Whatever happened to the romantic life? A personal question.

When I was a teenager, my favorite film was Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988). It’s about the nature of fantasy, and argues that a life of romanticism and imagination is better than a life of science and reason. It’s titular character makes the argument that:

Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this that and the other– no place for three-legged cyclops in the south seas, no place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine, and no place for me!”

Later in the film, when one of the villains tells the Baron that he has no grasp of reality, the Baron says “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash! And I am delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever!”

It’s delightful writing. And for a long time, I thought the romantic life endorsed by the film was the sort of life a wise person should want to live.

Other teens had pop stars and rock guitarists for their heroes. I had this guy.

The defining quality of the romantic is struggle. In the film, the Baron assembles a team of heroes to save a town from a besieging Turkish army. But the Turks are not the enemy, and the film makes it abundantly clear that the Turks live in the same fantasy-imaginal world that the Baron lives in. The enemy is the rational-minded Horatio Jackson, the mayor of the town, who thinks the war can be won through a rationalist world view. At the beginning of the film, he’s failing at it; the war has dragged on for what seems like forever, and some of the townsfolk are confused about why they are fighting or how the war started in the first place. The Baron and his friends save the town in the most absolutely ridiculous way possible, but he dies in the process– and then the film frames the whole thing as the Baron merely telling a story: “And that was one of the many occasions in which I met my death. An experience I do not hesitate strongly to recommend.”

But then the townsfolk open the gates, and find that the Turks have withdrawn, after all. It’s magnificent silliness. I still love it.

But I’m not a teenager anymore. Today I’m a college professor, and the head of my department. I have a PhD, and I’ve written a textbook on logic (and am writing its second edition). I teach and research the history of Western civilization’s art, science, and philosophy. It might look as if I’m on Horatio Jackson’s side now.

The change in my thinking leads me to some interesting questions about things like what a romantic life is really like, whether it’s still possible to live such a life in this day and age, and about the continuity of personal identity over time– the latter question I have known about since my high school days but never fully appreciated until recently.

I have a few answers which I’ll publish some other day. For now I’ll merely observe that I still make time for imagination and wonder, whenever I can: walking in the Gatineau hills here in Quebec or in the hills of Bohemia, Czechia; writing fantasy fiction and science fiction; reading it; learning a new field of knowledge every year. This summer I taught myself the basics of ecology, which I haven’t studied in detail since my grad student days.

I think philosophy and the examined life could be Romantic, in the sense of involving a struggle. Obviously philosophy is about using systematic reason, not fantasy and not mysticism, to reveal the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful. In that sense, I have indeed left the Baron behind. Yet philosophy is also about love, and it’s also about wisdom– such are the roots of the word. And it seems to me it’s not the rational life which is unromantic. It’s the sedentary life, the uncurious life, the life of a passive consumer of other people’s stories (corporate branded, focus-group tested, market-driven), which strikes me as not worth living.

An intellectual, if she’s still curious about things, and still prepared to go wherever her logic takes her, even if it’s to the more frightening and dangerous places, could be every bit as romantic as a fantasy adventurer, or a political rebel.

I’d like to meet more people who think that way.

Urania, Muse of mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers. Another of my heroes.

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From whom must civilization be ‘reclaimed’?

I’ve been asked this question, because the title of my books is “Reclaiming Civilization”. Who, or what, am I saying civilization needs to be reclaimed from?

It needs to be reclaimed from several world views of cleverly-disguised misanthropy which, if they are accepted by a sufficient mass of people, including a sufficient mass of the world’s most politically powerful people, are likely to lead toward a future of widespread environmental destruction, entrenchment of poverty, entrenchment of the superconcentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands (as few as eight individual men, who own half the wealth of the entire world), and the proliferation of never-ending global wars.

Here’s an example of this world view, from a speech by Steve Bannon, former investment banker, former chief strategist to Donald Trump’s election campaign, and chairman of Breitbart News (like it or not, BN is one of the most influential news outlets on the web, well-funded and read by millions). When asked a question about how the West should respond to radical Islam, he said the west should take “a very, very, very aggressive stance” because:

Because it is a crisis, and it’s not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.

(Full source of Bannon’s speech, including audio transcript, here.)

Looking at a pull-quote like this, you can see the language of war and battle and crisis, presented as if that language describes a revealed and inevitable reality. But in fact Bannon’s holy war is a product of the decisions of men: decisions that could have been different; decisions that, in some cases, can be reversed. There is nothing inevitable about anything in human affairs.

The word I’d like to use for a work of human artifice dressed up as a revealed reality is illusion. So, to answer my above question more precisely, it’s the illusions, like the ones which the war-mongers and hate-peddlers in our midst would like to foist upon us, from which I think civilization needs to be reclaimed.

There are better ways to think about civilization. It’s not all holy war and battle. It’s not all art and music and the glorification of this or that model of political order. It’s not all oppression and colonialism and empire, either. Civilization is people. It’s the ongoing, never-ending process of working out what it means to be human, not by discovery, but by invention. So I say it again: there are better ways to think about civilization. And if you’d like some help to find them, then here’s your book.

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Thinking about Civilization (the computer game) and what it says about Civilization (the human phenomena)

Every time I play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, a moment arrives when I stop playing, look at the map, and think about what the game is saying about nature and essence of civilization as a human phenomenon. The game was thus one of the inspirations for my book on the philosophy of civilization. Here are some of the notes I made about the game which I didn’t include in the final text of the book.

The game as a model of human life.

I understand that the game designers regularly grapple with the question of how closely the game should act as such a model. Even when the answer to that question is ‘only distantly’ (after all, this is a model of the world where the Aztecs can conquer Japan, and where Mohandas Ghandi can launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on his allies), the game designers must pick and choose which aspects of real-world history they will represent in the game, and which aspects they will omit. Those choices can be treated as propositions about the nature and essence of civilization-the-human-phenomenon. So we can ask, what do those propositions say about civilization? Why these propositions, instead of others? And where does their logic lead us?

Screen shot of the last game I played. I am Queen Gorgo of Sparta!

Proposition 1: Civilization is chess with more complicated rules.

Both games are about how a variety of pieces can occupy space on a board. And both games treat territorial empire as a path to victory, with the capture of key pieces (the king; the capital city) as game-winning actions. Civ is distinguished here by having a larger variety of pieces, some of which move (military units) and some of which don’t (cities), as well as a larger variety of spaces, each having properties that affect what can be done with a piece sitting on it or near it. Civ also differs from chess in that it offers territories beyond the board which the player may attempt to conquer—territories like other planets (the space race victory) or the hearts and minds of the world’s population (the cultural, religious, and diplomatic victories). But the more I think about those differences, the more superficial they appear. The core principle, territorial conquest, is common to both. But must territorial conquest be the core purpose of civilization? Are there no other purposes to which we human beings could aspire, in our largest social groupings?

Proposition 2: Civilization is driven forward by great men, not by social movements.

I think that a video game could have no other way of looking at civilization: it has to treat the player as a “great man”, lest the player become irrelevant to the events. Yet this proposition also appears in the fact that the AI opponents are represented by historical ‘great men’ who never change. Queen Elizabeth remains the leader of England from the stone age to the space age, no matter how many changes in government England undergoes. I think it started in Civ IV, that ‘great men’ would emerge from one’s civilization, giving various advantages to the player in whose territory it appears, which further solidifies this proposition. The player never has to deal with refugees or immigrants, nor homeless people, nor the rights of aboriginal people living in conquered territory, nor the danger of non-state militias (aside from barbarians in the early game), nor populist demagogues who could unseat him from his throne. The people are nowhere to be seen in this game, and the player almost never has to meet their approval. Maybe a city with too few amenities will produce a few rebel army units. But the people take no initiative, offer no challenge, do the work they’re assigned, and don’t matter.

Proposition 3: Civilization is intrinsically progressive.

Tech advances, once acquired, are never lost. Populations rarely decline. Cities never disappear unless they are conquered by other nations. No nation ever undergoes a loss of knowledge; economic depressions are rare. Earlier versions of the game included a period of anarchy when changing governments, but that’s gone in Civ VI. But those seven rounds of anarchy are only a holdup in the march of progress; the game admits of no ‘dark ages’, no steps backwards.

Proposition 4: The landscape is the first object of colonization.

I have always found that rapidly expanding my territory in the early game is a necessary condition of winning. If my civ was not the largest or second largest territory on the board, I always lost (well, if I played at Warlord level or higher). In this way, it seems to me that the game presupposes a lord-and-master model of humanity’s relation to the earth. There’s no way to adopt a stewardship model, except perhaps to build recycling centres and national parks. In Civ II and III your landscape might change due to global warming (I haven’t seen that happen in later editions). I realise the game designers are probably trying to avoid making political statements. Still, the advent of climate change in the endgame made for an interesting challenge. Player choices had long-term, non-obvious consequences. But in Civ VI, when the land is conquered it stays conquered. No wild animals attack from forests anymore; no diseases attack cities or crops; no bad weather stops the army, no land-tiles will change due to global warming. Once, while playing Civ II– and only once– I saw an army unit who I had stationed in a jungle die of disease. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Don’t get me wrong here– I really like this game. I’ve been playing it since my undergrad days, when a friend introduced me to Civ II. (I’m actually not very good at it. When I play at Prince difficulty or higher, I lose. Every time.) But I also think it’s okay to be critical of the things that you love. And so, whenever I play this game, as well as other games I enjoy (Skyrim, Mass Effect, etc) I end up fantasizing about creating my own, better games. And then, I do create my own games, using low-tech tools like dice, pencil and paper, index cards, and playing pieces on boards. (Who knows if they’re better). But I know nearly nothing about how to publish and market them. I’m open to suggestions here.

Some flotsam about the current edition of the game (version 6)

I like the districts, spreading my cities over the map. It made for some interesting choices about land use, and about how to specialize my cities.

In my day job I’m a philosophy professor, so as a point of pride I always try to build the Great Library wonder. In Civ VI, it doesn’t seem to do much. It gives the Eureka moment for all the ancient techs, but by the time I build it I already possess almost all of them.

Potash should be a strategic resource. A civ who possesses it could make their farms more productive.

No philosophers among the Great People. No philosophical books among the Great Works of Writing. Why not?

In Civ VI, all cities produce their own food. Previous versions of the game allowed a trade caravan to send food from a city with a surplus to a city with a deficit. I’d like to bring that back. Direct-transfer of production shields, too. So that it’s possible to build productive new cities at places that are geo-politically important but where there are few resources (such as on islands, or beside arctic sea routes, etc.)

There should be an option, in the pre-game setup, where the player can create a completely original nation, with its own name, its own cities, and its own unique advantages (unique units, etc.) mixed-and-matched from the pre-loaded civs. I’d like to play the game using the fictitious nations from my (as yet unpublished) science fiction novel. Civ-the-game has always been open to player modification, but the current version requires a download from Steam that I can’t use because I bought the game from the Apple store.

Baba Yetu, the title-screen song from Civ IV, is still my favourite title-screen song.

It’s interesting to be the suzerain of the city-states. I’d love to see an option in the diplomacy dialogue screen for “Unconditional surrender!”, which allows me to become suzerain of another entire civ, or to annex a city-state into my civ without warfare.

Civ V had a better graphic design, especially of the leader interactions. But I like the wonder movies in Civ VI better.

The game could use more kinds of non-combat units. Some suggestions: Doctors (to stop the spread of diseases in a city), Engineers (to help with a city’s production) Farmers (to boost crop yields on the tile he’s standing on), Entertainers (improve a city’s cultural output and its morale; the name could change by era), Professors (add to science output), and so on. A civ could have only a limited number of each, much like the limits on spies and traders. They could also be captured from rival civs during war, or the spies could persuade them to defect, or as a sign of the player’s “approval rating” they could come to the player’s civ on their own– or leave the player’s civ to join another.

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My writing plans for Autumn 2017

While I was in CZ this summer, not only was I editing my scifi novel and my logic textbook, I also started two new works of fiction, intending both of them to be short stories that I could finish in a matter of weeks. As it turns out, I didn’t touch them again– until yesterday. Which is perhaps appropriate. They are October stories.

Autumn in Gatineau Park. My own photo, from 2015.

They take place in the same world as my Fellwater: The Hidden Houses novels, although they are set in a different town and they feature different characters. It felt good to return to “my world” again. A hint: one of them features Urania, the muse of philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers; and it starts with her having a conversation with Nicholas Copernicus.

I have not yet heard back from any of the publishers I approached, back in the spring, with a pitch for my scifi novel. I know the publishing industry and I know these things take time. Now that it’s October, I will probably never hear back from some of the big-name New York agents I approached back in June (such as Tor). But that’s okay; the publisher I originally wanted is a mid-size indie, owned by a friend of mine, and they’re reading the whole manuscript right now.

By the way– I originally called it “Lorelei’s Planet” but I’m considering different titles. What do these possible titles make you think of?

– The Starshot Race
– The Nightfall Equation
– The Terminus Equation
– The Razor’s Edge
– Where There Appears To Be Nothing
– After Starlight
– After The Darkness
– The Verlassen Discovery
– The Distance

Probably the planet Venus, setting over the hill south of Krenicna, CZ, August 2017

While I wait, I can work on the beat-sheet for the sequel. And I can work on these other novels. And on a nonfiction project about ecology and enlightenment, which I also worked on this summer while in CZ. And on– well, you get the idea.

By the way– you can help me. By buying my books, writing reviews on Amazon (even if only one sentence, that’s all they need), and telling your friends about my work. (You heard that I published a new one two months ago, yes?) I do as much marketing as my time and money allow, but it isn’t much. I don’t expect to become a big-name celebrity intellectual. But I do hope that more people will read my books, think about them, study them, discuss the ideas in them with friends, occasionally criticise them. I’d like to see a community of sorts formed around the ideas in my books: made up of people who live according to the questions and the values raised in them.

And please accept my most sincere thanks for your ongoing support of my writing.

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Brendan’s Socratic Dialogue Game

Last week, while working on the second edition of my logic textbook, it occurred to me that Socratic Dialogue, the method of philosophical reasoning used by Socrates, is a kind of game. Or, it could be turned into one.

Insert obligatory image of classical Greek philosophers doing their thing.

Of course, Socrates didn’t write down any of his philosophy at all; everything we know about him, we know from the writings of others, especially from his student Plato. Still it’s possible to infer his method by studying how he did things. So, this game is based on my interpretation of Socrates’ method as it is represented in some of Plato’s early books.

I’m going to include it in the logic textbook. But I’m terribly excited about it and my students appeared to have a fun time playing it. So I will share it here on my blog for you now.

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Agora Variation

  • Find a partner. Choose one of you to play the role of “Socrates” and the other to play “The Expert”. Socrates will ask all the questions; The Expert will answer them.
  • The person playing the role of Socrates asks The Expert a philosophical question, chosen by a random draw from the “Deck of Many Questions”. The Expert answers.
  • If the Expert’s answer is something evasive (a description or an example instead of a definition, or a weasel-word answer, etc.), then Socrates may gently ask for a more direct answer.
  • When the Expert gives a direct answer, Socrates thanks her for it. Then Socrates asks the Expert to clarify any undefined or poorly-defined terms. Raise counter-examples or analogies, if necessary, to show that a term is too broad, or too narrow, or circular, or in some other way unsatisfactory. The Expert can also object to a question if it appears vague or irrelevant.
  • When the Expert has clarified everything that needs clarification, Socrates can ask questions which explore some of the likely consequences and implications, especially those which seem to lead to contradictions. If you can do so respectfully, then explore any implications which the Expert may find uncomfortable.
  • Continue this back-and-forth, question-and-answer exchange, until 1) you both agree you have a satisfying answer to the original question, or 2) Socrates runs out of questions, or 3) The Expert admits to having no idea how to answer the original question. Then switch roles, and start again with a different question.

The game requires at least two players, and in experimenting with this game in my classroom I found that it can work in small groups of no more than five members. Apart from the rules noted above, I also asked my students to observe the principles of informal logic which we had covered in some previous classes: good v bad types of questions, good v bad thinking habits. (See chapters 1 and 2 of Clear & Present Thinking, 1st edition, if you’re curious.)

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Symposium Variation

Players choose a card from the “Deck of Many Questions”. Each player writes a one-page speech to answer the question. Then everyone swaps their speech pages around: giving their answer to another player, receiving an answer (to a different question!) from a third player. Each player then writes a one-page counter-argument. Players then take turns reading their answers aloud, and hearing the counter-arguments read aloud; then a chance is offered for players to reply to the counter-arguments. This variation can be used as a classroom assessment technique. It also makes for a fun dinner party activity among friends, especially when the “answers” are prepared in advance, and the “counter-arguments” are off the cuff. In fact, I think I might like to host a symposium dinner party here at my house, some time this fall.

Some further remarks:

I like games. I used to write my own video games on my family’s old Commodore 128, using its BASIC 7.0 programming language. I played Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, then played White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage) through my undergrad years. I’m especially fond of chess even though I don’t know anything about strategy and all I can do is push the pieces around according to the rules; I haven’t won a game of chess in probably twenty years. But in general I think that games are good for us, and that’s one of the reasons I invent games for use in my classroom.

The Socratic Dialogue Game does not need winners or losers. The point is to practice reasoning skills, perhaps learn something about the complexity of simple questions, perhaps learn something about yourself (when for instance you are forced to acknowledge that you don’t know all the answers), and to enjoy the use of our own minds. It’s a game that does not require any specialized knowledge of philosophy as a discipline, nor any specialized knowledge of logic apart from what’s described in the rules. It’s a game in which it’s okay to ask for a moment of quiet to think, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s foundational philosophy for the people; it’s the common heritage of all humanity.

But if The Expert ends up feeling embarrassed or upset by the questions or by the exposure of her ignorance, it’s not okay for that player to make Socrates drink the hemlock.

Appendix: “The Deck of Many Questions”

I bought a stack of index cards and wrote an open-ended philosophical question on them; a different question on each card. If you can think of more questions to add, feel free to add them.

    What is love?
    What is justice?
    What is courage?
    What does it take to live a worthwhile life?
    What does it mean to be a woman? Or a man?
    What is friendship?
    What is the significance of death?
    What is the best kind of government?
    What is education?
    What is greatness?
    What is truth?
    What is the significance of sex?
    What is civilization?
    What is a family?
    What is the point of sports and games?
    What is our moral responsibility to the Earth?
    Should people always obey the law?
    What does it mean to be an “authentic” individual?
    What is God?
    What is our duty to the community?
    What is reality?
    What is art and beauty?
    What is wisdom?
    Do we human beings have a soul?
    Where does knowledge come from?
    What kind of people should we be?
    Do we human beings have free will?
    What are the best kinds of stories?
    What is the true value of money?
    What is health?
    What is fairness?
    What is the significance of history?
    What is happiness?
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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and the Problem of Evil

On 1st November 1755, a Sunday that year, a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. The quake itself and the wildfires and the tidal wave caused by it destroyed most of the city, and killed an estimated 60,000 people.

Lots of people back then said that the earthquake was sent by God to punish them for their sins, Old Testament style.

I’ve noticed some similar comments from people on my social media, and in the news, in reference to the three hurricanes that have struck or are about to strike the USA, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some from Christians who say the hurricanes are sent to punish the sinful persons of their choice: abortionists, trans people, gay people, liberals, whatever. I have also seen a few greens and environmentalists pronounce the hurricanes a just punishment for America’s love of the oil & gas industry, and its pursuit of industrial capitalism in general.

Infrared satellite picture of hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Katia, as seen on 7th September 2017.

The earthquake in 1755 produced big changes in European culture. Seeing that lots of perfectly moral, God-fearing, probably mostly innocent Christians died in that earthquake, people began to think it likely that natural disasters had nothing to do with their sins. People didn’t become atheists overnight, obviously; philosophers like Voltaire and Kant, who wrote extensively on how nonsensical it was to connect the quake to God’s wrath, nonetheless remained religious men. But it did change the way people thought about their relationship with God, and it changed the meaning of their faith.

I wonder how religious culture in America, and the world, might change as a result of these three hurricanes.

There is at least one way in which the hurricanes of 2017 are different from the earthquake of 1755. The hurricanes were predicted in advance by scientists. Not that they predicted these exact three storms on these exact dates. But they did predict that global warming and climate change would lead to more storms and bigger storms. There are a few associates of mine right now whose Twitter and Facebook feeds have become a steady stream of “I told you so!”

(Which isn’t helpful. In fact it’s likely to alienate the very people who need to be persuaded to appreciate science better. But I digress.)

The fact that these storms were predicted, in broad strokes if not in fine detail, makes me wonder if more people will turn away from the Bible-thumping, foaming-at-the-mouth moral-panic-instigators who have insisted that climate change isn’t happening, or that it is happening but we deserve it, or that it is happening but we don’t need to do anything about it because when human suffering reaches a pinnacle of misery then God will come down from heaven and save us. Yes, there are such people, and they have bully-pulpits that reach millions. I’m sure those people won’t go away. But as “God’s judgment” continues to look more and more random in the people it kills, might the preachers of God’s judgment look more and more wrong?

I suspect that religious people are about to have a big discussion of a new form of the old ‘problem of evil’. If we believe, as most religious people do, that the gods care about humanity, why do they not prevent natural disasters? How can we see the divine in the hurricane that destroyed your city and killed some of your loved ones? And indeed, what shall we make of the apparent fact that the storm selected the people it killed at random?

Is it because the gods have some reason not to interfere in the world, as in the old version of the problem?

Or— here’s the new part of the old problem— if the gods reveal themselves in the world of nature (by the way, there’s a perfectly sensible way for monotheists to understand this proposition; you don’t have to be pagan to believe it), then what are we to make of the fact that some of those natural revelations are disasters and that science can predict them in advance?

Is it because the gods are not powerful enough to prevent those storms? In which case, is there still much point in worshipping them?

Or, is it because the gods are those storms? (Now that would be a pagan point of view.) In which case, how could you relate to them? I suppose you could make expressions of awe, and then offer propitiatory prayers (“Dear god, wow you are so big, now please don’t kill us…”). But it’s hard to see how you could build a positive life-affirming worldview around that.

Or, perhaps “the divine” is not a person, but rather some kind of presence or force or ‘way’ of things, rather like the Tao, or the old Neoplatonic idea of the One-And-All. In which case, ‘worship’ was never the point, but we still need to ask what to make of the way science can predict its movements.

I’m sure lots of people will resolve these problems for themselves by becoming atheists. Remember your Wittgenstein: “the solution to the problem lies in the disappearance of the problem.”

But for those people for whom atheism isn’t an option, perhaps because they have known the oceanic feeling of immensity and one-ness which lies at the heart of personal spirituality, I think this conversation about the problem of evil will produce a new understanding of divinity. It will look nothing like the religions of the past and the present. It will call itself Christianity, or Buddhism, or Neo-Paganism, or whatever, but it will be a very different animal.

I make only this one prediction about it: whatever it will be, it will be less otherworldly and more human. By which I mean: it will acknowledge our human ability to make stupid decisions, such as those which result in the destabilizing of our climate, costing us millions of lives. But it will also acknowledge our human ability to solve our problems, work together, find solidarity with others no matter how different or disagreeable they are, and to dispel the illusions that hold us back from realizing our original goodness.

I predict this, because I think these beliefs follow from the realization that God will not save us from global warming, nor from war, injustice, oppression, nor any of our other problems. We will have to save ourselves.

—-
Addendum, a few hours later.

A friend of mine who read this blog told me she knew someone who saw these storms as a sign of the end of the world. So, in the future, religion might grow even more fundamentalist.

Well, I suppose that’s possible. Indeed, I think some people may want the condition of the world to grow worse, so as to accelerate the arrival of the Messiah. (Actually, I think that is exactly what motivates certain climate change deniers and authoritarian politicians.)

But I predict– no, I hope, I summon my confidence– that as the end of the world continues not to happen, more people will see that kind of apocalyptica for the silliness that it is.

Whether or not God exists, the future is going to be all about us.

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Is Optimism Still Possible In the Age of Trump?

Timing is sometimes everything.

When I finished the final draft of Reclaiming Civilization and submitted it to my publisher, the US presidential election campaign was still in the party primaries. It looked likely at the time that Bernie would win the Democratic party ticket, and most everyone I knew including my conservative friends regarded Trump’s candidacy as a joke.

We all know what happened next. And now there are neo-Nazis marching openly in the streets of major American cities; racist police officers shooting black people without provocation; five states in the northwest are on fire; climate-change-related flooding in Texas and hurricanes the south-east; and the president appears prepared to force a constitutional crisis and to start a nuclear war with North Korea. And that’s just some of what’s horrible in the United States, to say nothing of what’s happening in other countries.

So it may be strange to promote a book whose subtitle is “A case for optimism for the future of humanity” at a time when it appears that there’s almost nothing to be optimistic about.

You might be angry that the world has come to the state it’s in. I am too: in fact the first few lines of the book say:

I wrote this book because I am angry. The practice of civilization, its customs and institutions and power-relations, and even the language by which we speak of it, has been hijacked by some profoundly evil people. I wish to wrest it back from them…

But I also wanted to know why we got here. What’s wrong with civilization? Let me briefly describe what I found when I reasoned about that question.

One of the purposes of civilization is to produce people whose character and disposition reflects some model of “the civilized person”. Different societies will have different models of the civilized person; but whatever the model, they’ll deploy its political, economic, religious, cultural, and social forces to influence people to become more like that model.

And we have some remarkably terrible models of the civilized person. Homo Economicus. Patriarchal Man. Someone who is born a straight white man is someone who could embody one or both of those models. That person would be rewarded for doing so, and punished for not doing so. Suppose someone could not possibly embody Patriarchal Man, because they’re black, or asian, or a woman, or whatever. That person would have to defer to (or obey, or give way to, or give precedence to, agree with, etc.) the people who do embody the Patriarchal Man. Or be punished for not doing so. It’s obvious to me that models of the civilized person like Patriarchal Man are ethically terrible. But I also think the solution can’t involve inventing new models. I think we need to look at the problems in the public sphere in an entirely new way.

Hence, my theory that the root of our social and political problems has to do with the maintenance of illusions. Originally invented to stave off nihilism and despair, they now also serve to export a lot of unnecessary suffering on to the marginalised people of the world.

Some of the illusions discussed in the book:
– the illusion of the permanent self
– the illusion of the higher and lower men
– the illusion of the virtuous prince
– the illusion of the self-made man
– the illusion of our separateness from the earth
– the illusion of “no alternative”.

Such is the short version of the argument.

Something else happened to my book in the year-and-a-half between finishing it and finding it published: some of my conclusions turned out to be somewhat prescient. For example, Trump’s ban on transgender persons serving in the U.S. military:

If my thesis about civilization is correct, we should see the civilizing forces move to punish people who renounce or who refuse to defer to that model. In the example of transgender women, that’s exactly what we see… For a person born a man, and thus born in a position to assume the benefits and privileges of the patriarchy, yet instead who undergoes the chemical and surgical and social process to become a woman, appears in the eyes of the patriarchal man as evidence that there might be something wrong with the image of the patriarchal man.

The anti-semitic slogans shouted by the Nazis at the rally in Charlottesburg Virginia, expressing the fear of being “replaced” by Jews, or by Black people, and so on, might have been anticipated here. First I show the evidence that Trump won the primaries in states where the death rate among middle-class white men had risen in the past 15 years. Then:

Contemporary psychologists have found that strong reminders of mortality tend to make people more conservative and nationalist, and more likely to express racial or religious prejudices. More than 200 scientific studies over the past 25 years confirm this… Simple knowledge of their [the Other’s] existence is enough to prompt the envious and fearful feeling that ‘we’ will not survive because ‘they’ will some day out-breed us, economically out-produce us, or even come down from the hills and kill us. They don’t have to threaten anything; they just have to exist.

And as for Trump himself, it seems to me that the one thing he is remarkably good at is political theatre, which is perfect for maintaining one of those illusions I mentioned:

A particular variation of the illusion of higher and lower men is the illusion of the virtuous prince. In this case, the glamour is cast not only upon a society’s nobility, but particularly upon a society’s leading individual, its commander-in-chief. This illusion serves the same purpose as its predecessor: to preserve the political and economic powers of whomever happens to already possess those powers. What makes this illusion insidiously interesting is that, unlike some of the illusions previously discussed, the person projecting this illusion need not actually believe it. Indeed, he may know perfectly well that the truth is the exact opposite of what the illusion portrays.

Amid all this, do any sources of optimism remain? One of my conclusions is that if we allow ourselves to let go of those illusions, we have a chance to re-discover humanity’s original goodness. This is not the naive optimism which imagines that everything will get better by itself, like magic. This is the intelligent optimism which looks at the world, sees it for what it is, and works to do something to change it. My four sources of optimism are:

  • First, the discovery that human nature is sufficiently malleable that human society and culture can change, even if it can change only very slowly, and even if it is supposed that some individuals cannot change;
  • Second, civilization itself emerged as we taught ourselves empathy and co-operation and compassion, and it continues to be partially sustained by those values;
  • Third, although we may be left with despair when we cast away our illusions, so we are also left with a chance to find greater depths of life than we could find any other way;
  • Fourth and finally, yet perhaps most importantly, many of the things we need to do to bring about a better world are things we are already doing.
  • .

    I hope you will take a look at my book, consider its ideas seriously, and experiment with them in your communities. What other illusions might there be? What other sources of optimism might we discover if we let go of them? I want to know! I hope you do too.

    Purchase from: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Chapters Indigo / Direct from the publisher

    Watch my “Book Trailer” on YouTube, here.

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    Twenty-seven days of solitude

    Two years ago, I came to visit friends in Krenicna, Central Bohemia, and to look after the gardens and the dogs while they were away. I wrote the first 20,000 words of Reclaiming Civilization here. I returned again this summer, again to take care of the gardens and the dogs while the family was away. Here are some new photos, and a few thoughts.

    Hedgewitch House in Krenicna, and Kringle the elderly dog

    View of Krenicna, Czech Republic.

    Mouth of the hollow hedgerow

    Interior of the hollow hedgerow

    View of the Vltava River

    Rose on the edge of a cherry orchard

    I count twenty-seven days of nearly complete solitude, from the day the Reidinger family left for their holiday in America, to the day they returned. That’s a personal record for me. But I was not totally alone. I knew some of the neighbours, having met them two years ago: and I’m especially grateful to Tomas and Ivanna for checking in on me every so often, to make sure I had enough food and that I wasn’t injured or sick or going insane.

    But for most days, I had a routine that involved no other human beings at all. In the morning, I feed the dogs and the cat, then take all the critters outside for the morning potty. Then I see to my own breakfast, usually jam on toast and a pot of tea. The dogs got their first walk in the fields in the mid morning. One of them, Kringle, is very old and sickly, and I was warned to expect he might die while I was looking after him. The other, Helli, is a four year old Czech wolfdog and full of running and bouncing. So, as I walk down the Cim road to the field that they like, I’m pulled ahead by Helli and held back by Kringle. In effect, I wasn’t walking the dogs: they were walking me. Then we’d get to the field. I would let Helli off-leash– she is comfortable enough with me to stay near me most of the time, and to come to my side when I call her. (A consequence of this is that most of the Czech words I know are dog commands. Pojd’ sem! Pozor!) We would walk a loop around a grove of trees in the middle of the field, then take a side path home through a stand of pines.

    Wolfdog in the meadow

    After that part of the day, I would lose track of what clock-time it was. I would measure time by the position of the house’s shadow on the yard. And as the retreat grew into its first week, I lost track of what calendar-day it was. Mondays and Julys and thirteens and seventeens mostly disappeared. There were clocks in the house and on the computer, but I had lost the habit of looking at them. And I have to say, I liked living in natural time instead of in clock time. I still got as much work done as was necessary to do, watering the gardens and cleaning up after Kringle, but there was never any hurry, and thus never any stress.

    Most afternoons, I spend my time editing two books of mine that will be published later: one a science fiction novel, the other a second edition of my logic textbook. In the late afternoon, I would go for another walk in the hills, this time only with Helli, because she needed the extra exercise, and so did I. We’d go to one of three or four favourite spots of mine, each at least two kilometres from the house by my rough foot-measure, sit there for a while, and return. I liked to imagine that I was a philosopher-hero on an epic quest to find the treasure-knowledge hidden in the places to which I gave my own private names: the overlook at the end of the hollow hedgerow, the research station at the end of the pine cathedral, the hunter’s platform in the great meadow.

    We also explored places which I did not visit the first time. For example: see the notch in the tree line, on top of the hill in the distance?

    Last visit, I wanted to explore it but didn’t. This year, I found a way to get there without disturbing the cattle or crossing electric fences. Here’s the view from that notch:

    Another day, I followed a path through the woods to Cim, the next nearest town to Krenicna.

    Then at night I made my dinner– sometimes the same dinner as last time, so that there was a five-day stretch when I ate the same chicken and pasta dish– and read a novel or a nonfiction text until I felt like going to bed.

    Such was my routine. And I loved it. Most of the time, I felt rested, at home, active in my mind, healthy in my body (if a little bit heavier and less clean-shaven than I’d like to be), and free. And on three or four nights in the first two weeks, I enjoyed a visit from the English-speaking neighbours, where we talked of things like why city people don’t understand country life, or why mushroom-hunting is a Czech national sport, or why shamanism is better than Christianity.

    But this routine was occasionally interrupted by the prickly side of solitude which most people call ‘loneliness’. It was during these times that I felt profoundly isolated, as if the nearest neighbours, whose houses were perhaps only thirty meters away, were instead a hundred kilometres distant. I felt cravings for junk food, and television, and social media; I felt sexual fantasies for people who I know wouldn’t have me, such as a past girlfriend who lives in Germany in a village that’s perhaps five or six hours’ drive from here. (I’ve no reason to believe she would want to see me. In those last weeks of the relationship, I was too involved with my own needs, and so I neglected hers. That was unkind of me.) The old bugbear of solitude is the belief, which in my mind comes unbidden like a natural fact of reality, that I am alone because no one wants me around. Because they have concluded their lives are better off without me. I know this isn’t entirely true; most of the time I am alone because I choose to be. Nevertheless, the old bugbear is my most regular visitor, and he doesn’t leave until I concentrate my mind on something creative and interesting and difficult, which I can share with others when I emerge to see them.

    Thus, on one particular night when the old bugbear seemed especially overbearing, I heard the voice of one of the characters in my half-edited novel, and I wrote down what she said:

    “Loneliness is my laboratory. If you want to create or discover anything genuinely new and beautiful, then you have to see and hear and think of things differently than other people. You have to look where it appears that there’s nothing, where no one else will look; you have to go where maybe no one will follow. And if you find something that way, then the chances are people around you won’t understand you anymore. You won’t belong to the same world they do, anymore. But you have to accept that. You have to pass through the night, if you want to reach the morning.”

    When the Reidinger family returned, I was delighted. I was living in an inhabited world again. And the following day they took me to Prague, which I had visited last time as well, but this time I wanted to see only one sight: the grave of the scientist Tycho Brahe, discoverer of “Tycho’s Star” (a supernova) and very possibly a secret devotee of the Greek goddess Urania, one of the nine muses. I don’t know that for certain; it is likely that he admired her in the same manner as other Renaissance intellectuals admired Greek and Roman paganism, that is, in the mode of a fantasy that they could contemplate and enjoy when their Sunday obligations to Christianity were fulfilled. But he did name his observatory after Her. And I am an admirer of Urania, too.

    If there was any wisdom I drew from this summer, it was only a reaffirmation of some truths I already know and accept: that solitude is good for us; that it is not selfish; that it is far more difficult to distinguish solitude from loneliness than most people acknowledge; and that although solitude is a place everyone should regularly visit, still it is a place where we should not stay for too long.

    Or, if you must go there for a long time, bring a couple of dogs.

    Helli the wolfdog, and me.

    More photos of my trip can be found on my twitter feed. This one, “Philosopher dog”, turned out to be a favourite.

    The book I wrote here two years ago, Reclaiming Civilization, is available now!

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    Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”: A novel for all time, yet also of its own time.

    Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury is a world. It’s the author’s fictitious Green Town Illinois, but it’s also a fairyland where boys are young forever. It’s a town where a new pair of tennis shoes can make boys run and leap like gazelles. Where a mechanical witch in an amusement park was once a real woman, imprisoned in wax for telling true fortunes. Where a boy could be cured of a summer flu with bottled spring air given him by a junkman. Where an old man is a human time machine, and who makes random phone calls to faraway foreign cities so to listen to the traffic and remind himself those places are still real.

    But it’s also where death, the Lonely One, hovers over everything. He appears in old age and in murder victims, in machines that fall apart, trolleys that set out for their last run before they are replaced by unromantic buses, and the inevitable return of autumn, and most of all in the darkness of a Ravine that splits the town in two.

    What better world can there could be, in which young boys can come of age?

    But this blog entry is not just about how wonderful Dandelion Wine is, and why you should go read it. It’s also about why it is a product of its time, for better or worse. As our values change, so do our evaluations of the art of the past, including the recent past. A book or a song or a movie that might have been regarded as beautiful when it was new, might today be regarded as problematic. Here are two ways in which Bradbury’s work is a case study for the point.

    First, his style is a richness of imagery. Yet today’s writers are often encouraged to be terse and minimalist: to pack the maximum information in the fewest and simplest words. Stephen King told us never to use adverbs, ever; Dandelion Wine veritably and wonderfully overflows with them.

    What would Bradbury himself have to say about the contemporary demands for terseness and minimalism? He would have called it “Tosh!” In a coda published in the 1979 edition of Farenheight 451, he said:

    In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”
          The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.”
          Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
          Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!
          Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead.
          Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

    In this particular case, I think Bradbury has it right, and contemporary minimalists have it wrong. Editors, and for that matter writers, who assume readers are half-illiterate, really must find another job.

    By contrast. Some of today’s writers are encouraged to be the opposite of minimalist: they’re snarky and edgy, like howling Ginsbergs, where long-winded metaphors beat you over your head with their cleverness and make you feel stupid for not having thought of them first. That, too, is not Bradbury’s style. His style is full of metaphor, and often invokes the language of infinity, such that simple events and ordinary places take on world-defining significance. Yet his style is also also somehow matter-of-fact about it. In a passage that stood out to me because it reminded me of my town, his Green Town is styled like a ship at sea, and all the residents cut grass and trim hedges like sailors bailing out the water to keep the ship steady and floating. It’s a magnificent piece of writing. Here’s another, where an elderly woman shows two pre-teen boys photos of herself when she was their age:

    “It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. Pomegranate glowed in her lips, and the noon sky in her eyes. To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night. And all of this, this breath-warmness and plum-tenderness was held forever in one miracle of photographic is chemistry which no clock winds could blow upon to change one hour or one second; this fine first cool white snow would never melt, but live a thousand summers.”

    Go read Dandelion Wine if you want to see what a non-minimalist style looks like when it is done right.

    Second: Dandelion Wine also has another marker which signifies it as a product of its time. All its characters are white and middle-class, or they can be assumed so because that’s the way white middle class people wrote books back in 1946. It’s a town where men smoke cigars on their porches after work and women bake pies and cool them on windowsills. Today, readers demand representation and diversity, and strong female and POC protagonists. Dandelion Wine was published more than half a century ago, and therefore has none of those things. Further, some of its metaphors jar the modern reader with their contemporary inappropriateness: an old man describes a herd of buffalo by saying they had “heads like Negro’s fists”. Today an editor would be right to jump on that metaphor and erase it immediately. But in 1946, an editor would only ask if it the reader could see the buffalo that way.

    What would Bradbury say to the contemporary critic who felt the work was sullied by such things? Again, the coda from Farenheight 451 provides his reply:

    I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premiers as an opera in Paris this autumn. But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared to do my play – it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with baseball bats if the drama department even tried!
          Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men), Or, counting heads, make and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count line and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
          I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.
          For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own.

    My point here is not only to show how contemporary values change how we enjoy (or do not enjoy) things. It’s also to show that the contemporary debate about representation in literature is much older than most people realise. In one corner of this debate there’s Bradbury who claims the absolute freedom to write whatever he wants, without interference from anyone, and subject only to the judgment of the work’s aesthetic merits. In the other corner, there’s the readers who notice that their gender, their class, their language, their experience of life, doesn’t appear in the literature of our time. These readers have a serious and important point. All voices deserve a hearing; all faces of all shapes deserve to be seen, and everyone’s story deserves to be told, and to be told with all the beauty and tragedy and love that can be mustered in the telling. So if writers are still only writing about Americana, and let us admit that for all its universality Dandelion Wine is a slice of Americana, then where does that leave all other voices? Is their absence a way of saying that those other voices aren’t important enough to be included in our stories? Is it sufficient to say, as Bradbury says, that if you want representation then you should write it yourself?

    My other point is, it’s okay to be critical of the things you love. I will likely continue to read and love Bradbury’s work, and I’ll encourage others to love his work as well. But I will also be conscious of what it is. You can read a book like Dandelion Wine with a question in your mind like this one: is the experience expressed in the book important and beautiful enough that you can suspend your criticism of the parts which contemporary values render problematic? Or, is the book’s experience so deeply embedded in its own time that it can’t leap past its own problems and speak beyond its time?

    On those last two questions, I think Dandelion Wine is artistically successful, and completely readable today. It is a story where perhaps nothing happens for thirty pages or more, and then everything happens, and it is beautiful and tragic and right, all at once. Death amidst magic; sadness amidst wonder, and yet all of it loving and caring and human. There it is, a whole world in one summer, printed on a page as much as stoppered in a bottle of wine– dandelion wine, no less. It’s a book to read in winter, when you have half-forgotten what summer feels like; or a book to read when you’re old, and want to remember being young again; a book to read when you hear the footsteps of the Lonely One, and it’s time to learn how to welcome him in.

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    Can book launches be as big as weddings? Some (slightly selfish) thoughts about celebrating books and writers

    While attending my brother’s wedding last week, I had a rather selfish thought: no one has ever celebrated my life and accomplishments on a scale that big.

    Of course the reasons for this are obvious. I’ve never been married; I lead a solitary life anyway; I don’t have that many close friends.

    Still, all six of my brothers and sisters have now had a big day (really a big week) with live bands, DJs, caterers, photographers, excursions, pub nights, suit / dress fittings, rented halls, and more than a hundred friends, some of whom traveled very far to be there. So I wondered if my turn would ever come. I’m not getting married in the near future, if I ever get married at all. And I don’t want to have a “getting married to myself” party because I think that would be silly. But I was discussing this with my sister Bridget during Turlough’s reception and we hit upon the obvious solution:

    A book launch!
    For all seventeen of my books!

    My next book, “Reclaiming Civilization“, will be available for purchase in late August; and some of my previous books, including my “History of Pagan Philosophy”, and the entire “Fellwater: The Hidden Houses” urban fantasy series, didn’t have launch & signing events at all.

    So: perhaps in October 2017 (because I may need that much prep time) and perhaps in Toronto (because it’s closer to more of my friends and family), I’ll rent a pub, or a hotel function room, or maybe a campground, and I’ll invite everyone I know. Perhaps a bookstore could be persuaded to sponsor the event and sell copies of the books there. We can have a huge dinner, and do live readings from some of the books, and maybe some of my musician-friends could do a concert. If there’s sufficient interest, I might do it again in Montreal.

    It’s not all about my ego (well, okay, it might be mostly about my ego); it’s also the principle of the thing. We tend to celebrate weddings on big scales; sometimes we also celebrate birthdays, school graduations, retirements, deaths, etc., on similar scales; I’d like to celebrate writers and their books the same way.

    If you agree, and you’re willing to help, let me know.

    (And if you think I’m being pretentious and selfish, my reply shall be to write more and better books.)

    At the launch event for “Loneliness and Revelation”, 2010.

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