Thursday, December 27, 2007

EFL (English as a First Language)

Dear Reader,

As far as I know, I coined this sarcastic term about a decade and a half ago, but with modern cultural churn who can tell anymore if they invented anything or just heard it, forgot it, remembered it, and mistook remembering for inventing. My hope here is that since I have never encountered it anywhere else since "inventing" it maybe I really did.

But first, a few words about its well-established counterpart, ESL.

Standing for English as a Second Language, the term ESL is a useful aid to remembering that when non-native speakers of English struggle grammatically, it does not necessarily indicate the kind of mental confusion it does when native speakers so struggle. On the contrary, a below-average communication in English by an ESL student usually indicates an above-average mind at work, since the student is breaking free of the linguistic, mental, and cultural confines of a single language to embrace others, unlike the majority of Americans. Clearly, how far above the average varies widely, but too often we focus on the linguistic struggle; when we peer past the tangled structure of the communication to the better organized thoughts behind it, we work to do justice to the person's greater-than-apparent mental depth, but rarely do we really do justice to the person by peering past both to consider the kind of person who makes the effort to transcend linguistic boundaries.

Many people throughout the world are polyglot, more than here at home, but this is more than a value-neutral, statistical difference to be measured and recorded as a fact. There is an ethical dimension to the recognition that other languages have value as do the people who speak those languages, as there is to assuming anyone worth speaking with will learn English. Likewise, there is a philosophical dimension (that is, a moral imperative) to the lifelong struggle to break out of one's psychological and cultural blinders, and learning additional languages is a valuable tool in that struggle to become a better person. Every language carries its cultural and cognitive context with it intrinsically, and each language has advantages over others, lessons and concepts best expressed in that language. Someone who speaks but a single language frames his mind narrowly, denying himself access to the realms of thought to which other languages are better suited.

The relationship between thought and language is by no means mechanistic or deterministic. Even within a single language there are layers of understanding and development possible to those who more fully master their language than to those who do not, ideas that can be expressed and therefore considered but that require more effort to do so than the simpler, foundational concepts that come more naturally to speakers of that language. Likewise, spending time with ESL speakers gives one the opportunity to discover how English can be bent to encompass concepts that come more naturally to speakers of a different language when they work to express their own natural ideas in English. Spending time reading and working to truly grasp translations of works originally written in other languages offers one the same kind of portal; the more difficult the work (that is, the more alien the ideas the translation attempts to put into English) the better leverage it offers against one's own conceptual limitations. These and other opportunities for pushing the limits of English help create a wide scope of differentiation among even monoglot English speakers as to their cognitive dilation or constriction.

English in particular, being such a borrower from other languages, offers great variation in the cultural aperture of its speakers. (I do not single it out as unique in this regard, unlike so many English chauvinists who leech their self-esteem from association with what they perceive as the linguistic winner. For one thing, I do not speak anywhere near enough languages to judge fairly (can anyone?), but more importantly I know there are other strategies for linguistic expansion than English's borrowing approach; for example, German grows by borrowing concepts but fully translating them into (sometimes extremely polysyllabic) native German terms. I'm sure there are other strategies available to other languages. For purposes of this discussion, English's advantage is that its approach to borrowing is so crude, so obvious, that it wears its borrowing on its sleeve, calling attention to the issue.) I do not mean all English speakers are cosmopolitan, but rather that the difference between the most and least cosmopolitan English speakers is great.

Interestingly, we find English chauvinists at both ends of that spectrum. When a master of English with a daunting command of the language asserts the superiority of English, we may disagree but we are at least impressed by the speaker's own fluent superiority over ourselves. The most annoying group (yet amusing in their unintentionally ironic way) are English speakers who tout its virtues and propose the extermination of as many other languages as possible yet who speak English itself as badly as a beginning ESL speaker.

These illiterate chauvinists are part of a larger group of English speakers who think as badly as they speak; their waking life is like a dream state in which ideas never clarify and thoughts flow only partly formed from one to another with no greater context than the speaker's shifting emotional state. Although an ESL student's appearance of cognitive poverty is usually a linguistic illusion, this kind of native English speaker's appearance of cognitive poverty is genuine. English is their only language; they have no superior linguistic resources to fall back on to help them organize their thinking. They can only be said to have language skills in some kind of stripped-down, reduced definition of the term; in truth they hover somewhere between pre-linguistic and genuinely linguistic, with just enough language skills to pass for normal and pursue their appetites and drives. The contempt usually wrongly laced into the term ESL is far better deserved by this group of speakers, for whom I coined the term English as a First Language, or EFL.

Yes, in this era of dividing emotions into good ones and bad ones, contempt has been labeled bad and we are all to strive to purge it from our personalities, but in truth contempt is a vital emotion for helping give us direction, for helping to stimulate a profound aversion to those ways of being we must avoid if we are to become better people. Judging contempt as bad and eschewing it goes hand in hand with sliding into contemptible behavior oneself, making it easy to be lazy, ignorant, and selfish (since after all we must not judge). Any mature human being without a preprogrammed, reflexive aversion to contempt can easily combine contempt and compassion to put it to good use. Consider the poor EFL student whose mind is a fog, whose life is but a semicoherent waking dreamstate, struggling to pass for normal and defensively avoiding criticism and other opportunities to grow for fear they might expose his true ignorant nature. We have all been there. That is what those of us who are lucky and disciplined grow out of. We can sympathize with the plight of the EFL student, pity him and try to help him improve, but we should not let that dull our contempt for him, because we never want to be like that again and we do not believe it is okay for anyone to remain that way.

Even aside from simple defensiveness and our unwillingness to show contempt when it is deserved, a foundational delusion helps prevent many EFL students from improving, the delusion of adulthood. In our culture, we have a polarized, quantum model of maturation that by law divides life into completely helpless (younger than eighteen years old) and completely competent (twenty-one years or older), with an odd semi-adult stage between. This model has nothing to do with the individual, who is stamped with these Procrustean labels regardless of personal characteristics. The complete vacuity and irreality of this measurable, objective, mathematical system of "adulthood" warps us all psychologically to an extent unthinkable to most of us. Since at "adulthood" we acquire a host of legal and financial responsibilities (though with increasingly less authority as our civilization senesces into explicitly infantilizing us all) regardless of our personal resources, we simply have to fake it to convince ourselves we're ready and able and mature enough to handle those responsibilities. At adulthood, society offers us that or the asylum or prison so deceit and self-deceit in order to pass is the obvious choice.

Very few "adults" are willing to be open about their ignorance, which is a precondition for addressing it. Culturally, we do not model good behavior for becoming a genuinely mature human being, which requires a lifetime of study and practice to improve; instead we offer the polarized ignorant/educated model in every facet of life: there is the helpless & ignorant period of imposed study followed by graduation and acceptance and empowerment.

Embracing ignorance and studying to improve is separated from being empowered and respected, all of which is captured by the concept of "done." When we are "done" studying we graduate, but not until we are "done." But then, if we are "done," why would we need to continue studying? If we are still studying, we are clearly not yet "done."

The very framework of legal and economic reward in our culture reinforces this dichotomy, which is partly why so many of us fall for it. After graduation, most of us stop studying, and that includes studying to improve our linguistic skills. The cultural model for those who continue is that they do so for entertainment or as a hobby, but not as a vital, necessary part of becoming an adequate human being. Readers in our culture are a minority, serious readers a minority of a minority, and people who continue to study and discuss English itself are considered as fringe and eccentric as philatelists or birders (or philosophers). In our licentious culture, such quirks as continuing to study English after graduation may be permitted but they are by no means considered necessary, let alone something that all English speakers should emulate lifelong.

We have a static notion of maturation—it is a goal to arrive at, and then you are "done"—and we have an artificial and arbitrary notion of maturation—it has nothing to do with your intrinsic characteristics, only your age and perhaps certification by academic authorities. This model of maturation perfectly misfits the reality of language and thought. English, for example, is to spoken communication what Chinese is to written—a subject so complex and open-ended that precisely no one will ever truly master either one. Practical "mastery" of either one consists of having got a lot further in one's studies than most of one's peers, far enough to realize that (a) one will never finish and (b) it is worthwhile and necessary to continue studying it lifelong. That combination of education, dedication, and humility is about as much as one can hope for in open-ended fields like this, and such people are the ones who usually discover and share the insights that advance the field.

By contrast, those who stop studying English when they are "done" remain linguistic and cognitive cripples lifelong, with enough skills to pass, to fit in, to be accepted into the herd, but not enough to genuinely think or communicate. This truth about our situation is so important yet underrecognized that it needs terminology. Given the moral imperative of the situation and my distrust of affectations of objectivity, I prefer a judgmental term like EFL.

And just to clarify, usually when snooty, discriminatory types like I doubtless appear to be throw about standards and judgments on subjects, our ulterior motive is almost always to split the world into good and bad with ourselves (oh so coincidentally) on the good side. I hope I have made clear that I am doing no such thing here. EFL syndrome is a side-effect of intrinsic factors in our shared culture, the one I belong to. We all have it to greater or lesser degrees. We are all struggling to some extent with our linguistic and cognitive inadequacies.

I am studying language and philosophy remedially, not just to get better but also to make up for lost decades of inadequate study. My command of language is crude and I have no coherent style, and my thinking is riddled with cultural viruses. I am usually at a loss as to how to communicate with other human beings. If ever I slip into hubris, I always have Shakespeare and Austen and Vidal and so many others to remind me what real fluency looks like and Heraclitus and Hegel and Arendt and so many others to remind me what real thinking looks like. And between me and them are layers of expertise—I am not one step away from their fluency but rather many stages of development away, some of which I understand sufficiently to identify them as absent from my language and thought, and doubtless others of which I can do little more than suspect their existence.

In short, if you feel I am judging others harshly, fear not: I am judging myself by the same standards and found wanting. Why not be "compassionate" or "reasonable" and lower my standards? Because they are not mine; they are the requirements imposed by reality on what constitutes a genuine capacity to comprehend the actual cosmos and communicate meaningfully about it. Rather than ignore our responsibilities or whine about them or lie to ourselves about them, we need to impose some standards and discipline on ourselves and resume the lifework of uplifting ourselves enough to be worthy of the civilizational—nay, special—task we face. We have met the enemy and he is us. If we want a better world, we must become better people.

Why would anything less constitute maturity?

Yours truly,

[Final two-and-a-half paragraphs completed Sunday, 13 April 2008 at 11:45 PM]

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Three New Volumes of Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea, Part 1

Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea
Cover of Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea volume III.3.B/i, published by Academia Verlag
Dear Reader,

I last discussed Serge Mouraviev's magnum opus, Heraclitea, in my blog entry of 27 May 2006. Much to my surprise and in the highlight so far of my blogging endeavor, on 10 February of this year (2007), Mr. Mouraviev himself contacted me by email to thank me for my discussion of his work. He also wanted to add to that discussion:
another very important reason of the difficulty in understanding Heraclitus: the present fashion, very widespread among scholars, to cast doubt on the genuineness and/or credibility of any non corroborated or "suspicious" piece of information. I call this the presumption of guilt and consider it to be the methodological original sin of many a student of Ancient Greek philosophy as such.
I quite agree with Mr. Mouraviev. Any serious effort to understand Heraclitus from the second and third-hand fragments that remain must involve at least two quite distinct phases—analysis and synthesis—and the analysis phase must begin with the gathering of all fragments attributed to him regardless of the analyst's judgment about their authenticity. Mr. Mouraviev is the only Heraclitean analyst to date I have encountered who has done this.

Also very much to my surprise and delight, he arranged to send me review copies of the three Heraclitea volumes published in 2006, all part of section III.3.B of the series (the pertinent texts of the fragments of Heraclitus's book):

Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/i: Texts, Translations, and Materials (ISBN 3-89665-368-7)
Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/ii: Language and Poetics (ISBN 3-89665-369-5)
Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/iii: Critical Notes (ISBN 3-89665-370-9)

Even for someone like me whose French is tres rusty the value of these volumes to the serious student of Heraclitus makes the slow work of translation easily worthwhile. These volumes are concise, systematically organized, and thorough in their exploration of the fragments. This is the most complete collection of Heraclitean fragments I have seen to date, since Mr. Mouraviev includes not only relatively unknown authentic fragments but even every spurious fragment attributed to Heraclitus. He uses a simple three-part ranking system for each fragment to rate (1) the reliability of its attribution to Heraclitus, (2) its fidelity to Heraclitus's text, and (3) its fidelity—if correctly interpreted—to Heraclitus's message.

This is all in French and Greek, except that the first of these three volumes, which translates the fragments themselves, also translates them into English and Russsian. The Greek is presented not only in the form familiar to students of classical Greek (which is actually taught using the bicameral, polytonic Greek alphabet invented by Byzantine scholars in the Middle Ages, and thus only tenuously related to Classical Greek) but also in the actual Classical Greek (unicameral, unspaced form of the words in both Old Ionian and Old Attic) matching as closely as possible the way Heraclitus would have written them; he includes the ancient Greek only for those fragments whose text we can trace back to the Greek. For fragments whose oldest remaining source is Latin, he offers the Latin with translation into polytonic Greek. Where the oldest sources are Medieval Greek, he offers the polytonic Greek but again not the genuine Classical. These choices are exactly what we would expect from a man who in every other way throughout this series shows the most serious concern with doing justice to the material, reconstructing as much as we can fairly reliably do but no more.

The English translations are eccentric and entertaining, set in Medieval blackletter with a King James Bible approach to the language (conspicuous use of "evadeth" and "'twas" and "whate'er" and such). The grammar is spun about because he is opting for a fairly literal translation, tying word order more closely to the original Greek than English grammar can successfully bear; this word order is a legitimate approach as a step between the two languages, but it does not make this the most accessible English translation of the fragments. Clearly the translation to French is his first priority here, but in addition he has indicated that in a separate volume he will make his attempt to synthesize all of this material into as close an approximation as he can of Heraclitus's original work. Given that, it is easy to see that in these volumes his priority in translation is not to bring the reader close to Heraclitus's thought but instead close to the raw fragments as we have them. That is, these volumes are primarily concerned with studying the vestiges.

To be continued in part 2 of this review.

Yours truly,

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How Quick in Temper and in Judgment Weak

Dear Reader,

Rudeness, aggression, rage, paranoia, and addiction to crises make a wretched brew, make it difficult to help or even be close to someone you care about. If these vices grow they too easily creep past unpleasant and become unacceptable. When intolerable behavior will not be mended you must separate yourself from it or risk your self-respect and sanity.

But how easy it is to confuse the mad with the bad! If a loved one drifts into irreality and you mistake it for sheer cussedness you risk abandoning the sick instead of healing them. Oh, but how easy too to confuse the other way around! If you coddle a jerk, you hurt yourself and only invite more.

No stones mark these bounds, only nuances that weave snag by fray by twist into benightedness. Our fevered culture and medicine respond clumsily, blind to the flowering of illness. Not until madness blooms into destruction does the penny drop. Until then we can only watch and grieve as a fair child unravels in fits and starts smeared across the slow passing of seasons.

Yours truly,

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Nonpersistence of Memory

Dear Reader,

I based my description of the picture in the previous entry on the photo's timestamp recorded by the camera, but Beverly pointed out that (1) the timestamp was wrong and (2) the kitties are wearing their collars. Surya hates to be restrained and escaped her collar within the first few days we had her home, and only a day or so later she got Rashid out of his. Hence, this photograph was probably taken the day we brought them home.

Once my brain is in the proper time framework, other elements of the photo corroborate the true timeframe. First, when we brought Rashid home his fur was wiry, but after a month on the good food we fed them it turned soft and glossy. In this picture, you can see how coarse it is. Second, knowing the size of the chair, the size of the kittens is revealed to be much smaller than I interpreted it when I first posted this picture, too small to be a month after we brought them home. A month of gorging themselves on yums helped them grow rapidly.

I had forgotten about Surya's immediate escape act, so the purple of Rashid's collar failed remind me of the timeframe, and the subtler clues escaped me, too.

This all illustrates a central tenet of Heraclitus's philosophy, that we look the cosmos in the face and fail to recognize it for what it is, that the truth is right in front of us and sometimes fully visible but we still fail to attend to it properly. When he wrote that the hidden harmony is best and that nature loves to hide, he was writing as much about the subjective as the objective; that is, it is not just that the deep principles that organize and power reality are often literally invisible, but also that when the meanings of things are overt and visible usually we still fail to recognize them.

Contrary to the fairy tale of objectivity, we perceive the world through the lenses of ourselves, with our minds packed with preconceptions and preoccupations before we even begin to perceive a situation, with every perception premolded to conform to the shape of our mind and its current concerns even before we begin to pay attention. The attending itself that we imagine involves a direct transfer of the complete reality before us into a reliable and continuously accessible memory instead consists of moving a laser-pinpoint spotlight of consciousness across the field of "perception" before us, haphazardly selecting isolated details and impressions according to whatever combination of mood, questions, and attractions has us in its thrall at the moment. Once the direct stimulus of perception has passed, when we turn away, every other element of the reality we faced vanishes from our "awareness" as though it had never been present, and of the isolated details we abstracted into our memories few survive more than a handful of minutes. When later we ponder what we "saw," in truth we use the few blurry points of detail we remember as an empty framework we fill to "remember" it; we connect the dots with our own idiosyncratic inner logic and flesh out the details with our imagination and expectations about how things work in the real world, and we call the result a reliable memory. With that chimera as a starting point, substituting for truth, we then begin to make associations and deductions, deriving meaningful conclusions that were we wise and awake enough we would realize carry more meaning about ourselves based on how we composed the memory than about the reality left so far behind.

All this activity involved in recollection is unconscious to us. For us memory is like magic: it just happens or it doesn't. Though we claim it as a deliberate act, its actual workings are never visible to us while we engage in it. This is why almost everyone believes more or less in the integrity and validity of his own memory, why so few of us attend to studies that demonstrate the radical unreliable of witness testimony, why the few who do attend so often fall into the religion of numbers, believing that if they can discipline and organize this horrifically unreliable process to generate numbers, that the resulting precision will somehow substitute for its lack of reality.

Also Heraclitean is the realization that man does not stand apart from nature but rather that we are of it, that it flows through us, creates us, develops us, erodes us, and disperses us. So we should not be too surprised that we can look directly into the face of human nature too and not see it for what it is either, "seeing" instead evidence of whatever faith we cling to, scientific or otherwise, proven by the details of human nature our own unconscious natures have selected to fit their own preconceptions and preoccupations.

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul writes "for now we see through a glass darkly . . ." but he does not linger over this Heraclitean insight to explore why we do so, eager as he is to move on to his revolutionary vision of emancipation from human nature. But Heraclitus, skeptical of such self-escape, would linger over this, one of his favorite motifs, would stress that we see darkly through the glass of ourselves, that if we would see more clearly we must improve that glass, cultivate excellence in ourselves, struggle always toward wisdom. Where other men imagine wisdom to be an extravagance they can safely postpone until their end of days, when they can spare the time, as their last duty, Heraclitus realized that the cultivation of wisdom is man's first duty, the prerequisite for doing anything else, because without it we are fools who will do the wrong things, remember the wrong things, see the wrong things. Even with a photograph to help us remember.

This is why Heraclitus wrote "wisdom stands apart from all else."

Yours truly,

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rashid and Surya a Year Ago

Dear Reader,

July of last year we brought home Rashid and Surya from PAWS. He was snuffly with a cold, which it took him a week and a half to shake; by the time he shook it, she had the cold. By August, they had both shaken their colds, and grown to boot, but they were still bitty things and devoted to each other. I was sorting through recent photos to post when I ran across this and was reminded of the relief we felt at finally having them both well and happy.

Yours truly,

Saturday, April 28, 2007

True words aren't beautiful

Dear reader,

One last verse, 81, from Red Pine's Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise
the sage accumulates nothing
but the more he does for others
the greater his existence
the more he gives to others
the greater his abundance
the Way of Heaven
is to help without harming
the Way of the sage
is to act without struggling

Yours truly,

The Way begets them

Dear reader,

Here is verse 51 from Red Pine's Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

The Way begets them
Virtue keeps them
matter shapes them
usage completes them
thus do all things honor the Way
and glorify Virtue
the honor of the Way
the glory of Virtue
are not conferred
but always so
the Way begets and keeps them
cultivates and trains them
steadies and adjusts them
nurtures and protects them
but begets without possessing
acts without presuming
and cultivates without controlling
this is called Dark Virtue

Yours truly,

The Tao Moves the Other Way

Dear Reader,

Here is verse 40 from Red Pine's Lao Tzu's Taoteching:

The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the things of this world come from something
something comes from nothing

Yours truly,

Lao Tzu's Taoteching

Dear Reader,

Heraclitus and Lao Tzu were probably contemporaries, though Lao Tzu was probably the elder. Any reader of their books is struck by the similarities in their philosophies (though closer reading shows important differences as well). How few great thinkers are so fluent with the paradoxical, gnomic, compressed wisdom that best approaches nature's own dialectical weave!

Understanding either writer requires a deep immersion in his culture, as I have written about before. Likewise, neither writer can be understood unless you begin to see the cosmos as they see it, for even from their own highly original cultures they each stood out as unique thinkers. Each is a hazard to translators and readers alike.

Which is part of why I love Red Pine's translation of Lao Tzu, Lao Tzu's Taoteching. Here is a nuanced translation that includes an obvious and essential yet all-too-rare feature: each verse is accompanied by selected commentaries from a stunning pantheon of great Chinese thinkers, including some of the greatest students of Lao Tzu's masterpiece—Confucius, Mencius, Sun Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Chang Tao-Ling, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Han Fei, and many, many more—and even an opening quote from the Buddha to go with Lao Tzu's first verse. The commentary is extremely well chosen, and severely concise, with only a two-page spread given for each verse. Red Pine restricts the majority of his own commentary to the Introduction and Glossary; in the verses themselves, he tightly restricts his own comments to brief and vital notes on the choices he made in his translation and occasional points of clarification. The overt interpretation itself he leaves largely in the hands of the masters, whose commentary is (not surprisingly given the star power at work) enlightening.

I have Arthur Waley's classic translation The Way and Its Power, and I am eagerly looking forward to reading Ursula LeGuin's translation recommended to me by Jerry Goodnough, but reading Red Pine's version is one of those delightfully surprising experiences that reminds me there are still writers of taste at work here and there in the modern world. Within my admittedly limited experience, this is the way to read Lao Tzu in English.

Yours truly,

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Finger

Dear Reader,

Yesterday, I resumed the Ancient Greek Philosophy course I am taking from Kenneth Smith. We are still working our way through Heraclitus, carefully and deeply, attending not just to problems with the translations but also with the greater cultural context for each fragment to illuminate it as fully as possible. Tonight over dinner, Beverly and I discussed a group of fragments that deal with people's paradoxical gullibility toward finite details but cynicism toward the infinite principles and powers of the cosmos. We discussed the use of myths and metaphors and imprecise language to try to stretch beyond the limits of language - with its emphasis on the finite - to indicate the existence and nature of the infinite beyond.

Beverly noted that in Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Sallie McFague defined metaphor as a finger pointing at the moon. Beverly then noted that most cats cannot comprehend the human act of pointing. When we point behind a cat at birds out the window, the cat instead of turning around to follow the path of our finger simply stares at and perhaps sniffs our finger. The metaphorical act of pointing, in which the finite becomes a symbol for the not-yet-seen, is beyond most cats. Likewise, when Heraclitus, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Buddha, or other great thinkers point with finite words to the infinite cosmic forces that steer all things through all things, we stare and sniff at the words. Maybe human beings are more like cats than we thought.

The Buddha responded to this human limitation with his Flower Sermon, in which instead of preaching to the huge gathering at Spirit Mountain he simply held up a golden lotus and waited. Most people saw only a flower where they were expecting words of wisdom, and so were confused, believing that his "sermon" was gibberish. Yet it was among the most profound, indicating clearly and directly our attachment to words and doctrines, our inability to see through these metaphors to the reality they try to indicate.

Lao Tzu and Heraclitus responded to this human limitation with their extraordinarily concise tomes Tao te ching and Peri physeos, in which they bent and stretched language into paradoxes that point to the infinite. Doing so requires coming into conflict with our petty attachment to linear thinking, our arbitrary distaste for contradictions, and our abhorrence of rethinking the fundamental assumptions of our lives. We respond by lashing out, accusing them of being nonsensical, or perversely obscure, that is, of making no sense on purpose, just to bother us.

We attack them, and well we should. They are committing the ultimate crime. They are giving us the finger.

Yours truly,

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Dear Reader,

I go through phases in which I cannot bear to "communicate" with my fellow human beings. Communication would be nice, but "communication" is sheer torture.

If I use words that I know will be misinterpreted, then I am writing something I know will cause my readers to come to a false conclusion. That is a reasonable definition of lying. "Self-expression" is this lying, this urge to spew words without regard for how they will be read. To communicate we have to know our audience and be able to use the words that will convey what we mean to that audience. Since none of us speaks exactly the same language, no set of words will communicate the same message to more than a few people.

Since language is a drug to us, as is our own ego, we will want to deny this truth about the limits of communication, will want to argue that if we feel we understand then we do, will want to argue that any discrepancy cannot matter, will want to argue that our efforts at communication are close enough. Close enough to what? For what? For us to go through the motions of communication and feel we are successfully mimicking it? Although the Homo sapiens we dream ourselves to be would communicate easily and fluently with all others of our kind, the Homo mimesis we actually are can manage it only rarely and imperfectly. Some of us find that difference exquisitely painful.

Yours truly,

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Dear Reader,

I hope I never become famous. I certainly do my best in this blog to ensure I never will.

Yours truly,

Humanism, the Modern Temper

Dear Reader,

Man, Nature, and God: what are the relations among these three? What is the rightful source of values, morals, behavior, culture, civilization? In short, what is the source of rightful authority?

In the Modern world of science and the market, Man (the human, not the male) is the source of authority. Nature, whether conceived of as mechanistic, relativistic, or quantum, is conceived of as a realm of causes and effects, of forces and precipitates, of things in motion, whether those things be matter or energies, and we rightly recognize that mere things in obedience to mathematical laws can hold no moral power over us. The Modern conception of a hammer is neither moral nor immoral. It can be used for good or evil or neither. Its moral quality must be imposed upon it by Man based on how it is used. Likewise a rock, or a gun, or a brick, or electricity, or any other thing, and to the Modern mentality Nature contains nothing but things and therefore is incapable of being the source of rightful authority. Nature is our playpen, our toy, our tool, our resource-pool, our realm over which we rule as kings and impose our moral (or immoral or amoral) will.

Likewise, to the Modern mentality, concerned above all with pragmatism and immersed in the reductionistic frameworks of mathematics, physics, and other hard sciences, God cannot be the source of rightful authority, because as the Modern mentality has purged Nature of values so it has purged the cosmos of super-nature, the realm of the Gods that the Modern mentality inherited from its Medieval parents. By proving either the nonexistence or at least the irrelevance of any realm beyond a reduced Nature obedient to natural laws, the Modern mentality effectively defined away the Medieval God. The Modern mentality is atheistic, or agnostic if it prefers not to be pinned down (which is a stereotypically Modern preference), or religious in a fashionable cultural sense only. A genuinely religious Christian, someone who genuinely derives his moral guidance from God, either retreats from the world of Modern power or is quickly nailed to a cross or sent to Guantanamo. In the Modern world, invocations of God by the mighty are never honest, never genuinely religious, always calculated and predatory manipulations of religious individuals for nihilistic purposes. To the truly Modern, the religious impulse is just another natural resource to be studied, harvested, or harnessed as a source of power. In science and the marketplace, God has been reduced to a handle on other human beings, much to the dismay of the genuinely religious among us, and every effort to reverse this historical direction has only succeeded in further corrupting many churches by making them the pawns of the powerful.

Which leaves only Man himself as the remaining realm, our source of moral authority. This is the dream of Modern democracy and the Free Market, that human needs will be met and human virtues uplifted for the betterment of the world, that an educated population will become wise custodians of the world for future generations. We hope that enlightenment will lead to a better world, but increasingly we have to struggle with the reality that value-free power is more typically put at the disposal of immoral or amoral human agents who believe in nothing at all. Science itself increasingly demonstrates the futility of appealing to Man as a reliable source of moral authority, since Man can be almost anything depending on how he is educated. We are not wolves, who have a predictable culture worldwide wherever we find ourselves, who have an instinctual center that lets us be accurately described as a whole as well as individuals. We are Homo mimesis: imitative Man, who is so remarkably malleable, so astonishingly natural as an actor who assumes roles reflexively, that we cannot even be sure when we are being authentic and when we are just playing a role we have learned.

Indeed, the scientific investigation into just what may genuinely be called essential to all human beings turns up surprisingly little of any help in establishing a moral center based on humanity. Man may be raised to light himself on fire to protest the slaughter by his own country of foreign people he will never meet, to give his life for strangers, or he may be raised to machine-gun down naked and starving Jewish prisoners by the dozens day after day and go home each night to a nice dinner with his family and no qualms whatsoever about resuming the slaughter in the morning. Man may be raised to sacrifice everything for the sake of the truth, or to sacrifice everything to protect lies. There is no there there (as Gertrude Stein famously said of her childhood home Oakland), no center from which to draw moral authority, and that is precisely the pattern of Modern morality. By apotheosizing Man as the God over nature, as the God over himself, as the God over God himself, we have upraised precisely the kind of moral vaccum that would create the world in which we find ourselves. Torture camps, nuclear bombs, electoral corruption, religious hypocrisy, self-serving rationalization, appeal to abstract conditions that do not actually exist, a lazy and self-indulgent unwillingness to do the real work of cultivating personal excellence, a capitulation to existing conditions and institutions, a belief that being a responsible citizen requires no more than holding down a job, consuming market goods, raising children, and occasionally voting, and an eagerness to demonize anyone and everyone except ourselves as responsible for this mess: all of these things flow directly from our moral vacuum. The great Modern craving for entertainment and distractions is a craving to look away from what we have wrought, never to look at it, to tell ourselves any kind of fantasy about ourselves and our situations but never to come to grips with what we have done by exalting ourselves as our own moral authority. Our future looks less and less like Star Trek and more and more like 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta, or The Matrix but with us as the machines who enslave and prey upon and delude ourselves.

If we are to have a future, we must find a moral center, a source of authority. Intellect and reason can do many interesting and useful things, but establishing a moral center is not among them, since there is no moral basis that cannot be questioned and torn to pieces by reason; reason is a tool, not a moral compass, and its teleology left unrestrained is ultimately nihilistic. The tools we used to free ourselves from Medieval superstititions we hoped would save us from Inquisitions and Crusades in this new era of enlightenment, but instead we have moved on to Holocausts and the promise of Apocalypse. We have moved from slaughter motivated by religious hysteria and corruption to slaughter motivated by industrial calculation and corruption. If there was ever a species in need of a wise God, it would be these mimetic, chattering apes.

Most people assume this will all sort itself out, and they naturally fall into three mentalities; I personally know examples of all three. Some of them believe in scientific prophecies about the great forces of history sweeping us forward to evolve. Others believe God will fix everything, or that none of this matters because there is another world somewhere that we haven't wrecked yet and can retreat to after we total this one. The third group believe other people will fix things, that the ingenuity of (other, usually future) people (or their institutions) can solve any problem we will ever face. All such faith in the future is hybristic. It is all an attempt to sweep our responsibilities under the rug so we can justify not doing our best to make a better world, and all of it is predicated on an arrogant assertion that the future is ours to dispose of, that we can nominalistically declare what the future will be and it must obey, that our chosen article of faith commands the cosmos. Even if there are great forces of history sweeping us along, it does not follow that they exist to please us, to make things better for us; if the fossil record is to be believed those forces of history swept most species to extinction, so the scientific assumption would be that they are sweeping us too to extinction unless we do something about it. Likewise, even if there is a God it does not follow that his purpose in the cosmos is to wipe our noses and change our diapers; maybe God needs us to grow up and has figured out that if he cleans up all our messes for us we never will; and maybe Heaven is for people who have grown up, of whom we have few examples. Likewise, other people will not fix things because they are all busy assuming we will, and frankly when you come to understand the structure of our society well enough you learn that it is precisely no one's job to address the kinds of problems that are sweeping us along; everyone is busy doing other things.

In short, the future is not our plaything. A genuine scientific attitude begins with humility, especially about what cannot be tested and evaluated, and the future by definition is out of reach. Likewise, a genuine religious humility recognizes that the future is God's to dispose of, not ours, and to dictate terms to God about the future is to claim God's omniscience as one's own, the very kind of nihilistic arrogance typical of Modern atheism. There is no sound moral ground for arrogance about our future; it could go well or ill for us. Our responsibility is to culture ourselves to meet whatever comes as well as we can, something we cannot do if we have invested our moral center in Man.

Yours truly,

Postscript: In the interest of exploring alternatives, in the next couple of posts I will spend some time with each of the European alternatives I know anything about, the Medieval investment in God as a moral center, and the Classical investment in Nature as a moral center. The centering of my discussion in European religions and history is not done out of any myopia about the importance of European history and culture but rather because I am incompetent to write meaningfully on any other, fascinated though I may be by them.

Postpostscript: When Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, . . . he may have had the stages of life in mind, but here and elsewhere the Bard hints at his great comprehension of the fundamentally mimetic nature of our species. He expresses this truth clearly and beautifully, though it is in our nature to dismiss even the greatest artistic formulation of our essential nature as mere entertainment rather than incisive truth. Ultimately, it is that shifting, imitative, Protean nature of Man that makes us unreliable as a moral authority.