Jan 16 2017

Things Recently Read on Russia, Obama, Democracy, Christianity, & Community

Reshared this week at First Things Magazine is an article where David Novak asked 21 years ago: must community exist prior to democracy? If it does, then it is possible, Novak argues, that the community, particularly the Jewish community, can be religious and its governing democracy secular.

Opposite the idea of several religious communities being collectively governed by a secular democracy is Tolstoy, who sought, in Thomas Larson’s recent words in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “spiritual self-reliance.” And Count Tolstoy finds the best examples of spiritual self-reliance in the lives and beliefs of Russian peasantry—something that espoused by someone today might lead them to later be accused of promoting an ideology of what Tim Strangleman at NewGeography.com this week called “working-class nostalgia.” But, as Strangleman points out, nostalgia tells us more about our attitude toward the present than any understanding we may have (or think we have) of the past.

On the other hand, as Emma Green finds out in the Atlantic Monthly, there are currently some liberals who do not believe outreach toward religious conservatives will be rewarding:

I [Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer] think Democrats felt like their outreach [to religious conservatives] wouldn’t be rewarded. For example: The president went to Notre Dame in May of 2009 and gave a speech about reducing the number of women seeking abortions. It was literally met by protests from the pro-life community. Now, there are reasons for this—I don’t mean to say that Obama gave a great speech and the pro-life community should have [acknowledged that]. But I think there was an expectation by Obama and the White House team that there would be more eagerness to find common ground.

Cornel West, who is in some ways a religious conservative, wrote in the Guardian this week a severe critique of the Obama Presidency. More than Obama himself, West focuses his criticism on Obama’s “cheerleaders” who refuse to bear the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat as well as the neoliberal economic failures of the Obama administration. On this latter issue West poses the question of whether commercial brands compel their consumers to shun integrity, and he suggests commonwealth of American society in the name of pure profit-seeking. On this last point, it is interesting to compare a passage from Benjamin Nathans’ “The Real Power of Putin” from back in the September New York Review of Books:

The Soviet Union from which Russia emerged in 1991 was the most purpose-driven society the world has ever seen. Yet Laqueur struggles to put his finger on what he calls “the emerging ‘Russian idea,’” partly because so many doctrines are competing for influence (Russian Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, antiglobalism, nationalism), and partly because, as he concedes, the vast majority of ordinary Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society.”

As Alistair Roberts points out on his blog Alastair Adversaria, whether in Russia or America or elsewhere people hunger for truth, not only in purely rational terms, but hunger for truth in other people. We hunger for truth from the doctor when we ask what’s wrong and we hunger for the perceived truth in our leaders (whether or not the truth is actually there). This doubt of whether the truth is or isn’t there in that particular moment is like the wavering, lingering, roving sense of exile. And as Kate Harrison Brennan has recently written of the Western Christianity’s alleged perception of exile from rest of the participants in secular democracy, she reminds her flock that exile is a temporary condition; it should never be something one is comfortable with; on the other hand, as she expounds on Jeremiah:

The Israelites in exile were not just to tithe their cash crops, or to seek the good of their Babylonian oppressors as neighbours. Instead, they were to pray actively that the city would prosper, even before they did as a community in exile.

Jan 9 2017

A Brave New War with Russia

As an average American I was stirred by Molly K. McKew’s January 1 piece in PoliticoPutin’s Real Long Game”; as a foreign policy amateur, however, I can but respond by offering half-thoughts accompanied by a scattered set of quotations on things previously read. I urge everyone to please read McKew’s article before browsing anything I have to say about it below.

UPDATE: It looks like Quinta Jurecic at LawFareBlog.com beat me by a month-and-a-week on the whole Bullshit meme. Below I apply it to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, while she applies it the disinformation campaigns of President Trump.


In a bar in Seville in April 2014, shortly after the Orange Revolution, I had a conversation with a Ukrainian who was curious about American perspectives. The point I made was my belief, then, that the majority of Americans generally supported an independent Ukraine and generally opposed Putin’s policies, but that Americans also felt no urgency or passion or enthusiasm over the issue because most Americans feel powerless over any of their government’s actions concerning foreign policy.


I agree with McKew’s article that the Russian Federation is (and has been) engaged in a hardcore information war against the United States for quite some time and that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is a mere symptom of this much longer campaign. If war exists, then by definition, dialogue between the two sides does not exist,[1] and, as Reuters reported on December 21, “The Kremlin said on Wednesday almost all communications channels between Russia and the United States have been frozen,” although, “the U.S. State Department disputed the statement.” [2] Such an absence of dialogue has been articulated in the East by Tolstoy and in the West by Isaiah Berlin:

It used to be dreadfully difficult to talk when we were left alone. It was the labor of Sisyphus. As soon as we thought of something to say and said it, we had again to be silent, devising something else. There was nothing to talk about. All that could be said about the life that awaited us, our arrangements and plans, had been said, and what was there more? Now if we had been animals we should have known that speech was unnecessary; but here on the contrary it was necessary to speak, and there was nothing to say, because we were not occupied with what finds vent in speech.[3]

Sometimes the rot has gone too deep, and the members of the decadent society collapse into a kind of second barbarism, the ‘barbarism’ not of youth or of ‘the senses’, but of ‘reflection’––a kind of senility and impotence, when each man lives in his own egotistic, anxiety-ridden world, unable to communicate or co-operate with his fellows. This is the situation in which men, although ‘they still physically throng together, like live wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two of them able to agree, since each follows his own pleasure or caprice’.[4]

As an amateur, I believe an information war such as this calls on Americans to, among other things, rigorously study the dynamics of dialogue as theorized by Martin Buber in the West and Mikhail Bakhtin in the East.

An information war does not imply an absence of violence. Nonetheless, whether or not the current campaign is also a traditional war of blood-and-treasure, particularly with regard to the front of Eastern Europe, I agree with McKew that in this war the principle weapon of the enemy dissolves all distinctions between truth and falsity. As McKew sees it:

What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.

Yes!––particularly “to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction,” or as McKew puts it later, “subversion rather than domination…. not about creating an alternative truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all”––this is the thesis to Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt pointed out that bullshit is a special species of non-truth and that bullshitting is far more dangerous than lying. Why? Because a liar must have some regard for the truth––for that is the thing the liar tries to hide––while the bullshitter has absolutely no regard for the truth. The dangers of non-Russian-made bullshit were witnessed in the U. S. housing market crash of 2008. Why? Because bullshit is an acid that corrodes our social ontology—it eats away at what McKew refers to as our “security architecture”––and in this war Russia produces a lot of bullshit.[5]

In particular, Russia seeks to erode any desire we in the West may have to distinguish fact from fiction with regard to the war itself. The Russian psyche, however, is itself well adapted to such conditions, and has been for a long time. Even before phrases like “reflex control” and “multi-vector policy” became standard in the Kremlin, one finds, for example in the play The Trouble with Reason (1823), the character of Chatsky who admits: “The more you think about it, the more you’re overwhelmed.”[6] Lemontov has a character who confesses:

I lied, but I wanted to infuriate him. Contradiction is, with me, an innate passion; my entire life has been nothing but a chain of sad and frustrating contradictions to heart or reason. The presence of an enthusiast envelops me with midwinter frost, and I think that frequent commerce with an inert phlegmatic individual would have made of me a passionate dreamer. [7]

And as a young Tolstoy observed from fellow soldiers: “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[8]


For McKew:

“…. it haunted me, this idea that modern revolutionaries no longer felt some special affinity with the West. Was it the belief in collective defense that was weakening, or the underlying certitude that Western values would prevail? … It matters deeply that the current generation of global revolutionaries and reformers, like my Ukrainian friend, no longer see themselves as fighting for us or our ideals.”

While I agree with McKew that Russia seeks to wage war “until we are broken as they perceive themselves to be,” and that “Putin has launched a kind of global imperialist insurgency,” I do not agree that the best way to engage the enemy (besides traditional hard power) is to cheerlead “Western values”––not when there is scant historical, political, anthropological evidence or indications that Western values are valued by a substantial majority in the East.[9] Yes, much of the current war takes place on Russia’s western frontier—right where East meets West—but more often than not East does not equal West, even in peacetime. The bear knows how the handle the cold in winter:

Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty….[10]

The basis of authority is bodily violence…. Government authority, even if it does suppress private violence, always introduces into the life of men fresh forms of violence, which tend to become greater and greater in proportion to the duration and strength of the government…. That has always been necessary, and has become more and more necessary with the increased diffusion of education among the masses, with the improved communication between people of the same and of different nationalities. It has become particularly indispensable now in the face of communism, socialism, anarchism, and the labor movement generally. Governments feel that it is so, and strengthen the force of their disciplined armies.

The fact that in America the abuses of authority exist in spite of the small number of their troops not only fails to disprove this position, but positively confirms it. In America there are fewer soldiers than in other states. That is why there is nowhere else so little oppression of the working classes, and no country where the end of the abuses of government and of government itself seems so near. Of late as the combinations of laborers gain in strength, one hears more and more frequently the cry raised for the increase of the army, though the United States are not threatened with any attack from without. The upper classes know that an army of fifty thousand will soon be insufficient, and no longer relying on Pinkerton’s men, they feel that the security of their position depends on the increased strength of the army….[11]

All men, then, bound together by state organization, through the responsibility of their acts on one another, the peasant soldier on the nobleman or merchant who is his officer, and the officer on the nobleman who has been appointed governor, the governor on the nobleman or son of an official who is minister, the minister on the member of the royal family who occupies the post of Tzar, and the Tzar again on all these officials, noblemen, merchants, and peasants. But that is not all. Besides the fact that men get rid of the sense of responsibility for their actions in this way, they lose their moral sense of responsibility also, by the fact that in forming themselves into a state organization they persuade themselves and each other so continually, and so indefatigably, that they are not all equal, but “as the stars apart,” that they come to believe it genuinely themselves. Thus some are persuaded that they are not simple people like everyone else, but special people who are to be specially honored. It is instilled into another set of men by every possible means that they are inferior to others, and therefore must submit without a murmur to every order given them by their superiors…. [12]

All the revolutions in history are only examples of the more wicked seizing power and oppressing the good. In declaring that if their authority did not exist the more wicked would oppress the good, the ruling authorities only show their disinclination to let other oppressors come to power who would like to snatch it from them.[13]

Yet even if people from the East believed in Western values, that doesn’t mean those values would prosper in the East. As McKew points out, a non-Soviet Russia attempting democracy since 1992 was suddenly interrupted by a coup in 1999. But should we in the West be disheartened that that democracy was overthrown by a quick three-month operation or should we be disinterestedly sober when we realize that Russia had only seven years to practice democratic principles?

After the Cold War, some in the East may have sought “some special affinity” with Western values, particularly, “the belief in collective defense,” but in 2016 most of that sounds like the jive talk of the now dissolved Project for the New American Century. There is no doubt that when we fail to distinguish truth from fiction, we must consider ourselves ignorant. And when we are ignorant we are childlike and must resort to rhetorical tropes to understand the things we are ignorant of. We rely on tropes for understanding our counterparts because dialogue between us has failed.[14] I believe in the traditional ideals (the social ontology) espoused by the United States, but those ideas may not be for everyone, and I believe in the childlike trope of Russia being part of the East and America being part of the West. Hitler harnessed the trope that socialism was the work of Jews and Russians, while today many non-Hitlers spread the trope that democracy––or the English Rule of Law, or transparency that combats corruption (take your pick)––may be the habit of Jews and Americans but is not the preferred practice of many in the East. In The Trouble with Reason Chatsky asks:

Where are the fathers of our fatherland who are
the models you insist we must acknowledge?
Surely not these who by robbery made themselves rich?
Who got around the law through family and acquaintance?[15]

Yes, as McKew points out, Russia has the second most powerful army; but its population (according to some) has also been drastically decreasing. Nonetheless, as Tolstoy once pointed out: “The strength of Russia” remains “simplicity and obstinacy.”[16] While Syria and Georgia may all be part of the same war, is it really, as McKew sees it, “subversion rather than domination,” or just the old idea that Russia is always looking for a southern port?[17] Either way we in the West, particularly my fellow Americans, need to pay more attention to the situation and thank investigators like Molly K. McKew for reporting from the front lines.


[1] This is an old idea in the East as well as the West. See Bhagavad Gita, III, xx; Caesar, Gallic Wars V, xxviii and xxxi.

[2]Kremlin says almost all dialogue with U.S. is frozen: RIA.” December 21, 2016. Reuters.

[3] Tolstoy, Leo. Крейцерова соната. (The Kreutzer Sonata.) 1889. Translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude. § X.

[4] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. NY: Viking. 1976. p. 63.

[5] John Searle’s propositions for social ontology theory start with the premise that one cannot intend to play a language game with (or against) another if that other refuses (does not intend) to play that game, which is what the bullshitter does:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts…. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969. § 1.4, pp. 16–17; see also 42–43)

Meaningful utterances are those where the speaker intentionally imposes conditions of satisfaction on the utterances. But because the utterances themselves are the conditions of satisfaction of the intention to make those utterances, we can say that speaker meaning consists of the intentional imposition of conditions of satisfaction on conditions of satisfaction. This, I argue, is the essence of speaker meaning. The condition of satisfaction of the non-meaningful intentional utterance is simply that an utterance should be produced. But if the utterance is to be meaningful it must itself have further conditions of satisfaction, such as truth conditions or fulfillment conditions. It is the intentional imposition of these further semantic conditions of satisfaction onto the conditions of satisfaction already present in the intentional utterance that constitutes speaker meaning….

We create money, government, private property, and marriage, for example, by representations that have the double direction of fit….They are the glue that holds human society together, because they carry the special type of deontology that makes society possible…. (“Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 447, 451, 452)

We make something the case by representing it as being the case…. Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction….” (“Language and social ontology.” 445, 452)….

The necessary conditions of a speaker’s performing a fully consummated definite reference in the utterance of an expression are:

  1. There must exist one and only one object to which the speaker’s utterance of the expression applies (a reformulation of the axiom of existence) and

  2. The hearer must be given sufficient means to identify the object from the speaker’s utterance of the expression (a reformulation of the axiom of identification). (Speech Acts § 4.4, p. 82)

[6] Griboyedov, Aleksandr. Гope om yma. (The Trouble with Reason.) 1823. Translated by Frank R. Reeve. IV.

[7] Lermontov, Mikhail. “княжна.” (“Princess Mary.”) 1840. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov with Dmitri Nabokov.

[8] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. 1855. Translated by Frank D. Millet. § I.

[9] From Wolfgang Balzer:

It is an idealization—to put it mildly—to call coerced behavior agreement and a system an institution when the majority of relevant individuals has been removed from the system…. The majority of individuals, those occurring in the other groups, have a different perception. Usually such individuals take the institution for granted, as a part of their natural environment which they cannot influence. They do not perceive themselves as involved in the collective ascription of new statuses and power, not to speak of the “construction” of the institution. At best they can be said to participate in maintaining the institution in the sense of not actively seeking to destruct it. (“Searle on Social Institutions: A Critique.” Dialectics. Vol. 56. No. 3. (2002.) 195–211 at 206, 210)

[10] Dostoevsky, Записки из подполья. (Notes from the Underground.) 1864. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. I, vii.

[11] Tolstoy, Царство Божие внутри вас, (The Kingdom of God is within You.) 1894. Translated by Constance Garnett. 1894. VII.

[12] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. XII.

[13] Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is within You. X.

[14] Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas 103–08; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP. 2002. I, xiii, [¶ 42–43] pp. 33–34; [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 4] 3; I, § 2, xxxvii, [¶ 186], p. 89; I, § 2, lxviii, [¶ 206], p. 92; II, § 2, iv, [¶ 408], p. 162.

[15] Griboyedov, The Trouble with Reason. II.

[16] Tolstoy, Sebastopol. § I.

[17] “The drive of the Russians for a warm-water port, whether under the Tsarists or the Communists, is a fundamental geographic expression of Russian foreign policy.” (Russell H. Fifield and G. Etzel Pearcy. Geopolitics in Principle and Practice. NY: Ginn & Co. 1944. p. 5)

Oct 27 2016

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)


The Younger Seneca (4 BC–65 AD) writes that, “the fall of anything great generally takes time,” for this is the nature of Fortune.[1] Fortune juggles us from her felly—because she is a jester performing before the Court of Zeus—Seneca, therefore, advised his fellow ancients to accept Fortune; for they cannot resent her.[2] They must adopt a noble spirit (wherever she throws them).[3]

I have yet to read Being and Time (1927). But I’ve heard things about it. I’ve heard it discusses a concept called “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) that seems to be basically the same as the ancient idea of the goddess Fortune. And moderns, even before Heidegger (1889–1976), have tossed around this same idea––that the condition of being is analogous to the sense of being thrown by Fate/Fortune. Emerson (1803–1882), writing 80+ years before Heidegger, believed that while we are thrown into our immediate conditions without whim or warning, we must choose not to passively fall like Milton’s Satan, but instead soar like a Hellenic Icarus:

The man who bates no jot of courage when oppressed by fate[,] who miss ed ing of his design lays hold with ready hand on the unexpected event & turns it to his own account & in the cruelest suffering has that generosity of perception that he is sensible of a secret joy in the addition this event makes to his knowledge––that man is truly independent,––“he takes his revenge on fortune”* is independent of time & chance; fortune may rule his circumstances but he overrules fortune. The stars cannot thwart with evil influences the progress of such a soul to grandeur….[4]

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.[5]

This thrown feeling was not limited to American transcendentalists. Take the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912):

So he brings us no news
From the stars we peruse,
Or in hope, or in terror survey;
He is only a stone
From the world that was thrown
When the Earth was an infant at play.[6]

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy, once defined free will as being “conscious” of our “desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” For Steiner, the fact that we prioritize our desires gives the illusion of free will. Being human, we cannot free ourselves from our free will. We cannot help that we’ve been thrown. For Steiner:

[A thrown] stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by reason of which it necessarily continues to move, after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is due to compulsion, not to the necessity of its own nature, because it requires to be defined by the impact of an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.

Now, pray, assume that this stone during its motion thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its power to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. Now this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he desires milk of his own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for vengeance as free, and the coward his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free will what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us often enough that man least of all can temper his desires, and that, moved by conflicting passions, he perceives the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free because there are some things which he desires less strongly, and some desires which he can easily inhibit through the recollection of something else which it is often possible to recall.[7]

C. S. Lewis (1899–1963) warned that even if an individual is competent enough to realize their condition of being thrown into the world arbitrarily, that realization often further throws that individual into the habit of mistaking the map for the territory it marks:

The truth is that [the  medieval] language about inanimate bodies was the same kind of language that the modern man uses—I mean, the modern “plain” man, not the modern scientist or philosopher. When a modern says that the stone fell “in obedience to the law of gravitation,” he does not really think there is literally a law or literal obedience; that the stone, on being released, whips out a little book of statutes, finds the chapter and paragraph relevant to its predicament, and decides it had better be a law-abiding stone and “come quiet.” Nor did the medieval man believe that the stone really felt homesick, or felt at all. Both ways of putting it are analogical; neither speaker would usually know any way of expressing the facts except by an analogy.[8]

For Lewis, the analogy of the stone (or thrownness for that matter) is only a tool used to finish the product the job calls for, nothing more.

When during an election year a journalist asks, “Where are we headed in this country?”  what they mean, as John Searle (1932–) points out, is that, amid the flux of consciousness, the thrown-ness of being, Searle realizes we are thrown both collectively as well as individually. In other words, while the individual kamikaze pilot found himself thrown into the immediate situation of the cockpit, the many individuals on the ground who were attacked at Pearl Harbor suddenly found themselves collectively “thrown” into a world war:

To illustrate the relationships between higher-level or system features, on the one hand, and micro level phenomena, on the other, I want to borrow an example from Roger Sperry. Consider a wheel rolling down hill. The wheel is entirely made of molecules. The behavior of the molecules causes the higher-level, or system feature of solidity. Notice that the solidity affects the behavior of the individual molecules. The trajectory of each molecule is affected by the behavior of the entire solid wheel. But of course there is nothing there but molecules. The wheel consists entirely of molecules. So when we say the solidity functions causally in the behavior of the wheel and in the behavior of the individual molecules that compose the wheel, we are not saying that the solidity is something in addition to the molecules; rather, it is just the condition that the molecules are in. But the feature of solidity is nonetheless a real feature, and it has real causal effects.[9]

Finally, let us not forget Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) critique in Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber (1980) that all the ideas in Heidegger’s great Book of the Blackforest can already be found in Leo Tolstoy’s (1828–1910) novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) where passages like––

“It is as if I [Ivan] had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death….”

Suddenly some force struck [Ivan] in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.[10]

––do seem to be echoed by Heidegger 40 years after Tolstoy penned them. But Tolstoy had been writing about being and time and death for a while. He had realized very early on that, “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[11] Moreover:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease. At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering. The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death…. We cannot cease to know what we know.[12]

So we know we’ve been thrown. And we know it without ever having read Heidegger. Let us end with Emerson:

Be a football to time & chance [,] the more kicks the better so that you inspect the whole game & know its uttermost law. As true is this ethics for trivial as for calamitous days.[13]



[1] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[2] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[3] Seneca, Epistle CVII.

[4] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks [JMN], Vol. III, June 29, 1827, pp. 92–93. *“[Editor’s note:] See Taylor’s Holy Living p. 128 Phil. Ed…. The edition to which Emerson refers is uncertain. The earliest listed Philadelphia edition of Holy Living is 1835.”

[5] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” (1841) last paragraph. See also from Emerson’s journals:

What is the matter with the world that men do not rule themselves but let circumstances rule them. They lay no plan of life but are guided by the gale that haps to blow. Should we not think it strange that an architect should begin to build a house without having determined upon any measurement for the front or the height or the disposal for the room within but left himself to be governed by the shape or the quantity of the materials he might chance to collect? Would you not call the mariner mad who left the port with the first wind that blew & as the wind changed loosened his sheets & still stood before it the wind let it blow from what quarter it would. What does he do? He With an anxious face he pulls sits down to his charts, he consults his chronometer, he takes the altitude of the sun, he heaves the log into the deep & so painfully determines from hour to hour the steadfast course he would keep through the sea. (JMN, Vol. III, June 25, 1828, pp. 132–33.)

[6] Lang, “Disillusions from Astronomy.” Grass of Parnassus: First and Last Rhymes. London: Longman’s, Green, and Co. 1892. p. 146.

[7] Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. Revised edition of The Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernle. 1922. Putnam: NY. p. 4.

[8] Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 54.

[9] Searle, “Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology.” Freedom and Neurobiology. pp. 48–49.

[10] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, IX, XII.

[11] Tolstoy, Sebastopol (1855), I.

[12] Tolstoy, A Confession (1880), III, VI.

[13] Emerson, JMN, Vol. V, October 8, 1837, Journal C, p. 391.

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.

Jun 17 2016

Count Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis on Writing


Starting with Count Tolstoy:

From the first lines you see the intention behind the writing, and all the details become superfluous—you feel bored. Above all, you know that the author never had any other feeling than the desire to write a story or a novel. [1]

Now compare Lewis:

When every one feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.[2]




[1] Tolstoy, Leo. Что такое искусство? Chto takoye iskusstvo?  (What is Art?) 1897. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. NY: Penguin. 1995 . XIV, 117.

[2] Lewis, Clive Staples. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford, UK: Clarendon. 1936. Second Edition. 1946.  232.


Jan 8 2016

5 Books by 4 Authors to be reviewed in 2016

bookbread pencil shavings

As a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1999, I acquired and have since retained a chip on my shoulder: that I will forever be an under-read individual. It’s silly how often I’ve imagined myself: as a Texan I’m less read than most Americans from other states; as an American I’m less literary compared to most Europeans. It’s all very neurotic—as if I could somehow read a bunch of books, “play catch up,” and become a better writer. Ha!

Made As and Bs in middle and high school, but when I got accepted to Longhorn Land––an acceptance probably based on socio-economic grounds, for I was neither in the top ten percent of my class nor an ethnic minority––I was soon stung by the realization of my lack of acquired mental rigor. ‘Twas only later that I learned that, although I was homeschooled for third and fourth grades, such a feeling of the absence of knowledge is a common part of being a product of the Texas public education system.

Though an arbitrary measurement (because page count varies wildly), these days I read about a hundred books a year (87 in 2015), take notes, and try to continually study them. But this chip on my shoulder––this thorn in my side––refuses to leave. Moreover, whenever I discuss something I’ve read, I tend to over-cite and elaborately quote it chapter and verse, and this, I suspect, seems to have given some of my writings a pseudo-medieval flavor which modern readers generally detest.

Nonetheless, 2016 is a new year for book blogging…. so Bookbread begins with some meditations on:

While it seems a little clumsy (if not quite naive) the way the young Count Tolstoy once said he wanted Truth to be the hero of his written sketches of Sebastopol (1855), today in 2016 I too aim for truth to be the leading character on this blog; although, the requirements for achieving that aim will be, in Dreher’s words, “hard, big, real, and dirty.” [1]

What kind of book is Dreher’s Little Way of Ruthie Leming? It’s a memorial biography of Dreher’s dying sister; a portrait of an ideal community (of the author’s home town) in the American South experienced from a Christian perspective. The book also functions as a requiem, a dirge on the life of the title character. As I told some family members after giving them copies of the book last Christmas, “it’s like Steel Magnolias (1989), but with spiritual grit.”

What kind of book is How Dante Can Save Your Life? In addition to being a sequel to the above work, this is a how-to book, a spiritual confessional, and a portrait of a flawed individual (as are we all), who is part of a normal, white, middleclass family living in a perceived (at least by the author) ideal, small community in the American South. Themes include fitting in (or not) and forgiving others (or not) in that small community. The book is also a work of reader-response criticism as the author describes how reading a particular book revolutionized both his outlook and insight on life. Both of Dreher’s books include bildung: spiritual journeys, coming-of-age narratives.

What kind of book is the Divine Comedy?

Each shade displayed no less astonishment
or less confusion than a mountaineer,
who, even as he stares about, falls silent
when, rough and rustic, he comes to the city

––Purgatorio XXVI, 67–69 [2]

I fear I have nothing meaningful to say about La Divina Comedia. Nonetheless: if the text is an Everest—I feel, now as a reader of Dante, like one of those perfectly preserved, frozen bodies splayed about Everest’s mountainside—although mine is the body of one who reached the summit before dying on the way back down. Plato affirms it’s more difficult to reenter the cave than initially exiting it, and why should mountain climbing for Beatrice in Dante be any easier than spelunking for Sophia in Plato? [3] But no doubt after a first reading of Dante I now feel as exasperated as the dying Ivan Ilyich:

It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death. [4]

What kind of book is Why Place Matters? This is an academic anthology that includes various essays on the concept of place and community in present-day America—it covers many perspectives and topics and (often conflicting) suggestions and solutions to an agreed upon premise: that the importance of Place has waned in modern American life.

 What kind of book is Elmer Gantry? It’s a novel set at the turn of the twentieth-century in the American Midwest; it too is a coming-of-age tale, but also a tale about a spiritually aloof Protestant, evangelical American minister. Elmer is a rambler, he never settles, not even in the fictitious Midwestern metropolis of Zenith. The Midwest is in fact emphasized throughout the novel as a place. The book also satirizes a good ole boy who chose Christian ministry as a career because he found it the best way to attain power, attention, and influence. Elmer is not so much a charlatan seeking material riches but a football player who wants to be Christ’s number one cheerleader.

Why did you read these books? I read these books initially because they had to do with topics I am experienced and interested in such as: small town life, the dynamics of modern Christian belief, Southern communities (and escape and exile from them)—but also because, even though I often disagree with his premises and conclusions, Dreher is a particularly a good writer, a deep thinker, someone who writes honestly—which is the most difficult thing a writer can achieve. I identify and empathize with him when he writes things like:

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest. [5]

The theme of being different versus fitting in was one of the central socio-psychological dilemmas C. S. Lewis faced in adult life. [6]


And throughout the upcoming explorations of these texts, I will try to keep the below maxims in mind as I ask the following questions:

Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [7]

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?

––William James [8]

We must avail ourselves of every means in our power to see the situation exactly as it is. What, in short, is the real strength of religion in the community? And here we have a right to look for assistance to the psychology of religion. As yet, indeed, but little has been done toward answering this question; but the task of feeling the pulse of the religious community and investigating the real nature and strength of its religious belief naturally belongs to religious psychology, and, though vast, is well worth its while.

––James Bissett Pratt [9]



[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p.  216; Tolstoy,  Sebastopol, last lines of Section II.

[2]Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Comedia. (The Divine Comedy.) Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Introduction by Eugenio Montale. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[3] Plato, Republic, VII 517C–519C.

[4] Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (1886.) Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. “Chapter 09.” But compare also another passage from this story:

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction. (“Chapter 12”)

[5] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 32.

[6] Lewis, Clive Stapes. “The Inner Ring.” They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: G. Bles. 1962. Lewis’ essay should be compared alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles,” for there is much overlap among them.

[7] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005.  pp. 105–06.

[8] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. “Lecture II,” p. 40.

[9] Pratt, The Psychology of Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 1. No. 4. (October 1908.) pp. 435–54 at 448–49.




Oct 13 2015

Intricacies of Bureaucracy & Images of the Body: Rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

bookbread Canterbury

Two passages particularly struck me when rereading Ilyich. The first has to do with the way healthcare workers tend to cross examine the bodies of patients, like lawyers cross-examining the mind of a witness or police interrogating a suspect. Amid an illness, particularly chronic illness, the patient is always on trial:

Ivan Ilyich knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilyich submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

It is almost as if Ivan Ilyich––a bureaucrat and son of a bureaucrat, see “Chapters 02 & 03”––suspects he may die by the bureaucratic ways and means of his doctor. Recently, I had my own health scare, and while everything turned out to be alright, there were nevertheless forms to fill out and receipts to file away. It is not just 21st century Obamacare or British healthcare or Canadian healthcare that piles on the paperwork—Tolstoy had the intuition, imagination, and foresight to see that healthcare and bureaucracy are intimately intertwined, and have been so since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

And after all the paperwork has been completed, the tests run, and the doctors have finished updating the diagnoses for their patients—after all these barriers of bureaucracy are crossed, the ill individual looks in the nearest mirror and does not recognize the stranger reflecting back:

And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

Intricacies of bureaucracy and images of the body—these are what moderns like us, like Tolstoy, and like those around us must deal with when confronted with a crisis of healthcare. But do we Westerners tend to focus more on the image of the body because of two millennia of Christian culture? The American philosopher James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) seemed to think so when he observed in an essay written thirty years after Tolstoy’s story:

I think, however, there are several additional factors which give Hinduism a certain advantage over Christianity in nourishing a strong belief in immortality. One of them is connected with the question of the imagination already discussed. The Hindu finds no difficulty whatever in imagining the next life, for his belief in reincarnation teaches him that it will be just this life over again, though possibly at a slightly different social level. I am inclined to think, moreover, that the Christian and the Hindu customs of disposing of the dead body may have something to do with this contrast in the strength of their beliefs. Is it not possible that the perpetual presence of the graves of our dead tends to make Christians implicitly identify the lost friend with his body, and hence fall into the objective, external form of imagination about death that so weakens belief in the continued life of the soul? [Bookbread’s emphasis] We do not teach this view to our children in words, but we often do indirectly and unintentionally by our acts. The body––which was the visible man – is put visibly into the grave and the child knows it is there; and at stated intervals we put flowers on the grave – an act which the child can hardly interpret otherwise than under the category of giving a present to the dead one. And so it comes about that while he is not at all sure just where Grandpa is, he is inclined to think that he is up in the cemetery. Much of our feeling and of our really practical and vital beliefs on this subject, as on most others, is of course derived from our childhood impressions.

(“Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 308.)

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. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/code-fetishists-and-normolaters.)

[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.