On Morality

On Morality

What does it mean to do the right thing? What does it mean to be good or evil?

These questions have perplexed people since people began to be perplexed about things. They are the central questions of one of the longest lines of intellectual inquiry in history: ethics. Great thinkers have tackled it; whole religions have been based around it. But confusion still remains.

Well perhaps I should be humble before attempting to solve such a momentous question, seeing who have come before me. And indeed, I don’t claim any originality or finality in these answers. I’m sure they have been thought of before, and articulated more clearly and convincingly by others (though I don’t know by whom). Nevertheless, if only for my own sake I think it’s worthwhile to set down how I tend to think about morality—what it is, what it’s for, and how it works.

I am much less concerned in this essay with asserting how I think morality should work than with describing how it does work—although I think understanding the second is essential to understanding the first. That is to say, I am not interested in fantasy worlds of selfless people performing altruistic acts, but in real people behaving decently in their day-to-day life. But to begin, I want to examine some of the assumptions that have characterized earlier concepts of ethics, particularly with regard to freedom.

Most thinkers begin with a free individual contemplating multiple options. Kantians think that the individual should abide by the categorical imperative and act with consistency; Utilitarians think that the individual should attempt to promote happiness with her actions. What these systems disagree about is the appropriate criterion. But they do both assume that morality is concerned with free individuals and the choices they make. They disagree about the nature of Goodness, but agree that Goodness is a property of people’s actions, making the individual in question worthy of blame or praise, reward or punishment.

The Kantian and Utilitarian perspectives both have a lot to recommend them. But they do tend to produce an interesting tension: the first focuses exclusively on intentions while the second focuses exclusively on consequences. Yet surely both intentions and consequences matter. Most people, I suspect, wouldn’t call somebody moral if they were always intending to do the right thing and yet always failing. Neither would we call somebody moral if they always did the right thing accidentally. Individually, neither of these systems captures our intuitive feeling that both intentions and consequences are important; and yet I don’t see how they can be combined, because the systems have incompatible intellectual justifications.

But there’s another feature of both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics that I do not like, and it is this: Free will. The systems presuppose individuals with free will, who are culpable for their actions because they are responsible for them. Thus it is morally justifiable to punish criminals because they have willingly chosen something wrong. They “deserve” the punishment, since they are free and therefore responsible for their actions.

I’d like to focus on this issue of deserving punishment, because for me it is the key to understanding morality. By this I mean the notion that doing ill to a criminal helps to restore moral order to the universe, so to speak. But before I discuss punishment I must take a detour into free will, since free will, as traditionally conceived, provides the intellectual foundation for this worldview.

What is free will? In previous ages, humans were conceived of as a composite of body and soul. The soul sent directions to the body through the “will.” The body was material and earthly, while the soul was spiritual and holy. Impulses from the body—for example, anger, lust, gluttony—were bad, in part because they destroyed your freedom. To give into lust, for example, was to yield to your animal nature; and since animals aren’t free, neither is the lustful individual. By contrast, impulses from the soul (or mind) were free because they were unconstrained by the animal instincts that compromise your ability to choose.

Thus free will, as it was originally conceived, was the ability to make choices unconstrained by one’s animal nature and by the material world. The soul was something apart and distinct from one’s body; the mind was its own place, and could make decisions independently of one’s impulses or one’s surroundings. It was even debated whether God Himself could predict the behavior of free individuals. Some people held that even God couldn’t, while others maintained that God did know what people would or wouldn’t do, but God’s knowledge wasn’t the cause of their doing it. (And of course, some people believed in predestination.)

It is important to note that, in this view, free will is an uncaused cause. That is, when somebody makes a decision, this decision is not caused by anything in the material world as we know it. The choice comes straight from the soul, bursting into our world of matter and electricity. The decision would therefore be impossible to predict by any scientific means. No amount of brain imaging or neurological study could explain why a person made a certain decision. Nor could the decision be explained by cultural or social factors, since individuals, not groups, were responsible for them. All decisions were therefore caused by individuals, and that’s the essence of freedom.

It strikes me that this is still how we tend to think about free will, more or less. And yet, this view is based on an outdated understanding of human behavior. We now know that human behavior can be explained by a combination of biological and cultural influences. Our major academic debate—nature vs. nurture—presupposes that people don’t have free will. Behavior is the result of the way your genes are influenced by your environment. There is no evidence for the existence of the soul, and there is no evidence that the mind cannot be explained through understanding the brain.

Furthermore, even without the advancements of the biological and social sciences, the old way of viewing things was not philosophically viable, since it left unexplained how the soul affects the body and vice versa. If the soul and the body were metaphysically distinct, how could the immaterial soul cause the material body to move? And how could a pinch in your leg cause a pain in your mind? What’s more, if there really was an immaterial soul that was causing your body to move, and if these bodily movements truly didn’t have any physical cause, then it’s obvious that your mind would be breaking the laws of physics. How else could the mind produce changes in matter that didn’t have any physical cause?

I think this old way of viewing the body and the soul must be abandoned. Humans do not have free will as originally conceived. Humans do not perform actions that cannot be scientifically predicted or explained. Human behavior, just like cat behavior, is not above scientific explanation. The human mind cannot generated uncaused causes, and does not break the laws of physics. We are intelligent apes, not entrapped gods.

Now you must ask me: But if human behavior can be explained in the same way that squirrel behavior can, how do we have ethics at all? We don’t think squirrel are capable of ethical or unethical behavior because they don’t have minds. We can’t hold a squirrel to any ethical standard and we therefore can’t justifiably praise or censor a squirrel’s actions. If humans aren’t categorically different then squirrels, than don’t we have to give up on ethics altogether?

This is not justified. Even though I think it is wrong to say that certain people “deserve” punishment (in the Biblical sense), I do think that certain types of consequences can be justified as deterrents. The difference between humans and squirrels is not that humans are free, but that humans are capable of thinking about the long term consequences of an action before committing it. Individuals should be held accountable, not because they have free will, but because humans have a great deal of behavioral flexibility, thus allowing their behavior to be influenced by the threat of prison.

This is why it is justifiable to lock away murderers. If it is widely known among the populace that murderers get caught and thrown into prison, this reduces the number of murders. Imprisoning squirrels for stealing peaches, on the other hand, wouldn’t do anything at all, since the squirrel community wouldn’t understand what was going on. With humans, the threat of punishment acts as a deterrent. Prison becomes part of the social environment, and therefore will influence decision-making. But in order for this threat to act as an effective deterrent, it cannot be simply a threat; real murderers must actually face consequences or the threat won’t be taken seriously and thus won’t influence behavior.

To understand how our conception of free will affects the way we organize our society, consider the case of drug addiction. In the past, addicts were seen as morally depraved. This was a direct consequence of the way people thought about free will. If people’s decisions were made independently of their environment or biology, then there was no excuses or mitigating circumstance for drug addicts. Addicts were simply weak, depraved people who mysteriously kept choosing self-destructive behavior. What resulted from this was the disastrous war on drugs, a complete fiasco. Now we know that it is absurd to throw people into jail for being addicted, simply absurd, because addicts are not capable of acting otherwise. This is the very definition of addiction, that one’s decision-making abilities have been impaired.

As we’ve grown more enlightened about drug addiction, we’ve realized that throwing people in jail doesn’t solve anything. Punishment does not act as an effective deterrent when normal decision-making is compromised. By transitioning to a system where addiction is given treatment and support, we have effectively transitioned from an old view of free will to the new view that humans behavior is the result of biology, environment, and culture. We don’t hold them “responsible” because we know it would be like holding a squirrel responsible for burying nuts. This is a step forward, and it has been taken by abandoning the old views of free will.

I think we should apply this new view of human behavior to other areas of criminal activity. We need to get rid of the old notions of free will and punishment. We must abandon the idea of punishing people because they “deserve” it. Murderers should be punished, but not because they deserve to suffer, but for the following two reasons: first, because they have shown themselves to be dangerous and should be isolated; and second, because their punishment helps to act as a deterrent to future murderers. Punishment is just only insofar as these two criteria are met. Once a murderer is made to suffer more than is necessary to deter future crimes, and is isolated more than is necessary to protect others, then I think it is unjustifiable and wrong to punish him further.

In short, we have to give up on the idea that inflicting pain and discomfort on a murderer helps to restore moral balance to the universe. Vengeance in all its forms should be removed from our justice system. It is not the job of us or anyone else to seek retributions for wrongs committed. Punishments are only justifiable because they help to protect the community. The aim of punishing murderers is neither to hurt nor to help them, but to prevent other people from becoming murderers. And this is, I think, the reason why the barbarous methods of torture and execution are wrong, because I very much doubt that brutal punishments are justified in terms of further efficacy in deterrence. However, I’m sure there is interesting research somewhere on this.

Seen in this way, morality can be understood in the same way we understand language—as a social adaptation that benefits the community as a whole as well as individual members of the community. Morality is a code of conduct imposed by the community on its members, and derivations from this code of conduct are justifiably punished for the safety of the other members of the community. When this code is broken, a person forfeits the protection under the code, and is dealt with in such a way that future derivations from the moral code are discouraged.

Just as Wittgenstein said that a private language is impossible, so I’d argue that a private morality is impossible. A single, isolated individual can be neither moral nor immoral. People are born with a multitude of desires; and every desire is morally neutral. A moral code comes into play when two individuals begin to cooperate. This is because the individuals will almost inevitably have some desires that conflict. A system of behavior is therefore necessary if the two are to live together harmoniously. This system of behavior is their moral code. In just the same way that language results when two people both use the same sounds to communicate the same messages, morality results when two people’s desires and actions are in harmony. Immorality arises when the harmonious arrangement breaks down, and one member of the community satisfies their desire at the expense of the others. Deviations of this kind must have consequences if the system is to maintain itself, and this is the justification for punishment.

One thing to note about this account of moral systems is that they arise for the well-being of their participants. When people are working together, when their habits and opinions are more or less in harmony, when they can walk around in their neighborhood without fearing every person they meet, both the individual and the group benefits. This point is worth stressing, since we now know that the human brain is the product of evolution, and therefore we must surmise that universal features of human behavior, such as morality, are adaptive. The fundamental basis for morality is self-interest. What distinguishes moral from immoral behavior is not that the first is unselfish while the other is selfish, but that the first is more intelligently selfish than the second.

It isn’t hard to see how morality is adaptive. One need only consider the basic tenets of game theory. In the short term, to cooperate with others may not be as advantageous as simply exploiting others. Robbery is a quicker way to make money than farming. And indeed, the potentially huge advantages of purely selfish behavior explains why unethical behavior occurs: Sometimes it benefits individuals more to exploit rather than to help one another. Either that, or certain individuals—either from ignorance or desperation—are willing to risk long-term security for short-term gains. Nevertheless, in general moral behaviors tend to be more advantageous, if only because selfish behavior is more risky. All unethical behavior, even if carried on in secret, carries a risk of making enemies; and in the long run, enemies are less useful than friends. The funny thing about altruism is that it’s often more gainful than selfishness.

Thus this account of morality can be harmonized with an evolutionary account of human behavior. But what I find most satisfying about this view of morality is that it allows us to see why we care both about intentions and consequences. Intentions are important in deciding how to punish misconduct because they help determine how an individual is likely to behave in the future. A person who stole something intentionally has demonstrated a willingness to break the code, while a person who took something by accident has only demonstrated absent-mindedness. The first person is therefore more of a risk to the community. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible to prove what somebody intended beyond the shadow of a doubt, which is why it is also necessary to consider the consequences of an action. What is more, carelessness as regards the moral code must be forcibly discouraged, otherwise the code will not function properly. This is why, in certain cases, breaches of conduct must be punished even if they were demonstrably unintentional—to discourage other people in the future from being careless.

Let me pause here to sketch out some more philosophical objections to the Utilitarian and Kantian systems, besides the fact that they don’t adequately explain how we tend to think about morality. Utilitarianism does capture something important when it proclaims that actions should be judged insofar as they further the “greatest possible happiness.” Yet taken by itself this doctrine has some problems. The first is that you never know how something is going to turn out, and even the most concerted efforts to help people sometimes backfire. Should these efforts, made in good faith, be condemned as evil if they don’t succeed? What’s more, Utilitarian ethics can lead to disturbing moral questions. For example, is it morally right to kill somebody if you can use his organs to save five other people? Besides this, if the moral injunction is to work constantly towards the “greatest possible happiness,” then we might even have to condemn simple things like a game of tennis, since two people playing tennis certainly could be doing something more humanitarian with their time and energy.

The Kantian system has the opposite problem in that it stresses good intentions and consistency to an absurd degree. If the essence of immorality is to make an exception of oneself—which covers lying, stealing, and murder—then telling a fib is morally equivalent to murdering somebody in cold blood, since both of those actions equally make exceptions of the perpetrator. This is what results if you overemphasize consistency and utterly disregard consequences. What’s more, intentions are, as I said above, basically impossible to prove—and not only to other people, but also to yourself. Can you prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your intentions were pure yesterday when you accidentally said something rude? How do you know your memory and your introspection can be trusted? However, let me leave off with these objections because I think entirely too much time in philosophy is given over to tweezing apart your enemies’ ideas and not enough to building your own.

Thus, to repeat myself, both consequences and intentions, both happiness and consistency must be a part of any moral theory if it is to capture how we do and must think about ethics. Morality is an adaptation. The capacity for morality has evolved because moral systems benefit both groups and individuals. Morality is rooted in self-interest, but it is an intelligent form of self-interest that recognizes that other people are most useful as allies than as enemies. Morality is neither consistency nor pleasure. Morality is consistency for the sake of pleasure. This is why moral strictures that demand that people devote their every waking hour to helping others or to never make exceptions of themselves are self-defeating, because when a moral system is onerous is isn’t performing its proper function.

But now I must deal with that fateful question: Is morality absolute or relative? At first glance it would seem that my account would put me squarely in the relativist camp, seeing that I point to a community code of conduct. Nevertheless, when it comes to violence I am decidedly a moral absolutist. This is because I think that physical violence can only ever be justified by citing defense. First, to use violence to defend yourself from violent attack is neither moral nor immoral, because at this point the moral code has already broken down. The metaphorical contract has been broken, and you are now in a situation where the you must either fight, run, or be killed. The operant rule is now survival and not morality. For the same reason a whole community may justifiably protect itself from invasion from an enemy force (although capitulating is equally defensible). And lastly violence (in the form of imprisonment) is justified in the case of criminals, for the reasons I discussed above.

What if there are two communities, community A and community B, living next to one another? Both of these communities have their own moral codes which the people abide by. What if a person from community A encounters a person from community B? Is it justifiable for either of them to use violence against the other? After all, each of them is outside the purview of the other’s moral code, since moral codes develop within communities. Well in practice situations like this do commonly result in violence. Whenever Europeans encountered a new community—whether in the Americas or in Africa—the result was typically disastrous for that community. This isn’t simply due to the wickedness of Europeans; it has been a constant throughout history: When different human communities interact, violence is very often the result. And this, by the way, is one of the benefits of globalization. The more people come to think of humanity as one community, the less violence we will experience.

Nevertheless, I think that violence between people from different communities is ultimately immoral, and this is why. To feel it is permissible to kill somebody just because they are not in your group is to consider that person subhuman—as fundamentally different. This is what we now call “Othering,” and it is what underpins racism, sexism, religious bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia. But of course we now know that it is untrue that other communities, other religions, other races, women, men, or homosexuals or anyone else are “fundamentally” different or in any way subhuman. It is simply incorrect. And I think the recognition that we all belong to one species—with only fairly superficial differences in opinions, customs, rituals, and so on—is the key to moral progress. Moral systems can be said to be comparatively advanced or backward to the extent that they recognize that all humans belong to the same species. In other words, moral systems can be evaluated by looking at how many types of people they include.

This is the reason why it is my firm belief that the world as it exists today—full as it still is with all sorts of violence and prejudice—is morally superior than ever before. Most of us have realized that racism was wrong because it was based on a lie; and the same goes for sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and xenophobia. These forms of bias were based on misconceptions; they were not only morally wrong, but factually wrong.

Thus we ought to be tolerant of immorality in the past, for the same reason that we excuse people in the past for being wrong about physics or chemistry. Morality cannot be isolated from knowledge. For a long time, the nature of racial and sexual differences was unknown. Europeans had no experience and thus no understanding of non-Western cultures. All sorts of superstitions and religious injunctions were believed in, to an extent most of us can’t even appreciate now. Before widespread education and the scientific revolution, people based their opinions on tradition rather than evidence. And in just the same way that it is impossible to justly put someone in prison without evidence of their guilt, it impossible to be morally developed if your beliefs are based on misinformation. Africans and women used to be believed to be mentally inferior; homosexuals used to be believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Now we know that there is no evidence for these views, and in fact evidence to the contrary, so we can cast them aside; but earlier generations were not so lucky.

To the extent, therefore, that backward moral systems are based on a lack of knowledge, they must be tolerated. In this why we ought to be tolerant of other cultures and of the past. But to the extent that facts are wilfully disregarded in a moral system, that system can be said to be corrupt. Thus the real missionaries are not the ones who spread religion, but who spread knowledge, for increased understanding of the world allows us develop our morals.

These are my ideas in their essentials. But for the sake of honesty I have to add that the ideas I put forward above have been influenced by my studies in cultural anthropology, as well as my reading of Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza, Santayana, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and of course by Mill and Kant. I was also influenced by Richard Dawkins’s discussion of Game Theory in his book, The Selfish Gene. Like most third-rate intellectual work, this essay is, for the most part, a muddled hodgepodge of other people’s ideas.

Review: South from Granada

South From GranadaSouth From Granada by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All I have aimed at is to entertain a few armchair travellers, who may enjoy whiling away a rainy night in reading of how people live in remote mountain villages in the serene climate of the South Mediterranean.

This book left me cold. I didn’t expect this. Early on in the book, Brenan tells us how he used to sit under an orange tree in Andalusia, reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Shortly thereafter, he moves into a little town in the Alpujarras and brings along with him hundreds of books, with the intention of educating himself. It is hard for me to think of a more promising start to a memoir. But as I turned the last page, I felt only relief that the book was over and I could move on.

Perhaps this coldness is due to the long gap between Brenan’s stay there and his writing of this book. South From Granada is an account of Brenan’s time living in Yegen, a small town in Andalusia, in the years between 1920 and 1934. The book was written about twenty years later, and published 1957. The intervening time seems to have dulled Brenan’s memories or taken some of the tang out of his experience, for I found many of the descriptions of Yegen in this book underwhelming bordering on soporific. And this, despite all of the things this book has going for it: skillful prose, an interesting story, as well as cameos from Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. What went wrong?

Even though Brenan spent an awful lot of time in this village, I got the impression that he didn’t get to know most of the people all that well. His fullest portraits in this book are of his landlord, his servant, a drunken Scottish person who lived a few miles away, and his friends who came to visit him. Maybe he spent most of his time reading? (He mentions at one point that he was reading all twelve volumes of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.) Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of the countryside—very good descriptions, I might add—and other amateur interests of Brenan’s: archaeology, botany, history, poetry, folklore, and anthropology.

As that list suggests, Brenan was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-educated man. Yet he doesn’t manage to translate this into interesting or insightful writing. Each chapter is much too short and too sketchy to provide any real understanding for the reader; and besides, I often felt that Brenan wasn’t the most trustworthy person to consult in these matters, and my skepticism got in the way of my enjoyment. In the introduction, Christ Steward suggests that Brenan’s versatility is a reproach to our overly specialized age. Yet for me this book taught the opposite lesson: if you want to do serious intellectual work, you’ve got to specialize. Otherwise, you end up like Brenan, with a superficial understanding of many things but a deep understanding of nothing in particular.

Brenan’s excellent prose might have been expected to remedy this situation. And indeed, much of the book is very impressively written. Nevertheless, even here Brenan irked me a little. First was his habit of using “one” in his descriptions of the countryside:

One flies over the villages in the air, one seens their strange names on the map, one may even, if one leaves the main road, bump past them in a car, but their life remains as mysterious at that girl with the unforgettable face one caught sight of for a moment through the window of a railway carriage.

Second was his habit of using “would” to describe his routines and village life:

I would come back tired and stiff from a long expedition and, while I washed and changed my clothes, the fire would be lit and a meal brought in. My post would be waiting for me and a copy of the Nation—that ancestor of the New Statesman—and over my coffee I would read my letters and begin to answer them.

This second habit I found especially distracting, because I’ve caught myself doing the same thing in my own writing and have tried to get rid of it as much as possible.

Both of these habits—using the impersonal “one,” and frequently using “would”—reinforce the feeling of distance and coldness that I experienced. It would have been much better, I think, not to tell us of what “one” would see, but of what he saw; not to tell us of what “would” happen, but of what did happen. There are too many generalities in this book and not enough specifics; there is too much description and not enough action.

Nevertheless, the book redeems itself in several places. The first is Brenan’s description of Virginia Woolf’s visit, in which he gives us an excellent portrait of her personality and also some details about his experience in the Bloomsbury Group. I actually got the feeling that Brenan was not a little in love with Woolf, his descriptions of her are so vivid and so thoughtful. The other standout chapter was Brenan’s account of his visits to the brothels of Almeria. The brothels themselves sounded dull, but the companion Brenan takes with him was a real character. But then just as the book is ending, Brenan tells us that he won’t give an account of Bertrand Russell’s visit—which really frustrated me, since I think that would have been another great chapter.

In any case, it must be admitted that this book is probably the most readable account of a time and place that no longer exists. According to the Wikipedia article, now there is a sizeable expat community of British people living in the town, probably in part thanks to this book. Still, I can’t help being disappointed that something with so much potential came out so mediocre. Wasted potential is always vexing.

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On the Meaning of Life

On the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of it all? What is the purpose of life, the universe, and everything?

Most thinking people, I suspect, ask themselves this at least once in their life. Some get rather obsessed by it, becoming existentialists or religious enthusiasts. But most of us deal with this question in a more foolproof way: by ignoring it. Indeed, when you’re enjoying yourself, this question—“What is the meaning of life?”—seems rather silly. It is usually when we feel depressed, anxious, frightened, nervous, or vulnerable that it arises to our minds, often with tremendous force.

I do not wish to delve too deeply into dubious psychoanalyzing as regards the motivation for asking this question. But it is worthwhile noting down why we so persistently ask it—or at least, the reasons why I have asked it. Most obviously, it is a response to the awareness of our own mortality. We are all going to die someday; our whole existence will come to an end; and this is terrifying. We can attempt to comfort ourselves with the thought that we will be remembered or that our children (if we have any) will perpetuate our line. Yet this is an empty form of immortality, not only because we aren’t around to appreciate it, but also because, however long our memory or our descendents last, they too will come to an end. All of humanity will end one day; that’s certain.

The famous “Death of God” (the decline of religion) in western history caused a similar crisis. If there was no God directing the universe and ordaining what is right and what is wrong; if there was no afterlife but only a black emptiness waiting for us—what was the point? Nihilism seemed to many to be inescapable. Existentialism grew up in this environment, which inherited many of the assumptions of Christianity while (for the most part) rejecting God Himself, which led to not a few tortured, tangled systems of thought that attempted to reconcile atheism with some of our more traditional assumptions about right and wrong and what it means to live a meaningful life.

I had fallen into this same trap by asking myself the question: “If everything will end someday and humans are only a small part of the universe, what is the point?” This question is very revealing, for it exposes some of the assumptions that, upon further reflection, don’t hold water. First, why is something more worthwhile if it lasts longer? Why do we need to imagine an eternal God and an eternal afterlife to feel secure in our meaningfulness? Do people who live to eighty have more of a meaningful life than those who make it to thirty? Put this way, it seems to be a rather dubious assumption. For my part, I can’t figure out what permanence has to do with meaning. And by the way, I also don’t think that the opposite idea—that life is meaningful because it is temporary—is more useful, even though it is a poetic sentiment.

I think all this talk about permanence and impermanence does not get to the essence of the word “meaning.” What is more, it is my opinion that, once we properly analyze this word “meaning,” we will see that this fateful question—“What is the meaning of life?”—will vanish before our eyes. And this is not because life has no meaning, but because the question is based on a false premise.

To begin, let us figure out what the word “meaningful” actually means. To do this, take something that we can all agree has meaning: language. Language is in fact the paragon of meaningfulness; it is a symbolic system by which we communicate. If words and sentences had no meaning, you would have no idea what I’m saying right now. But where does the meaning of a sentence lie? This is the question.

To answer this question, let me ask another: If every human perished in a cataclysmic event, would any of the writing that we left behind have meaning? Would the libraries and book stores, the shop signs and magazines, the instruction manuals and wine labels—would they have meaning? I think they would not.

We don’t even have to engage in a hypothetical here. Consider the Indus Script, a form of writing developed in ancient India that has yet to be deciphered. Researchers are now in the process of figuring out how to read the stone tablets. How should they go about doing so? They can weigh each of the tablets to figure out their mass; they can measure the average height and thickness of the lines; they can perform a chemical analysis. Would that help? Of course not. And this is for the obvious reason that the meaning of a tablet is not a physical property of an object. Rather, the meaning of the script lies wholly in our ability to respond appropriately to it. The meaning of the words exists in our experience of the tablets and our behavior related to the tablets, and is not a property of the tablets themselves.

I must pause here to address a philosophical pickle. It is an interesting debate whether the meaning of language exists in the minds of language-users (e.g. meaning is psychological) or in the behavior of language-users (e.g. meaning is social). This dichotomy might also be expressed by asking whether meaning is private or public. For my part, I think that there is a continuum of meaningfulness from private thoughts to public behavior, and in any case the question is immaterial to the argument of this essay. What matters is that meaning is a property of human experience. Meaning is not a property of objects, but is a property of how humans experience, think about, and behave toward objects. That’s the important point.

The reason the Indus Script is meaningless to us is therefore because it doesn’t elicit from us any consistent pattern of thoughts or actions. (Okay, well that’s not entirely true, since we do consistently think about and treat the tablets as if they were ancient artifacts bearing a mysterious script, but you get my point.)

By contrast, many things besides language do elicit from us a consistent pattern of thoughts and actions. Most people, for example, tend to respond to and think about chairs in a characteristic way. This is why we say that we know what chairs are for. The social purpose of chairs is what defines them—not their height, weight, design, material, or any other property of the chairs themselves—and this social purpose exists in us, in our behaviors and thoughts. If everyone on earth were brainwashed and told to think about these same objects as weapons instead of for sitting then chairs would have a different meaning for us.

Ultimately, I think that meaning is just an interpretation of our senses. A camera pointed at a chair will record the same light waves that are being emitted from the chair as I will; but only I will interpret this data to mean chair. You might even say that meaning is what a camera or any other recording device fails to record, since the devices can only record physical properties. Thus meaning, in the sense that I’m using the word, depends on an interpreting mind. Meaning exists for us.

I hope I’m not belaboring this point, but it seems to be worth a little belaboring since it is precisely this point people forget when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that most people mean “human life” when they ask this question, then we are led to the conclusion that this question is unanswerable. Human life itself—as a biological fact—has no meaning, since no fact in itself has meaning. In itself, “human life” has no point in the same way that the moon or saw dust has no point. But our experience of human life certainly does. In fact, by definition the human experience comprises every conceivable meaning. All experience is one endless tapestry of significance.

I see this keyboard below my fingers and understand what it is for; I see a chair to my right and I understand its purpose. I see a candle flickering in front of me and I find it pretty and I like its smell. Every single one of these little experiences is brimming with meaning. In fact, I would go further. I think it is simply impossible for an intelligent creature to have a single experience that doesn’t have meaning. Every time you look at something and you understand what it is, the experience is shot through with meaning. Every time you find something interesting, pretty, repulsive, curious, frightening, attractive, these judgments are the very stuff of meaning. Every time you hear a sentence or a musical phrase, every time you enjoy a sunset or find something tasty—the whole fabric of your life, every second you experience, is inevitably meaningful.

This brings me to an important moral point. Humans are the locus of meaning. Our conscious experience is where meaning resides. Consciousness is not simply a reflection of the world, but an interpretation of the world; and interpretations are not the sorts of things that can be right or wrong. Interpretations can only be popular and unpopular.

For example, if you “misunderstand” a sentence, this only means that most people would tend to disagree with you about it. In the case of language, which is a necessarily strict system, we tend to say that you are “wrong” if your interpretation is unpopular, because unless people respond to words and sentences very consistently language can’t perform its proper function. “Proper” meaning is therefore enforced by language users; but the meaning is not inherent in the words and sentences themselves. But in the example of a very abstract painting, then we tend not to care so much whether people interpret the painting in the same way, since the painting is meant to illicit aesthetic sensations and not transmit specific information. (In practice, this is all we mean by the terms “objective” and “subjective”—namely, that the former is used for things most people agree on while the latter is used for things that many people disagree on. Phrased another way, objective meanings are those to which people respond consistently, while subjective meanings are those to which people respond inconsistently.)

This is why meaning is inescapably personal, since experience is personal. Nobody can interpret your experience but yourself. It’s simply impossible. Thus conscious individuals cannot be given a purpose from the “outside” in the same way that, for example, a chair can. The purpose of chairs is simply how we behave toward and think about chairs; it is a meaning imposed by us onto a certain class of objects. But this process does not work if we try to impose a meaning onto a conscious being, since that being experiences their own meaning. If, for example, everybody in the world treated a man as if his purpose were to be a comedian, and he thought his purpose was to be a painter, he wouldn’t be wrong. His interpretation of his own life might be unpopular, but it can never be incorrect.

Human life, either individually or in general, cannot be given a value. You cannot measure the worth of a life in money, friends, fame, goodness, or anything else. Valuations are only valid in a community of individuals who treat them as such. Money, for example, is only effective currency because that’s how we behave towards it. Money has value, not in itself, but for us. But a person does not only have value in the eyes of their community, but in their own eyes, and this value cannot be overridden or delegitimized. And since your experience is, by definition, the only thing you experience, if you experience yourself as valuable nobody else’s opinion can contradict that. A person despised by all the world is not worthless if she still respects herself.

In principle (though not in practice) meaning is not democratic. If everybody in the world but one thought that the point of life was to be good, and a single person thought that the point of life was to be happy, there would be no way to prove that this person was wrong. It is true, in practice people whose interpretations of the world differ from those of their community are usually put into line by an exercise of power. An Inquisition might, for example, prosecute and torture everybody that disagrees with them. Either this, or a particular interpretation imposes itself because, if an individual chooses to think differently, then they are unable to function in the community. Thus if I behaved towards money as if it was tissue paper, my resultant poverty would make me question this interpretation pretty quickly. But it’s important to remember that a king’s opinion of coleslaw isn’t worth any more than a cook’s, and even though everyone thinks dollar bills are valuable it doesn’t change the fact that they’re made of cotton. Power and practicality do not equal truth.

Thus we find that human life doesn’t have meaning, but human experience does; and this meaning changes from individual to individual, from moment to moment. This meaning has nothing to do with whether life is permanent or impermanent. It exists now. It has nothing to do with whether humans are the center of the universe or only a small part of it. The meaning exists for us. We don’t need to be the center of a divine plan to have meaningful lives. Nor is nihilism justified, since the fact that we are small and temporary creatures does not undermine our experience. Consider: every chair will eventually be destroyed. Yet we don’t agonize about the point of making chairs, since it isn’t important whether the chairs are part of a divine plan or will remain forever; the chairs are part of our plan and are useful now. Replace “chairs” with “our lives” and you’ve hit the truth.

You might say now that I’m missing the point entirely. I am interpreting the word “meaning” too generally, in the sense that I am including any kind of conscious interpretation or significance, explicit or implicit, public or private. When most people ask about the meaning of life, they mean something “higher,” something more profound, more noble, more deep. Fair enough.

Of course I can’t hope to solve this problem for you. But I will say that, since meaning resides in experience, and since all experience is personal, you cannot hope to solve the meaning of all human life. The best you can hope for is to find meaning—“higher” meaning—in your own experience. In fact, it is simply presumptuous and absurd to say “This is the meaning of human life,” since you can’t very well crawl into another person’s head and interpret their experiences for them, much less crawl into the heads of all of humanity. And in fact you should be happy for this, I think, because it means that your value can never be adequately measured by another person and that any exterior criterion that someone attempts to apply to you cannot delegitimize your own experience. But also remember that the same also applies to your attempts to measure others.

I will also add, just as my personal advice, that when you realize that meaning only exists in the present moment, since meaning only exists in your experience, much of the existential angst will disappear. Find the significance and beauty of what’s in front of your eyes. Life is only a succession of moments, and the more moments you appreciate the more you’ll get out of life. Don’t worry about how you measure up against any external standard, whether it be wealth, fame, respectability, love, or anything else; the meaning of your own life resides in you. And the meaning of your life not one thing, but the ever-changing flux of experience that comprises your reality.

Review: Anna Karenina

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anna Karenina,” my friend told me, “is one of the few books that have influenced how I live my life from day to day.”

This statement touches on a question I often wonder about: Can reading great fiction make you a better person? I don’t mean to ask whether it can improve your mental agility or your knowledge of the world, for it undoubtedly does. But can these books make you kinder, wiser, more moral, more content? The answer to this question is far from self-evident. And maybe we should be doubtful, when we consider how many disagreeable Shakespeare fans have probably existed. Nevertheless, I suspect that most of us are inclined to say yes, these books do improve us. But how?

Here are my answers. First, many great works of fiction tackle the moral question directly: What does it mean to be good? How do you live a good life? What is the point of it all? Dostoyevsky is the exemplary author in this respect, who was intensely, almost morbidly, preoccupied with these questions. Second, great fiction often involves a social critique; many well-known authors have been penetrating guides into the hypocrisies, immoralities, and stupidities of their societies. Dickens, for example, is famous for spreading awareness of the plights of the poor; and Jane Austen performed a similar task in her novels, though much more quietly, by satirizing the narrow, pinched social rules the landed gentry had to abide by.

Finally, we come to great literature’s ability to help us empathize. By imagining the actions, thoughts, feelings, desires, and hopes of another person—a person perhaps from a different time, with different values—we learn to see the world from multiple points of view. This not only helps us to understand others, but also helps us to understand ourselves. And this is important, since a big part of wise living (in my experience at least) involves the ability to see ourselves from a distance, as only one person among many, and to treat ourselves with the same good-natured respect as we treat our good friends. And the master of empathy is undoubtedly Leo Tolstoy.

Leo Tolstoy was a contradictory man. He idolized the peasants and their simple life, and he preached a renunciation of worldly riches; and yet he maintained his aristocratic privileges till the end of his life. He considered marriage to be of enormous importance in living a moral life, and yet his relationship with his wife was bitterly unhappy and he ended up fleeing his house to escape. And as Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his essay on Tolstoy’s view of history, he yearned for unity and yet saw only multiplicity in the world. I can’t help attributing this contradictoriness to his nearly supernatural ability to sympathize with other points of view, which caused him to constantly be pulled in different directions.

This is on full display in Anna Karenina, but I can’t discuss this or anything else about the book without copious spoilers. So if you are among the handful of people who don’t know the plot already, here is your warning.

Like so many authors, Tolstoy here writes about a “fallen” woman who ends up in a bad situation. But unlike anyone else, Tolstoy presents this story without taking any clear moral stance on Anna, her society, her betrayed husband, or her lover. It is, for example, close to impossible to read this simply as a parable of the immoral woman getting her just desserts. What was Anna supposed to do? She would have condemned herself to a life of unhappiness had she stayed with Karenin. And it can hardly be said that she was responsible for her unhappy marriage, since marriages in those days were contracted when women were very young, for reasons of power and wealth, not love. Tolstoy makes this very clear, and as a result this book can be read, in part, as a feminist critique of a society that severely limits the freedom of women and condemns them to live at the mercy of their fathers and husbands.

But this is not the whole story. If it is impossible to read this book as a parable of an immoral wife, it is equally impossible to read it as the heroic struggle of a wronged women against an immoral society. Anna is neither wholly right nor wrong in her decision. For in choosing to abandon her husband, she also chooses to abandon her son. Admittedly, it was only the social rules that forced her to make this choice, but the fact remains that she knowingly chose it. What’s more, unlike in Madame Bovary, where the deceived husband is not a sympathetic character, Tolstoy brings Karenin to life, showing us an imperfect and limited man, but a real man nonetheless, a man who was deeply hurt by Anna’s actions.

A similar ambiguity can be seen in the relationship between Anna and Vronsky. Tolstoy never makes us doubt that they do truly love one another. This is not the story of vanity or lust, but of tender, affectionate love—a love that was denied Anna for her whole life before her affair. For his part, Vronsky is also neither wholly bad nor good. He wrongs Karenin without any moral scruples; but his love for Anna is so deep—at least at first—that he gives up his respectability, his position in the military, and even his good relationship with his family to be with her. I cannot admire Vronsky, but it is impossible for me to condemn him, just like it is impossible for me to condemn Anna or Karenin, for they were all making the choices that seemed best to them.

The final effect of these conflicts is not a critique of society nor a parable of vice, but a portrayal of the tragedy of life, of the unhappiness that inevitably arises when desires are not in harmony with values and when personalities are not in harmony with societies.

The other thread of this book—that of Levin and Kitty—is where Tolstoy tells us how to be happy. For Tolstoy, this involves a return to tradition; specifically, this means a return to rural Russian tradition and a concomitant shunning of urban European influence. Levin and Kitty’s happy life in the countryside is repeatedly contrasted with Vronsky and Anna’s unhappy life in the city. Levin is connected with the earth; he knows the peasants and he works with them, while Vronsky only associates with aristocrats. Levin is earnest, provincial, and clumsy, while Vronsky is urbane, cosmopolitan, and suave. Kitty is simple, unreflecting, and pure-hearted, while Anna is well-read, sophisticated, and passionate.

The most obvious symbol of Europeanization is the fateful railway. Anna and Vronsky meet in a train station; Vronsky confesses his love to Anna in another train station; and it is of course a train that ends Anna’s life. Levin, by contrast, catches sight of Kitty as he sits in the grass in his farm, while Kitty goes by in a horse-drawn carriage. Anna and Vronsky travel to Italy to see the sights, while for Levin even Moscow is painfully confusing and shallow.

This contrast of urban Europe with rural Russia is mirrored in the contrast of atheism with belief. Like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy attributed the growing disbelief in Christianity to the nefarious influence of the freethinking West. In Tolstoy’s view—and in this respect he’s remarkably close to Dostoyevsky—Russians were mistaken to gleefully import European technologies and modes of thought without paying attention to how appropriate these new arrivals were to Russia. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wanted Russia to develop its own path into the future, a path that relied on an embrace of the Christian ethic, not an attempt to fill the vacuum left by religion with socialism and science.

The final scene of this novel—where Levin renounces his old free-thinking ways and embraces Christianity—is the ultimate triumph of Russia over Europe in Levin’s soul. But this is where the book rings the most hollow for me. For here Tolstoy is attempting to put up one mode of life as ideal, while his prodigious ability to see the world from so many points of view makes us doubt whether there is such a thing as an ideal life or one right way of viewing the world. At least for me, Tolstoy’s magnificent empathy is the real moral lesson I have taken away from this book. His insights into the minds and personalities of different people is staggering, and I can only hope to emulate this, in my own small way, as I fight the lifelong battle with my own ego.

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A Walk Through the Prado

A Walk Through the Prado


Of all the many things to see and do in Madrid, of all the wonderful parks and museums, of all the shops and restaurants, the Museo del Prado stands out to me as by far the most rewarding place to visit in the city. Considering how many masterpieces are on display, how many of the finest collections of world class artists—El Greco, Velazques, Goya—can be found here, I have no doubt that it must be one of the greatest art museums in the world. The first time I visited, I was in a state of perpetual amazement—and I’m not usually an art enthusiast.

In this post I would like to take you on a guided tour through the museum. But be warned: I am no art expert, and can hardly even be called an amateur. My knowledge of art history and my capacity for intelligent criticism are slim to none. Nevertheless, they say the best way to learn is to teach, so I will try to teach you about this place.

Since it would be neither possible nor desirable to talk about every work in the collection, I will confine my tour to my favorites. Here’s another warning: my descriptions of paintings will be dreadfully boring and pointless unless you look at an image of the paintings yourself. You can’t take photographs of the paintings in the Prado, so I can’t insert my own images. Therefore I recommend you simply search the title of the painting as you read through.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Before I got into the nitty gritty of analyzing the paintings, I have to tell you a bit about the museum itself. (By the way, throughout this post I am relying on the official Prado guidebook as well as what I can find online for information.)


The Prado

The Prado is located, appropriately enough, on the Paseo del Prado, a long boulevard in the city center that is also home to the Thyssem Museum, not to mention several government offices. From the outside, the building isn’t especially impressive. It is a long neoclassical building, with arches on the first floor and columns on the second; its façade is a dark grey. Near the front entrance is a metal statue of Goya, hat in hand, looking every inch a gentleman. Near another entrance is a wonderful statue of Velazques, slumped in a chair, a brush in one hand and an easel in the other.

The museum was first opened in 1819, under the auspices of King Ferdinand VII. According to the guide book, the model for the modern public museum was the Louvre in Paris, which was opened in 1793 during the Revolution. After the Napoleonic wars, many of the revolutionary ideas in France were disseminated to Spain. Indeed, now that I think about it, the institution of a public museum is quite a revolutionary idea. Consider where these great collections come from; they used to be the personal collections of monarchs, nobles, and the super rich. It was thus a great advance for civilization when the institution of the public museum was created, for it signaled a broader shift in values. Art was to be celebrated as communal heritage, not hoarded as a private prize. But I suppose the old, hoarding model of art appreciation did have its merits, since it is due to the fine taste and acquisitiveness of the erstwhile Spanish monarchs that we have this collection in the first place.

Let’s have a look inside. The vast majority of the museum’s permanent collection is housed on two levels. The floor plans of both are nearly identical. The Prado Museum is a symmetrical structure. In the center are the largest chambers, bookending the building. Connecting these rooms is a wide hallway, the main gallery, with a lovely arched ceiling. To one side of this gallery (left or right, depending which way you’re walking) is a labyrinth of rooms where most of the art is to be found. I find it easy to get a bit disoriented in these rooms, since you must keep turning left and right to get to the next one. But travelers less navigationally challenged than I am will have no trouble.

The two floors are divided chronologically, with the oldest art on the bottom floor and the newer art on the top. The span of time covered by the collection ranges from about 1300 to 1800. (The Reina Sofia has the more modern works.) Unsurprisingly, the majority of the artists on display are Spanish. The Prado is fairly weak on Northern European paintings—though there are some very nice Flemish works here. (The Thyssem Museum just across the road, which I’ll save for another post, is an excellent complement to the Prado, since it is strong in many areas where the Prado is weak.) There are also many works by Tintoretto and especially Titian, who painted for the Spanish monarchs.

Although the museum contains the excellent works by many artists, the heart of the museum, as the guidebook says, is undoubtedly Velazquez. Of his one hundred or so known paintings, nearly half can be found here. Thus with him we find both the most complete and arguably the most impressive collection in the whole museum. It is to him, therefore, that we must now turn.


Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was perhaps the greatest artist of Spain’s greatest age. Born in Seville, he spent much of his life painting for Phillip IV as a court painter. He painted the king, the queen, princesses and princes, court jesters, dwarves, as well as religious and mythological paintings. Velazquez is to Spanish painting what Cervantes is to Spanish literature.

One of my favorite of his works is his Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, a mythological subject. This paintings depicts the scene in Homer when Apollo tells Vulcan, the crippled god of fire and blacksmiths, that his beautiful wife, Venus, is having an affair with Ares the god of war. It’s marvelous. Apollo, god of light, is clothed in an orange robe; his garlanded head emits rays like the sun itself. He is turned away from the viewer, one hand lifted, as he tells Vulcan the bad news. Before him are several grubby, shirtless men, wearing only brown robes around their waists. They are at work in Vulcan’s forge, surrounded by various tools and anvils; everything in the room is a musty, brownish gray, lending contrast with the bright robe of Apollo. A delicate play of shadows makes the viewer feel the space. The illusion is perfect.

The musculature on these smithies is fantastic—not at all exaggerated, but taut and distinct. Every one of them (I’m not sure which figure is Vulcan and which are his helpers) looks at Apollo in amazement. My favorite is the second man from the right. His eyes pop in astonishment, his jaw hangs slack from his mouth. He looks as though he’s about to drop the hammer he’s carrying. He’s clearly stunned by the news. His skinny face, his curly hair, his five o’clock shadow, and his Greek nose—all is so magnificently done that you wonder whether he will soon turn his head and look straight at you.

Another of my favorites is also a mythological scene: The Feast of Bacchus. Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine, sits in the center. He is naked except for a blanket draped over his waist. For a god, his physique is flabby, and his arms are thin. He is placing a garland on the head of one of his revelers, who kneels at the god’s feet. But strangely, Dionysus isn’t looking at what he’s doing; his eyes are turned away, to his right, and a coy smile is playing on his lips. It’s as if he’s thinking about something, a secret that he’s keeping from his followers.

To his left are the revelers, a motley crew of bearded peasants. Every one of them is smiling and drunk. My favorite of these is the seated man immediately to the right of Dionysus (from our perspective). The realism of this face is stupefying. He looks out at you from beneath a black, rimmed hat, tilted back on his head. He smiles, showing white teeth from under a bushy mustache. He looks middle aged, but already his face is wrinkled and careworn. He’s dressed like a peasant, and has the look of a man used to manual labor. Although he is giving a toothy grin, I find something quietly tragic in this face. He smiles because of the drink, because of the merrymaking; he smiles because, for a few brief hours, he can forget his cares, forget his hard life, and lose himself in drink. Is this Dionysus’s secret? Is this why he looks away? Is it that he knows that the happiness he provides is a false happiness, not born from appreciation of what one has, but from forgetfulness of one’s lot?

These are two of my favorites, but they don’t convey the versatility of Velazquez’s art. There is, for example, his Christ on the Cross, which is easily one of the best I’ve seen of this subject. It’s a terribly sad painting, with Jesus’ hanging, face turned down, eyes closed, in front of a pitch black background. Velazquez focuses the whole of the viewer’s attention on the Savior’s body, which hangs limply from the cross. His isolation is devastating; He is totally abandoned in this painting—but for the halo of light around His head.

There is a room full of paintings of court buffoons. Apparently, it’s true that kings used to have people who used to be called (quite unjustly) “freaks of nature.” Velazquez painted many of these buffoons, most of them dwarves; and the paintings are excellent. You might expect the portraits to be condescending or exaggerated, but Velazquez looked upon these subjects with real empathy. There is one portrait in particular, of a bearded dwarf, sitting on the floor, staring intently at the viewer. There is nothing buffoonish or silly in his expression; rather, he looks dignified and serious.

I can’t help comparing these portraits with the many paintings of kings, queens, princes, and princesses in the next room. This is the center of the museum, an octagonal chapel that houses the royal portraits. I have to admit that (apart from Las Meninas) I don’t care for these at all. I find the whole lot frankly ridiculous—not because of Velazquez’s execution, but because of the subjects. Many are equestrian portraits. The king sits on a horse rearing its legs, staring off into the distance. It could potentially be heroic, but the final effect is comical—almost satirical. Philip IV looks more like a buffoon than his buffoons, with his overlong, egg-shaped head; his greasy, red hair; his pale, pasty skin; his oversized, puffy lips; his empty, dull eyes. I’m not judging his job as king—he obviously had good taste in art, at least—but he wasn’t a handsome man.

And the dresses that these poor women had to wear! There is a portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria, for example, and I can’t help feeling both sad and embarrassed for the woman. Her dress is so big you could have a dinner party underneath it, and her enormous hair is a close second. She wears a severe and unhappy expression on her face, perhaps because this getup was so uncomfortable. Fashion is a funny thing. This used to be considered highly dignified—royal, in fact. And now, it’s beyond absurd.

But of course, the shining exception to this Las Meninas. This is Velazquez’s masterpiece, and can fairly be said to be the greatest painting in the whole Prado (though it’s not my personal favorite). It is one of those images, like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, that can stick in your mind forever after just one glance. There is too much, and not enough, to be said about it; one could fill a library with analysis and come up short.

First, there is Velazquez himself in the painting, leaning slightly to his left, with a brush in one hand and an easel in another. He is staring right at the viewer, with a thoughtful and serene expression on his face. He looks as though, at any moment, he will begin to paint you, the viewer, as you stand and contemplate him. But what is he painting? Hanging on the other end of the room is a mirror, where we can see a ghostly image of a couple—the king and queen—who Velazquez is presumably in the process of painting.

In the center is the princess Margarita, who also looks right at the viewer. There is something mysterious about his expression. Her head is turned slightly away from us, but she turns her eyes to face us. To her right and left are her maids of honor, the titular meninas, waiting on the princess. But she isn’t interested in them; she’s thinking about something else. What? On the far right of the painting is a dog, looking very sleepy, being bothered by a little girl; and we also see another of the king’s dwarves. On the far side of the room, to the right of the mirror, a man standing in an open doorway. He is one of my favorite parts of the painting. The way he stands, with one foot raised on the stair above him, makes me want to follow him into the scene.

Why is this painting so powerful? At first glance, it’s just a slice of everyday life. Nothing terribly interesting is happening. So why is it so universally celebrated? Well, for one, the composition is perfect. The way the figures are arranged in the space is unsurpassable. But this is a technical perfection. There is something deeper; Velazquez seems to be getting at something. Perhaps the painting is a comment upon art itself. There he stands, painting a royal portrait, in a room already filled with paintings. There he stands, before two of the most powerful people in the world, a guest in their house, working under their patronage. But although Philip IV commanded millions of men, and Velazquez only a brush and paint, whose work has been more enduring?


José de Ribera

José de Ribera (1591- 1652) was a contemporary of Velazquez, who was born in Spain but died in Naples. Stylistically, he strikes me as quite close to Velazquez, though he is not as profound. The Prado has an impressive collection of his works, and two in particular have caught my fancy.

The first is his portrait of Democritus (or Archimedes, depending on who you ask). Of course, it is an imagined portrait, but it is done in the same manner as a real one. Democritus stands before you, a quill in one hand, some papers in another. (If you look closely, you can see that these papers are covered in geometrical drawings, which leads me to think it was supposed to be Archimedes.) The man himself is an ugly fellow. He’s going bald, with only a tuft of hair on the top of his head; and on his face is an unkempt beard. His baldness makes his creased forehead looks enormous, adding to the impression of a man devoted to his intellect. However, he is no dull scholar. He smiles at the viewer, a happy and mischievous smile. It is the smile of an old lecher rather than a philosopher. Or perhaps it is just the mischievousness of a man who is above all the things that make us frown; a man who sees life as a silly game. Although every element seems inappropriate—his winking smile, his peasant clothes, his scraggly beard, his balding head—taken together, the whole thing is a convincing portrait of a real philosopher. It’s a wonderful painting.

The next painting I love by Ribera is his Trinity. The first thing to notice is its composition. The work abounds in diagonal symmetry. Seen from a distance, the painting is composed of five diagonal bands, running from the bottom left to the top right. The first band (at the bottom right) is dark blue; the second (formed by the cape on which Jesus is being carried) is white; the third, (formed by the angels) is a mix of black space and flesh colored faces; the next (formed from God the Father’s robes) is bright red; and the last is bright yellow. Running counter to these bands of color, from the bottom right to the top left, is Jesus’ deathly pale body, stretched out across the canvas. The final effect of this is to make an “X” in the painting, a collision of lines at opposite angles that adds intensity to the composition.

Jesus’ head rests in God’s lap, while his legs are supported by the angels. His arms hang limply from his sides, and his legs are curled beneath him. The portrait of God the Father is one of the most convincing images of God I’ve ever seen, perhaps second only to Michelangelo’s renditions. Although His Son lies dead before Him, He is imperturbably calm. He is infinitely powerful, and yet above all of the corruptions that usually taint the heart’s of the powerful here in earth. Perched below Him is a shining white dove, the Holy Ghost, completing the Trinity. To me, this is the height of religious art.

El Greco

Now I get to one of my absolute favorites, El Greco (1541 – 1614). His real name was Domenicos Theotocopoulos, but the Spaniards gave him his nickname (“the Greek”). Born in Crete, El Greco was trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon paintings. Later, he traveled to Venice, eventually working in Titian’s workshop. Unable to find suitable patronage, he later made his way to Spain, settling down in Toledo. According to the Prado Guidebook—and I quite agree—he forms part of the trinity of great Spanish painters, along with Velazquez and Goya.

His style—influenced by both Orthodox and Catholic traditions—is absolutely unique and unmistakable. In fact, his style is so distinct that it makes more sense to talk about his work as a whole rather than individual paintings, which I will now attempt to do.

Although El Greco often dealt with traditional, religious themes, his treatment was far from traditional. The colors are bright and pure. El Greco painted with a severely limited pallet; he wasn’t working with the big, fancy 64-crayon box, but the basic 12-crayon set. These simple colors dominates over everything else—big, brash, bright colors; the paintings would be gaudy if they weren’t so beautiful. The bright reds, greens, yellows, and blues swirl and curl across the canvas, highlighted by the dark grey backgrounds he prefers.

There is a certain cartoonish character to his paintings. By this, I don’t mean that they are silly, but that they are exaggerated. El Greco doesn’t aim for a ‘realistic’, ‘lifelike’ representation; instead, he aims for an expression of passionate emotions. Realism, perspective, orderly composition—all are sacrificed for feeling. His figures are distorted and contorted, with elongated bodies in exaggerated and sometimes unnatural poses. Here the vertical predominates over the diagonal and the horizontal. Everything is stretched, and you can feel your eye being pulled upwards. I cannot help comparing this intense feeling of height with that evoked by the Toledo Cathedral in El Greco’s home town. In both that wonderful cathedral and in El Greco’s paintings, the whole emphasis is upwards, creating an astonishing feeling of smallness and awe.

All of these characteristics are evident in El Greco’s Trinity. This painting was actually based on a print by Dürer—the same print on which Jose de Ribera based his depiction of the Trinity. But even though the inspiration was the same, how different are the results! Ribera’s work, although supernatural in subject matter, is strongly realistic in style, whereas El Greco hardly makes the attempt to be realistic. As I mentioned above, Ribera’s painting is based on diagonal symmetry, whereas El Greco’s work is all vertical. Here, Christ lays lifeless, but His body is still held upright. The angels, too, stand upright, as well as God Himself. El Greco’s color pallet also differs markedly from Ribera’s; the latter uses complex shades and shadowing to achieve the verisimilitude, while the former’s preference for bright colors is apparent. Jesus’ naked flesh is contrasted with the bright blue, red, and green robes of the angels who flank Him. And above these figures is the Holy Ghost, flying triumphant against a shining yellow background. Ribera’s picture, although taking place in an imaginary space, still looks solid and three dimensional, while El Greco’s treatment of space seems almost medieval in his lack of concern with solidity and depth. Two masters; two diametrically opposed artistic visions.

For me, the strongest works of El Greco in the Prado are his Annunciation and Baptism of Christ. These two works were both originally part of an Altarpiece that El Greco designed and which has since been dismantled. The composition and style of both are quite similar: a Biblical scene plays out on the lower half of the canvas, while on the upper half figures float above the action. The feeling of vertigo engendered by these works is especially noticeable in person. I find it’s best to experience El Greco’s paintings while standing quite close, looking up at the top. Seen from this angle, elongated and distorted figures do not look at all ridiculous, but like heaven itself has opened up above you.

I find it especially difficult to articulate exactly why I like El Greco’s work so much. His work is not technically astounding (at least, not in my opinion). They are also not exactly pretty, at least not in the way many landscapes and portraits are pretty. True, there is a certain sweetness and tenderness in El Greco’s faces, such as the face of the Virgin in the Annunciation; but there is no physical beauty, and hardly any individuation. Like in medieval painting, El Greco isn’t trying to capture individual personalities; his paintings are not about people—at least, not primarily—but about the divine.

He is great because his vision is so convincing. One feels that he is trying to communicate his whole worldview to you. The author who I most readily think of for comparison is Dostoyevsky. Both El Greco and Dostoyevsky were unconcerned with realism, naturalism, or conventional elegance, but instead subordinated everything to their profound, religious perspective. Both produced works that would be silly, ugly, or even ridiculous if they were not so powerfully moving. Both were products of their time, and yet looked far beyond their time; both had styles influenced by the fashions of the day, which yet broke every rule of conventional taste. Both were overshadowed during their lifetimes by lesser artists, due to their insistence on expressing their deepest thoughts in a style unique to themselves. El Greco, like Dostoyevsky, defines what it means to be a true artist.


We now move on to the third part of the Trinity—Goya.

Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) was actually alive when the Prado was opened. Though born into a poor family, he eventually rose to be the most famous painter in Spain. Now he is recognized as one of the most influential and important painters of his century—indeed, of all time. The Prado has an enormous collection of Goya’s works. According to the guidebook, there are almost 150 paintings of his. Like Velazquez, Goya was extraordinarily versatile; he painted portraits, country scenes, landscapes, mythological scenes, religious works, and still lifes. But Goya was also an artist of enormous depth, creating many works of astonishing emotional force.

Because he was so versatile, it’s difficult to discuss his work as a whole. But there are some things I notice. First, he had a preference for dark colors; many of his paintings are set in a kind of gloomy twilight, even if they are outside. Second, to my eye Goya’s figures are unnaturally short and stocky; and I find that Goya’s faces have a kind of ape-like quality, with a small forehead, a small nose, and big eyes. In some paintings, this effect is subtle, but in others it is quite apparent. Many of Goya’s best paintings are depictions of violence, terror, desperation, and pain. Like Kafka, Goya had a way of portraying the terrors of life so forcefully that even us moderns, constantly barraged with violent imagery, are still shocked and horrified by what we find.

Although there are several fine portraits by Goya in the Prado—as well as one famous nude drawing of a woman, which was quite scandalous at the time—what most appeals to me is his darker side. This is exemplified in two of his most famous paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May, 1808. These depict the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid, and the short-lived Spanish resistance to the French soldiers. They are both enormous paintings, about twice the size of an average man. They hang side by side in the lower floor of the Prado, a panorama of war.

The first painting, The Second of May, 1808, depicts the fighting itself. The scene is set in the Puerta del Sol, where Spanish citizens are attacking the French troops. Some of these French soldiers are Mamelukes on horseback, who Napoleon picked up in Egypt. According to the audioguide, the sight of Arab troops in Madrid was an especially troubling sight for the Spaniards, since they had fought so hard to push the Muslims out of their continent.

Be that as it may, Goya’s treatment can hardly be called propagandistic. There are no heroes or villains in this painting; rather, everyone—Spanish, Egyptian, or French—is reduced to animal desperation. There is nothing glorious to be found; there is only despair and death. Compare one of the figures in the foreground, a Spaniard. He is dressed in dark clothes; in his right hand a dagger is held aloft. Below him, hanging off a horse, is a dead Mameluke with blood dripping down his body. Even so, the Spaniard, with inhuman eyes filled with a mixture of fear and hatred, prepares to stab down once more at the dead soldier. Above him is his counterpart on the French side, a Mameluke seated on a horse. He also has a knife grasped in his right hand, prepared to stab down; his eyes also are filled with that mixture of fear and hatred that animates the Spaniard. These two foes are equals in this battle—neither is ideologically, morally, or culturally superior. They are men turned to beasts through violence. Around these two figures, everyone else is nearly faceless; their eyes and mouths are mere blurs in the confusion.

The second painting, The Third of May, 1808, depicts the ruthless execution by the French of the prisoners taken during the uprising. The scene is now the hill of Principe Pio. On the right of the painting, a faceless line of French soldiers are hunched over their rifles, prepared to fire. Here the soldiers are neither men nor beasts, but mere machines of destruction. On the left are a group of cowering men, about to be killed. The most arresting figure is, of course, the man in the very center. While everyone around him is dressed in dark colors, this man wears a white shirt and yellow pants. He alone doesn’t cower; he looks right at the firing squad. His arms are raised high in the air—but why? Is he begging for mercy? No, it’s something more. That man’s gesture express Goya’s own feelings at the senseless destruction of war. It is a horrified, despairing plea for it all to stop; for the soldiers to cease seeing each other are enemies, and to start seeing their enemies as humans.

But these two paintings, as violent as they are, seem almost tame in comparison with Goya’s Black Paintings. Here is where Goya most nearly approaches Kafka. These paintings were originally painted by Goya for himself, late in his life, while he was living in a house outside Madrid called La Quinta del Sordo (The House of the Deaf Man). They are enigmatic, mysterious, and terrifying works. Their name comes from their dark color, which Goya achieved by mixing printer’s ink in with his oil paints.

The most inscrutable of these paintings is what’s called the Half-Submerged Dog. A dog’s head emerges from behind something—a dark brown area at the bottom of the painting. But what going on? Is the dog swimming? Above, the canvas is absolutely featureless, just a dark, textured yellow. The viewers eye is attracted to the dog’s expression; he is staring up into the yellow space above, and looks frightened to me. But it is really impossible to guess what Goya was trying to depict here. The final impression is one of devastating emptiness and confusion.

The rest of the paintings are hardly easier to interpret. Two giant men stand in a countryside, cudgeling one another. A goat-like shaman sits surrounded by monkeyish peasants. An old man eats soup, while a cadaverous figure points a bony finger.

But the most absolutely disturbing of these paintings is Saturn Devouring his Son. The subject is the old Greek legend. Saturn was told that one of his children would overthrow him, so he gamely decided to eat them all as soon as they were born. Goya takes this story and turns it into a nightmare. Saturn is not godlike, not even human. He kneels in a dark space, his naked body covered in shadow. He stares at the viewer with wide eyes as he takes another bite of the already decapitated, bleeding figure clutched in his hands. There is no question why he is doing this: fear. You can see in his eyes, he is terrified. This must be one of the most penetrating analyses of power I know. This titan, ruler of the universe, is forced to eat his own children to maintain his control. Absolute power has not only corrupted him, but it has destroyed him. There is nothing left in him but desperation.

Only the Beginning

I have spent days writing this post, and have only scratched the surface of the treasures you can find in the Prado. I need to stop before I get any further carried away in my descriptions. But know that these paintings I have described, though I think they are some of the best in the museum, are not a fair representation of all that the Prado contains. There are works by Titian, Tintoretto, Roger van der Weyden, Rubens, Dürer, Raphael, Caravaggio, Corregio, and Fra Angelico. Added to this are innumerable works by minor masters, filling every room with beauty.

If you visit Madrid, do take the time to go to the Prado. It’s a magnificent place.



Review: The Speech

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle ClassThe Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle Class by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Greed, in my view, is like a sickness. It is like an addiction.

Say what you will, this presidential race has been, at the very least, an intensely interesting affair. Of course, there is the debacle of the Republican primaries; but those are mainly interesting in the same way that a car accident is interesting—you can’t help but rubberneck, even if you’re a bit disgusted with yourself for doing so. Much more engrossing, for me, has been the rise of Bernie Sanders, something which seems to have surprised everybody, even Sanders himself.

I should admit, right off the bat, that I like Sanders; but I’m going to try my best in this review, however ineffectual that may be, to maintain some skeptical distance. I suggest you do the same for me.

This book was first released in 2011. As its back cover will tell you, it is a transcription of Sanders’s long filibuster speech, delivered on December 10, 2010, on the eve of a deal, brokered by Obama and the Republicans, which extended the Bush tax cuts on the super-rich, among other things. The whole speech is on YouTube, if you’re interested, all eight-and-a-half hours. This book is just a transcription of the speech.

As Sanders warns in the beginning, this speech is quite repetitive, deliberately so; he expected viewers to turn in for only a few minutes on CSPAN, and not to stick through the whole thing. This redundancy is probably the worst aspect of this book. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been edited and neatened up. Even so, despite the recurring sections, there is just enough new material scattered throughout the speech to keep the reader’s interest—or at least, to keep mine.

The subject of Sanders’s speech is most immediately the financial legislation in question and its shortcomings; but Sanders uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss what he sees as the pressing and dire problems facing the United States. Sanders is a remarkably consistent politician, and you will see him focused on the same issues, often using the same language, that he’s employed during his presidential bid this year.

The core of Sanders’s campaign, and this speech, is income inequality. Truly, the level of income inequality in the United States is staggering and hard to wrap one’s head around. Sanders does his best by hammering his listeners with statistic after statistic, numbers so big and so stark that they baffle the mind. After about five repetitions, they start to sink in; and after ten, your own moral outrage begins to simmer along with Sanders’s.

It’s worthwhile to compare Sanders’s speaking style with that of Obama. Obama is, I think, certainly the stronger and more versatile speaker. He is capable of sharp wit, of passionate outrage, of good-natured jocularity. But where I think he most excels, and what was his biggest asset when he ran for president, was his ability to inspire. He does this mainly through the use of anecdotes. He makes his speeches very personal; the way he speaks of nurses and teachers and firefighters is not at all condescending or pandering, but really makes you feel he knows them, knows them personally and intimately.

Sanders’s approach is quite different. For one, he is certainly more narrow in ability and focus. What Sanders conveys, with his voice, with his words, with his thrashing body language and unkempt appearance, is moral outrage. Indeed, I find something Biblical about Sanders’s speeches. He shouts until his voice cracks, until he is absolutely hoarse, detailing in a long, grotesque list how unfair and unequal our society has become. You don’t so much feel inspired as galvanized, jolted with a mixture of desperation and indignation.

To create these feelings, he does not tell stories, but recites facts. It’s astonishingly simple, really; he just has to read off a long list of ways that America is doing poorly—our shamefully huge prison population, our crumbling infrastructure, our soaring college tuition and health costs, and of course the absurd level of wealth and income inequality, which seems to grow more every year.

To speak personally for a moment, I remember the moment when his message really hit me. First I have to tell you that, among my friends, it’s almost a cliché to talk about how much better life in Europe is than in America. In fact, one of my friends, after a long vacation in Europe, said to me: “It’s honest really depressing how much better life is over there.” And it’s not just us; a lot of people have these thoughts. You get used to thinking of the United States as poorer, less prosperous, more benighted than places like Germany and Denmark.

Anyhow, one day when I was listening to a Sanders speech, he said: “Some of you may not know this, it’s easy to forget it sometimes, but the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world.” This really made something click within me. I’d gotten so used to thinking of the United States as poor and inferior—a place where you can’t afford to go to school or to get sick—that I was shocked to be reminded that we have more wealth in this country than anywhere else. This is, I think, what’s so effective and compelling about Sanders: you feel you’re being snapped back into reality.

So this is what I like about Sanders. What I dislike is his tendency to demonize the rich. He speaks of the super-wealthy as if they’re a bunch of nefarious, mustache-twirling, conscience-less devils trying to enslave the rest of the world. I just don’t see this rhetoric as necessary. First, everybody pursues their own interests—the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy—so I don’t see any reason to act morally superior. And second, I simply don’t think it’s true, strictly speaking, that the economy is hurting solely because of the greed of the wealthy. Yes, I am sure that a lot of stupid, selfish greed contributed to our economic situation today; but the economy is bloody complicated; it’s not a moral playground, but a vast system that even the best minds have failed to understand.

The cynical side of me sees this finger-wagging as just the sort of us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians use to gain power. But I do think, to be honest, that Sanders is not capable of something so underhanded. He’s been ragging on the rich for his whole career; it’s only recently that this strategy has started to pay off. And besides, I do think his larger point is not only valid, but vitally important—namely, that the influence of the wealthy class on politics, with campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists, has to be curtailed in order to preserve a working democracy.

As for Sanders’s political vision, I can’t deny that it appeals to me deeply. In a nutshell, Sanders’s vision is to make the United States more like Europe, with cheap college education, with free healthcare, with a strong social safety net, with higher taxes on the rich, with stronger infrastructure, and with a great deal more economic regulation. For the truth is, life in European countries often sounds too good to be true to young Americans.

Let me give you some concrete examples. Just the other day, I was in a car with a Spaniard. We got on the topic of vacation. She said she has a friend in the States who only gets 8 vacation days per year. “Is that typical?” she asks. Yes, we tell her. In my last job I got 15, but my girlfriend only had 5. Our driver is aghast. “I get thirty,” she says, “and I think that’s too few!”

Here’s another example, with regards to infrastructure. A monthly subway card in New York City costs $117; the equivalent here in Madrid costs 55€, and only 20€ if you’re 26 or under. What’s more, the subways in New York are overcrowded and dirty, with constant delays due to lines being shut down for repair; whereas the metro here is clean and always has good service. I’ve even seen a video—here’s the link—which shows some of the machines being used today in the NYC subway system. They were built in the 1930s, if you can believe that.

And this is not to mention the looks of shocked disbelief on the faces of Europeans when I tell them just how expensive college and healthcare are in the United States. So, really, when you’re reminded that your country—the place with the slow and expensive and obsolescent trains, where every young person is several thousand dollars in debt from college, and where we still have high levels of unemployment and child poverty—is the richest country in all of history, it hits a nerve.

And while I don’t like demonizing the rich, I do agree that the rich in the U.S. live in a world apart. This was illustrated for me last year when, by chance, I found myself looking through a yacht magazine. Have you ever seen one? It was unbelievable, and I mean I honestly couldn’t believe what I saw. These ships were just huge. Inside they had bowling alleys, movie theaters; they had personal gyms and helicopter landing pads; they had living rooms created by world-famous interior designers. The boats were, I admit, super cool. But what does it say about our society that there are people who can afford things like this, when on every corner is somebody on the street?

This review has already dragged on too long, and still there is so much to be said about Sanders and what his campaign means. The pundits dismissed him before he began, and even now, even in some liberal publications, he’s discussed—discussed all too rarely—with a kind of guarded skepticism. Some have said that the media is ignoring him because of their corporate overlords. But in general, I don’t think conspiracy theories are necessary. The news media in the U.S. is not evil, it’s just shamefully bad.

For example, on several occasions I’ve heard pundits criticize Sanders for focusing on income inequality in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. What a bizarre situation we’re in, when a politician is criticized for not trying to whip up fear. Other pundits have dismissed Sanders based on poll numbers; but even when Sanders was leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary was regarded as inevitable. Besides, my understanding is that these poll numbers, which change every week, are done on landlines—and thus probably exclude most young people, the bulk of Sanders’s supporters. Ironically enough, the only thing that seems to get the journalists’ attention is how much money Sanders is managing to make without accepting donations from corporations—which says quite a lot about the American media.

Almost every prediction I’ve heard about this election cycle has been shown to be foolish, so perhaps I should demure. But let me give it a go. Even if he doesn’t quite win, I think Sanders will surprise everyone on election day by how close he gets. And even if he loses, I predict that his presidential run will serve a similar function as Barry Goldwater’s did, back in the 60s, giving impetus and direction to a new political movement in the country. In other words, even if he loses the political battle, I think he’s already won the battle of ideas. And, who knows? Maybe he’ll win the political battle, too.

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Review: The Ascent of Man

Review: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of ManThe Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

I watched this series right after finishing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, as I’d heard The Ascent of Man described as a companion piece. So like my review of Clark’s work, this review is about the documentary and not the book (though since the book is just a transcription of the series, I’m sure it applies to both).

The Ascent of Man is a remarkable program. I had doubts that anyone could produce a series to match Civilisation, but Bronowski made something that might even be better. Bronowski was a polymath: he did work in mathematics, biology, physics, history, and even poetry. In this program, his topic is the history of science. Yet for Bronowski, the word “science” not only refers to the modern scientific method, but rather encompasses all of humanity’s efforts to understand and manipulate the natural world.

We thus begin with Homo erectus, learning how to chip away stone to make tools. As Bronowski notes, this simple ability, to chip away at a stone until a cutting edge is left, is a remarkable indication of human uniqueness. Since the behavior is learned and is not an instinct, it requires a preconception of what the toolmaker wants to create, a certain amount of imagination is required to picture the goal before it is realized. What’s more, creating a stone tool requires a sense of the structural properties of the rock. (I’ve actually tried making stone tools with various types of rock, and let me tell you that it’s not so easy. Even with an archaeologist giving me advice, I was only able to create stone tools of the sophistication of an Australopithecus—randomly beating the stone until a sharp edge was created.) Thus both our creative drive and our knowledge are involved in this quintessentially human activity. “Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

This brings Bronowski to one of his main points, one of the themes of this series: that art and science are not fundamentally different; rather, they are two manifestations of the human spirit. What is this human spirit? It is a composite of many qualities, what Bronowski calls “a jigsaw of human faculties,” which include our wide behavioral flexibility, our capacity to play, our need to create, our curiosity about the natural world, our sense of adventure, our love of variety. Indeed, these can be pithily described by saying that humans retain many childlike characteristics throughout their lives. The name of the last episode is “The Long Childhood.”

One of my favorite sequences in this documentary is when Bronowski takes the viewer from the posts and lintels of the Greek temples, to the arches in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, to the somewhat prettier arches in the Mezquita in Cordoba, to the cathedral at Reims with its magnificent flying buttresses. Each of these structures, he explains, is a more sophisticated solution to this problem: how do you create a covered space out of stone? The lintel and post system used by the Greeks leads to a forest of columns, and the Mezquita, although less crowded, is still filled with arches. The Medieval Christians achieved a magnificent solution by placing the buttresses on the outside, thus leading to the towering, open interior of Reims.

We’re used to thinking of this development as an architectural triumph, but as Bronowski points out, it was also an intellectual triumph. This progression represents better and better understandings of the structural properties of stone, of the force of gravity, and of the distribution of weight. And when you see it play out in front of your eyes, it’s hard to shake the impression that these marvelous works are also progressively more elegant solutions to a mathematical puzzle. This is just one example of Bronowski’s talent: to see the artistic in the scientific and the scientific in the artistic; and he does this by seeing the human spirit in all of it.

Here’s another example. Bronowski wants to talk about how humanity has come to understand space, and how this understanding of space underpins our knowledge of structure. How does he do it? He goes to the Alhambra, and analyzes the symmetry in the tiles of the Moorish Palace. Then, he bends down and spreads a bunch of crystals on the ground, and begins to talk about the molecular symmetry that gave rise to them. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition. How many people would think to compare Moorish architecture with modern chemistry? But it’s so appropriate and so revealing that I couldn’t help but be awed.

As the title suggests, this series is not simply about science (or art), but about science through history. Bronowski aims to show how humanity, once freed from the constraints of instinct, used a combination of logic and imagination to achieve ever-deeper conceptions of our place in the universe. This is the Ascent of Man: a quest for self knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp this, but consider that we are living in one of the brief times in history that we can explain the formation of the earth, the origin of our species, and even the workings of our own brains. Imagine not knowing any of that. It’s hard to envy former ages when you consider that their sense of their place of the universe was based on myth supported by authority, or was simply a mystery. I’m sure (and I earnestly hope) that future generations will believe the same about us.

Bronowski’s final message is a plea to continue this ascent. This means spreading a understanding and an appreciation of science, as his programs tries to do. This strikes me as terribly important. I’ve met so many people who say things like “Science is a form of faith” or “Science can’t solve every problem” or “Science is dehumanizing and arrogant.” It’s sad to hear intelligent people say things like this, for it simply isn’t true. It’s an abuse of language to call science a faith; then what isn’t? And yes, of course science can’t solve every problem and can’t answer every question; but can anything? Science can solve some problems, and can do so very well. And science, as Bronowski points out, is the very opposite of dehumanizing and arrogant. Science is a most human form of knowledge, born of humility of our intellectual powers, based on repeated mistakes and guesses, always pressing forward into the unknown, always revising its opinions based on evidence. Atrocities are committed, not by people who are trained to question their own beliefs, but by ideologues who are convinced they are right.

This is Bronowski’s essential message. But like in any good story, the telling is half of it. As I’ve mentioned above, Bronowski and his team are brilliant at finding unexpected ways to illustrate abstract ideas. This series is full of wonderful and striking visual illustrations of Bronowski’s points. What’s more, the man is a natural storyteller, and effectively brings to life many of this series’ heroes: Newton, Galileo, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mendel. He’s also a poet; one of his books is a study of William Blake’s poetry. This not only gives him a knack for similes, but helps him to explain how science is fundamentally creative. One of my favorite scenes is when Bronowski compares abstract portraits of a man to the ways that various scientific instruments—radar, infrared, cameras, X-rays—detect the man’s face. As he explains, both the portrait and these readings are interpretations of their subjects.

The cinematography is also excellent. There are some sequences in this documentary that are still impressive, saturated as we are with CGI. There are even some quite psychedelic sections. One of my favorite of these was a sequence of microscopic shots of human cells with Pink Floyd (who contributed music) jamming chaotically in the background. Unlike in Clark’s Civilisation, which uses exclusively ‘classical’ music and is devoid of special effects, the style of this documentary is surprisingly modern and even edgy. Another thing Bronowski does that Clark doesn’t, is include some information on non-Western cultures, from Meso-America, Japan, China, and Easter Island.

Yes, there are some parts of this that are outdated. Most obviously, much of the scientific information is no longer accurate—particularly the information on human evolution in the first episode. This is unavoidable, and is in fact a tribute to the ideals Bronowski championed. More jarring is Bronowski’s somewhat negative assessments of the culture of Easter Island and the lifestyle of nomadic peoples. Less controversially, he also has some negative words to say about Hegel. (Did you know Hegel published an absurd thesis when he was young about how the distance of the orbits of the planets had to conform to a number series?) Another mark of this program’s age is that Bronowski several times shows nudity and even a human birth. This would never fly on television today, at least not in the States.

But these flaws are minor in such a tremendous program. The Ascent of Man is a landmark in the history of science education and of documentary making, and a stirring vision of the progress of humanity by an brilliant and sympathetic man. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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