It is a doctrine of mainstream Christianity (by which I primarily mean the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) that there was a primordial tragedy which caused humans to be subject to sin, to tend to be ruled by passions rather than by reason, to choose the less good rather than the true good. It’s for this reason that God becomes man, so the story goes, to end the subjection to death and heal the human race.
It’s a good story, but it’s not scientific, right? It’s not something a self-respecting philosopher would say, either. Religious superstition!
Aristotle says in Politics that some men are by nature slaves, lacking practical wisdom (phronesis) by which they would be able to direct their own actions to the good. Controversy!
But surely this is true, isn’t it? Lots of us do not choose the good when we are confronted with the choice. Maybe none of us really choose the good consistently.
I went to a water park with my family. It was fun! But there were very many people who were having difficulty choosing the right amounts and types of food to eat. What is obesity but a defect of practical wisdom?
Chesterton said somewhere that original sin is the one doctrine of Christianity that can be proved by reading the newspaper.
If we were simply natural animals, you might conclude that there is a mismatch between us and our environment, such that we tend not to thrive. Something seems amiss!
My kid had a discussion in her school history class about the internment of Japanese Americans. This is a great opportunity to think about the rules for reading that I talked about in podcast episode 1. Is your goal to judge or to understand?
It would be very easy to judge FDR badly in this matter. In fact, FDR is one of my least favorite presidents. But it wouldn’t be fair to him to give a brief and shallow judgment in this. You weren’t there. Why did he make the decision? Is it irrational? This doesn’t mean that you have to like the decision, but you need, if you are honest, to try to understand the decision.
Imagine: It’s Dec 8, 1941–Japan has just attacked US territory. They have unknown capabilities, you don’t know where their fleet is, ships have been attacked, transmissions from the west coast have been intercepted, and you have to make a decision. Will there be further attacks? Is there any way to prevent them?
Apparently the Japanese had a plan to bombard San Francisco, which Yamamoto called off because they were running out of fuel.
Pretend you don’t know what you now know. Pretend you have to act. You can’t sit in a classroom and discuss it. You have to take action. If you act wrongly, you lose the west coast. There’s also a large population of Japanese on the west coast–could some of them be enemy agents?
Note that I am not defending the decision. I am trying to understand the decision. These are not the same thing. It doesn’t really matter if I defend the decision or not. I don’t have to act in the past, I have to act in the future. My understanding of the motives behind Executive Order 9066 doesn’t change the past. How could it? But it might change my actions in the future. This is the point of history, according to Thucydides.
I have been the part of many organizations in my life. Most of them had a brief flourishing and then a decline. The decline usually happens because somebody joins it and changes it.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this too. Everything was fine, everyone was happy, until someone wasn’t happy and demanded changes be made. The club needs to change the meeting times. It needs to read different things. It has to accept women or be entirely gluten-free. Politics are forbidden, but then become compulsory. You know the drill. After the change is made the group slowly fades away. Meetings quit being scheduled and nobody cares. The cool thing you found is gone.
Why does this have to happen? I think it’s either a personality quirk (VD calls them ‘gammas’) or a deeper underlying disease which has come to be called progressivism. I didn’t say “progress” (who could be opposed to genuine progress?) but “progressivism”, the theory that we must always be moving forward, onward, toward the glorious future, which is always better than where we are now. To fail to be progressive is to be a moral reprobate. “Don’t you want to make things better? Don’t you want to change the world?”
If you ask anyone to define what the end goal of progressivism is, you won’t get an answer. It’s not about the goal, it’s about the journey! Whatever state you are currently in, it can be improved, and there will be someone in your group who will take it upon himself or herself to improve it.
I was talking to my son about music yesterday, and about how simple the current music is. Even on the standards of pop music, it’s pretty simple. Compare today’s hits to Cole Porter, for example. Why did this happen? How did we go from Beethoven to this?
Son points out that Beethoven isn’t popular music. But Beethoven sold a lot of music, I say. There are bagatelles and themes and variations and sonatas and string quartets. These were purchased, and provided income for the composer. Who was buying it? Somebody, surely. There was an audience for this stuff.
There was an audience for highly intellectual music with complex structures and intricate development of themes. Who were these people? Where are they today?
There are other examples. Consider the language of Shakespeare: who was he writing for? Modern students, even smart ones, have difficulty figuring out what’s going on in his poetry. His plays were very popular during his lifetime, which means he had an audience that could appreciate him.
If you have a chance, watch His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The dialogue and the jokes come fast and furious, much faster than anything we have today.
If you are upset with the current state of the arts, you should realize that it may be the current state of the audience. If there were people who demanded better stuff, the artists would create it.
In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins with the question of what the good is. What is it that human beings aim at? What, in other words, is happiness? What is the meaning of life?
Surely it would be good, if there were such a thing, for us to know what it is. But we live in a secular age, in a time beyond superstition, and we know that there aren’t any such things. A twitter anon says that post-modernism means the failure of all meta-narratives. There’s no way anyone can believe in old things like Christianity or even the pagan virtues. Be whatever you want. Do whatever you want! Remake your body however you want! It doesn’t matter.
But how can we answer such objections? I like the approach Aristotle takes. He proposes that there must be a function, a proper activity, for man. The argument is interesting. Has an eye or a hand a function, and the human being none? It wouldn’t make sense for the parts to have functions but the whole not to have a function.
You go to the eye doctor and say that your eye doesn’t work well. You can’t see. How do we know that this is a problem? Maybe your eye isn’t sick at all! If we decide that the function of the eye is to serve as mere decoration for a face, then that’s the case, right? Who am I to say otherwise?
There are people who go to doctors to have perfectly healthy parts of the body amputated, because it feels wrong for them to have healthy limbs.
We presume that we know what an eye is for, and if it doesn’t doesn’t have 20/20 vision, we correct it until it does. How do we know that it needs correction? Correction implies the correct. Hidden in the background is the notion that humans ought to be able to see well. This “ought” is a hint to the telos or function or happiness of human beings.
Out with my lovely wife on the town yesterday. We mostly just walked through Walmart looking for dog toys, but call it a date. As is usually the case in American cities, very many people were obese or otherwise physically unable. I say this not to make fun, but to lament what need not be. Most people are sick. They are obese and generally weak. Maybe not everyone, but a high percentage.
We are body-soul creatures. I have a friend who works in neurology, a materialist, who insists that everything eventually comes down to biological processes. I who am not a materialist nevertheless agree with him. Everything does come down to biological processes. Gabriel Marcel says “I am my body!” The relationship between the spiritual and the material is not necessarily antagonistic. Leave that question to St. Paul and the philosophers, who speak of the flesh at war with the spirit. But follow me on this point: Your body is fundamentally a part of you. It might just be a another word for “you.”
If I kick your shin, I’m kicking you.
Mind and body may not be identical (I follow Aristotle and Aquinas on this), but even so, a hangover affects your ability to think.
Imagine being a habitual drunk. Every day, you are either hungover or intoxicated. How well would you function? Wouldn’t the alcohol hurt every part of your life? Would you make good decisions? Would you thrive? Could you be trusted in matters of importance? Assigned the management of others? Should you be able to vote? It would be madness.
Now consider that instead of an alcoholic you are merely unhealthy. You are carrying 40 or 50 or 100 extra pounds. You don’t move very well. Every day you are struggling to manage the physical world. How well would you function? Wouldn’t it hurt every part of your life? How would you make good decisions? Would you thrive? Could you be trusted in matters of importance? After all, your own body, that most intimate part of you, is unhealthy because of self-inflicted behavior. Unfaithful in the small things (your body and your self), would you be faithful in larger thing?
Consider that 75% of the population is sick. And yet we are a democracy.
How Barbells Save the World
Here’s where my plan helps. Take a moment and reflect. Get to the gym. Start moving. Start by sitting down and standing up from a chair. Get moving, and then move some more. Progressive resistance (weight training) is a wonderful way to do this, because it is cheap and effective, and you could even set up a place in your own garage for not too much money. Have someone teach you good form, then add weight. Keep doing it. Mind your eating! The food is designed to break your satiety signals. Don’t let it. Conquer!
Imagine the tax rate based on your powerlifting total.
Now, instead of 75% of the population being sick, 75% of the population is strong and vigorous. Perhaps now, democracy makes sense. They’ve conquered themselves, put themselves in order, are friends to themselves, as Socrates says. Now, and only now, is the electorate (jacked-ectorate? Swole-archy?) trustworthy in greater matters.
(In which I experiment with “Hemingway Mode”, which shuts off the backspace so that writers can quit worrying about editing and just emit text. I implemented it in VIM https://github.com/lgalke/vim-ernest. But I think the Freewrite fancy keyboard has it, as does Writemonkey and FocusWriter. )
iThis is Ernest mode on vim. It’s the Ernest Hemingway mode that disallows the backspace. All I can do is keep writing. No editig! Crap I mispelled that last word. Oh well.
Keep going! Keep writing! Keep generating content! That’s what we all need to do these days, especially if we are niche internet micro-celebrities. Keep the monter fed or die.
On the other hand, there’s a probl/em that is very common to creators. The internal critic. The vocie in your head that says “his is no good.” “Who do you think you are? This is no good. DHon’t press ‘publigsh’.” Being able to edit makes some of lus less likely to write.
Have you ever noticed yourself playing with fonts, margins, formatting? Do you pore over lists of the best pencils or notebooks? Doe you look for the perfect scritch of the pencl on the page? Buy one more gadget and you’ll write that novel!
That’s all a lie. The real problem is that you don’t want to twriet. AT leasvt you don’t want to write enough to make it happen. It might be that you are suffuring from ‘soloth’, the medieval vice of sadness in the face of the good, probably because of th e effort it would require. THe work that you need to do will be actual work, and therefore require much of you. IUt would beb etter, you secretly think, not ot do it at all. But rather than say that honestly, you futs around trying to make everything perfect before you start.
I am writing this post on Vim, my favorite text editor, which I fourd after much searching trying to find perfection. Even so, it’s pretty perfect. I am using something called the “Ernest” mode, which turns off all the beackspace and editing commands. You can onlny keep tyining. I think I like it. I have many errors, but I also have an essay.
Now aI can’t backspace, so if I make a mistake it is there . darn it. But I can keeep writing.