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.

All Men Desire To Know

so says Aristotle. At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle makes this statement. It’s a universal claim about human nature. I usually perk up at such claims, and my immediate reaction is “Is this true? Do all men desire to know?”

Note: in this context, ‘men’ means men and women, just like “man-eating tiger” means a tiger that eats both men and women. It’s how Ross translates the Greek.

Think of the people you know. Do they desire knowledge? How is it evident? It’s true that if you go up to someone and say “I have a secret,” they will want to know it. It’s true that we generally want to find things out. Aristotle uses our delight in vision as evidence for his universal claim. When you enter a room, you look around you. If other people look up, you look up.

But real knowledge is to know the causes of things. You know not merely that the sun comes up in the east, but why it comes up in the east. You know not merely that penicillin is good to cure a bacterial infection, but why it is the case. Knowing the causes is what wise people really have accomplished, according to Aristotle. This takes observation, study, and work. It’s hard! Mostly what we do is kill time.

Augustine categorizes curiosity as a vice. It’s the false version of the virtue of seeking to know. The merely curious are seeking novelty. They want to fill their eyes and ears with newness. It’s less knowledge-seeking and more itch-scratching. Think about all the time you spend on your phone, scrolling through social media. You aren’t usually trying to learn anything.

Aristotle makes the point in the beginning of the Metaphysics that it takes leisure to advance in wisdom. It took the Egyptians having double harvests from the Nile floods to be able to make advances in math and geometry. They needed free time or leisure. But all leisure isn’t the same. Sitting on the couch binging on a TV show isn’t leisure. It’s a step above being asleep. It might be a step below.

We all desire to know, but we don’t all do a great job of it. Try harder!

I did a terrible thing

I made a friend read Heidegger. We read What is Metaphysics for the Online Great Books podcast. I figured that Scott would hate it, and I was right. The discussion was good. Scott asked if this guy was being obscure on purpose, and I think that’s correct. But I wanted to explain here, briefly, why I love that 11 page essay. You can find it here.

Heidegger begins with the question about what metaphysics is, and rather than answer "The study of first principles," or "the study of being qua being," or "that which lies beyond the physics," he starts to ask the question about the questioner. What is metaphysics? As we would say here in Chicago, "Who wants to know?"

Dogs, as far as I know, do not do metaphysics. While I was working on some land, a neighbor dog came up to visit. Daisy only wanted affection. I don’t think for a moment she ever wondered about the being of the water in the bowl that I gave her. She was in the moment and content.

Humans, on the other hand, are the sorts of things that ask metaphysical questions. We don’t all do it, but some of us do. Heidegger doesn’t say "human"–he calls humans dasein, that which is there. This is probably intentional obscurity. Dasein is the being that is concerned about being. In other words, "Who wants to know?" Dasein wants to know. Dogs are not Dasein. The lecture gets very weird at this point, talking about the Nothing. Heidegger does this very often. He uses words in unusual ways that make it very inaccessible and jarring. This is certainly on purpose. He says somewhere that it is suicide for philosophy to be intelligible. Plato says a similar thing in the Seventh Letter. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and if you think you’ve got wisdom, you won’t be a philosopher. If you think you’ve got being all figured out, you don’t have it. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to make it intelligible.

The Nothing: humans have the possibility of considering beings as beings, which requires us to be able to see around the corners of beings. We have to be able to go beyond beings (into the "nothing") in order to think about beings. Daisy the Dog can’t do that, as far as we know. We can even think about "everything that exists", taken as a whole. How can one possibly do that unless in thought it is possible to reach out beyond everything that exists? Into the Nothing?

If you are still with me, you are doubtless waiting for the payoff. Here it is: the question "Who wants to know?" reveals to us that humans can go beyond everything that exists. We can even go beyond existence itself, at least in thought. One might say that humans are transcendent. Heidegger finds evidence for this in the attunement/mood of angst, which is fear of nothing in particular. We can have moments of uncanniness. Kierkegaard likens it to swimming on the top of a very deep lake and realizing how much abyss is beneath you. Sartre somewhere says that fear of heights isn’t so much fear of falling as fear of jumping. The nothing beckons! The abyss stares back!

Most of you are healthy, well-adjusted people, and probably don’t have these feelings very much. Edith Stein complains about angst in Heidegger, saying that it’s a feeling of a sick person. Healthy people feel a great security (I think the word is Sicherheit) in being. Of course, this is just as much a metaphysical attunement as angst, but that’s a topic for another post. But leave all that aside. Is it not that case that humans are weird, that we have the potential to think beyond the boundaries? That we can think beyond even being itself?

What do you do about it? Usually we look for grand frameworks of meaning. We join cults or political parties. Perhaps we go to church. Heidegger says somewhere else "only a god can save us now," in response to the evacuation of meaning in European culture. He may be right, but he’s also right that humans are the sorts of beings capable of seeking after gods. We probably need to do it, too.

Hashtag Glory

I wrote an article for Barbell Logic, reprinted here.

The science of lifting is not that hard. Lift heavy things, put them down, rest, lift more heavy things, and get stronger. For healthy people, it works every time it is tried.

If this is the case, why aren’t we all swole and strong? The goal of strength is good, and the means are well-known. There are no mysteries. Everyone should be able to do it. Why don’t they?

The catch is in the second part of my statement “it works every time it is tried.” One needs to try, to take steps beyond the theoretical, beyond buy-in, past motivation to action. Effort is not a solitary action, either. Physical change is less like a metamorphosis—a process that, once started, runs its course naturally—and more like the shaping of iron with hammer and anvil. Change happens steadily but only with repeated, consistent, and sufficiently disruptive wallops to your current physical self. Therein lies the problem.

The actual lifting requires effort, with which many people have great difficulty. Effort is often interpreted as pain. Efforting is hard. Trying is hard. If only people would do it! But coaches and lifters know that most people won’t.

“What can I do to get my spouse/friend/parent to lift?” is a question coaches hear all the time. The answer is usually, “Not much.” Voluntary hardship is still hard, and therefore usually not voluntary. The activity, if chosen, will be very good, but it’s difficult, and so not often chosen.

Most people won’t voluntarily do hard things. As we say at Online Great Books, “the noble things are difficult,” which is an ancient Greek motto. Most won’t do difficult things. But there is a clue in the word “noble.” The Greek word for “noble” also means “beautiful.”

Lifting heavy things is beautiful. It’s glorious!

As I write this, I am in my garage getting ready to squat. It’s not going to be a PR, and I’m not going to post it on social media. Nevertheless, it is going to be noble/beautiful/glorious. I’m a 50-year-old man, and rather than give in to the cruel entropy of age, I’m going to get under the barbell, stand it up, walk out, bend my knees and hips, and stand up again. Whatever else I do today, this will be a great deed.

Many lifters are “medicinal” lifters. They know that they ought to lift for health benefits, but they love it about as much as they love colonoscopies, which are necessary but awful. The problem with the medicinal approach is that it requires willpower to do it. Every workout is a chore, and you have to drag yourself out to do it. Should other things get in the way, you’ll skip.

On the other hand, if you are motivated by the greatness of the deed, by its nobility, its beauty, by the glory that lies hidden in the barbell, you can infuse your workouts with joy. It can be fun!

Voluntary hardship can be less hard.

Brett Mckay gave us an interesting talk at our BLOC conference this year. He argued that joy is more important than discipline. Olympic swimmers who get up early to log miles in the pool are not exercising willpower. They love swimming and are having fun because of that love. Can you learn to like weight training?

I suggest you try it.

The ancient Greeks used the word arete to refer to the excellence of a man or a horse, or indeed anything that could be wonderful. It’s often translated as “virtue,” but the English word limps. Odysseus shows his arete when he fights, but also when he schemes. Every time you lift, you are showing forth your excellence, even if you are not improving it.

I am an old lifter and am not setting PRs very often. Why, then, do I still lift? If I did it only as medicine, I think I would be very sad. I do it because every rep is an exercise of arete. It is also a noble and beautiful deed. This focus helps me to stay motivated even though the days of easy gains are long gone.

Proof of what I’m saying can be found in the instinct of many people to memorialize their lifts on social media. We know that we’ve done a great deed, and the instinct is to show other people. If it’s not on Instagram, did you even lift?

But even if others never see your lifts, you still see it. Take a moment to wonder at the great things your body is capable of. If it helps, think of what others can do. Would anyone else that you see today be able to handle the weights that you did? Probably not! Even if you are a rank beginner, you showed up at the gym. Most people don’t. I don’t mean for you to be arrogant or look down on others. I want you to look up to yourself.

Did you ever see a little grin on the face of an athlete after doing something remarkable? Jordan used to smile like a child. This should be you after every squat set.

One caution: we lifters like to talk about how horrible volume day is, about how we squatted 5×5, and it nearly killed us. This is fun, part of a game of “Top this,” but it’s not helpful to your friends and family who should also lift. Don’t talk about lifting as if it is painful. It’s not, really. There are occasional pains, but it’s not bone cancer. Stop talking about it as if it is. Instead, talk about how much fun you’re having. Tell your friends and family how neat it was to hit a PR. If you are past the days of PRs, say that it felt really good to put in your work today. It will help you, and it will help them.

Stop thinking of lifting as medicine. Start thinking of it as glorious fun.

Black-pilled? Do some work!

I don’t post much on the current crisis. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that saying it is usually not productive. See this podcast if you want to know why. So much preparatory work needs to be done before you can have a good conversation that it’s unlikely ever to happen. “You keep using the word ‘good’. What do you mean by it?”

In The Republic, the participants talk about what an ideal city would be like. Little noticed, however, is the end of the dialogue, when Socrates recounts a story of the afterlife. Souls are lined up to be reborn into new lives, and they choose according to the life they lived before. Agamemnon chooses to be an eagle and Ajax a lion. Thersites wants to come back as an ape. These are appropriate choices, but there is a better choice.

Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, gets his turn:

Now it chanced that Odysseus’ soul drew the last lot of all, and came to make its choice. Remembering its former sufferings, it rejected love of honor, and went around for a long time looking for the life of a private individual who did his own work, and with difficulty it found one lying off somewhere neglected by others. When it saw it, it said it would have done the same even if it had drawn the first-place lot, and chose it gladly.

He doesn’t choose a political life, but a quiet life of work, specifically as a cure for former sufferings. Maybe he’s right? Rather than getting more and more sad by things that I can’t control, I should do some work. I suspect that physical work is better for this purpose than mental or office work. If you have a fence to mend, you will care much less about what is happening in the capital city.

I like to think of the new incarnation of Odysseus. What would he be like? Silent, competent, and content, I think.