Sep 2 2016

Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community


Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

“We become so reductive when we pluck examples out of context.”

–Walter Jackson Bate[1]

Who says all post-industrial towns need saving? Is it all darkness on the edge of their city limits, the borders of lamp-forbidden hermit kingdoms, and Springsteen’s Badlands? Are these towns stuck in a new dark age, “betwixt the world destroyed and world restored?”[2] But how could those ages have been dark, full of “dim sadness,”[3] when gold is the only color named in Beowulf?

To revitalize these communities, and their apparent crumbling churches, why not three-dimensionally print new Notre Dames for them? Yet that would only devalue the original cathedral, commodify the creation. Can replicas ever evoke revival?

Agriculture once dominated some of these post-industrial towns. I once asked the Danes for wisdom. They told me Beowulf was not a farmer but a fisherman. (Perhaps he farmed the seas.) Boethius observed that all farmers are wed to Fortune, yoked to Fate, thrown by weather like Beowulf and his shipmates.[4]

Bureaucrat Boethius was “prompted to sing,”[5] while squire Sancho declared: “I can only tell a story the way I learned it in my country,”[6] because “we see not all letters in single words, nor all places in particular discourses.”[7]

The mercenary Beowulf was hired to provoke Grendel and interrupt his trolling,[8] while the martyr Boethius came to disrupt the wicked,[9] so let us moderns “try adventurous work,”[10] and cause mischief upon all that has gone wrong already. Let’s stir the shit (and troll the trolls)—to quake and quicken the stagnant cesspools where the mothers of monsters lurk. All governments are inherently obscure, because that is what they seek, which is why Beowulf and Boethius came to churn the murky waters clear. So should we.[11]

Yet it may not matter for the moderns that the ancients provoked Grendel, for while vagrants are forever among us, monsters have ceased to be news.[12] Yes, Grendel was a kind of vagrant, but all laws against vagrancy accomplish nothing.[13]

Lord Bacon warned of readers who tend to turn authors into dictators,[14] and certainly dictators masquerading as governors are much more dangerous than monsters in the guise of trolls.



[1] The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 130.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, XII, 1–5.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 23.

[4] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II, i, prose.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iv, prose.

[6] Cervantes, Don Quixote, I, xx.

[7] Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries.

[8] Beowulf, 99–117.

[9] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iii, prose.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 254–55.

[11] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning, II, xxiii, 47.

[12] More, Utopia, I.

[13] More, Utopia, I.

[14] Bacon, Advancement of Learning, I, iv, 5.

Aug 4 2015

An Epistle to Cousin Paul: or, How to Subvert Irreconcilable Differences

bookbread Canterbury

Hola, Primo:

Oft (how oft!) do I don my contrarian cap and criticize something only for the sake of criticism rather than as a way to pursue truth. Yet I recall your observation from July 18, 2015:

It’s really a shame how low things have gone in our country, with each side of whatever issue willing to demonize the other and vilify anyone with a difference of opinion. Our time in this world is short and winning an argument is pointless. I’m tired of all the anti-Obama AND the anti-Republican stuff out there. It’s hard being a teacher trying to teach kids to treat each other with respect when adults behave even worse.

Now even though I pursue the truth in my spare time, I cannot call myself a philosopher. I’m a student, and while actual philosophers and scientists have the advantage of peer review, students can only review their own self-understanding. Actual philosophers and scientists contribute to everyone’s understanding, but students can only contribute to their own. Students pursue truth but do not speak, write, present, or publicize anything about their pursuit. Students can, however, read (alone or aloud) texts and quotations from actual philosophers as well as take notes. So to be absolutely sincere, I must first admit that I’m really not writing to you, but only to me, and only for my own understanding.


A philosopher might have the capability to organize their thoughts into a formal model, but since I am a student, an informal scheme should suffice. Being informal, I write in a casual manner in proposing a scheme to solve some disagreements between citizens of our country who are divided on particular political issues. I propose this scheme because “agreeing to disagree” does nothing to prevent the rash of resentment from spreading over the entire body politic.

But I also believe a scheme is needed simply because the sages (at least the male ones) point out over and over how it is so much easier to tear things down than rather to build them up. So often do folks make divisions, even when they know there are none:

To offer objections against a discourse which has been delivered is not difficult, but very easy; but to set up a better against it is a very laborious task.


And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved.

––Francis Bacon[ii]

The greater part of our success & comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same…. It is a dull and obtuse mind, that must divide in order to distinguish; but it is a still worse, that distinguishes in order to divide. In the former, we may contemplate the source of superstition and idolatry; in the latter, of schism, heresy, and a seditious and sectarian spirit.

––Samuel Taylor Coleridge[iii]

Be afraid to destroy the unity of people by stirring bad feelings amongst them against another with our words.

––Leo Tolstoy[iv]

Must you again divide the indivisible?

––Martin Buber[v]

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

––Albert Einstein[vi]

But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division. And that is the subject I want to discuss. If we do not put the Great Divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where should we put it? I ask this question with the full consciousness that, in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide.

––C. S. Lewis[vii]


My scheme requires four “givens” or assumptions, that is, the immediate context, or brute facts concerning political disagreements between groups of citizens. These four givens are:

1. Group A and Group B disagree to an irreconcilable degree (so much so that they cannot even “agree to disagree”).

2. A group is bound together by a “declared cause,” which is the idea that binds and makes its members part of the group. The declared cause is also the principle issue of disagreement between the two groups:

 By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community….

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (Madison, “Federalist 10”)

3. Because all causes, including declared causes, are derived from other causes, all causes can be deconstructed in terms of their prior causes. Hence there are no monolithic or indestructible causes. Nor is a group monolithic––not even in an age when human bodies can be cloned––for while a group is united around its declared cause, each member of that group has a distinct, individual perception of the declared cause. In other words, if a group was monolithic, it would cease to be a group of anything, and would only be one, indivisible thing. (Again from “Federalist 10”: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”)

For example, groups that advocate gun control and groups that advocate gun rights both have a declared cause of “guns.” But an analysis (or deconstruction) of the rhetoric of both sides reveals that whatever they’re arguing over has very little to do with actual armaments. The word “guns,” for all of these groups, really refers to the conflict of mental illness and its alleged relationship to crime as well as the question of its limitations and intrusions on privacy; the word “guns” for these groups means the lack or surplus of law enforcement in the immediate lives of the members of these groups; the word “guns” for these groups also means reading the Constitution literally, pragmatically, practically, critically, cynically, or skeptically.

4. The history of humanity shows that resentment from one group toward another group increases the resentment both groups have toward each other. No matter the origins, the aim of one group’s resentment toward another ends only in “mutually assured resentment.” Or as Baylor Professor Alan Jacobs has recently put it:

Both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.[viii]


My scheme proposes that the two groups might come to an agreement via a technique of subversion, or more specifically, a counterintuitive method of divide-and-conquer. Through this method all members of all groups can arrive at the goal of united disagreement. United disagreement then makes for a new foundation to build understanding upon.

So if the four givens are met, a four-step scheme is proposed:

1. One member from Group A subverts the opposition by “joining” Group B; and one member from Group B subverts its opposition by “joining” Group A. The subversion is driven by each group’s mutual will-to-grudge (the drive to resent the opposition). These subversives are called “undercover members.”

2. The undercover members of each group cannot be blatant in their subversion. Instead, each undercover member “preaches to the choir” or, in other words, promotes the declared cause of the subverted group so tirelessly as to induce ennui within that subverted group. Through rhetorical bombast, the undercover member invokes boredom in the minds of the actual members. Each undercover member should recall Tolstoy’s advice:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people.[ix]

A counter-intuitive subversive approach by undercover members fosters faction within the actual group, because boredom among members of the subverted group will eventually spur those actual members to deconstruct the declared cause of their group. In other words, if the undercover member holds up the whole, sooner or later other actual members of the group will pick it apart. Actual group members will start to “split hairs,” championing exclusivity among themselves. By then, the undercover member has successfully divided-and-conquered. For:

3. As both Groups A and B become more inwardly divided, soon enough no one within either group will agree on their particular declared cause, and the majority from both groups will begin to disagree within their own group as well as continue to clash with the group they originally opposed.

4. If no one from either group agrees on anything, then both groups are united in disagreement. An equilibrium of resentment will have been achieved.


“What was the one thing?” asks Oedipus, for: “One may be the key / To everything, if we resolve to use it.” Perhaps counter-intuitive subversion is not the one thing. For Plato, at least according to Aristotle, the mind is the one thing, while knowledge (science) divides into infinite specializations. Neither knowledge nor science can ever be one thing, because they are collaborative group activities requiring peer review.[x]

Nearly 2000 years after Aristotle, James Madison saw property as the one thing:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (“Federalist 10”)

This is probably why Ben Jonson pointed out, a century before Madison, that––no matter the faction, or the direct cause of the faction, or the strength of its resentment––the whole of humanity remains united in greed, which can be a synonym for property.[xi]

But Tolstoy taught a century after Madison:

 If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.[xii]

I hope to read more and think more and write more––that I may one day improve my community.


Cousin Christopher



[i] Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures” Moralia. Vol. I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1927. § 6, p. 221.

[ii] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning. 1605. Edited by William Aldis Wright. 1858. Fifth Edition. Oxford UP. 1957. II, ix, 1, p. 129.

[iii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Chapter XXII.” Biographia Literaria. 1817; “Introductory Aphorism XXVI.” Aids to Reflection. 1825.

[iv] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. NY: Scribner. 1997. January 5, p. 17.

[v] Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1922. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. NY: Scribners. 1970. I § 10.

[vi] Einstein, Albert. “On the Method of Theoretical Physics.” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 2. (April 1934.) 163–69.

[vii] Lewis, Clive Staples. “De Descriptione Temporum.” [“A Survey of Time.”] Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge. 1954. So They Asked for a Paper. p. 11.

[viii] Jacobs, Alan. “Code Fetishists and Normolaters.” The American Conservative. July 29, 2015. (

[ix] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 28, p. 100.

[x] Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Edited with introduction and notes by Sir Richard Jebb. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1887. l. 120; Aristotle, De Anima. Translated by John Alexander Smith. Oxford: Clarendon. 1931. I, 2.

[xi] Jonson: “The great herd, the multitude, that in all other things are divided, in this alone conspire and agree—to love money.” (Timber: or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter. Edited by Felix E. Schelling. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1892. p. 47.)

[xii] Tolstoy, Calendar, March 17, p. 89.

Aug 7 2010

The Difference between Quoting and Vomiting up the Words and Works of Authors

(A Dialogue of Diagnosis between the Brothers Grimm)

Let us try to clarify what we said earlier….

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones read before and ones I can’t remember.

JACOB: I too have forgotten most of my readings from the stacks and shelves and piles of books scattered around my parlor.

WILHELM:  Yes, all words and works inside my mind have fermented into squalor.

JACOB: I am losing my sense of taste as well—it now seems that all books are bland.

WILHELM:  All literature lukewarm…

JACOB: Yes, and frequently cited but not enough studied are the words of Lord Bacon, who once suggested: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). But because I find it difficult to remember what I’ve read, it’s to a point where I don’t even know whether they were books I wanted to read.  Perhaps it reflects a tendency of mine to fixate on the desire rather than the act of reading.

WILHELM: My memory has lost words once absorbed as well as ideas once articulated by others—everything now dims toward dementia. But I take a touch of comfort in knowing that I’m not unlike Montaigne.

JACOB: How so?

WILHELM: Recall who Montaigne was: a man who retired to read, who attempted (or “essayed”) to discover himself as he put his thoughts on paper—here was a man who, after holding up a book marked full of strange notes in its margins, hesitated upon realizing that the book which seemed foreign should actually have been familiar to him, because the notes were written by Montaigne, and only afterwards did he remember having already read the book (02).

JACOB:  The devil he didn’t bother telling us the name of the book.

WILHELM:  True, he must not have digested it properly, but instead, read and chewed and ate too fast, as often occurs to people in opulent retirement.

JACOB: Often for me a book appears unfamiliar because I didn’t read it closely enough—

WILHELM:  —Because you tend not to savor the flavors of those spicy sentences.

JACOB:  I forget to fasten them to my memory, probably because I am strapped more to the idea, rather than the act, of reading books. I attend to the context of reading something while ignoring that something’s contents.

WILHELM: Perhaps Montaigne fell in love with the idea of reading his unnamed book but cared little for its contents?

JACOB: That difference, a desire for method over meaning, confounds me.

WILHELM: Ah, but haven’t you heard how preferring methods over meanings is what it means to be modern? “The medium is the message” and all that?

JACOB: I remember in another place where Montaigne compares his readings of books to: “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). Montaigne reveals an attitude similar to the advice on reading prescribed by Bacon, but the Frenchman’s humility makes him more honest (more intimate) than the English Lord.

WILHELM: So when it comes to reading books, do you prefer eating “excrement” or “bacon”?

JACOB: Ah, brother, but wouldn’t a far number of Muslim and Jewish readers equate the two?

WILHELM: As I am neither, I can respond only with an old pirate’s proverb: Why fart and waste it, when you can burp and taste it?

JACOB: I am astonished at your ability for over-specificity.

WILHELM: Dear brother, I am only trying to get at how it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia” onto his readers—a projectile vomit full of anorexic annotations of God knows what obscure Latin authors Montaigne read as a child. He probably quoted them aloud and at random—

JACOB: —As we ourselves often do—

WILHELM: —As does Bookbread on his blog.

JACOB: And well before Montaigne, there was Epictetus—a man who, unlike Montaigne, owned no library of books to organize his thoughts, nor castle in the French countryside with which to house them—yet still that slave and Stoic recognized:

Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any theorem, generally be silent; for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have not digested. And when a man shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work (of philosophy). For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion. (04)

WILHELM: In other words, we have both the ancient Epictetus and the more recent Renaissance men (Montaigne and Bacon) warning us against this habit of reading books and then regurgitating their quotations before we have let them settle in the stomachs of our souls.  And they warn us because such a habit fails to provide the mind of the reader with any sort of mental-nutritional value?

JACOB: Precisely.

WILHELM: Should we (as readers) then behave like dogs—dare we return to our own vomit?

JACOB: There you go with that over-specificity again, brother, but recall the old proverb: if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog….

01. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (1625).  Project Guttenberg. <>.

02. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <>.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays III, ix “On Vanity.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <>.

04. Epictetus, Encheiridion (“The Manual”) xlvi, pp. 400–401.  Trans. George Long.  Google Books. <>.