As some of you know I have taken a hiatus from public writing since the death of my son 10 months ago. I have made several attempts to get back to writing about books and literature and have not quite been able to do it – though I have continued to write privately and have written quite a bit on my blog about losing Jesse; but writing about anything other than Jesse and seeking eternal truth has been difficult. This week I was contacted by an author who asked me to write a book review of a new biography about Claude Shannon, a 20th century genius and, apparently, father of information theory. I love biographies and know very little about Claude Shannon, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get back on the writing wagon. I agreed to do it.
As for books in general, since Jesse died my reading life has fallen into two categories: accounts of near death experiences and novels by PG Wodehouse, author of a zillion humorous books, not one of which I had read before Jesse died. As of today I have read a dozen of them and plan to keep going until I’ve read them all. I find PG Wodehouse gives me breathing space — temporarily transports me out of the heaviness of grief and into a lighter space where rich British people say clever things and constantly get themselves into outrageously awkward situations. PG Wodehouse has been very therapeutic. Also his books improve your vocabulary and raise your awareness of language usage.
So, now that my awareness of language usage is raised, I need to get something off my chest before embarking on the next phase of writing career — an irritating issue that has been simmering under my skin since I first entered the software development world as a technical writer fifteen years ago. The issue is this: the widespread use of the word “populate” to describe the practice of entering data into a software interface, as in “Now we need to populate the fields” — meaning we need to type or import information such as names, addresses, and numbers into a form on the computer screen. Sometimes this word even appears in a technical manual. Never in my technical manuals, mind you, but in some. And no one ever bats an eye at this outrage!
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word populate as a verb comes from Medieval Latin and means “inhabit, to people.” The word populus was used in the Roman Empire and meant “a people, tribe, or nation” and referred to the multitude of citizens in classes lower than the Roman Senate. So, it seems, somewhere along the line some computer geek decided to take a 2000-year old word that specifically refers to human beings and appropriate it willy-nilly to mean bits of data on a computer screen. Unless you mean you are relocating people into your computer screen, I find this to be an insensitive insult to human language. As if computers have not already dehumanized us enough. At least leave words that mean human beings out of it and stop turning people into numbers.
But I do not want to register a complaint without offering a solution. I don’t want to leave my colleagues in the computer industry hanging. I understand they desperately need a one-word verb to replace the grossly inaccurate populate. To that end I have done some hard thinking on the matter: let’s see….you want a word that means putting something into a previously empty space. What you are putting into the empty space is a bit of data. Transitive verbs such as load or insert or type demand to be combined with a direct object; also they don’t cover both manual and automated input. Hmmm.
I propose datize. As far as I can tell this word does not so far exist, but words are coined every day, especially when dealing with an industry that did not exist a century ago. Datize it is both shorter and more accurate than populate. I think it could catch on. Also it has the advantage of not cannibalizing the soul of humanity.
P.S.: Recently I attended a certain training session in which I heard the shocking statement “Leadership is a verb.” No. Sorry. Leadership is a noun, has always been a noun, and will always be a noun. Is nothing sacred?
In the age of instant communication and sophisticated entertainment we have forgotten or have never known that there was once a time when conversation and telling stories around the hearth were the primary sources of news and entertainment. There was also reading or course, but only for those lucky enough to be literate and to be able to afford books. The Princess and Curdie takes place in such a time and among people who relied heavily on stories and word of mouth for information about the world. The book, written by George MacDonald, was first published in 1883, a sequel to his best known children’s book The Princess and the Goblin.
In the mountain town where Curdie lives with his parents, there have been rumors circulating for generations, in the mines and in the cottages, about a witch known as Old Mother Wotherwop. The witch has been seen by many, and although she is usually an ancient crone, it is said she can appear in various shapes such a beautiful young woman or an angel. Some say she is a healer but most say she is bad news, a trouble-maker. In truth she is one the princess called her great-great-grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin. In The Princess and Curdie this person becomes more of a Christ figure.
There is a scene in The Princess and the Goblin in which the princess, Irene, takes Curdie to the castle tower meet her great-great-grandmother and since he cannot see her he hurts Irene’s feelings by saying great-great-grandmother must be imaginary. In that novel Curdie appeared as a brave clever 12-year-old miner boy who makes up songs and helps Irene to purge the mountains of hive of evil goblins who have been plotting trouble there for many years.
In the sequel, a year has passed and Curdie has become a bit duller and lazier. The change is subtle but he is definitely beginning to backslide. He has become less attentive to his parents, less aware of the beauty in nature, and he no longer sings his original songs. He does miss Irene who has moved to a new location with her father, the king. One day, on his way home from working in the mines, Curdie sees a white pigeon and thoughtlessly shoots it with an arrow. As he picks up the bird, still struggling for life, he remembers that Irene said her great-great-grandmother had a white pigeon and wonders in horror if this the same bird.
Filled with remorse, he runs with the dying pigeon to the castle, empty now except for a few servants, and after arguing with the housekeeper, makes his way to the tower, hoping the find the old woman. He does find her this time and she heals the bird and also forgives him for his thoughtless act. In fact she says she is glad he shot the pigeon because it caused him to seek her. The lady asks him to meet her the next day and when he does she gives him a mysterious mission.
Only after he proceeds west as instructed does Curdie discover that his mission is once again to rescue Princess Irene and her father the King. They have fallen into hard times and are in great danger. To help him on his mission the lady gives Curdie two gifts: a hideously ugly dog-like beast named Lina to help him on the journey and a special power.
Curdie’s special power is the thing I liked most about this book. He is able to discern the true nature of a person or creature by holding their hand or paw. For example Lina’s paw feels to him like the hand of a child while the hand of an evil man feels like a bird of prey. The philosophy behind this gift, which I think corresponds to spiritual gift of discernment in 1 Corinthians 12, is an idea I find especially fascinating.
I have encountered similar ideas in the works of Victor Hugo and C.S. Lewis. The idea is that animals correspond with certain aspects of human souls. We know our literature has often made metaphorical use of animals, but this idea is more than that: humans are either descending towards beasthood or moving toward the full expression of humanity which is the image of God that our creator intended. MacDonald takes the notion even further: animals also are moving to higher or lower levels. You cannot tell merely by looking at either human or beast in which direction they are moving. Lina is an ugly beast but her soul is moving in the direction of humanity.
As the lady explains it to Curdie:
‘Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them. But there are not a few who feel a vague something repulsive in the hand of a man who is growing a beast.
‘Now here is what the rose-fire has done for you: it has made your hands so knowing and wise, it has brought your real hands so near the outside of your flesh gloves, that you will henceforth be able to know at once the hand of a man who is growing into a beast; nay, more—you will at once feel the foot of the beast he is growing, just as if there were no glove made like a man’s hand between you and it.’
This gift comes in handy when Curdie finds that the town and castle where the king has relocated is crawling with plotters and deceivers. Knowing who to trust becomes key to saving the king and his kingdom. Since this is a fairy tale we would expect that the hero and heroine live happily ever after. Do they? Well I cannot tell you that without spoiling the story. I will hint that it is not exactly what you might expect. I’ve read several reviewers who are really annoyed by the ending. I am not. The ending is about as happy as it can be in a world populated flawed human beings, also known as sinners. The Princess and Curdie is a Christian fairy tale, sort of an oxymoron in the sense of “true fiction.” Because if a fairy tale is Christian it can’t tell lies. But I cannot tell you more without spoiling the story.
I recommend this book highly to all who love fairy tales, adventure stories, Victorian literature, and philosophical fiction. My only criticism is I think the title should be Curdie and the Princess because it is much more about Curdie than the princess. And that’s really my only criticism.
I have been having a little difficulty getting back to my book discussions after the sudden death of my son five weeks ago. I have continued reading, probably more and faster than before, but my focus has changed dramatically. I began the summer with a mission to read and study as many books of philosophy as I could, especially political philosophy. I will probably get back to The Wealth of Nations one of these days, but at the moment I do not much care about political philosophy.
My current thought on political philosophy boils down to this: The political and financial power systems of this world are so riddled with corruption that they are cracking at the seams and will soon collapse under the pressure of their own disease. Maybe the systems will hold together for another century or so. Maybe not that long. For the sake of all the innocents and semi-innocents who will suffer when the world system finally crumbles, I hope it holds out for as long as possible. I see the Hillary Clinton campaign as a metaphor for the world system: very sick but desperately being propped up by all the power and money the world can supply. If you are of another political opinion, I don’t mean to offend. You are welcome to think of a metaphor for the world system using the Donald Trump campaign. The disease in the system goes far beyond a couple of piddly American political parties but they are both displaying some serious symptoms.
My focus is now on that other world, the one where my son is not dead, the eternal reality where I and the rest of us will also be long before the century has passed. So the books I am reading are books that focus on that world. I want to read about the things that will survive: love, peace, service to others, sources of real joy, and the sustainer of all that is true, God. I have been writing a lot on my blog about Jesse, his life and the loss of his life on earth and it’s impact: the aftermath, the memories, and sources of comfort.
Once I begin writing about books again – and I feel like it will be soon – I will write about The Princess and Curdie and other writings of George MacDonald, as well as some of the many other books that have been giving me spiritual support. Books have always been a source of spiritual support for me, but now more than ever.
There is something very sad I need to tell you before I continue with my book reviews and discussions. My last post (on Hobbes’ Leviathan) was published August 8th. That Monday morning I just had to do some finishing touches on the post before clicking Publish. A little while later my life as I knew it came to a sudden and devastating halt. I found out that my 23-year old son Jesse had died in his sleep.
My worst nightmare has happened and I am still in deepest grief and shock. I expect I will be for a long time. If you have ever heard that grief comes in waves I can confirm it is true, in my case seismic waves with the power to knock me to the ground. The foundation of my life has crumbled and the shape of my life is shifting. I have no idea what it will look like a few months from now. I only know it will never be the same as before.
The day after it happened, a few hours after meeting with the funeral director, I wrote my son’s obituary. I couldn’t bear the thought of a stranger writing it. After that I thought I would never write anything again. But within a few days I was writing. I guess as long as a writer breaths, a writer writes. This is a book blog and will remain so. But whatever I write and whatever I do, I expect it will be affected by the loss of my son. My perspective on the way I see life and its purpose has already shifted and I think this is only the beginning. I knew I would need to write a lot about Jesse so I started another site to journal about him and the experience of going through his death and it’s aftermath. In case you want to follow along with that, you can find the site here.
On this blog I will continue writing about my favorite thing: books. I just couldn’t jump back into the routine without acknowledging and being honest about the death of my son. The next book I will be writing about is a 19th-century children’s book called The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. I began the book before Jesse died and finished it after.
I chose The Princess and Curdie because I had recently felt a sudden strong urge to read George MacDonald, which is strange on several levels. First because MacDonald’s writings introduced me into a new deeper understanding of the teachings of Christ…..almost as if I was being prepared for something. Why did I suddenly feel the urgency to read the stories and sermons of George MacDonald this summer? Second, as I began The Princess and Curdie I thought a lot about my son as a small child – how he used to love an animated version of MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. I bought him the video because I had so loved that book as a child. My reading life has always been a spiritual journey for me and this confirms my belief that God and his angels have always been guiding me on my reading path.
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil was one of my more difficult reading experiences, but well worth the effort. The text is not hard to understand; although dense, Hobbes’ writing is smooth as silk and interlaced with a subtle dry wit. I found the 17th century English to be an unexpected delight. For me the drollness of it is perfect for understated humor.
The difficult part is that I am highly resistant to the case Hobbes is making: the case for a highly authoritarian form of government, preferably a hereditary monarchy. I have always hated the idea of authoritarian government let alone monarchy and after reading Leviathan I still don’t care for it. However I must admit I can see where Hobbes is coming from. This book demonstrated to me that, with intelligence, reasoning skills, and a dash of dry humor, you can make a strong case for pretty much anything.
Leviathan is considered by scholars to be the foundational work of modern political theory. Published in 1651, it was innovative, original, and it laid groundwork for the social science of politics and the framing of concepts such as “social contract”. Hobbes employs persuasive reason to explore the source and limits of state authority. It breaks down barriers of thought, punctures assumptions, and most of all dares to challenge the authority of the church. Yes, the authority of the church was challenged before Hobbes – e.g. Henry VIII, Martin Luther, and most, relevantly, Oliver Cromwell. But Hobbes goes further and explains point by point why the church does not have authority at all in this world and how it has misinterpreted scripture to its own advantage.
Hobbes was apparently a peace-loving soul and a gifted scholar. He was born in 1588 I’m Malmesbury, right about the time England was having the conflict with the Spanish Armada. There is a story is that he was born prematurely because his mother (whose name nobody knows) took fright when she heard about the approaching Armada. When he was very young, his clergyman father was disgraced by a fight with another vicar and was forced to leave the family. Thomas and his brother and sister ended up being raised by an unmarried uncle.
Not much more is known about his childhood except that he received an excellent education and showed early signed of being a promising scholar. His first post-college jog was as a tutor for the son of a wealthy family named Cavindish. This family became his sponsor and protector throughout his life – and as his life included some violent political times, that protection may have preserved his life. He worked as a tutor off and on throughout his long life, even for a short time tutoring the Prince of Wales, a gig that seems to have benefitted him in his old age when the Prince of Wales became King Charles II. In middle age he lived through the English Civil War in which Charles I was dethroned by the Oliver Cromwell party. Hobbes heard about the king’s beheading from an eye witness and was much upset by that event as well as the civil unrest and crazed violence of the period.
I have read differing accounts of how the English Civil War may or may not have inspired Hobbes to write Leviathan. From what I can discern he had already thought out much of his political theory years before the war broke out, writing several treatises on aspects of it, but perhaps the war, the loss of a good friend in the violence, and the beheading of the king intensified his efforts to get the book into print. The book, published in 1651, caused quite an uproar and offended pretty much all parties. That in itself is an indicator of a must-read!
You’d think at least the Royalists would love the book since it is an unapologetic defense of a powerful monarchy. But no. Apparently some of them wanted to kill the author. Some of the Royalists were Catholic and the book absolutely skewers the Catholic Church. Others were Anglican and the book is not flattering to them either. Also, despite his apparent support for monarchy, in an underhanded way Hobbes makes the point that the sovereign reigns only at the consent of the people and has certain obligations under the social contract. This was a big departure from the idea that the king’s authority comes straight from God – an idea known at the divine right of kings.
The idea of a social contract between the sovereign and the subjects had been around long before Hobbes, but he redefined it and presented a radical new theory about how it works in mechanistic terms and why it is necessary to the wellbeing of humanity. Hobbes calls the Government or state led by a sovereign a leviathan, a concept he got from the Book of Job, Chapter 41. He calls the leviathan state “an artificial man” with an artificial body, the sovereign being the head, that serves to protect humans from a much more horrible alternative: living in the state of nature. In explaining his idea of the state of nature, Hobbes writes the passage he is most famous for:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
You just can’t write a review of Leviathan without quoting that. Hobbes goes on for quite some time in this section explaining how in a state of nature humans live in a constant state of war or fear of war. Nothing is illegal and therefore life is a big free-for-all of taking and killing to benefit yourself and your tribe. He does not blame mankind for this. We can’t help what we are, but the sooner we face the fact that humans are incapable of living in happy peace without a strong government, the sooner we will be able to live happily within the necessities of the artificial world created by civil government.
The book has a scientific materialistic secular tone that continues to offend today. Hobbes says he cannot imagine anything really existing without a body or an objective existence. Dreams and ghosts are result of imagination deriving from a physical origin working on the internal parts of the brain. They have no reality. And yet the Catholic Church has found many ways to use supposed spiritual beings to control people and gain money. I am no materialist, but you cannot deny history. Hobbes make much of Jesus’ words “My kingdom is not of this world.”
In fact, half the book makes his case from biblical scriptures. Which is kind of funny, because scholars say Hobbes was either an atheist, an agnostic, or a deist. From my reading of Leviathan my guess is deist. I suppose the Bible had such a hold on the people of the time, that he wants to show that even the Bible supports his case. As a scholar he knows his Bible deeply and thoroughly, quoting extensively from both the Old and New Testaments. It’s a good thing I have read Tolstoy and Walter Wink, who show how the Bible supports civil disobedience and anarchy. Otherwise I might have fallen for Hobbe’s arguments. (Read widely folks. I am middle aged and my horizons are still widening with every book I read, and I know I have far to go before I can form any definite conclusion. I am beginning to think that such conclusion will have to wait until I have spent a couple thousand years in the great library in the sky.)
Leviathan is divided into three parts called Of Man, Of Commonwealth, and Of Christian Commonwealth. Part Three, the longest, is where Hobbes takes on the Catholic Church and religion in general, making full use of the Bible to make his case. He spends a lot of time explaining why the Pope and a state sovereign cannot share power. A leviathan cannot have two heads. But what if the king commands you to to do something against your conscience or the laws of your religion such as worship himself as as a god? Then, says Hobbes, worship the king as a god:
To pray to a King for such things as hee is able to doe for us, though we prostrate our selves before him, is but Civill Worship; because we acknowledge no other power in him, but humane; But voluntarily to pray unto him for fair weather, or for anything which God onely can do for us, is Divine Worship, and Idolotry. On the other side, if a King compel a man to it by the terrour of Death, or other great corporal punishment, it is not Idolatry; For Worship which the Soveraign commandeth bee done unto himself by the terrour of his Laws, is not a sign that he that obey etch him inwardly honour him as God, but that he is desirous to save himself from death, or from a miserable life.
The positive side of Hobbes is that he is all about the preservation of life. The goal of his civil arrangement is that as many people as possible might live a good long reasonably content life — avoid an early death after a nasty brutish life. He thinks living in and not rebelling against a strong state is the best way to make this happen.
There are exceptions – a very few reasons why someone might want to disobey their sovereign. For example:
If….a Pastor lawfully called to teach and direct others or any other, of whose knowledge there is great opinion, do externall honor to an Idol for fear; unless he make his feare, and unwillingnesse to it, as evident as the worship, he Scandalizeth his Brother by seeming to approve Idolatry.
So …. a religious leader might consider risking martyrdom by engaging in a little civil disobedience. But Hobbes goes on to say that for the average joe there is absolutely no good reason to risk bodily harm over a symbolic ceremony. I especially love the language in this book. You’ll notice there is no consistency in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation. And yet the style lends itself so well to subtle humor and sarcasm. Several times I found myself laughing aloud at words like “Scandalizeth.” It probably seems funnier to me than it did to Hobbes, although there is plenty of deliberate wit throughout the book.
NOTE: Along with reading I listened to James Adam’s beautiful narration of Leviathan edition recorded by Blackstone Audio. I find with longer difficult books audio is huge help but you also need the text.
I wrote the following review about a year ago. The book kind of rocked my world at the time and influenced the way I interpret certain other books which I will be reviewing soon. I wrote quite a lot about this book – I was thinking of doing a study guide and I may still do that. You can see my articles on many of the chapters by clicking on Notes on Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” in the menu above.
* * * * * *
What I Believe is Leo Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession in which he describes his profound existential crisis. In A Confession Tolstoy describes how, at age 50, when he was at the height of his worldly success, he became so depressed that he wanted to commit suicide. In desperation he turned to the Orthodox church of his childhood and discovered that when he could believe in God, even if only for a moment, for that moment he felt the life. The moment he stopped believing, he felt the oppression of death.
Reading A Confession led me to read his final novel Resurrection, which in which an aristocrat has a spiritual awakening of his own and discovers the far-reaching dysfunctions of the Russian justice system and the evils of bureaucracy. I had read Tolstoy’s two great classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in the past. His post spiritual crisis writing are just as great but different in content, tone, and purpose. What I Believe turned my world upside down as did The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book considered so radical it was banned in Russia for many years.
Tolstoy begins What I Believe by explaining how he began to feel uncomfortable with the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was attracted to Christ’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and the brotherhood of man, but he found the Church, while never denying Christ’s doctrine of love, put a tremendously disproportionate emphasis on ritual and ceremony and devoted scant attention to how Christians should behave toward other people in their daily lives.
Also he was disturbed that the Church supported such things as persecution of certain populations, serfdom, capital punishment, and war. Tolstoy read the gospels over and over, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5 through 7. Then, reading through all the church’s commentaries on the gospels, he found that the church seemed to ignore or distort the clear teachings of Jesus whenever they conflicted with the established systems of civilization. It was as if the world’s system were the default, and the teachings of Jesus, who they claimed to believe is God, had to be made to fit into that mold.
By the end of the book Tolstoy comes reluctantly to the conclusion that for centuries the Church has been teaching a form of Christianity far different from what Jesus intended. Jesus was teaching the eternal law that leads to life: real life on earth, the only kind of life that continues after death. Jesus also teaches how this law based on love is utterly incompatible with the world’s law, which is based on fear and competition and is merely a sophisticated version the predatory law of the beasts. Tolstoy saw that Jesus’ primary message was that to be truly human, that is to rise to a level higher than a talking animal and to be born into the new life of the spirit, we have to stop living according to the law of the world and embrace the higher law of love. This is the only way to break the cycle of violence. When you start embracing the higher law, the world will probably not like you and may even hurt or kill you, but you will be truly alive, and will actually be happier, both before and after your physical death.
The part of the book I found most fascinating is Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ, all of which are clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount. For each one he explains the research he did into the original texts and how he reached each conclusion. The key commandment for Tolstoy, the one that really opened the floodgates of light, is that followers of Christ are not to return evil for evil. That means no violence to anyone, including enemies, and not just personal enemies, but also those populations that your government calls enemies. When Tolstoy realized that Christ did not mean this statement as an unreachable ideal but as a practical lifestyle, all the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. Here are the five commandments of Christ as interpreted by Tolstoy:
1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48
Tolstoy believes that these commandments are not intended to be impossible ideals but are in fact Christ’s specific instructions for how his followers ought to live. If we would only try them, we’d find they really do result in a happier life. In Chapter 10 he identifies the ingredients of a truly happy life: being in touch with the natural world, family, peaceful and unrestricted fellowship with all classes of people, and surprisingly, labor: working to supply our own needs and enjoying the fruits of our labor. A life lived according to Jesus’ commandments would produce to all of these ingredients.
Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The law of love that Jesus taught, according to Tolstoy, is more in accord with our real nature than the world’s law which tells us we are obligated to kill total strangers if the State tells us to take up arms and go to war. I am not so sure about it being more in accord with human nature. The law of love appeals to me but I am a peaceful person who does not find the least pleasure in killing living things. However I know plenty of people who say they sincerely enjoy killing animals, watching ultra-violent films, and even claim to relish the thought of killing certain people. And some of these people are Christians.
I understand none of us made this world and most of us feel stuck in its tangled web of systems. We are born into a world where we don’t have access to enough earth to grow our own food and are dependent from birth on government and complicated economic systems to obtain food and water. So I don’t know that God would hold us accountable for the situation we find ourselves in, and I am glad that one of the rules is that no one gets to judge anyone else. Maybe we could just not assume that the way the world is necessarily the way it has to be. Human systems are not set in stone. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves why we do the things we do every day: are we acting out of fear or out of love? Or have we somehow mixed the two concepts in our minds – as in I go to a job I hate because I love my children and am afraid I won’t be able to feed them. It’s more complicated than you think, Mr. Tolstoy, when you are not a world-renowned Russian nobleman. Also I am puzzled about how this doctrine of non-violence relates to crazed terrorists and keeping child predators and psychopaths off the streets. However, that said, I think Tolstoy is onto something here, namely the truth. It changed his life and it may yet change mine.
You can read What I Believe online and download it in various formats free of charge at Wikisource. It is also available in various editions on Kindle and in print at Amazon.com.
These past few days I have been retrieving five years worth of blog posts and book reviews from an old blog that goes offline forever as of tomorrow, July 25th. In doing so I have found tons of pieces I had forgotten about, some of which fit neatly into my summer political philosophy theme. In my last post I shared my review of Tolstoy’s philosophical novel Resurrection, and today I am re-posting this review….
* * * * * * * *
If only we could all enjoy so calm and pleasant a dialog about the limits of government infringement on individual lives as John Stuart Mills gives us in On Liberty. The issues discussed here are certainly more relevant and more essential than ever, no matter how tired some of us are of talking about them.
On Liberty is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the individual and authority. Authority in this book refers not only to that imposed by government but also all kinds of societal checks on individual freedom of behavior, speech, and thought, with particular attention to the kind of pressure inherent in most organized religion. Mills begins by stating:
“The Subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”
Published in 1859, On Liberty was extremely well received and has been in print ever since. Interestingly, Mills began writing the work in 1854 in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Originally intended as an essay, it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged book published shortly after Harriet’s death. I enjoyed the clarity of thought Mills brings to topic which can be a muddy one with many shades of gray.
When is an individual’s action of concern only to him or herself and when does it affect others enough for society to step in and regulate it? How much tolerance should society have for aberrant behavior, unpopular lifestyle choices, and the spouting of opinions deemed pernicious?
According to Mill and Harriet, a healthy society tolerates a wide berth of eccentricity and welcomes diversity of opinion, primarily because it is only by being challenged that we can truly be strong in our beliefs about what is true. Society is justified in interfering with individual liberty only when the individual’s actions cause harm to others. The problems emerge mostly in how we define “harm.”
Mills seems quite reasonable to me and certainly not an extremist. I think he would have been a libertarian when it comes to restrictions on what substances people choose to indulge in and would be in favor of zero restrictions on expressions of faith in the public square and in the workplace as long as these expressions do not physically harm to anyone else. He is most definitive in his support freedom of speech and the press.
He is a bit less libertarian when it comes to public education. In fact, as you get toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that the keys to his vision of a society that allows for maximum individual liberty are universal education as well as responsible procreation. If people just did not create children that they are not prepared to feed, shelter, and educate then everything would be just fine. To the extent that this state of affairs is not fully realized, Mill believes, the state is justified in educating children whose parents do not or cannot fulfill their most sacred duty. According to Mills, all education sponsored by the state should stick to the basics such a language usage and scientific facts. There must be no requirement that students subscribe to any particular creed or political opinion in order to obtain a certificate of completion.
So there are some “if onlies” and a bit of utopian thought here, but all in all this is a great read for anyone who wants to explore the complex many-sided issue of the individual liberty versus interests of society. If this was a complicated issue in 1859 it is more so now as our civilization has become exponentially more interconnected. Since we live in a world where individual liberty is diminishing as the interests of society become increasingly dominant, this great book of social philosophy is a great way to understand how we got where we are and to help us decide if we think it is worth resisting the general trend.
I am still working my way through Leviathan and still have a stack if philosophy books to read during my Summer of Philosophy. In the meantime I will share a review I originally wrote a couple years ago. If there is any novel that has had a profound influence on my personal philosophy, it is this one….
Resurrection fits into the literary category of “philosophic novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a philosophical novel. I have a special fondness for this kind of novel. Reading philosophy helps me make sense of this confusing world, so it is always worth the effort to read a philosophy book. But the truth is I often find straight philosophy books about as exciting as dryer lint. So if I can read a novel that makes philosophical ideas come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of them in an entertaining way, why not?
Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it also has a strong in plot and emotionally complex characters who come alive on the page. The story centers on the spiritual awakening of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich nobleman, aged 30. Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy believed but the character is not Tolstoy. The author was 50 years old when he came to the realizations that changed the course of his life.
The inciting incident that triggers Nekhludoff’s spiritual awakening is a freakish coincidence. He shows up at court for routine jury duty and discovers that the defendant is the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.
When he sees Katerina Maslova, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning one of her clients, Nekhludoff is driven to confront his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to the current state of affairs. Although most of the jury members as well as the judge believe that Maslova has been framed for the crime and is in fact innocent, she is convicted due to a technicality in the wording of the verdict and sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.
Nekhludoff, who is considering marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family, knows he could walk away and not look back, but he feels compelled to do whatever is in his power to help Maslova. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner. However the reunion does go quite as he imagined. Maslova is no longer the sweet vibrant girl he knew. Her life has made her hard and cynical and she does not wish to be reminded by his presence of either the innocent girl she once was or the intense pain she experienced when he left her. However, she does ask Nekhludoff to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.
This sets him on a journey of discovery about the Russian prison system with its corruption, injustices, maddening inconsistencies, miserable victims, and callous beneficiaries – the government officials and lawyers who profit from its legal churnings. These discoveries, mixed with a painful examination of his own life, slowly unfold into horrifying vision of the world humans have created. He begins to see that a favored few live in callous luxury on the suffering backs of millions.
Resurrection, with it cast of thousands, is sweeping in scope and yet as intimate as one man’s breaking heart and troubled mind. Although the novel is about the evils of a predatory system and its victims, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains as well as innocent victims, but these are only the two ends of fully realized spectrum of morality. Nearly all the characters are presented with some sympathy as real human beings doing what they must to live and feed their families within the world as they find it.
Most people, rich, poor, or in between, do whatever is easiest, least risky, and most beneficial for themselves. We meet sympathetic prison wardens, bureaucrats willing to bend the rules for money, favors, or out of sheer good will, brutal prison guards who later regret their actions, and men with lofty morals slowly corrupted by the demands of their profession. Among the prisoners there are the purest of saints and the vilest of sinners and every type of in between.
Tolstoy was internationally famous when this book was published. It was eagerly anticipated, quickly translated into several languages, and was an instant international bestseller. However, it seems that enthusiasm soon waned. Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is challenging – about as challenging as the philosophy presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. It challenges the very foundations on which our civilization is built. If you are willing to be open to that prospect, you will love this book. I get the idea that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, the challenge of this book is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says. Even I was a quite shaken up by the time I got to the end.
Lately my reading life has been taking me on trips in several dramatically different directions. In the reading life multiple directions is not a bad thing. In college you take five or six different classes, all of which have required reading; so you can be reading a work of modern literature such as D.W. Lawrence, a psychology text, a book on news editing, a book on statistics and analysis, a Shakespeare play, and piles literary criticism. In college that kind of reading load seems normal even if you are also working two jobs because you know all these seemingly unrelated books will eventually work together in the larger scheme that comprises your education.
As someone who sees my entire life as an education, I know that every book I read will eventually find its place in the pattern of my life. How that pattern will finally come out I will not know until the last book falls to the floor with my last breath. Shortly after that significant event I will see clearly how every experience and every decision I made, whether in my career, in my personal relationships, or in the book store, fits the pattern. I hope the result is pleasing to my creator and without too many loose ends.
But let us get back to the present where I belong. Here is the current crazy collection of books I am reading now – or have finished in the past couple of weeks or so. First of course, I am reading various works of philosophy. I recently completed my initial journey into the world of Kierkegaard with The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air. Concurrently with reading Kierkegaard, I have been working my way through Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
It is going to take me several posts to process Leviathan. I’ll probably do one post just on how reading a book published in 1649 can really help you deal with the craziness of the current world. Leviathan is about human nature and how human nature works in politics and government. To compare what Hobbes has to say with U.S. Power politics in 2016 can be enlightening and amusing – in a dark sort of way.
Reading about Writing
In addition to philosophy I have been reading a bunch of instructional books on writing fiction. I have written lots and lots of non-fiction but very little fiction. Since I have decided I want to it and have a great idea for a novel, I need to educate myself on the nuts and bolts. Fiction is a very specialized skill set and very few of us happen on to these skills naturally. I certainly do not.
So I have have chosen a group of great writing instructors and am reading their books. I have finished Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a great one, and am well into Voice by James Scott Bell and Sizzling Story Outlines by H.R. D’Costa. Also I recently read The Art of X-Ray Reading by Peter Roy Clark, another fantastic writing instructor. X-Ray Reading is about reading with a view to learning writing technique from the masters – what to look for to learn how great authors achieved the powerful effects they did.
All of these instructors have successfully published fiction that people have actually paid money to read. Since that is more that I have achieved I thought it might be worthwhile to find out what kind of books they have written. My reading life has focused primarily on classics and “literary” fiction, but they tell me popular fiction is where the money is, and I am thinking that money might be not be a bad idea. I want to live in the mountains some day where there are not many employers, so I need to find a way to make a living.
So with that in mind I found several novels by James Scott Bell on Hoopla. So far I have read two of them: Sins of the Father, about a mass shooting that is not what it appears to be, and Deadlock, about a Supreme Court justice who experiences a mid-career religious conversion. Both are entertaining stories, well written, and quick to read — a lovely break from Hobbes and Kierkegaard — and they also deepened my understanding of the fiction trade. I will want to read more by Bell and will also be looking for fiction written by my other writing instructors.”
Spiritual Book Club
And then there is my book club, a group of six women who read and discuss books specifically on spiritual and religious issues. Being in this book club has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me. The group actually emerged from a broken church experience, an ugly conflict within the congregation that caused these ladies to question a lot of things about both church life and personal faith.
The book club had been meeting for a while when they invited me to join them. I was hesitant because I don’t really like having a weekly thing to go to after work when I’m trying to build a writing career, but I went ahead and joined anyway and I’m glad I did. We have had some great discussions that have helped me clarify some things but we have also opened up a few truckloads of worms.
Our current book is Take this Bread by Sara Miles. Sara Miles was a war journalist during the conflicts of the 1980s in Central America. She was also a secularist and is a lesbian. One day she experienced a sudden conversion upon accepting communion at an unusual Episcopal church in San Francisco. This led her to take the Christian instruction to feed the hungry seriously and to become the founder a system of food pantries.
Sara’s food pantries are unusual in that they do not ask anyone to fill out paperwork to “prove their worthiness” or fulfill any poverty requirements. All are welcome to the table, the food is free, and no questions are asked. She writes about how this has worked out – the obstacles, the problems, the thrilling successes of feeding the hungry mobs who show up. The book gets into the whole food distribution system – such as the incredible waste that makes the food pantries feasible. Really interesting. Other books we have read include Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, A Confession by Leo Tolstoy (my pick), Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink and many others.
I am not sure exactly why I suddenly became enamored by Damon Runyon. I think it was a combination of things converging one late night: watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, getting a threatening letter from the public/private toll-collecting racket in my area (they want $160 for passing through the tunnel five times or they’ll see to it I can’t renew my car registration….), memories of a long-ago summer when I was in a production of the musical Guys and Dolls.
If you have not yet read Damon Runyon you have a true delight waiting for you. Runyon was a newspaper guy who wrote hilarious stories about New York gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s. The best thing about his stories is the unique dialect. Will write more about Damon Runyon in a future post. Currently I am reading a collection called More Than Somewhat and am also listening to some old Damon Runyon radio shows, I think from the 1940s.
Coming Soon: Review of newly published book
Another new direction is about to open up in my reading life. Occasionally authors will contact me to review their book and I do want to support other writers. So I will soon be reviewing Sandlands by the British writer Rosy Thornton. It’s a collection of related short stories that take place in a village in coastal Suffolk. Suffolk England that is. I live in Suffolk, Virginia. When Rosy contacted me I felt like it was a connection not to be passed up. When it comes to book choices I am a big believer in signs. Besides some day, hopefully in the near future, I am going to need bloggers to review my book.
* * * * * * * *
How about you? Are you a multi-tasker when it comes to reading or do you prefer to focus on one book or one direction?
My Summer of Philosophy continues with The Lily Of The Field And The Bird Of The Air, by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Bird and Lily is a slim volume of 90 pages. It consists of three discourses, all reflections on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount:
I. “LOOK AT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR; CONSIDER THE LILY OF THE FIELD”
II. “NO ONE CAN SERVE TWO MASTERS, FOR HE MUST EITHER HATE THE ONE AND LOVE THE OTHER, OR HOLD FAST TO ONE AND DESPISE THE OTHER.”
III. “LOOK AT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR; THEY NEITHER SOW NOR REAP NOR GATHER INTO BARNS”––UNCONCERNED ABOUT TOMORROW. “CONSIDER THE GRASS OF THE FIELD –– WHICH TODAY IS.”
In my copy the titles of the discourses are capitalized and include italics so I have tried to reproduce them here as printed. They are also, of course, quotations taken from the scripture. This is a brand new translation by Bruce H. Kirmmse, just published in 2016.
Kierkegaard was specific in calling these writings discourses, and distinguished them from his more scholarly philosophical writings. So it might not hurt to get a little more clear on what, in the literary world, a discourse is. A later philosopher, Michel Foucault, defines discourse as: “Systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, and courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” Well that is pretty technical, but it comes close to capturing the kind of writing we find in Bird and Lily. However I think Kierkegaard would take issue with the idea that he is constructing either the subject or the world he is writing about. He would probably say he is employing the imperfect tool of language to get at something that not only pre-exists language but will exist long after human language has passed from use.
In fact the first discourse has a lot to say about how human language is an obstacle to experiencing the unvarnished truth, the kind of truth the lily and the bird are in touch with every moment of their short lives. This discourse reflects on the value of silence before God, one of the lessons we learn from the lily and the bird. “Let us now look more closely a the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore, the bird waits, but knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour and the day; therefore it keeps silent.”
It is amazing how much Kierkegaard can write on the subject of silence. And yet the book somehow doesn’t seem boring or even annoyingly repetitive; rather it is lulling, peaceful, and meditative. As I read the words I received their messages not once and for all, but once and then gradually on a successively deeper level. I wish I had an audio version because I think this book would work well as a guided meditation. I’d love to hear someone with a rich sonorous voice read it to me as I lay with my eyes closed in a dim room. Candles would work too.
In the second discourse, we get into some deep water indeed: the issue of choosing to be with God or without God. Here, the lesson of the lily and the bird is that in reality there is no in–between state: either God or no God. It is easy for humans with our rationalizations, distractions, busyness, and most of all speech, to believe we can sort of have God but also go about our lives as though God did not exist. “Thus: either/or. Either God, and as the Gospel explains it, either love God or hate him…..But indeed, as a body falls with infinite speed when placed in a vacuum, so also does the silence out there with the lily and bird, the solemn silence before God, cause these two opposites to touch and repel one another at exactly the same instant––either to love or to hate.”
The second discourse also includes an interesting analysis of the Lord’s prayer, in which Kierkegaard shows that the prayer is entirely consistent with the message about learning the unconditional obedience of lily and bird. In part Kierkegaard writes that from the lily and bird “…you have learned to serve only one master, to love him alone, and to hold fast to him unconditionally in everything. Then, the prayer (which, it is true, will be fulfilled in any case) would be fulfilled by you when you pray to God: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is heaven,’ for in unconditional obedience, his will is done through you on earth as it is in Heaven.”
The third discourse is the shortest and the one I enjoyed the most. It is about learning to be fully present in the joy of moment, not worrying about what will happen tomorrow. Kierkegaard writes that the joy of the lily and the bird is not because they are free of suffering. They do suffer. All of nature withers and perishes. They simply live in the eternal moment fully experiencing the gift of existence, casting their sorrow upon God.
“Marvelous dexterity! To be able to take hold of all one’s sorrow at once, and then to be able to cast it away from oneself so dexterous lay and hit the mark with such certainly! Yet this is what the lily and the bird do, and therefore they are unconditionally joyful at that very instant. And of course this entirely in order, for God the Almighty bears the whole world all the world’s sorrow––including the lily and the bird’s––with infinite lightness.”
I am only starting my study of Kierkegaard, so I am no expert. With The Lily of the Field and the Bird Of The Air, I know I have only dipped my index finger into the vast and deep sea of Kierkegaard. I see that he writes about the things that most interest me in the universe, so I am very excited about continuing my study. What I understand, from this book and my background research, is that Kierkegaard explores the nature of human existence––what human beings really are in body, mind, and soul in the larger scheme of the universe. Considered the first existentialist philosopher, he wrote in first half to middle years of the great 19th century and was influenced by the Romantic movement. I get the impression he was one of those lone meteoric philosophers who do not fit neatly into the going school or cultural movement.
Kierkegaard wrote both “aesthetic” or scholarly philosophy, often using pseudonyms, as well as more overtly religious “discourses” such as Bird and Lily. He liked to write both types of books as companion pieces, looking at the same subject from different perspectives. In the introduction of this book Bruce H. Kirmmse explains that Kierkegaard liked to say he offered his aesthetic writing with his left hand and his religious discourses with his right. The aesthetic companion to Bird and Lily is the second edition of Either/Or. So Either/Or is the next Kierkegaard on my list.
* * * * * * * *
*Matthew 6:24-35 (NKJV):
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.