About heroes

A continuation of our tour through Homer.

So who are these heroes? The rage itself (not Achilles) sets many pains to the Achaeans, and thrusts down strong souls to Hades, of heroes. What is a hero? Let’s take a look at the lexicon. “Hero” is given as a translation, but what is that? There is an intriguing reference to Hesiod, to the “Fourth age of men” between δαίμονες and ἄνθρωποι. The heroes aren’t the same as you and me. Hesiod says that they are demigods, that fought before Thebes, that died at Troy. “But they received, apart from other humans, a life and a place to live from Zeus the son of Kronos, who translated them to the edges of the earth, far away from the imortal gods. And Kronos is king over them.” Hesiod Works and Days

The poet Hesiod laments that he is born too late, that his is not the time of heroes:

If only I did not have to be in the company of the Fifth Generation of men, and if only I had died before it [= the Fifth Generation] or been born after it, since now is the time of the Iron Generation. What will now happen is that men will not even have a day or night free from toil and suffering.

Heroes are greater men than we are. Perhaps they love more, feel more, suffer more? They certainly seem more real to me in Homer’s works. When you sit down to read the story or listen to it, you are entering a god-haunted time where the stories are not about mere men, about common mortals. These are giants and kin to the gods. These are Heroes.

Let’s read the Iliad

I have a little Greek. Not very much, enough to know the letters, some grammar, some vocabulary. I can poke my way through the text and figure out what it means, generally. It seems to me a shame, however, that I have not read my favorite author in his original words. I’m going to rectify this. Would you like to read along?

If so, you can get the Greek text at the Perseus Project. Here’s the first line:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

It starts with a command to the goddess. Sing! (ἄειδε) It’s an imperative. Sing what? The wrath of Achilles. But Achilles isn’t seen until the last word of the first line. Literally (with a weird word order)

Wrath sing! Goddess Peleus’s Achilles’

Wrath and Achilles contain the whole singing, the whole epic, between them.

Let’s dig into the word μῆνις/wrath for a bit. The LSJ (Liddell Scott James) lexicon says it means the wrath of the gods. This is an interesting twist. Achilles isn’t just angry or wrathful, he’s angry with the specific wrath of gods. See Iliad 5:34 where Athena says to Ares “Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses. We’ll stay clear and escape the Father’s rage.” (Διὸς δ’ ἀλεώμεθα μῆνιν;) (Fagles trans.) It’s the same word, but is used there to refer specifically to the anger of Zeus. Achilles is godlike in his wrath.

Right in the first line we are given hints that Achilles is not just an angry petulant soldier. His mania/wrath is different. As Ajax will say to him later, anyone else would take Agamemmnon’s money and let bygones be bygones, but not Achilles. I don’t think you’re reading this book right if you don’t realize this.

What makes it different? The fact that Achilles is half-divine, that he can taste an immortality that he can’t actually share. Doomed to die but knowing immortality. It makes it different. It’s harder for the human to die than it is for the antelope. We, being on the border of eternity, know what we’re losing.

Shall we keep going? At this rate I’ll be done in about fifty years.

My Strength Hobby: an Update

Have you ever taken up a new hobby? All of a sudden it’s all you care about. Homesteading, motorcycles, learning sign language? You watch a few episodes of the British Baking Show and now you want to bake all day?

I remember a time when I thought Scorpions were a really good rock band. I still like them, but I don’t think they are the band for our times. Enthusiasms fade. Churches know this: the new convert is very eager to do everything perfectly; the old members nod and smile.

About 12 years ago I became very enthusiastic about barbell training. I started lifting to try to cure back spasms. It worked wonderfully! In fact I don’t recall having back spasms at all since my first day of deadlifting. Your mileage may vary. I learned about the squat, bench press, press, and deadlift and pursued them with nearly religious zeal. I bought books, attended seminars, got a certification, went to conferences, started coaching, and made it a career.

This was no ordinary enthusiasm.

How is it going, after twelve years? I can tell you that my zeal has not faded very much. Unlike Scorpions, the value, the concrete goodness of strength training is still there, and it’s still good for you. If you give me a moment, I’ll tell you that you should deadlift. I’ll explain how it makes your life better. I’ll ask you to imagine being twice as strong as you are today. "How would that change your life?" If I’m in an apocalyptic mood I’ll go on about how physical strength will be much more useful to you if SHTF than a high VO2 max. Nothing has changed.

For me personally, it has changed a bit, but just because I have gotten older. We’ve had a stressful year with many changes here at Schudt Manor, and it’s hurt my training. My strength levels are down. But I still train, and I still try to get PRs. I just don’t get them very often. I’m 51 years old and very strong for my age, but unlikely really to get much stronger. I’m ok with that. I’m still almost certainly stronger than you, dear reader, and I know that you need to add strength training to your life.

I am a barbell coach, and I still love my job. You can find me at Barbell Logic if you want to get coaching. We give you 24 hour feedback on all of your lifting, intelligent programming, and nutrition coaching if you want it. It’s a very good service and I’m proud to be associated with it. You’ll get stronger!

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Not Doing What You Want

Schopenhauer is lots of fun. Why did nobody tell me this?

He says the following about free will:

every one believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means that he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were play the part he has undertaken to the end.

The idea is that the Will is eternal, unchangeable, noumenal, and that the will-in-time is only will as perceive. If you look back at your history, all of the decisions you make will look like they were made of necessity, the necessity of one’s own character. Try as you might, you can’t change it.

I don’t think Schopenhauer is right-or, at least, I have some doubts. As Duns Scotus said, those who doubt that there is contingency in the universe should have fire applied to their feet until they admit the possibility that the fire could be removed.

But even if he’s wrong, he’s right. Most of your decisions will appear to you on reflection as coming from necessity. It will be like a river running downstream, that can’t ever run upstream. This seems phenomenally true. It’s what it feels like, when you find yourself doing the same old things again and again.

Is there such a thing as free will? I think so, and I think it can be experienced in the moments when you step out of necessity, which will be experienced as pain or discomfort. You aren’t free when you merely do what you want. Pigs do as much. They always do exactly what they want and yet are not free. To be free, one must do what one doesn’t want.

That time you didn’t take the job you really wanted because you had to take care of your family–that is freedom. The time you chose not to respond in anger even when the jerk had it coming: Freedom. Even the time you went to the gym when you didn’t want to–this is a habitual exercise of freedom.

Schopenhauer would probably accuse me of mixing the noumenal pure free will and the phenomenal, and he may be correct, but I only used his quote to bring up my own thought, which is that freedom is experienced primarily in the domain of the ethical and is experienced not as freedom, but as restriction. This is paradoxical but still true. The pig experiences no restrictions because he is not free. He cannot grasp the Good and model his actions to it instead of to his desires. But you can. You can realize that you shouldn’t do the thing that you really want to do, and sometimes you actually succeed in not doing it. That’s freedom.

Good, Better, Best

Have you ever given something up?

I had to chaperone a church trip earlier this summer, and as a result I couldn’t drink any beer for nine days. When I got home, my daughter said to me, "Why don’t you just not?" I thought about it for a while and said, "Sure." I haven’t had any beer since June. I had a little tequila when a friend visited from Mexico, but other than that I haven’t had any. I’m not opposed to it, I don’t care if you do it, I still love Vesper martinis, and might have one in the future, but for now, I’m refraining.

It’s part of a general simplification of life. I’ve been having monkish urges. Asceticism seems very attractive to me now. Get rid of stuff! Stop doing things! This is what I want. I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to watch sports. I have no interest in movies. Perhaps you feel the same thing? If so, I’d like to dig into that feeling a bit more. I want to make room for better stuff. But what does that mean?

Indulge me for a moment: Thomas Aquinas famously has five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae. My favorite is the fourth way. Here is an excerpt.

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; . . .

Never mind if there is a God or not. For me what is fascinating about this proof is the premise that there are things more or less good. There is an order in the universe. This is a fact of experience, isn’t it? But things can’t be more or less good unless there’s such a thing as the good. Take the notion of "progress": the concept is nonsense unless there’s something towards which we progress. Aquinas takes it to the ultimate conclusion that there must be a God. Leave that aside for now. But if you have the feeling that some things in your life need to go, that you need to make time for better things, realize what this implies: you also believe in the axiological nature of the universe. Some things are better than other things.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be good to figure out what are the best things? What are you getting rid of things for?

(You can join us at Online Great Books and think about this stuff with us.)

Melons and Music

I have a son who loves music. He plays piano all day and can pick out melodies by ear, which is a rare skill. I’m proud of him. But he listens to very simple music, mostly video game themes or piano music geared for the pop music ear. While I’m happy to hear him play, the monotony of the music bugs me.

I say “monotony” not in the literal sense of the sameness of tone, since the music he plays does have movement in the melody. It isn’t monotonous, but it does have the other definition: “tedious sameness.” Usually there is one idea which is then repeated without much alteration through the entire song. Sometimes it is a good idea, a catchy bit of melody, which is then beaten to death for the next four minutes.

I don’t want to snuff the candle-flame of his love for music, but I keep waiting for him to fall in love with Beethoven. Take my favorite symphony, No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony. Go dig up a streaming version and listen. I’ll wait.

Note the first four notes: A Bb D C. Listen to how it is repeated in the beginning, then mutated, moved around the scale, given to different instruments, rhythmically changed, but always recognizably the same theme. John N. Burk describes it thus:

There is no labored development, but a drone-like repetition of fragments from the themes, a sort of murmuring monotony, in which the composer charms the ear with a continous, subtle alteration of tonality, color, position. One is reminded (here and in the slow movement) of the phenomena of floral growth, where simplicity and charm of surface conceal infinite variety and organic intricacy.

I think that’s a good metaphor, the bit about floral growth. I have a plot of watermelons growing right now, and the vines and flowers have scattered over the earth in a pleasing variety, but it’s all recognizably watermelon. The symphony is the same. It’s all the opening theme, but growing out wherever the sun and water lead it.

The modern popular music would not be floral. If it is to compared to any agricultural product, it would be the factory chicken farm, where the birds are debeaked and kept confined, so that they may only develop in a narrow band of possibility.

Unfortunately, listening to and enjoying the 6th Symphony requires a little bit of musical discernment (the ability to follow a theme), time to listen, quiet, and patience, all things which are in short supply. You can certainly listen and enjoy, but it may seem as merely pleasant background music until you open yourself up to let Beethoven lead you on his journey.

The upside is that the music is much better. It isn’t that what my son listens to is bad. It’s not. It’s just not as good as what you’re capable of. The peak of European concert music is one of the great accomplishments of the human race. Pyramids, aqueducts, the Great Wall of China, geometry, and European concert music.

Try to dig into it. There are treasures.

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.