Blog posts about a writer’s holidays are normally dreary affairs of narcissism and fantasy. So, here’s one about why my holiday was wonderful, curious, and, well, heartbreaking.
First, something wonderful.
As this was my third visit to Krenicna, Central Bohemia, Czech Republic, perhaps the neighbours felt more familiar with me, because I was invited to join them at their social gatherings far more often than ever before. I got a chance to have substantial conversations with people who, on previous visits, I only met in passing. Anyone can go to a faraway country and gawk at the monuments that they could see in photographs at home; a real adventure involves talking to new people, for new people are always surprising, and often wonderful too. I shall be glad to see them again next year.
It was, as always, wonderful to babysit the family dog, Helli– who, this year, was in heat– but maybe I’ll save those stories for the next time you meet me in person.
Next, something curious.
You know, over the last six or seven years or so, my thinking has grown less mystical and more humanist. Most of my friends know this, or figured it out even if I didn’t say much about it. Readers of my books will have noticed I’m not writing (much) about paganism anymore. During this expedition in Bohemia, somewhere during the month, I was reminded of how animism, the foundational principle of all religion, is surprisingly difficult to put down.
I rejected the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin when I was sixteen. In my late twenties and early thirties I rejected the so-called ‘Laws of Magic’ (well, such as they were widely understood in the neo-pagan community at the time; see my book ‘A Pagan Testament’ for a list of them).
Yet this year, events reminded me of why animism is such a persistent, elemental experience. It could start with the simple and perhaps uncomfortable feeling that you are being watched, when you know you are alone. It could come from the more numinous and ecstatic feeling that arises when looking at the dome of the stars from the top of a hill, where the field in which I sat suddenly seemed like the centre of the universe.
I remain convinced I was logically and ethically right to reject those religious doctrines I mentioned above. Yet animism, as the simple proposition that the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present, seems to offer itself despite all objections. I might scientifically understand everything there is to understand about a flower– its biology, its niche in the ecosystem, the structure of its cells, the chemistry of its life-processes, its role in humanity’s arts and culture– and yet the question seems never to disappear: what if there’s something more to this flower? What if there’s a spirit? And what might that spirit be?
Glory of the sun, touching the horizon.
Depth of the hollow hedgerow, passage to the mysteries of Earth.
Well, there’s a topic for a future book, maybe. But if I write that book, mind that it will not be an exercise in validating anyone’s feelings. Not even my own. I’m a philosopher, and it is the philosopher’s duty to seek the truth, whatever it might be.
One of the things I love about visiting central Bohemia is the explorability of the land. The village is nestled in a shallow valley of meadows and forested hills, and near to a steeper valley which beds the Vltava River. I have come to love walking the trails and hill crests and cave-like hedgerows, with Helli keeping me company and watching out for whatever may lie ahead.
I adore these meadows, these forests, these hills. And this wolfdog.
This year I did something I hadn’t done (much) in the previous visits: explore the hill trails by night. Since I am writing a novel about Urania, and since the village is far enough from the nearest big cities that the Milky Way is visible on a clear night, I thought it important to go out and see the stars. And so I did– and the planet Mars, too, which was in a leg of its orbit that brings it close to Earth, so on most nights I saw it very bright, perhaps outshining Venus.
The moon, and the night-glowing clouds.
Finally, something heartbreaking.
But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) Europe was under a protracted heat wave, and had been since Easter. Daytime temperatures never went below 33 degrees C, the whole time I was there; and it rained only once. The grass in the meadows browned, and crackled underfoot. The trees withered too, as if autumn was upon us. The land was suffering. And I veritably mourned to see it suffer.
Parched soil and starving trees.
A side point. A local new friend told me the price of recently harvested hay for animal-feed was 20% higher this year because of drought-induced scarcity. (So if you think global warming won’t affect you– I promise you that it will. If nowhere else, it will hit you in your grocery store: in the price you pay for your food, and in the kinds of foods that will become entirely unavailable.)
I have agreed for years that climate change and global warming really is happening. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about it. I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes, decades ago. Nevertheless, to see it come to this land that over the last four years I have grown to love– heartbreaking.
Though not directly connected to the narrative I’ve unfolded for you above, I also visited Prague again, and Cesky Krumlov, beautiful cities which I heartily recommend to all urban explorers (and my thanks to the Reidingers for taking me there even while they were jet-lagged.)
Castle courtyard, Cesky Krumlov. Notice the allegories of the Platonic virtues painted on the building.
Hall of Curiosities, Strahov Monastery, Prague.
Mediaeval book displayed in the library of the Strahov monastery library, Prague.
Postscript. I used to say I wanted to build a temple. Not anymore– now I want to build a museum (a ‘home of the Muses’) and a library, like this one. And I will fill it with the best philosophy, literature, poetry, music, art, foodways, handicrafts, history, science– everything you’d need to rebuild after a collapse of civilization. My library at home is now almost a thousand books, so I’m getting there.
This past weekend, I acquired a copy of Seneca’s Morals By Way Of Abstract, published in 1702. My attention was drawn not only by the book’s age– it’s more than three hundred years old– but also by this note in the translator’s preface:
We are faln into an Age of vain Philosophy; (as the Holy Apostle calls it) and so desperately over-run with Drolls and Scepticks, that there is hardly any thing so Certain, or so Sacred, that is not exposed to Question, or Contempt. Insomuch, that betwixt the Hypocrite, and the Atheist, the very Foundations of Religion, and good Manners are shaken, and the Two Tables of the Decalogue dash’d to pieces, the one against the other: The Laws of Government are Subjected to the Phansies of the Vulgar; Publick Authority to the Private Passions and Opinions of the People; and the Supernatural Motions of Grace confounded with the Common Dictates of Nature. In this State of Corruption, who so fit as a good honest Christian-Pagan, for a Moderator betwixt Pagan-Christians?
The translator, Sir Roger L’Estrange, published this when he was 86 years old. So you could perhaps read this translator’s preface as a 16th century example of a Baby Boomer complaining about how the Millennials are ruining everything.
Frontspiece of Seneca’s Morals, with engraving of Seneca committing suicide at the command of emperor Nero.
L’Estrange did not intend this an ordinary summary-translation of Seneca for a general interest. He published it because he was angry. He was 26 years old when the English civil war began; he was decidedly of the King’s party, and published pamphlets against the Parliamentarians; he spent nearly the whole of his life thereafter advocating for Protestant and royalist causes. I think L’Estrange was one of those “father knows best” conservatives, and was utterly incapable of imagining that there might be anything wrong with his worldview. You can see in the passage above how he refers to Catholics as ‘pagans’. Here’s another passage from that preface which shows this attitude:
Have we not seen, even in our dayes, a most Pious (and almost a Faultless) Prince, brought to the Scaffold by his own Subjects? The most Glorious Constitution upon the Face of the Earth, both Ecclesiastical and Civil, torn to Pieces, and dissolv’d? The Happyest People under the Sun Enslav’d; Our Temples Sacrilegiously profan’d; and a Licence given to all sorts of Heresie, and Outrage? And by whom, but by a Race of Hypocrites, who had nothing in their Mouths all this while, but The Purity of the Gospel; The Honour of the King; and, The Liberty of the People: assisted underhand with Defamatory Papers, which were levell’d at the King Himself, thorough the sides of His most faithful Ministers? This PROJECT succeeded so well against One Government, that it is now again set a foot against Another; and by some of the very Actors too in that TRAGEDY, and after a most Gracious Pardon also, when Providence had laid their Necks, and their Fortunes at His Majesties Feet. It is a wonderful thing, that Libells, and Libellers, the most infamous of Practises, and of Men; the most Unmanly, Sneaking Methods, and Instruments of Mischief: the very Bane of Humane Society, and the Plague of all Governments: It is a wonderful thing (I say) that these Engines, and Engineers, should ever find Credit enough in the World to engage a Party: But it would still be more wonderful, if the same Trick, should pass twice upon the same People, in the same Age, and from the very same IMPOSTORS. This Contemplation has carry’d me a little out of my way, but it has at length brought me to my Text again…
I think that in that passage, he is reflecting on his life. He lived through the English Civil War, and the Restoration; he spent a year in exile due to political opposition (did he flee for his life, or did he walk off in disgust?). Although he was knighted by King James II, he was indited in plots against the successor, King William of Orange, and even spent time in jail for it. He was frustrated for all his life by people whose way of thinking was different than his. And he did everything he could to fight them.
So I think that in publishing this little book, L’Estrange was hoping to induce in his contemporaries a kind of philosophical and moral enlightenment. He wanted it to be a corrective force against the “fancies of the vulgar” noted above, and perhaps produce a reconciliation between the different philosophical factions in his society. That’s what I think is implied in this comment, to the effect that he thought Seneca’s text is the greatest gift anyone ever gave to the human race:
I am sorry it is no better, both for your sakes and my own: for, if it were written up to the Spirit of the Original, it would be one of the most valuable Presents that ever any private Man bestow’d upon the Publick: And this too, even in the Judgment of both Parties, as well Christian as Heathen: of which in its due place…
Next to the Gospel it self, I do look upon it [Seneca’s work] as the most Sovereign Remedy against the Miseries of Humane Nature; and I have ever found it so in all the Injuries and Di∣stresses, of an Unfortunate Life.
So there you have it. Even in 1702, old men were still telling the kids to “shut up and respekt mah authoritay!”
I share none of L’Estrange’s political views, of course, except perhaps an appreciation of Stoicism and a mild curiosity about the monarchy. Nonetheless, I’m finding it interesting and even somewhat spiritual to hold this small piece of intellectual history in my hands, and to see how it is not much different from the kind of angry public argumentation that still take place today.
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you probably know some part of the story of Prometheus, the hero who stole fire from the sun and gave it to the fledgling human race. You probably also know how Zeus punished him for it, by chaining him to a mountain and sending a vulture every day to eat his perpetually-regenerating liver. The story still informs much of Western civilization’s sense of itself: his theft of fire is the symbol of Western civilization’s sense of its industriousness and enlightenment. Prometheus himself is a model of the ideal civilized man, a hero of daring and of endurance under adversity, combining the features of biblical Adam, the primordial thief, and Christ, the victor over death and the benefactor of humankind, and (though it may seem odd) Milton’s Lucifer, the rebel angel. We put the image of his torch in the logos of our corporations and our universities. We re-enact part of his story in the opening ceremonies of the modern Olympic Games, when we light the Olympic flame.
Ya, that was awesome, wasn’t it?
Nonetheless, I think Western civilization needs a better symbol.
For one reason: in the full story, Prometheus has no particular feelings for humanity. He delivered fire to us in order to undermine the authority of Zeus; he had no other reason. Indeed, humanity already had the technology of fire-building. Prometheus meddled with the sacrifices at a religious festival in Zeus’ honour. Zeus punished him by taking fire away from us. Only then, did Prometheus steal it back. And he didn’t carry it in a torch. He hid it in a stalk of the fennel plant. Various primary sources, notably the Library of Apollodorus, attest to this.
For a second reason: Greek mythology also provides to us an entire family of other, better benefactors: the nine Muses, who embody the functions of civilization rather more directly, if somewhat less ostentatiously, than Prometheus. The muses, and not Prometheus, are invoked at the beginning of the most important epic poems, the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Works And Days. They’re invoked at the beginning of many of the old Greek plays, too. And while Prometheus and his torch are undeniably powerful symbols for industrial civilization, it is the gifts of the muses which activate the imagination, the artistic genius, and the scientific curiosity, which drives civilization forward. Indeed the very notion of ‘going forward’, or progress, is a gift of the mother of the muses, Mnemosyne, ‘memory’. For it is our ability to remember the past that enables us to possess a notion of progress at all; it is memory which allows us to compare our present state of life to the past, and so assess whether our lives are any better, or any worse, or at least different. And if we find that our life has become worse, we can call the muses to help us make art and so ease the misery, if not also improve life again.
For a third reason: when you look at who the nine muses are as individuals, you find they embody the foundational and essential fields of primary education: three poets, two playwrights, an historian, a singer, a dancer, and a scientist. That is to say, they teach intellectual knowledge, emotional maturity, artistic excellence; they are the bringers of the instruments by which we invent and discover our cultural identity.
Consider as an example, how culture might be different if, inspired by Terpsichore, primary schools had dance classes instead of or alongside gym classes. Students could learn a form of physical education and health maintenance which, unlike track-and-field events or field sports, is not a thinly disguised preparation for war fighting. They might learn how to move and use their bodies as instruments of fun and self-expression. They might learn how to touch and hold each other with respect. They would certainly build up muscle mass. (Ballerinas are really athletes, you know.) With that in mind, the symbol of the torch-wielding Prometheus seems to me unnecessarily aggressive, possibly vainglorious, and even rather joyless.
For a fourth reason: One can imagine any of the muses, even unhappy Melponene, singing or laughing with childlike delight to see some thing of beauty in the world, however small. One cannot imagine Prometheus laughing, unless it comes from a Nietzschean sense of pleasure in the exercise of power. And one cannot imagine him singing.
(Okay, fine, you can imagine him singing, and wearing a clown suit and juggling seven live cats, because imagination is weird like that. But it wouldn’t be consistent with his character.)
By contrast, the laughter of the Muses comes from pure life-affirmation, nothing more and and nothing less. Between the two, I think the laughter of the muses is preferable. It can come from that thrill you feel when life surprises you with something beautiful. That’s what inspiration is like, sometimes.
For a fifth reason: images of the muses already posses an important place in the history of western art. They were a special interest of the Italian Renaissance masters, for instance. Raphael included them in his Parnassus, his allegory of the arts, which occupies an equal place beside his Disputatio (theology) and School of Athens (philosophy).
Detail of Parnassus, by Raphael. Vatican museums.
Among the early modern depictions we find a dimension of the muses not well attested in the ancient sources, but nevertheless (so it seems to me) consistent: their sex appeal. The muses approach their students as lovers; their students try to court them with works of artistic aréte, excellence. And as most artists will tell you, the feeling of artistic inspiration and ‘flow’ is as good, and sometimes better, than sexual ecstasy. In this relationship of artist and muse, sexual identity, desire, and pleasure is affirmed as an ethical good. This seems to me a far better message than the one that tends to appear most often in pop culture, the message that men’s bodies are weapons of conquest and that women’s bodies are territories to be conquered. The sexual presence of a muse is not only a feature of their historic representations; sexual pleasure is one of the arts they teach: Erato, whose name needs no translation, is one of their poets. This affirmational view of sexuality might be especially important in places where the schools teach abstinence (by the way: the lessons don’t stick), or where the schools are removing mature sex education from the curriculum.
Erato, by Francois Boucher
It might be argued that the renaissance depictions are fraught with what contemporary feminists call the male gaze: that is, the muses do not appear as persons with agency and independent identity, instead they appear as objects of possession and pleasure for a male viewer. This is a theme in western art in general (see episode 2 of Berger’s Ways of Seeing for a close study of this). If that is so, it seems to me the correct counter argument is not that we must cover or reject those images. Instead we should create new representations of our own, in which sexual identity, sexual pleasure, and sexual desire, can be affirmed in a manner that disempowers or dehumanizes no one, and in which the phenomenological relation between inspiration and sexual power can be affirmed, explored, experimented with, and enjoyed. I can imagine the muse-goddess Erato teaching a primary school class about consent culture, or the pros and cons of various contraceptives.
For a sixth reason: The dudebros reading this, who even now are hammering out angry skreeds against this argument, really have no reason to feel excluded. At least two men feature in the story of the Muses: Zeus was their father, and Apollo was their teacher, for instance. Feel free to use my comments section below to discuss whether the Muses could have grown beyond their teachers, as all good students do.
For all such reasons, then, I think a better symbol for the life and identity of western civilization should be a circle of the nine muses dancing together. It is a more joyful image, to encourage a more caring, more intellectually vigorous, and more artistically flourishing culture.
Dance of Apollo and the Muses, by Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481-1536)
A counter argument. The identities of the muses, that is to say the selection of arts which they embody, is a kind of statement, to the effect that the selected arts constitute the goodnesses of life. This prompts the question: why those arts and not others? Why not painting, sculpture, architecture? Why not any ‘homely arts’ like knitting, cooking, weaving? Without them, the muses as a new symbol of civilization might be incomplete. Prometheus, by contrast, gave us a gift that everyone can use.
One reason for the selection of arts comes from the animism at the heart of religion. In ancient Greek paganism, material artists like sculptors and architects would have prayed to the spirits dwelling in the stone they worked. Artists would have prayed to the plants and minerals that provided their paint pigments. The nine muses represent arts that have no material foundation but the movement of human bodies and the thoughts within human minds (notwithstanding that they do carry props with them: books, musical instruments, etc., but these are icons of their bearers, and not materials that the worshippers work upon.)
But that is perhaps a religious-archeological explanation. A philosophical explanation might be that the muses represent activities instead of things; they inspire the pleasures that come from doing something instead of from making and owning something. (obviously, ‘making’ is a kind of ‘doing’; but let’s not quibble). The work of the muses can be accomplished and completed in its moment of creation, and the work vanishes as the moment passes; the work of a sculpture or an architect reaches completion only when the artist ceases the activity of creation. Then the work of that activity remains, as an object that can be priced, bought, and sold. All that is to say, the muses inspire activities that have a different relationship to time, and that different relationship to time allows them to escape capture by the market. Poetry is meant to be read out loud; music is meant to be sung; history is for telling; the stars are for observing. It could be further objected that a dancer could be paid for her performance; a historian or a poet could sell copies of the books she wrote; an astrologer could collect a fee for her professional consultation. But no one can own a moment of beauty. No one can own the stories of the past, no one can own the stars. We can only see, hear, and remember such phenomena; it is therefore all the more fitting that remembering is the mother of the muses.
Well, that reply to the counter argument is not fully persuasive. For in much the same way, you could own a statue but not its sensuousness; you could own a painting but not its light, you could own a building but not the frozen music it embodies.
Perhaps the simpler answer is to suppose that since thousands of years have gone since the mythic age, the nine canonical muses might have diversified their portfolios. Maybe Thalia, muse-goddess of comic drama, now inspires the authors of newspaper comic strips. Perhaps Euterpe, the muse-goddess of lyric poetry, also inspires the people who design light shows at rock concerts. Perhaps Polyhymnia conducts gospel choirs.
Calliope, by JHW Tischbein. Muse-goddess of long-form episodic television dramas.
It’s easy to imagine those new possibilities because the Muses, as symbols, are adaptable to new circumstances. And in that way, they can meet the counterargument noted above: that their symbol might be incomplete. I rather think that the muses can always fit themselves into new arts, new forms of expression. They can be by your side at any time.
Prometheus, as a symbol, seems to me somewhat less flexible. He’s a straight-up hero, a trickster-god, a rebel angel; and while those are good things to be, he’s not much else. I think it’s Prometheus, as a symbol, who is incomplete; its hero-energy might be remain reactionary and aimless, without the vision and guidance of the muses.
I have it on good authority, by the way, that Urania, muse of astronomers, is now a flatmate with Saint Sophia, the goddess of philosophers. She was in the JPL control room when NASA launched the Voyager probes. She once had a beer with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.
In fact, I’m writing a novel about that beer.
In fact, I’m having a beer with her right now.
So, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to work.
Urania, from a series by Jose Luis Munoz Luque, 2012.
Postscript 1: For the sake of reference, here’s who they are, and how to translate their names.
Calliope, “Beautiful Voice”, epic poetry.
Clio, “Make-Famous”, history.
Euterpe, “Giving Delight”, music, song, and lyric poetry
Erato, “Beloved”, love poetry
Melpomene, “Celebrates With Song”, tragic drama.
Polyhymnia, “Many Hymns”, religious song
Terpsichore, “Delighting In Dance”, dance
Thalia, “Rich Festivity”, comic drama.
Urania, “Heavenly One”, astronomers.
Postscript 2: The (draft) cover copy for the novel that I mentioned above.
On a cold night in 1514, Urania, the Greek goddess of astronomy, inspires Nicolaus Copernicus to re-imagine the cosmos with the sun at the centre: a crime for which Zeus banishes her from Olympus. Then Julian Augusta, former emperor of Rome and an agent of Zeus, offers her a bargain: find one mortal who can grasp the immensity of the universe without going mad, or else live in exile forever. With help from Prometheus the Titan, and Kynisca of Sparta, the first woman to win at the Olympic Games, Urania works with Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, and other great names of the Renaissance, hoping that one of them can win the gamble. But Julian arranges for accidents, turns of fate, even the Inquisition, to interfere with their work, and Prometheus has his own agenda. As her search continues, she finds the consequences of winning might be worse than the price of losing.
There is a political faction in the United States whose members believe that their most important religious duty is to create (a very narrow and conservative version of) the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. I probably don’t need to name them; they’re well known enough, and some of the readers of this blog probably know more about them than I do.
These people believe that in order to save the world, they must manipulate the state: passing laws and enforcing practices designed to enshrine christian values, and to stress and disrupt the lives of people with non-Christian identities, so that non-Christians (this includes Catholics, in their view) will convert to their brand of christianity or else dwindle in influence to political insignificance. Their plan also includes inserting themselves into other areas of culture: the family, the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex, and so on. The aim is to create a Christian theocracy, and install themselves as its ruling class.
The idea of a City Of God is, after all, very old.
Another way to save the world, in their view: to increase the pain and suffering in the world to such a pitch that God would “have” to return.
A war would do that. Moreover, a war in the middle east would have symbolic value for them: it is the area where, according to biblical prophesy, the final battle between good and evil will take place. Further: it is a war that these people think they can win.
If they get their war and win it, they can try to create their Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, not only in America, but also around the world. And if they lose it, they increase the pain in the world and so accelerate Christ’s return. Thus, in their worldview, they cannot lose.
But I am always confident in the basic goodness of the overwhelming majority of people on earth, of every religion and every culture. The best parts of religion grew from our inherent basic goodness, along with the best of our music, art, drama, government, technological progress, and civilization itself. And then those things turned around and reinforced our basic goodness, in virtuous circle that’s been going on now ever since we learned to walk on two feet.
I see that confidence not only based on observable facts, but also as a kind of moral postulate: it is ethically better to believe that people are basically decent, than to believe they’re not. Even so, goodness is fragile (remember your Iris Murdoch) and it needs good people to take care of each other, to work together, and to speak out and to act against evil.
So, what are you doing, to help preserve some human goodness in the world?
And before you ask: no, I’m not implying you’re doing nothing. But I think it might be helpful for my friends to share with each other some notes about what they’re doing. Otherwise, we might not know what others around us are doing. We might not know that this world really is better than it often appears. It might be harder to imagine that it can be better still, if only we want it to be, and if we do something about it. So, what are you doing? Organizing voters, lobbyists, or campaigns? Attending rallies? Volunteering somewhere? Doing research into the true state of the world, and sharing its results? Helping other activists preserve their confidence, their initiative, their physical and psychological health? Helping to preserve your own?
As for me, I’m working to reclaim civilization (from the fascists, neo-Nazis, religious fundamentalists, violent misogynists, antifeminists, the sellers of hate and fear and ignorance, all those gangs who want to kick people like you out of it).
Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. You’re going to save the world.
Shortly after the destruction of his house his planet to make way for an interstellar bypass (the planet happened to be Earth, by the way), Arthur Dent, Earthling, accidentally joins a mission to find a mythical planet called Magrathea, a planet whose inhabitants are in the business of manufacturing custom made-to-order planets. And there, on Magrathea, he meets God.
Magrathea’s factory floor.
Well, he meets a man who was part of the team that designed and built the Earth. Which is about the same thing. (His name, by the way, isn’t important.)
This God turns out to be an eccentric jobsworth, friendly enough, but with no more of an idea what’s going on than anyone else. That’s Clue #1 for a theory I’m about to lay before you here.
On Magrathea, Dent learns that the Earth was one of Magrathea’s custom-made planets. Not only that, but it was in fact a planet-sized computer whose sole program was to compute the Question. The Ultimate Question, to Life, The Universe, and Everything. We learn that it was the second computer in a series; the first was called Deep Thought, and it computed the Answer, and as you know the Answer turned out to be 42.
That’s Clue #2, by the way. Deep Thought computed the Answer before anyone really knew what the Question was. The Answer, being a number, for a question no one knew how to put into words, is an absurdity, a stroke of cognitive dissonance, a non sequitur, a non-answer to an unasked question. I think Adams chose “42” as a way of saying life is ultimately absurd, pointless, ridiculous, without sense, and without meaning.
A popular theory states that Adams chose “42” as the Ultimate Answer because, as an enthusiast for computers and cryptography, he likely knew that 42 is the ASCII code number for an asterisk. The implication is that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, can be anything you like it to be.
Alas, this isn’t true. Adams himself actually answer the Question of “Why 42?” Replying to fan queries in 1993 on the old usenet group alt.fan.douglas-adams (remember back when the internet was text-only?)
“The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’. I typed it out. End of story.”
The debunking of that theory about ASCII code made me wonder about a theory of my own. It’s not about why the Answer to the Ultimate Question should be 42. It’s about why he chose a number at all, instead of a word or a proposition. Hence, my theory. Here it comes.
The most memorable events in the series are variations on the theme of absurdity. Arthur Dent has very little real agency in the story; he makes very few decisions and is given few opportunities to do so; he mostly marvels at and/or complains about what’s going on around him. What few choices he does make have to do with staying close to, and trying to care for, the various people who might be caught up in the weirdness along with him. He is a kind of everyman, thrust quite against his will into a series of absurd and impossible situations, who struggles to make sense of it all and never entirely succeeds. Now, most of the fun of reading / listening to / watching Hitch Hiker’s is the loopy weirdness of the world that Adams crafted for us. After all, this world includes AI-sentient and precognitive elevators who sometimes wonder if there is anything more to life besides going up and down in their elevator shafts, and if they ever conclude that the answer is ‘no’ then they go sulk in the basement and refuse to do anything, and enterprising galactic hitch hikers can sometimes pick up jobs as counsellors to depressed elevators.
Consider also the Total Perspective Vortex, a torture device which drives people to insanity by showing them exactly how insignificant they are compared to the infinity of the universe as a whole – a machine which led its own creator, Trin Tragula, to conclude that “if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo. Yeah, I went there.
Those were Clues #3 and #4, by the way.
Next clue: #5. Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy. The quest for the planet Earth, for the Question (to make sense of the Answer), and for the Creator of the Universe, was his quest, not Dent’s, even though the story is told from Dent’s point of view. Beeblebrox is the thief who stole the starship Heart Of Gold in order to find Magrathea. He’s the only man to survive exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex — because he unknowingly stepped into an alternate dimension version of it. That alternate dimension had been designed especially for him, and so he was the most important thing in that universe – a fact which, as a consummate narcissist, he already believed. As President his job was not to wield power, but to draw attention away from it. (Does this sound like any real-world Presidents you can think of?)
Now, Beeblebrox is undoubtedly one of the most fun and memorable characters in the series. But he’s also a sign that the absurdity of things, which in most of the story is a feature of the universe, is a feature of human society too.
In Restaurant, chapter 28, Adams very nearly says as much. Here’s the text:
It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are the problem.
And so this is the situation we find: a succession of Galactic Presidents who so much enjoy the fun and palaver of being in power that they very rarely notice they’re not.
And somewhere in the shadows behind them – who?
Beeblebrox is abducted by a man named Zarniwoop (using the fake Total Perspective Vortex as bait), and taken in the Heart of Gold to find the Ruler of the Universe, the man who presumably stands behind Zaphod’s presidency and who actually runs things. It’s another version of the quest for the Answer. And another occasion when the readers get to meet God.
This Ruler of the Universe turned out to be a completely confused and silly man who doubted he had that job at all, who had no idea why all these people kept coming to his house to ask his advice for things, and who also doubted that anyone had come to see him. After meeting Dent, he talked to his table for a week just to see what would happen.
Sensing the trend now?
Clue #6 is the clue that led me to the thesis that I haven’t stated yet, so I may as well reveal it now. In the story, Dent and Prefect narrowly escape the Mice who commissioned the construction of Earth in the first place, and who figured that since Dent survived the destruction of Earth it was possible that the Ultimate Question was likely encoded in his brain. Dent narrowly escapes having his brain removed, and he ends up marooned on Earth – two million years in the past – where he and Ford Prefect figure that maybe they can get the Question by randomly throwing Scrabble tokens. They do so, and find that the Question is: “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”
The clue is in the dialogue that comes next. Here it is from the 1980 novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
“Six by nine. Forty two.”
“That’s it. That’s all there is.”
“I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe.”
Now, the in-story reason that the Question and the Answer are absurdities is because the ark ship of the Golgafringams crash-landed on Earth (two million years ago) and corrupted the Earth-computer’s program. But I think the deeper reason is this. The Answer is 42, i.e. an absurdity, because something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.
A moment later, Dent laments the coming demolition of Earth, saying: “It’s very sad, you know. Just at the moment, it’s a very beautiful planet.” It’s like Adams is also lamenting and raging against the brokenness of the world.
Well, I think that’s a better explanation of “42” than a theory about ASCII code.
(Curiously, my paperback edition of Restaurant (Pan, 1980) does not include that line. I spotted that when I was researching this blog essay. It’s in other print editions of the novel, the original radio show, and in the TV series.)
Now let’s put all these clues together. I hypothesize that from these premises we can draw a conclusion rather like this one: Douglas Adams believed that something was wrong with the universe, and he was furiously angry about that fact.
I think that Adams genuinely wanted to know what the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is. Some of his friends, Richard Dawkins among them, attested as much about him. But I think he was also beyond livid that no straightforward answer was readily available. And I think his comedy was his way of expressing his combined joy in the search, and heart-breaking frustration with the lack of an apparent conclusion for that search.
(No, the journey is not the destination. Please don’t quote pop-culture flappery at me as if it is a serious counterargument.)
As another extra-textual attachment to this hypothesis, I give you one of Adams’ other projects: Last Chance To See, a nature documentary series which sought out rare and endangered species. Watch it (on the Flix Of Net) and you’ll see him as a man who genuinely loved the Earth, its life and diversity, and who was deeply upset that wonderful animals like the aye-aye, the manatee, the Yangtze river dolphin, might soon entirely disappear from the face of the Earth.
There is some evidence for a counter-argument. The 2005 film (which I consider canonical; Adams worked on the script, appeared in it as a character, and anyway this is the sort of story that doesn’t lend itself to the demand that there should be only one canonical version) offers a kind of solution to all the absurdity. Slartibartfast (I told you his name doesn’t matter) tells Dent “I’d much rather be happy than right, any day.”
It’s an absurd solution, since Dent asks Slartibartfast if he is happy, and Slartibartfast says “Ah, no.”
Dent reiterates the same point a few scenes later, when he tells the mice (just as they are about to steal his brain) that he has a head full of frustratingly unanswerable questions and that the only thing he is sure about is that when he first met Trillian he was finally happy.
More evidence for a counterargument: Adams said in 1980:
“The larger the issue, the better the jokes that become available to you… I don’t know what I think about anything until I find the right joke for it.”
Clearly, that quote doesn’t support my hypothesis that he was angry about things. But it does, at any rate, support the view that Adams was, in some way, a serious man, and he believed his comedy had a serious dimension.. Dent’s now famous statement, upon learning that he as an Earthling was part of a giant computer program, that:
All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.
…also confirms the seriousness behind the silliness. This line is immediately trivialized by saying it’s “only paranoia, everyone in the universe gets that”. But this is another way to preserve the seriousness: it actually confirms that it is normal for people to wonder about the universe and their place in it.
At the end of the film, Dent stands at the front gate of his new home on Earth 2.0, and Slartibartfast asks if there’s anything he would like changed or removed, anything the world could do without. Dent says “Me”. Then he says to Trillian, “Let’s go somewhere”.
That’s Adams telling us that he loves the adventure, and wants to keep exploring the universe, even with all its weirdness and nonsense. Perhaps Adams cooled down his anger and his despair in his later years. Perhaps he and the other movie-people decided that the conclusion “There is something fundamentally wrong with the universe” was too bleak for a film version of the story. At any rate, by ending on a note that resembles a Nietzschean amor fati (without all the jackboot marching and trumpets), Hitch Hiker’s becomes a kind of love story, not of eros, but of agape; a global expression of love for the world, in all of its imperfection.
If Dent’s adventure was a journey, then that sense of agape was the destination. “42” is the stand-in for the proposition that something is fundamentally wrong with the universe, and yet it’s okay. It’s really, beautifully, okay.
And that, too, is a better explanation for “42” than a theory about ASCII code.
But let me conclude with a final, this time really final, clue in favour of my thesis: the story starts with a protest. We first meet Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer to protest the demolition of his house. That would be symbol enough. But the demolition was apparently random, because the public notice for the demolition was posted in an impossible-to-find location: in a basement room with a collapsed stair, behind a lavatory door marked with a sign saying “Beware of the Leopard”. It was the first absurdity of the story.
Could the entire series be an act of protest against the absurdities of the world?
But I also suspect of him, for all the reasons given above, that his comedy was a kind of cover for some deep-seated and serious feelings about the way of things. His comedy is a safe and nonthreatening way of exploring ideas that are not safe at all, and very threatening.
Step into the Total Perspective Vortex, and you’ll see.
The following is my “Publisher’s Foreword”, which I wrote for my dad’s book of collected poems, “An Economy Of Words“. Now that Mom and Dad have seen it, I can share it with all of you. ~Bren.
If you are not one of the author’s nearest friends or family members, then this foreword is for you.
We would like to know how you found this book. We were planning a very small print run: perhaps only fifty copies, to be given as gifts to a handful of the author’s nearest and dearest. Did you find it at a charity sale, or in a box in someone’s basement? Was it holding up the short leg of a table? Or hidden under the cushions of an old chair, where someone accidentally dropped it? We’d like to know. For one thing, we’d like to track down that rotten sod who lost this book or gave it away, and demand from him an explanation. It had better be a good one. For this book is the author’s heart.
Bob Myers was born 1945 in county Laois, Ireland: a part of the country where, as he says, “the tourists never go”. His childhood consisted in getting lost in fairy rings on the way to school, hiding from the BanShee (that’s how he pronounced it) whose comb he had found on the road, and wondering what the kids in the Protestant school looked like. He came to Canada when he was eleven years old, studied English at the University of Guelph, got married, became a school principal, and bought a house in Elora to raise his seven children and they all turned out mostly fine. The rest of the details, you shall have to figure out for yourself by reading the poems.
He says they’re about ordinary events. Nevertheless, here’s over seventy years of them: some beautiful, some disturbing, and some deeply weird. Together they are his memoirs in verse, his autobiography in art, his voice crying out in the desert, his celebration of the ordinary life. And that is no ordinary thing.
Now, the observant reader will notice that in the first sentence of this book of poetry, a book which happens by non-coincidence to be full of poems, Myers denies being a poet. What a strange lack of grasp upon reality! In fact I wonder what other features of his world have not been approved by the Committee. For in this book you will find fairy stories, ghost stories, stories of childhood’s follies and elderhood’s nostalgia, love songs, travellers tales, fragments of conversations with the souls of others and the soul of the world, delivered with the irony and dry whimsey of Stuart McLean or Stephen Leacock. But it’s not the ghosts which are the problem. It’s his style of whimsey, isn’t it? You’d have to know the sound of his voice to get the whole effect. Without it, some of this stuff — the first few lines of Penance, for example — might sound a little creepy. As for most of the rest of it: well, in this modern age we are supposed to be self-absorbed and cynical! So, I am withholding one last poem from the collection. Our modern age doesn’t deserve it. It’s quite irrelevant that his last poem is a recipe for barbecued ribs with honey-mustard sauce. I’m keeping it for myself. Unless this book is in the running for a literary prize. Then I might share it with the judges.
You will also notice, because you are probably not blind, that many of these poems are also works of serious Christian devotion. Myers is the sort of Catholic whose Catholicism is sometimes too much for other Catholics. He is too fun-loving and intellectually curious for the puritans: for him, God is “in my flower garden / playing with my child.” A sentiment like that is worthy of Kalil Gibran. At the same time he is too conservative and ethically uncompromising for the reformers: this same god will dispense “direful justice” in the Endtimes. Since you’ve already read this far into the preface, you might as well know where all this religious intensity comes from. Of course he was religious from a young age. But in his midlife, his body became host to several incurable viruses with unpronounceable names. These microscopic monsters traded his bodily energy for a constant background of physical pain. His religious faith was his rock in the weary land. It allowed him to see how everything in the world has its place in the choir — including his suffering. These poems are his testament of a faith that allowed him to turn his frustration and anxiety into art. I dare say that his endurance of his physical disabilities (slogging along the Camino Sketches, for example), his perseverance through a traumatic childhood (see Contrition), his integrity in the face of social ostracism (see Kitchen Photos), the preservation of his generosity and his sense of wonder throughout, is the kind of quiet heroism for which other men have been beatified.
He wouldn’t want that, though. He would likely settle for seeing a copy of this book on a friend’s beside table, dog-eared, coffee stained, scribbled full of notes — evidence that it made someone happy for a while.
All right, then. Enough about the man. Enough of this prologue, too. Time to sum up.
If you’ve wondered what it would be like to visit a world full of ghosts and fairies and angels, where people spend long afternoons eating big home-cooked meals, drinking good wine, and arguing about the wherefores and the whytos of things, and where a nearby God presides over everything, well then here’s your book.
And if the style of these poems isn’t modern enough for your taste, that’s okay. This book wasn’t meant for you anyway. Drop it off at a charity shop. Maybe someone will pay two dollars for it, and maybe there’s a medical researcher who needs the money.
But first, consider the following. This book is my father’s heart. By way of some wandering path through time and space, it has landed in your hands. Maybe there’s something in it that was meant for you, after all.
Although I don’t really expect anyone will buy a copy, here’s the book on Amazon where you could do so if you were curious enough.
Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. Back then, I admired him for his adventurousness, bravery, and victory. Now as an adult, I admire him for his philosophical integrity. Here’s why.
In A New Hope (1977), Luke is a farm boy. An orphan. A kid of no special importance. So was I, so it seemed to me at the time: a kid growing up in a small town, far from the centers of power in my society, and the target of most of my school’s bullies. Like my hero, I dreamed of adventure in faraway places.
Then Luke finds himself thrust into an adventure of galactic significance: helping save a princess, and blowing up a WMD. In the course of the adventurer he discovers The Force, a quasi-religious power which “surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together” — and Luke achieves his victory by letting the Force flow through him.
There was a spiritual message there. As I understood it back then, it went something like this: the galaxy as a whole is almost a living thing, and you are part of it; and you can know this by relaxing, calming yourself, trusting your feelings, visualizing relations of energy between and within things, letting go of hate and anger. Chilling out. Meditating upon peace and purpose.
That is a Taoist message:
A skillful fighter does not become angry.
A skillful conqueror does not compete with people.
Tao Te Ching, § 68
Now, I didn’t know anything about Taoism when I was six years old, but I got the message.
I suppose this is no accident. Star Wars was based (in part) on those spaghetti Samurai films from the ’50s and ’60s, in which similar messages are encoded in the ethical principles embodied therein. Bruce Lee taught something like it, in Enter The Dragon (1973), so the idea wasn’t wholly new to cinema-goers.
Later in my life, as an undergrad, I read the Tao Te Ching. And because I had been watching Star Wars through my childhood (as well as listening to The Beatles and The Moody Blues), I found its message rather familiar.
There’s already enough stuff written about how The Force is comparable to the Tao, so I’ll skip it here; I want to emphasize the way in which Luke himself is a kind of Taoist hero. Which leads me to the Return of the Jedi (1983). At the opening of this film, Luke is no longer a farm boy. Now he’s a Jedi Knight. He’s a somebody. He’s marching into Jabba’s palace through the front door. He’s pushing around the guards, force-choking them like a Sith, controlling their minds, taking no crap from anyone. He tells Jabba what he intends to do. Jabba and the whole court laugh at him. Then he does it. Exactly as he said he would do.
And he does no more then exactly what he said he would do, because:
A good general achieves his purpose and stops,
But dares not seek to dominate the world.
He achieves his purpose but does not brag about it,
He achieves his purpose but does not boast about it,
He achieves his purpose but is not proud of it,
He achieves his purpose but only as an unavoidable step.
Tao Te Ching, § 30
Luke’s heroism, and his Taoism, hit home the most for me in the emperor’s throne room scene. Here’s a character who is doing his absolute best to keep his cool, while Vader and the Emperor push all his buttons. When Vader suggests that Leia could be turned to the dark side, Luke finally gives in to his anger. And so he defeats Vader. But then he sees how he was becoming like Vader, in the symbol of the mechanical hand– something he had been warned might happen when he was exploring the cave on Dagobah. So he throws away his lightsabre– an astonishing act of bravery and integrity. That’s the Taoist way. To do nothing, and so to achieve everything. He looked into the dark side within himself, and at the last minute he pulled himself back from it, and refused to act; that is, he refused fight in the the expected, antagonistic way.
Act without action,
Do without ado,
Taste without tasting.
Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue.
It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete with him.
For deep love helps one to win in the case of attack,
And to be firm in the case of defense.
Tao Te Ching, § 63, 66, 67.
It’s possible that Luke was also trusting that his father would find the goodness still within him (which Luke had told him, a few scenes ago, was still there), and so come to the rescue of his son. It is also a Taoist idea to see the good in all things, including in what is dangerous or harmful.
Even when a man is bad, when has Tao rejected him?
Tao Te Ching, § 62.
Some Taoist texts which discuss this life-affirming point of view do so in the context of death:
Tzu-lai fell ill, was gasping for breath and was about to die. His wife and children surrounded him and wept. Tzu-li went to see him. “Go away,” he said. “Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place…
Tzu-lai said, “Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest. Therefore to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.”
Chuang-Tzu, The Great Teacher.
Sounds like what Yoda was telling Luke, when Yoda himself was dying.
So, on to The Last Jedi (2017).
It’s not really Luke’s story; the title is ambiguous enough that it could refer to Luke, although it could also refer to Rey. But as for Luke himself, we learn through the course of the film that he looked into the darkness within himself a second time. In so doing, he almost killed his nephew Ben Solo. Then he pulled himself back from the darkness, and turned again to the light.
But that second time, that brief look to the dark and return to the light does no one any good. In fact it does deep harm to several people he cares about. No wonder that through most of the film, he’s bitter and miserable, full of self-hatred. He is a good enough man to know that he failed, and he is a good enough man to know that he should have been a better man. (A private note: I know what that feels like.) Luke isolated himself on the island so that he would do no harm to anyone else, ever again. He intends for himself to be the last Jedi: as he tells Rey, “The Jedi must end.”
It takes Yoda, who has died / become one with the Force, to prompt him to live in the present moment again and to do something decisive to help his friends, instead of uselessly dwelling on the past. So reminded of what matters, he confronts Kylo, not to kill him, but to apologise. And in so doing, to show Kylo there is still a chance to turn back to the light. And he does so again in the most Taoist way: facing Kylo not to fight him, but to teach him. There is a moral and philosophical heroism in that.
The good man is the teacher of the bad,
And the bad is the material from which the good may learn.
Tao Te Ching, § 27
And at the same time, he gives his friends in the Resistance a chance to escape. It’s similar to how he played for time for his friends while facing the Emperor on the second Death Star, after all.
Luke survives the encounter because he is not really there. He has:
…become one with the dusty world.
This is called profound identification.
The wild buffalo cannot butt its horns against him,
The tiger cannot fasten its claws in him,
And weapons of war cannot thrust their blades into him.
And for what reason?
Because in him there is no room for death.
Tao Te Ching, § 56, 50
Or, as in the context of the film, he scrounged up the last drops of will and energy he had, to astral-project himself to another planet– probably the most awesome thing we’ve ever seen a Force-sensitive character do in all the films and spinoff TV shows.
It costs him his life. It’s a truly great moment of heroic self-sacrifice. But he does not really die; he passes into the Force, with peace and purpose, as Yoda and Obi-Wan (and possibly Qui-Gon Jinn) had done before him.
Notice the two suns. Luke has returned home.
It’s a Christian idea, the idea that everyone can be forgiven, no matter what they’ve done. But it’s also a Taoist message, the idea that everyone can guide their life in accord with the Tao, let go of their anger and their hate, even to the point of letting go of their life, and in so doing accomplish greatness. No matter who they are.
So, now we have a Star Wars cinematic world in which there are no more special bloodlines or aristocratic families. No more knights saving princesses. As Luke says, the Force belongs to everyone. So any of us, even a slave-boy who cleans animal pens all day, can be a Jedi. The galaxy has become more democratic. And I think that is a new source of hope.
It’s this sense of new hope which allows Luke to tell Kylo, and the audience, that he will not be the last Jedi after all.
There is another.
Quotations from the Tao Te Ching, and from the Chuang-Tzu, followed the translation which appears in “A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy” by Wing-Tsit Chan (Princeton, 1963).
Discussions, debates, and arguments, are among the most ancient and most useful ways in which people sharpen their intellectual skills and learn from each other. Yet many debates quickly become useless shouting matches or festivals of hate. Online debates are especially vulnerable to this problem, because online debaters need not face each other directly and so need not see, nor bear the consequences of, the effects of verbally harming others.
Some philosophers have therefore proposed principles of discourse ethics, the purpose of which is to keep debates productive and gainful for everyone. Paul Grice’s principles of implicature are one such group of principles. Another is Jurgen Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics; Habermas said that such rules are “necessary for a search for truth organized in the form of a competition”. Speaking personally, I think the search for truth does not need to be competitive. Still, I do see the need for a few basic guidelines, lest the most aggressive or angriest voices dominate a conversation, or other speakers feel compelled to go along with the views of the aggressors for fear of being sidelined or punished. Rather like the rules of the road, where every driver obeys traffic lights and speed limits and so more people reach their destinations safely, the rules of discourse ethics allow everyone’s voice to receive a fair hearing, and to allow the best ideas to rise.
So here’s a proposed set of rules for your next discussion circle, whether it’s in your classroom, your religious community, your online chat room, your political forum, or wherever you find yourself discussing ideas important to you.
Everyone who comes to the discussion may speak. The circle may not disband until everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to do so.
Everyone who speaks must also listen.
Everyone shall assume that all participants are rational, and shall interpret each other’s words in the very best possible way.
Everyone shall debate for the sake of progress and knowledge, not for the sake of domination and victory.
I also like to light three candles and put them in the centre of the circle, in honour of Ireland’s first three druids, Fios, Eolus, and Fochmarc, whose names mean Intelligence, Knowledge, and Inquiry; also in honour of the old Irish triad: “Three candles that illuminate every darkness: truth, nature, and knowledge.”
What should you do about people who break those rules? In my experience, the most useful thing to do is to give offenders a warning after their first offence. Those who break the rules too often may have to be excluded from the discussion, and perhaps invited to return after giving an appropriate apology. This may seem to contradict the basic principle of creating a space for discourse which is open and welcoming to everyone. Philosopher Karl Popper called this contradiction the paradox of tolerance:
If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Routledge, 1945), chapter 7, note 4.
Popper published this in 1945, and so it’s likely he was thinking of Europe’s experience fighting the Nazis– a political movement which, during its rise to power in the 1930s, took advantage of other people’s tolerance to popularise intolerant (militaristic, murderous, hateful) political views. The paradox of tolerance leaves us in the logically difficult position of having to exclude certain (intolerant) people in the name of preserving an open and inclusive society. The enemies of the open society sometimes point to this paradox as evidence that the open society is full of hypocrisy. They might then suggest that some value program should replace it: a program which, while it might be elitist or even violent, at least has the virtue of being logically consistent.
There are several ways to try and resolve this paradox. One is utilitarian: it might be argued that an open society, haunted as it may be by this paradox, is still better than the alternatives. Another is to do with justice: for instance, Rawls said that an open society requires its members to defend the practices and institutions which are necessary for the preservation of its openness: “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), pg. 220.) This is not much different than asking drivers on public roads to obey speed limits and stop signs: our observance of such rules makes it easier for everyone to drive. (I’m getting lots of milage from that metaphor, eh?)
Virtue ethics offers another possible resolution to the paradox: a model of discourse ethics which includes the possibility, however small, that an excluded person could some day be welcomed back. In such a model, intolerant people would remain outside the conversation for as long as they remain a danger to it. But those inside the conversation move to exclude them in the manner of an educator, rather than as a jailor. They should preserve the hope, however faint the hope may be, that some day the intolerant will learn that intolerance is no path to any kind of good and worthwhile life. If and when the intolerant demonstrate that they’ve learned that lesson, then we might have a reconciliation with them. This is virtue-ethics because it presupposes that everyone, even the very worst people, can change their habits of character, and become better people; that optimistic view of human nature is arguably necessary for a good and worthwhile life. Now, I think it’s undeniably un-virtuous to enjoy the sight of someone being excluded: that would be shadenfreude, not virtue, however deserved the exclusion might be. Yet like every other ethics theory we’ve looked at so far, some critical questions can arise. Whose job is it to educate the excluded person? Might the safety of those inside the conversation matter more than the effort to include as many people as possible? What if the excluded person remains intolerant– should he be excluded forever, and if so, would that only strengthen the paradox instead of solve it? And what if the view of human nature presupposed here is not supported by enough evidence in human behaviour?
A few weeks ago I posted this question to my social media followers: “Hypothetically speaking: if I were to create a games development team, would you or someone you know be interested in joining?”
Lots of people said yes– many more than I expected. And they had many talents: artists, designers, writers, voice actors, and programmers. My friend J.S. sent me a link to an agency that pays seed money to gamedev startups. So I began to think: maybe there’s a future in this.
As if I haven’t re-invented myself enough in the last five years. 🙂
My first attempt to create a map for a computer-based RPG, using Unity, around two years ago.
So, in the days that followed, I revisited some of the notes I made over the years about games I’d like to create. Most are tabletop “soft power games” that I invented as teaching tools in my philosophy classes, one of which, “Iron Age”, I published. Another of my games is a big tabletop RPG based on my urban fantasy novels, and the object of two failed Kickstarter campaigns to publish it.* And one is a stack of notes for my “dream game”, a big open-world first-person RPG in the style of Skyrim and Mass Effect, with the look-and-feel of the early modern period— think of The Three Musketeers, or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen– and set in a social-political context resembling China’s Warring States period. I made notes for fictitious religions, corporations, several superpower nations, quasi-magical plants and animals and substances, a timeline of the world’s history going back 2,500 years, and I charted the planets and stars in the night sky. And I really enjoyed the process.
As it turned out, the notes I made for that game were used for my science fiction novel. That story is set in the near future instead of the near past, and it addresses different questions, different problems. But I think it would be a shame to use all those worldbuilding notes for only one (as yet unpublished) project.
While I decide whether to dive into the world of game design, I also ask myself what should I really want to do with my life, and what legacy should I want to struggle for. I’m getting too old to wait until later to follow my dreams. But I do know that I am basically happiest when I’m writing. And I know that of all that I’ve accomplished in life I am most proud of my books. (Well, some more than others.) If I had to choose between the games and the books, I would choose the books. But I also want to bring the worlds of my books more to life, more visible, more real.** That’s my fiction and my nonfiction– RPG games might also be a good way to explore the philosophy of civilization, or of ecology, or a few of my other intellectual curios. And besides that, game design looks like it might be fun. 🙂
So, I sent one of my games to some people who might be able to tell me what would be involved in developing it from a pencil-and-paper game into a computer game. While I wait to hear back from them, I have a few more hypothetical gamedev questions:
– If I had a pencil-drawn elevation map of the world, what would it take to turn that map into an explorable 3D VR space?
– Same for sketches of houses, buildings, towns and cities, clothing, items and equipment, etc.
– Is there anyone local who could show me how to use Unreal Engine, or Unity, or some other gamedev software?
– If you have done computer game development work already, how much time and money was involved in what you did?
– If I hosted a games night, featuring my own games (so that we can beta-test them), would you come?
So at the moment, my hypothetical game design studio is a set of questions. It might go no further than this blog post. But I am curious to see what would actually be involved in making it happen. I have the writing skills and the management skills to do something like this. But I don’t have the computer programming skills, or the money. (And I’m not quitting my day job.) So I can’t make a computer game all by myself. Well, unless I made it on a Commodore 128, but then no one would play it. So, I am curious to see if this idea of mine is something that might also interest you.
And now, back to my library. I have another book to write.
* One day I’ll buy a subscription to a stock image website, so that I can create a good interior layout for that game, and publish it under my own imprint. I don’t have enough money to pay an artist to create original work for it. But I might have enough money to buy a license to use artworks that are already ‘out there’.
** I’ve read my Beaudrillard, and I’m entirely aware that nothing in VR is truly alive nor real. But I’m sure you grasp the point I’m making.
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.