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.

A Rumour of Wisdom

When I was younger, I heard a whisper of a rumour. It was a rumour about where wisdom was to be found.

I heard that long ago, there was a succession of thinkers, and in their thoughts can be seen glimpses of that wisdom which encompasses and indwells the world.

Out of one part of those thoughts grew all the mighty technology and terrible machines of the modern world, all the wonders that so impress us today. And I heard that this one part of their thought, which has expanded into such a marvellous enterprise in our past, was only the smallest and lowest part of what they knew.

Originally these thinkers were Greek, but their later successors often also wrote in Latin and Arabic and other languages.

Their writings are often translated, though sometimes not, or sometimes only poorly. Even where good translations are readily available, the ideas are highly difficult to assimilate, requiring many years of toilsome effort to make progress in.

And it’s only a rumour. Few people I’ve ever met have made any progress at all in that sort of learning, and even for those who have, they can often only impart some small portion of what they’ve learned.

Who would stake everything on a rumour? What if you gave your life to learning these things and in the end found only vanity and emptiness?

Still, so many of the other rumours of wisdom that float around today are more easily dismissed. This one at least seems like one of those that may be true. And this one hopeful glimmer will necessarily attract many who thirst for wisdom.

If this is where wisdom is to be found, it is everything. For many of us, then, it will seem worth the risk.

Books for Health and Strength

So you want to be healthy and strong? I know a couple books that might help.

We all feel inspired to improve our bodily condition at certain points in our lives. The doctor gives a suboptimal piece of news. The movie’s attractive protagonist is transformed through struggle and determination. An unexpected glimpse of oneself in a mirror or a photograph forces a confrontation with reality.

But inspiration and motivation aren’t enough. We won’t reach the destination if we can’t even find what direction to turn in, or which path to embark on. On the questions of diet and exercise, there is a veritable mountain of competing advice available, and a shocking level of misinformation floating around. Everyone wants to make a buck, and the best way to do so is apparently by telling people what they want to hear and offering some new spin.

So the trick, then, is to cut through the noise and find the truth.

I think these two books offer a great deal of help in that respect. You might not want to hear all of what they have to say, but it’s my conclusion that they are nonetheless worth hearing out.

One book offers guidance on the science of exercise, and one on the science of diet. Neither is a how-to manual. The exercise book doesn’t give a full workout regimen, and the diet book won’t offer a list of meals to eat. But they give the guidance which will make it possible to choose exercises and foods wisely, which in my experience is far more valuable.

The First 20 Minutes, by Gretchen Reynolds, is a book without parallel about exercise science. It blasts away some common myths, and it explores many of the benefits of exercise and the best and worst ways to exercise. An inspiring and informative read.

My second book recommendation is How Not to Die, by Michael Greger (not to be confused with his followup book How Not to Diet, also a pretty good read but not where I’d recommend beginning). How Not to Die is an amazing book. It is very challenging to most of us who read it, but it also makes an effort to be welcoming. There are almost certainly problems with the kinds of food we come to eat, including problems we had no idea were anything wrong. This is the book that will tell us how to change our eating for the better, and it will break the news to us in a gentle, clear, and winsome manner.

If you want to live a long life, to preserve your brain’s health, to feel good and strong, to be able to think clearly and without hindrance, then these two books are the place to start. They cut through the noise and lay out a path which is perhaps not easy, but at least clear.