Oct 19 2016

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

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Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]


Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]


Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]


Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.



[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.

Oct 15 2016

Male Leaders to Never Look Up To


Over at First Things,  Alexi Sargeant talks about great male role models growing up then complains that Trump doesn’t compare.

Sargeant makes some interesting points, and the whole post, “Making Better Men,” is worth reading,  but its underlying assumptions don’t quite add up. I don’t see what great role models in a child’s day-to-day life have to do with the quality of leadership they receive from the executives its parents elected. Kids watch cartoons on television, not presidents.

I had a good church-participating father and a few adequate male role models but they were neither politicians nor clergy nor bureaucrats nor professional athletes. Nor do I remember my alpha-male peers expressing their admiration or paying dues of gratitude to any of the above classes of professionals. I find it an absolute lie that every day Americans (especially under the age of 18) look to politicians for any sort of guidance, yet the fact that many journalists and academics assume that to be the case is not only perplexing, perhaps in a Maimonidesian sense, but also only further elevates“the worst examples of masculinity” mentioned by Sargeant.

Oct 14 2016

Great Books Once Read


The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them. But to how few of us are they the daily mental food! For once that we take down our Milton, and read a book of that “voice,” as Wordsworth says, “whose sound is like the sea,” we take up fifty times a magazine with something about Milton, or about Milton’s grandmother, or a book stuffed with curious facts about the houses in which he lived, and the juvenile ailments of his first wife.

Frederic Harrison (1831-1923)

The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley’s Sons Co. 1891. pp. 106-07.

Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

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The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]


II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]



[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.

Oct 11 2016

A Non-list of Books to Read This Fall


From Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), who taught, among others, Robert Graves (1895-1985) and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

Nor, lastly, do I urge you to try to be learned, or to read everything that anyone else has read. That way lies despair. Try to read good things. Read them over and over. Make them a part of you: and do not imagine you are wasting time, because you are not. Read the books that you like best. And if there are famous books, generally praised by good judges, which you do not appreciate, give them a fair chance. Try them from time to time, to see if you enjoy them or understand them better. For remember that in that inner world to which great literature belongs, a man may go on all his life learning to see, but he can never see all that is there; he can only hope to see deeper and deeper, more and more, and as he sees, to understand and to love.

(The Classical Tradition in Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1927. p. 146)

Oct 7 2016

Has Becket’s Psalter Been Found?

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Read the Guardian to find out:



Oct 1 2016

#Grapevines and Graves

#Grapevines and #graves

A photo posted by Christopher Landrum (@landrumc) on

@ Finca de Luna, Lampasas, Texas

Sep 22 2016

Hunting for the Well-Read Book


I confess, I was awfully pleased with that schoolboyish explanation. I was strangely anxious to present the story in as absurd a light as possible.


As Signore Machiavelli puts it, a successful politician requires the optics of religious sincerity. That is, princes, if they are to possess any longevity, must appear to be religious…. [2]

Could this mean that in order for a book to become well-read, nothing is more crucial than for it to appear to be virtuous? Wouldn’t that mean books which appear virtuous must not be (or must not appear to be) self-published? A virtuous book should also at least appear to be written by the person claiming to be the author, no matter who actually wrote it….

Sons and daughters of royalty may wander to and fro about the earth as prodigal progeny, but true regents do not drift. Real rulers hunt for game; for unlike wandering children, regents have definite goals in mind. They pursue a prize. If books can be sought and found by regents, a virtuous regent will find a well-read book. But servants and royal children worm through words and thumb through pages looking for things that interest themselves in the moment, never for things that might gain interest over time….[3]

For every coupling of author and reader, one must look through Lenin’s eyes and Tully’s logic and ask: who benefits from this relationship? Who wields the most power? Deep may call unto deep, but the depths are apparent even on the surface—for the answers abide in the way the questions are constructed….[4]

’Tis neither original nor profound to observe that some of the least helpful books sit on shelves marked “self-help.” But I want to read (or dare I say write?) a book whose virtue is its selfless-helpfulness….

There’s a reason why the Bible calls it the Book of Acts, not the Book of Audiences. A century ago, Americans wanted a deity who acted, not one who simply listened. But today I want a book that acts upon me as a reader. I’m tired of being a reader who acts against authors.[5]



[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. VI, p. 59.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe. (The Prince.) in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated by Robert M. Adams. NY: W. W. Norton. 1977:

Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this [religious] virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end….. (“Ch. XVIII. The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word,” p. 51)

But when these afterwards began to speak only in accordance with the wishes of the princes, and their falsity was discovered by the people, then men became incredulous, and disposed to disturb all good institutions. It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united. And therefore everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false) should be received and availed of to strengthen it; and this should be done the more, the wiser the rulers are, and the better they understand the natural course of things. Such was, in fact, the practice observed by sagacious men; which has given rise to the belief in the miracles that are celebrated in religions, however false they may be….

With the line—“everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false)”—can this apply to all lies, superstitions, propaganda, bullshit? But see also Machiavelli’s maxim on Rome:

Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than to witness the fact that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. (Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, “Book I – Chapter 12” p. 103)

Compare Poggio:

The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made Pope. (Braccidini, Poggio. Facetiae [Demenichi] in The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. Edited and translated by Edward Storer. London: Dutton. 1928. V, p. 37)

But comport Ben Jonson who says, opposite of Machiavelli, that we tend to trust our ears over our eyes:

We praise the things we hear with much more willingness than those we see, because we envy the present and reverence the past; thinking ourselves instructed by the one, and overlaid by the other. (Timber: or Discoveries (1640))

Now compare Jonson to Oscar Wilde, for whom “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” For Wilde, our eyes have priority over our ears, though our ears are quite discriminating:

When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely. (“The Critic as Artist” (1891))

A prince will appear religious by not talking about how religious he is; therefore, a well-read book will appear virtuous by not referencing its own virtue.

[3] Job 1:07, 2:02; Proverbs 2:04, 25:02, 25:11; Matthew 7:07, Luke 11:09 and 15:11–32; Pirkei Avot V, xxvii.

[4] Psalms 42:07; “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Strauss, Leo. “Introduction.” Thoughts on Machiavelli. 1958. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica p. 183.

[5] See James Bissett Pratt who found that Americans weren’t interested in any affirmative knowledge about a deity, but only in what a deity can do:

But one result of the answers as a whole that seems fairly clear is that God’s “attributes” play a comparatively unimportant part in the minds of religious people, and that His relation to individuals is the really important factor in the concept. People are chiefly interested not in what God is, but in what He can do. Two thirds of my respondents describe Him as “Father,” “Friend,” “Companion,” “the ally of my ideals,” or by some equivalent expression; while only 12 thought it worthwhile to mention the fact that He is omnipotent, 9 called Him Creator, 3 mentioned Him as the Trinity, and one as the “Great First Cause.” Doubtless most of my respondents, if asked whether God were all these latter things, would respond Yes; the significant fact is that these attributes play so unimportant a part in their conception of Him that when asked to define that conception these attributes never enter their minds. Professor Leuba seems to be right in the main when he says that God is used rather than understood….

While the concept of God is, however, in one sense decidedly pragmatic, it would be a mistake to suppose that the ends for which the religious consciousness wishes to use God are chiefly ordinary utilitarian ends—such as protector, “meat purveyor,” etc. Unless my respondents are very unusual people, the chief use for which God is desired is distinctly social rather than material. God is valued as an end in Himself rather than as a means to other ends. Most people want God for the same reason for which they want friends, and His relation to them is exactly that of a very dear and very lovable and very sympathizing friend. It is quite naive, no doubt, but perfectly simple. Thus 53 out of 73 of my respondents affirm that God is as real to them as an earthly friend. Doubtless some of the 53 answered as they did in a purely conventional spirit, but that this was not the case with more than a small proportion is shown by the general tone of the answers to the other questions. The God whom most people want and whom many people have is a very real and sympathizing friend. Like other friends he is, to be sure, not only an end in Himself, but a means to other ends; He can help one to many things that one wants. These things, however, are as a rule not material benefits. They are chiefly of three kinds: comfort in trouble, hope for the future, and assistance in striving after righteousness. (The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. pp. 263–64)

Compare Pratt’s line––“A very real and sympathizing friend”—to Walter Jackson Bate on Coleridge for whom the former asks:

What was wrong with occasionally prizing literature when it was simply a “friend”––a friend that could comfort while it informed and uplifted? The great English poets could not be viewed (at least not yet) in exactly that way. Only the best were studied—and the best part written by that best. Around them was an inevitable association of demand. In this respect they offered no essential contrast to his other reading—the reading in Greek literature and philosophy, the Neoplatonists, the metaphysical writers generally, the skeptics, the modern writers on science and epistemology. (Coleridge. NY: Macmillan. 1968. pp. 9–10)

That is to say: Coleridge hunted for virtuous books in the same spirit one does when searching across a lifetime for a true friend.

Sep 14 2016

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election


  1. In the Marines, “you’re not allowed to say ‘I’ because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality….”[i] But for the rest of us outside the military, does this mean we ought to always rely on the herd, run with the rabble, riot with the mob, keep camouflaged within the crowd?
  1. When I played football, it was more sacrilegious to sit on your ass––or worse, your helmet––than to take a knee. Taking a knee used to be considered basic protocol.
  1. No one ever fought a war just to fly a flag and sing a song.
  1. Think of how many GIs got enemy kill shots in Iraq simply by kneeling?
  1. Rodney King did a lot of kneeling in 1991:

  1. What is this ritual of the national anthem but “nostalgia driven blindness?”[ii] Nostalgia blinds us from the bad old days, and lets us get away from them by thinking that they were good; but those days were so bad we purposely forgot all about them.
  1. Nostalgia allows citizens go through the motions to keep up appearances:

Most people act, not according to their meditations, and not according to their feelings, but as if hypnotized, based on some senseless repetition of patterns.[iii]

  1. If the regime were to mold voting booths into the shape of slot machines, might I have more enthusiasm about this election?
  1. The choice matters not; the tuna salad in the fridge will taste the same after Election Day as it did the day before.
  1. But when will Elation Day arrive? Shouldn’t we instead dread that mark on the calends?
  1. I see myself in the voting booth and know that I am not that voter:

Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I acknowledge him? Admit that it is me? Or should I pretend I’m someone else, someone strikingly resembling me, and look completely indifferent?” Golyadkin asked himself in indescribable anguish. “Yes, that’s it: I’m not me and that’s all there is to it,” he thought, his eyes fixed on Andrei Filipovich as he took off his hat to him….[iv]




[i] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Nation: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 163.

[ii] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. NY: Basic Books. 2016. p. 103.

[iii] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. 1997. “September 28,” p. 284. Compare Milton, John. Paradise Lost, VIII, 79–84:

when they come to model Heaven
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame; how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances; how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb

See also Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. Second Edition. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 123–24.

[iv] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double. 1846. In Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Signet Classics 1961. pp. 151–52.

Sep 7 2016

When Monotheism Succeeds Too Much: Winning Versus Wincing



For Maimonides, “The convert is blameless—but the natural-born Jew is suspect of ‘going through the motions’.” In this case monotheism is better adopted than inherited; new originals are better than old replicas:

The natural-born Jew’s faith is always suspect since one can never be certain whether adherence to the faith is not somehow motivated by national memory, shared history, and familial allegiances. The convert’s intentions, however, like those of his or her archetypical predecessor, Abraham, are not subject to challenge since the convert arrived at the essential truths of Judaism by reason….[1]


Life under Christendom often made for lazy Christians, because the dominance of Christianity unintentionally encouraged the laity to be lax:

The great change in the world means that there must be a great change in the attitudes and thoughts of the great mass of believing and practicing lay people. For centuries past, the laity could be passive, except for the rare individual and except for each one’s secret spiritual life. The reason was the existence of ‘Christendom’. Under Christendom, it no longer took special energy to be a Christian, as in the early centuries; in most places in Christian countries, people did not have to choose a form of life. There just was a basic form of life there: lay people—especially laywomen—either were its victims or, favoured by fortune, were happy in it. Goodness or badness of life was a specification within the basic form. Someone who wanted to lead a holy life would often, if the thought came to him in time, not marry but enter religion.[2]


For Islam, too many conversions means not enough folks to pay high taxes; here, monotheism becomes a victim of its own success:

The Arabs, already subsidized by the decree of the Caliph Omar, lived apart at first, as a military aristocracy, holding aloof from trade, farming, or manual crafts. Far from pressing their faith on the Christians or Jews around them, they preferred to leave them outside the Muslim community so that they might get enough money from them, by way of tribute, to keep the state treasury well replenished and help to pay their own fixed stipends. The Muslims themselves had to pay certain taxes, but these were considerably lower than those required from non-Muslims. This fact, together with the prestige of belonging to the religion of the ruling caste, rather than any active proselytizing on the part of the Arabs, caused increasing numbers of Christians and Jews to embrace Islam. [3]



[1] Diamond, James A. Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon. Cambridge UP. 2014. p. 85. More from Diamond:

Considering that existence of God and His unity are his primary concerns, one could characterize the Guide, as well as the Mishneh Torah,* as a treatise on divine names whose understanding is essential to preserve the ideas of existence and unity.

*See the beginning of the MT and, for example, MT, Forbidden Intercourse 14:2, where Maimonides directs that the prospective convert be introduced to Judaism first and foremost with the principles of divine unity and prohibition against idolatry. Only these philosophical teachings are conveyed to him “at length.” Everything else, including familiarizing him with the details of the mitzvoth, are really the framework for inculcating and preserving these two beliefs. (Diamond 19–20)

A representation, taken as a literal presentation, an “ultimate,” is no longer a representation but an idol, i.e., mistaking the map for the territory it marks (Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. 1957. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 157–61).

[2] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 83.

[3] Atiyah, Edward. The Arabs: the Origins, Present Conditions, and Prospects of the Arab World. Edinburgh: Penguin. 1958. pp. 38–39.