Topar’s Trials

(a science fiction story)

Topar slithered into his office. Worry creased his thorax. It had been many sectons since he had worried this much. Unpossible. I have done everything I can! If he didn’t succeed in this assignment, he wouldn’t be offered access to the community ovipositor until the next cycle.

"What’s wrong, Topar?" said Sogash. The other snesh used a sidewise gait to approach that meant concern/slight tinge of mockery in sneshite slang.

Coruscating annoyance, Topar said, "It’s these darned humans. They won’t breed, they won’t move much, they hardly even live. I’ve never had a xenopreservation project so difficult."

Sogash moderated his gait in empathy. "They look sickly, for sure. Are they eating?" He dilated his monocule to take a closer look. "You said they aren’t breeding! What’s that?"

"It looks like breeding, but it isn’t. Those aren’t even the appropriate organs, and they are sexually dimorphic, not trimporhic. They do eat, though. Look at that specimen over there. Three times nominal mass!"

"I’m sorry I mock-gaited you earlier." Sogash coiled around his friend. "Let’s go get shplitfaced. Everything will look better in the diurn."

Topar shrugged his dorsal fin and agreed. "Are you buying?"

"Sure, buddy."

I’m never doing that again. Topar hurt. Everything hurt, even the the parts below his hindbrain. They had their one nervous system, and sensations rarely bled over. But today! He opened his monucule and sensed red lights and chaos. Oh no!

He must have bumped into the control panel before hibernating away the affects of shplit. How long had it been? Never mind. The biome was damaged. The climate dial was shifted from tropical to sub-arctic, and there was an incursion from the neigboring biome. The draconics! This was a disaster. Different species generally didn’t get along. Humans may be extinct.

Togar made his way to the observatory using a rolling gait that meant oh shit oh shit oh shit in sneshite slang. There he got the shock of his life. The humans were thriving!

There were some problems. When the weather changed and the draconics arrived, some had died, especially among the biggest eaters, but after awhile the humans began to build shelters, carve weapons, and fight back against the draconics. As Togar watched, they were currently gathered in the center of a cluster of shelters listening to another human strum on a musicator and sing. He listened:

"Sing goddess, of the great Diocles, slayer of dragons, of his rage against his brother, which led so many great souls down to underbiome. . . "

Not to his taste, but it had rhythm.

There were smaller humans sitting at the feet of the musician. Have they been breeding? Togar checked the records. Population had dipped for a while, but now it was higher than before his shplit-binge.

The high threshi congratulated Togar for his great success. "Never before have we seen a xenopreservation of this quality. How did you do it?"

"I have to thank my friend Sogash. . . "

Nihilism Begone!

Do you ever feel like everything is old, tired, has been done? Have you attempted to come up with something creative, only to stop with the feeling that others have done it already, better than you could do it? Do you feel bored? Do you find yourself secretly wishing for the annihilation of all that exists?

is this you?

Aristotle says that all philosophy begins in wonder. You are suffering from a lack of wonder. You’ve had a wonder-ectomy. You are experiencing the strange phenomenon only found in humans: hatred of being. You’ve seen all that there is and it leaves you flat. Things that used to be good are no longer good. Nihilism is creeping up to you on cat paws. Beware!

Nietzsche writes of eternal recurrence, the idea that all things have been and will be again, as "the highest formula of a Yea-saying to life that can ever be attained." The nihilist says abolish everything, it is better that it not exist. The opposite of the nihilist (the vitalist?) rejoices even in the eternal recurrence. It is good that things have been, and it is good if they happen again. See The Gay Science 341. What if someone said to you:

This life, as thou livest it at present and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh. . . Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him: "Thou art a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!"

If you are really a non-nihilist, or I would say a man of faith, you would agree with Nietzsche in this passage. Yes, I know Nietzsche was not a man of faith, but nobody’s perfect. You would agree with Julian of Norwich, to whom it was revealed "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Even the bad stuff is for the good, if only you could see it.

Another approach is given by G.K. Chesterton. You may be bored with life. You may say that all has happened before, that everything is tired and exhausted of meaning, that the cosmos is just so much vulgar trash strewn across the void. You are looking at it the wrong way:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The more joy you can take in things even as they are, with all of their flaws, the closer you are to the divine.

Why I am an Existentialist

My podcast partner hates existentialism. We’ve read Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and it’s gone over like a lead Zeppelin. Not his thing. I get it. But it’s my thing, and I thought I’d write a few paragraphs explaining myself. This will be off the cuff, and I’m not going to take the time to look up references.

In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks whether God exists. It seems not.

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

There isn’t any room for the divine in the scientific worldview. We can always come up with an explanation in terms of prior causes. There’s no explanatory gap, says the objector. I’ve heard this argument from the likes of Dawkins, by the way. Nothing new is there under the sun.

But you might notice the objector rather quickly passing over the problem of the human will. Is it a cause? Is it a cause like the scientific causes? It seems quite different. Socrates says that the will always is ordered toward the good, but is it? I can know the good and choose the bad. I do it somewhat regularly, to my chagrin. There is a chink in the explanatory edifice of The Science. How is it that there is such a thing as spite? The existentialists at their best point out this chink. Kierkegaard points out at length how your ordinary successful life is in fact utter despair. Nietzsche (sort of an existentialist) shows how your conventional morality utterly fails without its support in the divine. Dostoyevsky shows the power of spite, how we can and do choose the evil simply because it’s evil.* Heidegger shows how the ordinary way of being is an inauthentic being-toward-death, doing what everyone else does.

My favorite is Gabriel Marcel. He points out the difference between primary reflection and secondary reflection. The first is the scientific way of breaking everything down into smaller parts, discovering all the causes, and completely destroying that which one studies. Secondary reflection is putting it back together and regarding with awe the mystery of the primary experience. For example, one can study the will and find prior causes for every action that you do, and then you can conclude, perhaps, that you are not actually free. Secondary reflection says "but didn’t I freely engage on that train of thought? How can I freely think about something and conclude that I am not free?"

Existentialism shows the cracks. Its focus on the self’s experience of itself is very helpful in showing how the modern world’s exclusive focus on material and efficient causes doesn’t explain enough. Yes, you could get this straight from Aristotle, but the reader needs to be the sort of being that can actually get Aristotle, and existentialism can help you see why there have to be final causes. Something is rotten in Denmark, and existentialism helps you catch the scent.

* I know that the classic definition of evil in metaphysics is a lack or privation of a good that ought to be there. Spite doesn’t quite map on to this. Maybe more on the problem of evil later.

Justice and Strength


"Justice is the will of the stronger." So said Thrasymachus in Republic. It’s a shocking claim that most readers reject, but is it false? Look around the world and see that everywhere the powerful do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must. In class I used to bring up the example of voting districts, which in Illinois wiggle like maggots into the heart of Cook county, with their tails in the collar counties. Why? So that the dominant party can win all elections, now and forever. It’s the will of the stronger!

Socrates makes an argument against Thrasymachus that takes nine books, but could be summarized thus: the nature of the soul is such that injustice makes the unjust man suffer, and that justice makes the just man happy. You can read it yourself, but it’s a pretty compelling argument. What other argument could you make? Perhaps that the unjust will be damned and the just will have eternal reward? Maybe.

Note what the argument against injustice requires: either 1) a soul that has a defined nature or 2) a God who will punish the wicked. Now consider that in our day we believe neither. There is no such thing as a human nature, we are told. Existence precedes essence, says Sartre. If you identify as a unicorn, by golly you are a unicorn. As for God and judgment, well, nobody believes that old stuff anymore.

What defense do we have against the will of the stronger? So when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, just know that it’s the way of the world. Thrasymachus triumphant!

Hephaestus Shrugs

"Dammit. This is the last straw. I quit!" Hephaestus mopped his brow and damped the forge. He pulled out a scrap left over from the Prometheus job and set it out to cool, not even bothering to quench it. "Who cares."

Hephaestus limped over to the three-legged bench he had cast from bronze, inlaid with gold and silver figures telling of the great deeds of the sons of Zeus, and sat. His leg still hurt, ever since he’d been thrown out of Olympus for the crime of being ugly. Days he had fallen. If the islanders hadn’t tended him, he, an immortal god, would have died. "Or at least been so hurt death would have been a blessing," Hephaestus muttered to himself.

Death. Maybe it was a blessing. At least mortals got to stop working, eventually. Sure, their shades flitted around in the underworld, but they don’t have to meet deadlines or deal with impatient gods. "Where’s my new winged sandals?" says Hermes. "Hephaestus, I need more thunderbolts! Get it done!" thunders Zeus.

None of those Olympians can make anything. Well, Hermes and Athena could if they wanted to, but why should they, when they can just subcontract it with the hunchbacked lame god of fire? "I’m done. They can forge their own damned thunderbolts!"

Hephaestus grabbed his cap and his cane and made for the exit, a portico of gold, ivory, and horn, that he’d made in his spare time. He was almost to the door when he remembered his tools, and turned back to fetch them.

"Oh Hephaestus, I need a favor!" A voice rang through the hall, high and clear. It was Hera. White-armed Hera, the bitch-goddess of marriage. No wonder Zeus kept roaming, thought Hephaestus.

"I’m retired," he grunted. "Find someone else!"

"But my dear child, there’s no-one else. No one can make things like you do. I just need some armor, a mere trifle, and a shield," purred Hera.

"Mother, why should I make it?"

"Why, because I love you, my dearest son."

"You threw me off of Olympus!" shouted Hephaestus.

"But you were lame. How could we keep you? You can’t blame us. We didn’t know of your great skills then." She came closer, her gown rustling. She smelled faintly of anise. "I would never throw you off the mountain now." Hera enveloped him in her beautiful arms.

Hephaestus sighed. "But you’d all be helpless without me. You can’t do anything!"

Hera squeezed him to her chest. "But you’d be ugly without us. You need us as much as we need you."

He looked around his workshop, at the fine works, the forge, the stocks of metals, the bin of gems, the half-finished products, the girl automatons who served him while he worked.

"If I do this, can I come up to the main hall?"

"Why yes, my dear!" murmured Hera.

Hephaestus’s heart burned in his chest. "Will," he stammered, "will Aphrodite be there?"

Hera smiled. "Of course!"

"Automatons! Fire up the forge! Back to work!"

The Rule

Scott and I did a podcast on the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a governing document for monasteries, and might seem an odd choice for a "Great Books" podcast. I think it’s important historically, if not for its literary merits, because monasteries civilized and educated Europe. But it’s also important because of the notion that you need a rule.

Think of a typical gig-worker’s day. Wake up, stumble downstairs, feed your caffeine addiction, screw around on the internet, learn what the daily outrage is, decide to do some work for one of your jobs, eat lunch, have more coffee, do some more gig work, check out instagram, gig work, eat, netflix, work until 2am, fall asleep, and repeat. Unstructured and ad-hoc. This is no way to live. Mishima complains in Sun and Steel about how he was a creature of the night before he discovered the rule of weightlifting. Perhaps you are similar? Living an unstructured bug life?

Try adopting a rule. You could borrow from Benedict if you like. The monks would pray seven times a day and in the middle of the night. The texts are mostly from the biblical prayers called psalms. This gives an immediate structure to the whole day. You know what you’re going to be doing at dawn and at midday and at evening, no matter what else is going on. You sleep at appointed hours, eat at appointed hours. Maybe you could do twice a day instead of seven times a day, but pick a structure and stick to it. You will thrive like a well-tended sheep or chicken.

You need structure! Go to bed, wake up, have specific things that you do at specific times. If you are secular, perhaps you wouldn’t read the psalms. On the other hand, so many of them are complaint psalms that I think they could be usefully prayed by atheists. If you don’t want to adopt a religious rule, fine, but adopt some rule. You’ll be happier.

(Consider what would happen to animals if we made them live on the random schedule many of us adopt!)

Content Creator or Thought Thinker?

When did thoughts become "content"?

I am a "content creator". I co-host two podcasts, write this blog, and contribute occasional pieces elsewhere. I produce an unending content stream. I am producing product for you to consume, right?

I also produce content every morning, but I flush it.

Calling it ‘content’, or sometimes ‘information’ (and thus ‘misinformation’) is to get wrong what it is that I do. I think, and then I communicate my thoughts to you. I am not a content-creator. I am a thinker.

Thinking is not easy. It’s harder than wrestling. One tries to see the patterns in the chaos, or tries to bring patterns into the chaos. Thinking as combat! I’m exhausted after I do it. To have such work reduced to ‘content’ is offensive to me, but more than that, it’s false. Thinking is the highest activity of the highest part of a human, as Aristotle says. It’s the best of our best! Thinking is much too glorious to be reduced to a content-stream.

Consider replacing the word ‘content’ or ‘information’ with ‘thought’ or ‘thinking’ whenever you see it. You’ll notice that streams of something can be rightfully restricted, as my morning content stream is directed into the sewer. But what about thoughts? "Misinformation" becomes "mis-thinking". Does it make you think twice about restricting it?

To paraphrase Nietzsche: I don’t want you to consume content, I want you to think!

Planting for the future


My friend Scott has a blog. It’s worth reading. I read this post, and it was quite productive of thought. I’ll wait while you go read it. Ok, you’re back. I’ve been thinking about long-term planning. I have eleven trees on order that I will plant in the spring, and it is possible that I never eat the fruit. Trees take a while to be productive, and tomorrow is promised to none of us. The tree catalog claims that if I buy their trees, I may be planting fruit trees for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I like that thought.

We’re used to short term planning. Most of us only think a few months ahead. Try stretching out your timeline. If you have a little property, plant things that you can eat. Maybe you won’t eat from it, but someone will, someday.

Do this in other areas of your life as well. I coach people for a living at Barbell Logic, and clients sometimes get impatient or frustrated. Change doesn’t happen as quickly as we would like. I say, "Imagine what you’ll be like if you train consistently for the next five years!" Think even further. If you’re forty years old now, what will you be like at fifty? Sixty? If you make it that far, wouldn’t you like to have trained? Wouldn’t you like to have planted the trees?

I also work for Online Great Books. We help our members read through Adler’s list of the Great Books, with a few additions. The whole program takes years to finish. We’re not really sure exactly how long. Again, imagine what you’ll be like in five, ten, or twenty years if you read with us, and how different you’d be if you didn’t. Plant some trees in your mind!

Well-drilling and Angels

I got to watch a crew dig a well recently. I had never seen it done before, and I stood off to the side and watched them work. Four men acted as one, with very few words. They all knew what to do without having to communicate.

There were little techniques, too. The man running the drill wouldn’t look you in the eye when he spoke to you, because he only had eyes for the drill when it was running. He would listen, too, and would know what was deep beneath the earth by the sound that the drill made. Another man would use his shovel to catch the debris thrown up out of the shaft and would inspect them. Occasionally he would smell them. I myself noticed that when they got close to water, the odor changed to the scent of caverns. When the water came, they would taste it. The boss would stand estimating the flow rate. Would this be the a productive well or not?

There was beauty in the activity. Scott and I, along with Thomas Mirus read a book by Jacques Maritain about art. Every productive human activity counts as an art, although it’s not all fine art. As an art, it has a habitus, a way of being that makes the artist/crafstman "connatural" with the activity. You start to know what’s to be done without really thinking about it. Rather, the thinking is so much a part of you that you might not even be sure you’re doing it.

"Why did you do that thing?" "What thing? Um, I’m not really sure. Let me think about it." After a little while the craftsman will like give you a good, rational reason for the ‘thing’ that he did. It’s rational but has become so accustomed that it’s more like an intuition or gift from the gods.

St. Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that the higher levels of the lower levels of being approach the lower levels of the higher levels of being. In other words, the best of animals approach the lower levels of human activity. A good dog can almost seem human. This holds true for us as well. The best and highest of human activity approaches the activity of those above us. We used to call them angels. If that’s a bridge too far for you, just imagine aliens or demigods, or suppose "what if there were such things?" You can approach the angelic.

The way to do this is to get really good at something. The better you get at it, the more your reason becomes intellect. By that, I mean that you go from having to think slowly and discursively through premises and conclusions to the stage of grasping the whole truth in one simple intellectual act. If there is a God, this is how He knows, in one eternal intellectual act.

This is why I watch people who are good at their crafts. It’s like spying on higher beings.