tell their followers. They tell us to get what’s owed to us, to get vengeance, to shame our enemies, to proclaim our greatness, but not to face up to what makes us bad people and try to be better. And I can understand that.

I think even religious leaders don’t try to make this case. They assume that we want what’s best for ourselves and our families, defined as vindication, satisfaction, future happiness.

It’s not what one coworker says to another. We encourage one another to pursue pleasure and protect our rights.

It’s not what most friends say when commiserating.

What if it were?

The Platonic Proof of God

It seems to me that there’s an approach to thinking about divinity which is rarely mentioned today (though perhaps it has been growing in popularity just recently), which is powerful and beautiful indeed.

This approach is the Neoplatonic journey to the One, the movement of the mind toward that which is purely simple and indivisible.

Onewardness is a common direction of human thinking. It seems to me, indeed, that it might fairly be spoken of as that which most characterizes human thinking, and surely it is precisely this onewardness that makes human thinking so unique and powerful.

When we see a jumble of unlike things and find their interconnectedness in a single system, we are taking what is many and bringing the many into unity, by means of our thinking. Our ability to speak of ecosystems or communities highlights this human capacity to unify.

The opposite also shows the same thing; when we look at a coherent whole and mentally disassemble it into its essential parts, we are taking what is many and drawing forth the unities that are obscured by their participation in the multiplicity, and again we accomplish this by way of thought. To speak of the organs which compose an organism, or of strata or atoms or indeed of parts, shows this human ability and human yearning to find the unities behind multiplicity.

When we class multiple individuals together into a universal abstraction, we are once more taking the many and bringing them into a kind of unity. Speaking about biological kingdoms, families, genera, species, is an example of how we engage in this sort of simplifying work.

And again, our ability to move in the opposite direction is a sign of the same thing. When we begin with an abstraction which encompasses many things, and we recognize the individuality of a given instance of that general abstraction, we are taking the many and transforming it into one. Asking an infant to point to “a tree” is an example of this ability to move from the general (treeness) to the individual (that thing right over there).

So human thought is always striving toward the one. To think is itself almost able to be defined as a striving after the one. We are constantly confronted by the many, and straining to replace it with greater unity and simplicity of different sorts.

Well then, we find ourselves faced with two questions:

1. Do these mental steps toward greater unity correspond to deeper levels of unity that exist within reality, or are they nothing more than self-deceptions created within the human mind? And,

2. Is there an extreme limit to onewardness, or does it continue on without end? In other words, is it like straightness, where something can get straighter and straighter until it reaches perfect straightness and cannot be made any straighter? Or is it more like bigness, where something can keep getting bigger and bigger without ever reaching a logical point of maximal bigness?

The Neoplatonist takes the former position in each of the two questions. The unities in our minds bear at least some kind of resemblance to the way things are in reality, and there is a most-unified Something toward which all of the other, lesser unities point us.

The Neoplatonic answers to these questions seem entirely coherent to me. In fact, truth be told, any answers other than the Neoplatonists’ seem like they would be incoherent.

But that’s a post for another day.