Seven Unpractical Reasons to Start Gardening

Let me continue my list from last week, this time moving on to the less practical reasons for why someone might want to start gardening. I know it’s a week before Christmas and this probably seems like a weird time to be talking about gardens — but as I have learned all too well, if you don’t start thinking about your garden until the spring, then you’re already late!

1. Gardening puts you more deeply in touch with the natural world and its cyclical changes. Obviously we’re all aware of the passage of the seasons as we make the switch from mowing lawns to shovelling snow and back again. Gardening forces us to be aware of the different moments of the changing seasons in a way that is deeply unfamiliar to us. Get reacquainted with sister earth, our home.

2. Gardening puts you more in touch with the great majority of the people who have lived during the course of human history. The overwhelming multitude of people have had to eat food they grew themselves — often even the warriors! The Spartan soldiers were exceptional among the Greeks for not being mainly farmers. In Rome, the separation of the warriors from their agricultural work, as they began coming home from war to find their farms sold to greedy, wealthy men, spelled the beginning of great troubles for the republic. To learn gardening is to try on the dirty shoes of our numberless, faceless ancestors who had to scrape a life from the soil. Maybe we’ll learn a bit of humility as well!

3. Gardening puts you in touch with the sources of your existence. In the modern world, we are so distanced from that natural reality that underlies all of human existence. Our food seems to grow up overnight in the supermarket, and all we have to do to cultivate and harvest it is to earn ourselves a paycheque. What a bizarre and abstract system. Of course we all intellectually understand where food comes from, but, even if we continue getting most of our food from the grocery store, I think there’s still value in having a more direct connection to the source of our physical sustenance.

4. We can do some small part for the environment. You may have heard (though you may not have, since it’s a great secret) that plant foods make far less of an impact on our planet’s deteriorating health than animal products. However, there’s also no comparison between a tomato grown in your own backyard as opposed to a tomato that’s been shipped from half a continent away. You’ll also leave the soil on your property much healthier than you found it, if you’re doing things right.

5. Gardening begins to move our mental centre-of-gravity out of the indoors. We weren’t made to spend our time in a box. Everything today is drywall and concrete and flat surfaces and paint and lamps and screens. The human soul needs to get outside and stretch, and breathe. Gardening isn’t the only way to do that, but it helps.

6. Gardening gives you practice in encouraging what is beautiful. Often, gardening entails some initial ugliness. If you’ve ever tried composting you’ll have some sense of what I mean. But in your mind the goal is continually something that is deeply and naturally beautiful, and your interest is in drawing that beauty out of the initial ugliness, slowly, gently, persuasively. That describes so much of what a good life should be all about, in terms of how we relate to ourselves and to others and to the world around us. How can such an exercise not be beneficial, and even necessary, to the person who loves virtue?

7. The least practical reason, but the one that calls out to me most enticingly, is Eden. For many centuries, almost everyone in the Western world believed that humans were originally created to be gardeners, planting and tending in paradise. Even those today who no longer believe the Bible has truths to tell will be unable to escape the fact that this is their cultural inheritance, and it will shape them in countless ways that are usually invisible to them and everyone around them. For me, the thought of gardening is the thought of living out one’s destiny. It stands in for the fulfillment and perfection of the human person. By prioritizing gardening, I communicate to myself in a profound way that I am committed to living the good life and fulfilling my potential. That’s satisfying.

If You Had One Wish

When I was a child I heard, as you probably did as well, that a wish made upon seeing the first star of the evening might just be granted.

I didn’t believe it, not really. But still, the thought of it was a powerful thing. I couldn’t just ignore the suggestion that this might be a possibility. How could I not at least try?

It seemed clear that in case the wish ever came true, I wanted to make sure that I would have wished for the right thing. If I were to wish for a giant bowl of candy and I got my wish, then I’d wonder what might have happened if I’d wished for something better. Well then, what to wish for?

There was an obvious contender for first place in this little mental contest. A girl in my class, who was beautiful, graceful, and pure. I wanted her to like me back. But after some soul-searching, my childish mind concluded that even this wasn’t a good enough wish. There were too many things that could go wrong. And so, with a bit of pain, I dismissed that thought.

Finally I settled on what I wanted, and throughout my childhood, every time I was alone outside, looking at the sky, and I saw a lonesome star, I asked for the same thing:

Happiness. A contented life. 

I’m actually pretty proud of my younger self, looking back at that decision. Indeed, I might wish that my adolescence and young adulthood could have been as insightful as my childhood!

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was an infantile Aristotelian.

And it just struck me today how similar that is to my hopes for my children, now that I am older and have little ones of my own. I always say that all I want for them is happiness and a desire to be virtuous. If they have that, even if they have nothing else, I will rejoice for them.

This focus on happiness has led me down some unconventional roads over the course of my life, but it has done well by me.

I’ve learned that happiness is almost always attainable, so long as you are able to make your happiness contingent upon the right things. And even with few resources, it is possible to design your life in ways that make it as easy as possible for a person to be happy and full of gratitude.

But first you have to want it, and know you want it. You have to know that if you only had one wish to make for yourself that had a chance of coming true, you’d spend your wish on the right thing.

Seven Practical Reasons to Start Gardening

I’m really nothing special at gardening. Last summer was the first time I ever really tried it, and although some things survived all the way to the end of the summer, even still, little critters destroyed much of the produce before I could harvest it.

But I told myself from the outset that the first year was about getting experience, making mistakes, and growing in confidence. I intended last year to be more a foundation for my future years of gardening, than an actual successful year in itself. In that sense then, it was actually a tremendous success!

I’m even fine to have a couple more summers characterized by mistakes and failures rather than by successes, if that is what it takes for me to grow into being a capable gardener. I know my goal, but I also don’t feel the need to be in any particular rush. I just want every garden I plant to be better than the previous ones I planted, for these first few years.

When I was planning out this reflection, I made a quick list of why I am so determined to become adept at gardening. It was astonishing to me how many reasons I could come up with, quickly, at the drop of a hat. So below I will just try to move through the first part of the list as briefly as I can. I’ll post the other reasons soon in a future post.

1. You might as well use the space. Whether you rent or own, whether you have a giant yard or just a window sill, you’re paying for that space. If you’re not using it, or if it’s just “storage” where you’ve been stacking things you don’t use, then you’re wasting it.

2. Once you’re good at it there can be a sense of security. Covid has reminded us how fragile our modern world really is. If the virus had been a bit more contagious, or a bit more fatal, our lives could have been so much more severely affected. My city has been buried in snow for a month already, and I can still walk around the corner and buy mandarin oranges and bananas and mangoes and pineapples anytime I like. Those aren’t locally grown! If borders had been truly closed off, or if the grocery stores had been left abandoned, this pandemic could have been ten thousand times worse. In that situation, if it ever arises, the people who can garden will be vastly better off than those who can’t.

3. It can be convenient. At the beginning, nothing feels less convenient than gardening, but once you’re in a rhythm, I can see the many ways it can be convenient. For instance, every week my wife and I buy a single bunch of cilantro and one of parsley, because we have some recipes we like that call for these fresh herbs. Even if each only costs a few dollars, that’s money that adds up, that could easily be avoided if we had a little herb garden. What’s more, the herbs have died before we can use all of them, so we have to buy more a week or two later, and the ones we bought previously end up in the compost. If they were growing and alive, rather than decomposing slowly in the fridge, I feel like that would help us out as well!

4. It can support your health. The healthiest foods on the planet are whole plant foods. That’s what you grow in a garden! And I’m told that plants grown in good soil, rather than mass produced on monoculture farms, are even more healthy than their store-bought siblings.

5. It can save you money. We all spend a big portion of our family’s money on groceries. For this past year, with my first attempt at a garden, I did not start my plants from seedlings, and admittedly, buying the baby plants isn’t cheap (although it’s still pretty reasonable compared to grocery shopping). However, if you start from the seeds, which is not that arduous a task when you know what you’re doing, then you can save a lot of money on food as a gardener.

6. It’s delicious. I once lived in a tiny little town, a village really, and I was walking down a street and saw a friend coming the other direction. “John!” he called. He was holding something out as he approached me. As he came closer I saw that it was bulbous and dirty. “It’s a carrot from my garden! Have it.” And then he continued on his way as I stood there on the street, confused. Can you eat a dirty vegetable? And even if you can, why would you? I shrugged, tried to rub some of the clumps of soil off of it, and took a bite. It was an explosion of flavour. I was astonished. I had never known that carrots could taste like that. I have no idea what crimes are committed against the carrots in the grocery store to make them taste so bland by comparison.

7. It’s a free and enjoyable way to spend some time. Now, maybe if Covid had actually shut down the economy and the slugs were eating my family’s only source of food, it would have been less fun. But if you just want to get better as a gardener and you don’t mind a certain amount of failure, it’s a nice way to spend some time on a summer day. It beats trying to find something to watch on Netflix.

Capitalism’s Undoing

I’m interested in thinking about capitalism. It has shaped our world so profoundly, and it provokes strong feelings. Libertarians love it. Socialists claim to hate it, but in practice they often just mean that they wish the state would be a more prominent actor within an otherwise identical market.

Marxists claim that capitalism is not a permanent state of affairs, but so much of their argumentation is impenetrably jargon-laden that it can be hard to enter into conversation with their thinking.

For my part, I concede to the libertarians that capitalism is a powerful force in the world, and that it has brought about many great goods that we would not otherwise have had.

However, my sympathies lie more closely aligned with the socialists, emphasizing the many evils capitalism brings into the world, even though my political views could only be called socialist by extravagantly broadening the definition of that term.

Yet, discussion of the moral status of capitalism can be a discussion for another day. Today I want to think, with the Marxists, about the claim that something will come after our current capitalistic situation.

You don’t need to be a dialectical materialist to think this is an interesting claim, and I believe it is worthwhile to see if there’s a way to affirm the same prediction that the Marxists make (that is, that capitalism will be superseded) without seeking to be faithful to the Marxist line of reasoning.

It seems undeniable to me that, although it is impossible to make any political predictions with absolute certainty, capitalism cannot be a permanent state of affairs.

For one thing, I do not see there being any particular contingent political or economic arrangement that can reasonably be proclaimed permanent, even if there are Hegelians and Neo-Hegelians who try very arduously to do just that. (And I think they make fascinating, compelling arguments! But nothing that can come close to convincing me on this point.)

Even if there were some state of human affairs that could become permanent, it is ludicrous to think that something as dynamic and violently unpredictable as capitalism could be it.

Let me give two more specific examples.

In my experience, when you speak to your average free market warriors, defenders of capitalism’s honour, their hatred for socialism is only matched by their ability to forgive capitalism all its historical drawbacks and failures, and in a great many cases this is done by trying to distinguish very sharply between real capitalism and crony capitalism.

“Crony capitalism” is a phrase which, to the libertarian, is approximately equivalent to “ego te absolvo.” It lets capitalism off of every hook.

To me, this is like saying that gluttony is not a bad thing but obesity is. If crony capitalism is the predictable and almost unavoidable outcome of capitalism left to its own devices, then how does that protect capitalism from blame?

Apparently the libertarian thinks that businesses should have an overriding desire to increase profits, but should altruistically fail to cozy up to the government with precisely that aim, when the opportunity exists.

Or that politicians should put the accumulation of wealth on a pedestal, for the nation and its citizens, but should be above reproach when they encounter chances to enrich themselves, or their families, or their campaign’s finances.

In the competitive world of capitalism, the people and corporations that forgo such opportunities will lose out to their less scrupulous competitors. You can put into place whatever systems you like to try to counteract it, but those systems will all be run by corruptible human beings, and will themselves last only so long.

The person who embraces capitalism cannot, if consistent, reject crony capitalism. If crony capitalism is a corruption of capitalism, then capitalism is self-corrupting.

But let’s take a rosier view. Suppose that we can somehow outrun the corruption, and capitalism keeps doing what capitalism does. Technology gets better and better, work gets more and more streamlined, until before you know it, everything that had previously been done by human workers can be handled easily by computers and robotic machinery. This is a foreseeable outcome, brought about through the very effectiveness of capitalism that its defenders love to boast. What then?

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-meaning, hard-headed libertarian. He was talking about how much he hated socialism and communism and most of all, Marx and Marxism. When we got around to taking about what he loved so much about capitalism, he described a world like the one I just spoke of, where capitalism has brought about a situation in which work had become obsolete, so that everyone could basically spend their time as they liked — hunting in the morning, we might say, and fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism in the evening.

When I told him that Marx too thought that capitalism was an important step on the way to the classless, utopian society, he thought this was very funny and he counted it as a sort of triumph.

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “You see? Even Marx himself can’t deny how great capitalism is!”

I believe he still considers himself to have scored quite a strong point against those risible Marxists.

Capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, perhaps even more obviously than did those previous social arrangements which have nonetheless passed away.

The goal should not be the preservation of capitalism. The goal should be a just and flourishing society, and one which might be able to weather the progression into whatever it is that might come next.

Thoughts on Home-owning

My wife and I have owned our house for the past couple years. Obviously, that’s far from affording me any sort of expert status, but it’s something I had already spent several years thinking about before we purchased, so I wanted to share some reflections.

Basically, I think home ownership is a good thing.

Of course, I need to clarify that I don’t think it’s the best choice for every person at every moment. If your education or career is at a stage where you will need to be able to move in the very near future, or if you aren’t confident you will be consistently able to make mortgage payments, then you probably still have some work to do before you buy.

But even for those who aren’t ready yet, I think it’s something to work toward.

There are all the typical financial reasons, and those are true, and wonderful. Rather than saying goodbye to your money every month as it goes to a landlord, you are paying down a loan and building equity. You’re wealthier with every passing month.

And paying down a mortgage is also, as they say, an enforced savings plan. The equity you’ve built in your house is much more difficult to access than the money in your savings account or probably even in your retirement accounts, so it’s much easier to leave it there and let it grow, rather than diminishing it prematurely or unwisely, as we’d otherwise be tempted to do.

But the things that make me most excited about home owning aren’t financial. They are actually, so to speak, spiritual.

Owning a home is ennobling. It imparts an invisible dignity.

As a renter, you are constantly trying to stay in your landlord’s good graces, even when they treat you badly, because you know you might need a good reference from them, and there are certainly some unvirtuous landlords out there who do not deserve the deference they command.

And the whole time, you’re living in a house owned by someone else. When you hammer something into the wall, you’re hammering it into their wall. If something breaks and needs to be repaired, it’s their broken item, and they’re in charge of paying to have it fixed.

I’m overstating a bit, of course. This isn’t what life is like every day for a renter, and there are some good and upright landlords who can be a pleasure to work with.

But if there ever is a conflict, or a possibility of a conflict, the renter is reminded of the imbalance in the relationship, and over time I do believe that can have a negative effect.

Home ownership is an escape from that state of affairs, and if that’s all it were, that would be plenty.

But I think there’s something more, as well. I believe that there’s a part of the human soul that flourishes when it has something to call its own.

Last summer, I went for daily walks around my neighbourhood with my son in his stroller. As time passed, I found myself looking at lawns, and porches, and gardens, and fences and hedges, around the different houses that we passed.

I’ve done a lot of walking outdoors in my life, and I’ve never paid attention to those sorts of things.

What had changed? I have a house of my own now. I have no idea how long we’ll be here, whether a job opportunity might force us to sell the house sooner than we’d intended to. But while we’re here, I want to be proud of this place. I know absolutely nothing about making a house beautiful, but I want to learn.

Deep in my heart, I know I want to make this property a little garden of Eden for myself and my family. I want this to be a place of peace and enjoyment and leisure and beauty. Since it’s my house, I don’t need to ask anyone for permission, and even if it takes me half a decade to figure out the skills I need to make it happen, I have the time, and I intend to learn those things.

I believe that’s a good state for a person to be in. And that’s the real reason why I feel that owning a home is a great good.

Come Let Us Adore

Venite Adoremus. Happy Advent, whoever reads this.

I listened to a bit of Christmas-y music last night for the first time this year. What a pleasure to meet those familiar melodies in the middle of winter.

Chesterton says in The Everlasting Man that even speaking merely historically, the celebration of Christmas is one of the great gifts that the world has received from the Christian faith. It’s an enchanting thought, and ever since I read this suggestion, I’ve never been able to escape it.

The remarkable thing about Christmas, for Chesterton, is how it brings together, irrevocably, the idea of childhood and the idea of divinity. Jesus in the manger is God made weak and frail.

Before the Church, according to Chesterton, there was no particular reason for associating divinity with a human birth, and perhaps many reasons not to, even though there was no reason why it should have been strictly impossible either. It just wasn’t an association that was made with any particular force or frequency in the pre-Christian world.

However, once the Church drew such a strong connection between the imagery of the child and the notion of divine incarnation, and gave it such a prominent place in the liturgy, the connection could never be unmade. No one who ever saw this juxtaposition, which was made so earnestly, would be able to forget it, whether or not they accepted the faith to which that juxtaposition belonged.

Childhood and divinity are now permanently and inextricably linked across the world. Now we cannot look at a baby without having some intuition of divinity, and we likewise cannot pray without a sense of the eternal youthfulness and innocence of God. 

I was reminded of Chesterton’s reflections last night as the Christmas music meandered through the house while I watched my little son, who was intensely focused on some small puzzle that was resisting his efforts.

“O come let us adore him,” the music invited. My eyes, watching my child, were full of love. It was a powerful moment, beyond words.

Victimhood and Victimizers

There was so much that I found enlightening and wondrous in Plato the first time I read through his dialogues. I couldn’t believe that we have possessed his thought, and later reflections upon his thought, for centuries upon centuries and yet so little of it has really managed to permeate society, in some ways, that page after page seemed in my eyes to contain new and unimagined revelations.

Some have tried to say that Christianity repackaged Platonism for the common people, and I can see the grain of truth in this … and yet, when I was first reading Plato, I already had a full undergraduate degree in Christian theology, and I must admit that to me, Plato’s thought felt not familiar but outrageous and revolutionary.

Intelligent friends of mine had even told me about Plato, and I thought I knew pretty much what to expect. I was wrong.

Out of all the thoughts in Plato that challenged and shaped me, one that I thought to be most profound, most incisive, is his ardent assertion that it is worse to commit an injustice than to suffer an injustice.

To put it in language that would be at once less strange to us and also far more explosive: the victim is better off than the victimizer.

Rephrased again: the one who commits aggressions (and perhaps, we might even suggest, microaggressions) has the worse end of the interaction.

This is not only counterintuitive. It sounds offensive, and dangerous, and maybe evil.

But I truly believe that within it is hidden the true understanding of goodness and happiness.

It’s not a rhetorical ploy. It’s not just the weaker party trying to puff up and look more powerful than reality will allow, for the sake of saving face.

It’s also not a tool to be used by the powerful to justify their violences and injustices, although doubtless it can be, and has been, so used.

Rather, it is the necessary starting place for moral growth. One of the hardest lessons to learn, a lesson that requires revisiting again and again and again, is that when we feel faced with a choice between suffering an evil on the one hand, or escaping that evil by committing some other evil, we should always strive to convince ourselves to choose whatever course will not involve actively engaging in deeds that we know are not right.

That doesn’t mean that we’ll be happy when an evil befalls us. It doesn’t mean that we’ll give the victimizer the permission or the ability to go on perpetrating injustice upon the world.

It does mean, at the bare minimum, that we would not be wrong in any such circumstances to tell ourselves, “At least I can be proud of how I acted.” To suffer injustice without being drawn into continuing the cycle is a difficult and praiseworthy accomplishment indeed.

Religion as Happy Medium

Of course there has been a surprisingly effective propaganda war happening against religion for many years now. As scholars have pointed out from early on, the irony of the “New Atheists” was just how much of a lack of genius for innovation they evinced. Every one of their characteristic arguments was well-worn, familiar, decades or even centuries old, and perhaps some would say, a little bit tired.

I’m not sure that irreligion has ever done a very good job of making the case publicly in favour of itself, in any way that has truly been absorbed into the popular consciousness, but so far it hasn’t needed to. If they can make religion look bad enough, then what other option will people have?

It’s the intellectual equivalent of a political “smear campaign.” Vote for me — after all, look at the other guy, am I right?

One of the tactics employed to this end has been to emphasize the propensity of religious people toward extremism. But to me, that’s like warning against courage because it could lead to rashness. It’s like criticizing studiousness on the grounds that some truly evil things have been done in the name of scientific learning.

To my mind, it makes far more sense to characterize religion as the mean between two opposing extremes, just as courage rests between cowardice and rashness, and studiousness between blissful ignorance and boundless curiosity.

Religion is the good and praiseworthy middle ground. Religion can degenerate into extremes, of course. One such extreme is obviously its inherent tendency toward superstition or bigotry. Religion’s other extreme, though, its other darker self — is irreligion.

Religion is deeply in touch with the inescapable reality of human ignorance: our ignorance about that which is beyond the physical world, for one thing, but also our inability to understand comprehensively what is at the heart of a human person or a human society.

Religions (and keep in mind that I distinguish religions from superstitions) know that when we forget our fundamental ignorance, we are continually in danger of growing hubristic, insatiable, destructive. Hence, to keep us from forgetting, it enshrines rituals and imagery to ensure that the powerful unknown will never be too far from our thoughts.

Superstition forgets our ignorance unintentionally, by convincing itself that it knows just how to manipulate all the unseen forces to bring about desirable outcomes.

Irreligion forgets our ignorance intentionally, convincing itself there is nothing to fear in forgetting because perhaps indeed there is nothing to forget.

To my eyes, both extremes are irrational and unwise. Some might wish to deliberate upon which extreme is more dangerous or less rational, but that doesn’t interest me here. I only want to suggest that they are both deficiencies.

My intention is not to rebuke or alienate people on these extremes. Not at all! My goal for this blog is always to encourage myself more and more toward virtue, and secondly, to encourage my readers likewise. I believe that to practice religion well, as I have described here, is a virtuous endeavour. I realize that we all find ourselves in different situations as well, however, and so whatever small steps we can take in a good direction should be celebrated as progress, in the sort of virtue that is worth progressing in.

Duolingo as an Opportunity for Virtue

I don’t get any money from Duolingo. (Honestly, I don’t actually even care if you use Duolingo or one of the many other free language learning apps.)

But I’m going to convince you to start using Duolingo.

I’ve been using Duolingo continuously since January 2019 — so, almost two years, as of this writing. And I couldn’t recommend it more.

I have only a rough recollection of the day I decided to start using Duolingo again. I had tried starting it many times in the past, and seemed unable to stay with it for more than a month or two. In fact, that seemed like a very good reason not even to try. Certainly, I believed that such would be my fate once again.

But what I remember is that I thought back to the person I was when I first tried it. This was back when Duolingo was just beginning, in 2011. I had heard an interview with the company’s founder on the radio, and decided to give it a try.

As I thought back to all the time that had passed since then, all the places I’d gone and paths I’d travelled, I wondered how different I might be now, if I had managed to keep Duolingo as a habit through all those years.

Some people say that Duolingo isn’t the best or most efficient way to learn a language, and I have no doubt they’re right. But ten minutes a day of studying a language with any methodology, no matter how flawed, is going to teach you a huge amount about that language, if you can stick with it long enough.

What if I had become, perhaps not fluent, but at least conversant, in French, Italian, Spanish, German? What friendships might that have opened up to me? What job opportunities, career trajectories, educational settings?

Most importantly, what great books would have been available to me for reading in the original language?

I thought back over all those years with an increasing dismay. I could not think of a single day when I wouldn’t have had five or ten minutes to spare for Duolingo, ten minutes which I had instead carelessly spent on frivolities.

The whole time, Duolingo was free, and the whole time I had access to it. It was only a tap of a button away.

And the only thing that kept me from benefiting from it was that I lacked the virtue to be able to force myself through the tiniest bit of boredom or discouragement.

But I didn’t waste too long regretting my failures. As I reflected, it became rapidly apparent to me that it would be twice as shameful if, after this realization, I allowed another half a decade to pass in the same way.

So I downloaded the app, did a lesson, put it away, and didn’t think of it again until the next day.

Now, to be forthright, I haven’t actually learned any languages. If you set me down in Moscow or Beijing I’d probably seem virtually every bit as ignorant as any English tourist. I’ve been in no hurry, and I’ve given myself the freedom to jump from language to language whenever I like, so long as I keep in the habit of doing a daily lesson.

Still, when I study a language with Duolingo, I do get better at it. Most recently I’ve been doing German, only for a few months, but I’ve learned quite a bit, made some good progress, and when I look at the remaining lessons in the course, I know that if I stuck with German for the next couple years, I could gain a pretty strong grasp of the language.

Now, maybe it’s true, as all the whiners online are constantly insisting, that no matter how long you study a language on Duolingo, it will never make you perfectly fluent. Maybe so.

I say: who cares? I wasn’t getting perfectly fluent in any languages anyway! It’s not like Duolingo is interrupting all the worthwhile language work I’d otherwise be engaged in. And now, since I’ve been using Duolingo every day instead of wasting those ten minutes every day, I’m that much closer to fluency than I would have been otherwise. Thus, if I ever were in a position where I suddenly needed to become completely fluent in German or one of my other languages … won’t I then be glad for all the time I’ve already put into studying?

I don’t know whether I will stick with German continuously for the next couple years. I might take a year away from German to return to Russian or Mandarin, or even to try a new language. But even if that happens, I know that any time I want to, I can return to German, quickly relearn whatever I will have forgotten, and then pick up from where I leave off.

The best part about it is that all of this is now absolutely automatic for me. I do a lesson every morning, as early as I reasonably can, and it takes a few minutes, and then I don’t have to think about it again for the day.

There was one day when Duo told me I hadn’t completed my lesson the previous day even when I was sure I had. I don’t know if my mind is deceiving itself, or if there was some sort of technical glitch with my phone syncing the completed lesson. What I can say is that starting over from day one after weeks of building up a streak was the hardest day in Duolingo history, but thank goodness, I did it.

I’ve kept this habit through times of financial distress, through the labour and birth and first days of life of my son, through sickness and travel, through losing my job with Covid.

And in this way it has also become, not only an opportunity for me to practice virtue, but a way to remind myself of the attainability of virtue, and the power of it. There are days when it felt like nothing was as it should be, and everything was coming apart.

On those days, you would not believe what a comfort and a strength it gave me to remember that I could continue to take these small steps toward learning a language, not because anyone told me I had to, not because I was afraid, but just because it is a good thing to do, and because I am strong enough to do it.

What about you? Do you have the minuscule reserve of virtue needed to build this easy and enjoyable habit? If so, I think the burden is on you to explain why you haven’t yet embraced it.

I’ve learned some tips for getting the most out of your lessons and I’d be happy to share. Leave a comment if you have any questions, and please don’t forget to add me as a friend on Duolingo once you get going!

“The West” is Socrates

What is the “West” that is implicit in a phrase like “the history of Western civilization”? Clearly it refers to something more than a point on a compass.

Western civilization encompasses a broad range of different political arrangements and artistic heritages and economies and traditions and peoples. Still, there does seem to be a kinship, a sort of shared framework, that this group holds in common.

When you grow up in a context that is said to owe so much to this Western civilization, I think it is natural for some kinds of people to be drawn to wonder more about that history, as a journey of self-discovery if nothing else.

But there are many intelligent people (along with some more unintelligent and misinformed personalities, I won’t deny it) who think that Western civilization is valuable as more than just a sort of family history. These are people who think that our history should be not just a museum to be visited but also, in some respects, a source of inspiration and guidance for us.

If there was something praiseworthy at the heart of the West, something that would be worth preserving and passing on, I would assert that a compelling case could be made that it is Socrates.

I know some tedious people who would very eagerly want to tell you that the greatness and glory of the West is capitalism. Let’s not say anything more about them for the moment. Others might try to say it’s democracy, or freedom, or equality, or charity, or popular government, or scientific method; I think all of these are problematic in a variety of ways, but I realize that a case could just as easily be made for them as for what I will say.

A few other proposals that I would find more interesting might be that what is valuable is our inheritance of “Roman culture” or “Germanic virtues” or “Christian communion.” I think that someone who proposed one of these as the answers would be probably getting more right than wrong.

But for me, the expansion of the Roman imperial power was really the expansion of the Socratic way of thinking through the world.

For me, the wars of the Greeks (from Themistocles to Alexander and the Macedonians) were ultimately important because they protected and established the Greek language and Greek learning.

Sparta was important as one of Socrates’ inspirations, and because of how it added to the military strength of the Greeks in a way that ended up defending some of the work of the Greek Enlightenment.

The pre-socratic philosophers and the sophists ultimately matter because of how their work contributed to the education of Socrates, and Athens in the end is important most of all because it was the home of Socrates.

Historically speaking, to be a part of the West is to exist within the context of a political structure or a legal system or a social group or a religion (etc) which derives from that nexus of ancient forces that swirled around and moved outward from the speech of Socrates.

Perhaps, though, we might say that existentially speaking, every person becomes more or less truly a child of the West, depending how much we learn of and accept this Socratic heritage.