Review: Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare

Review: Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why, man, he doth brestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.

One of Shakespeare’s best, this play is also, I think, one of his most morally ambiguous. The central question of the play—was it right to have killed Caesar?—is left unresolved, principally because of the complexity of the protagonists.

The play opens with Cassius persuading Brutus to act against Caesar. This monologue, though eloquent, is also somewhat confusing, perhaps even incoherent. The reasons Cassius avers for wanting Caesar dead are all petty and somewhat beside the point. Cassius hates Caesar, but why? Because once Caesar faltered while swimming the Tiber? Or because Caesar once had a cold? Of course, these examples are only meant to show that Caesar is a mere man, and thus does not deserve to occupy such a high eminence. And yet, this same argument—namely, that human weakness makes everyone equal—can be used against any form of inequality, be it wealth, power, or prestige; and communism is certainly not what Cassius is preaching.

True enough, word later comes that Mark Antony offered Caesar a crown, which would threaten the very existence of the Republic. But there is nothing in Cassius’s words or deeds that reveal him as someone motivated by political philosophy. Rather, he is a sensitive man, easily insulted, with a delicate ego; and his emotional episode in Brutus’s tent also reveals him to be needy and high-strung. There is nothing evil in him, nor even overtly malicious; but he is not like Brutus, a man of principles, honor, nobility. Thus I cannot help concluding that his plot against Caesar was mainly motivated by petty emotions, even if Cassius told himself otherwise. He felt envious of Caesar’s power, slighted at having a superior, fearful of future humiliations.

All this is more or less apparent in Cassius’s speech to Brutus. From the start, therefore, it should have been apparent to Brutus that he was allying himself with men acting from a suspect motive. But perhaps Brutus is too good-hearted to question the motivations of his friends. Indeed, throughout the play, Brutus is shown to be ethically unimpeachable, a purely noble and righteous person. Even his enemies admit it. And given that he talks the most and dies last, many have argued that the play should be entitled Brutus and not Julius Caesar, since the latter has few lines and dies halfway through.

It is, indeed, tempting to see Brutus as the tragic hero, trying to do what is right, brought down by circumstances. But I have trouble taking his side completely.

For one, it seems foolish to have let himself be persuaded by Cassius. The assassination was rash, and they had no plan whatsoever for restoring order once the deed was done. It also struck me as hypocritical, to say the least, to march through the streets yelling “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” since, at best, the conspirators restored an oligarchy of hereditary privilege. I am not convinced that the life of the common people was any better under the Senators than under Caesar.

Brutus also has a tendency to act imprudently, which is arguably his fatal flaw. First, the assassination plot itself—specifically the plan for restoring order—should have been more carefully considered. Brutus’s oration to the Roman people after the assassination is evidence that his rationales were not given enough thought. He cites “ambition” as the reason Caesar had to be killed, but does not clearly show in which of Caesar’s actions this ambition was manifested. This makes it very easy for Mark Antony to refute the charges. Brutus should have foreseen this, which is why it was the height of folly to have let Mark Antony give that oration. Besides all this, he shows himself to be a poor general.

Brutus’s personal honor code, while earning him respect, also handicaps him. For one, as noted, his tendency to trust others make him a poor judge of character. More troublingly, in attempting to set himself up above petty emotions, he renders himself inhumanly cold. Cassius, though oversensitive, is right in rebuking Brutus for attempting to see the vices and virtues of a friend with an unprejudiced eye, rather than overlooking Cassius’s faults. More significantly, Brutus’s attempt to rise above the grief of his wife’s death lowers him instead, turning him into a mere empty shell motivated by an honor code that brings nobody happiness, not even himself. For these reasons, I feel sad at his loss, but I also feel that he had it coming.

Mark Antony has some of the marks of a villain, who vows revenge even if he drags down all of Rome in the process. He is also not terribly likeable, being arrogant to others and fawning to Caesar. But he has redeeming qualities. His love for Caesar, while at first apparently sycophantic, is later shown genuine. The praises of a living commander are always suspect, but the praises of a departed one are honorable. Mark Antony is also not insensitive to the virtues of Brutus, even praising his memory. He fights for vengeance, true, and vengeance is always ethically suspect; but Hamlet fought for vengeance, and that does not make us like him any less.

In sum, it is difficult to see either Cassius, Brutus, or Mark Antony (or Julius Caesar, for that matter) as unambiguously right or wrong. They are rather three imperfect individuals, with different faults and strengths, who all fight in good faith for what they believe is right.

To acknowledge the faults in these characters, and yet portray them as acting sincerely, is a demonstration of the genius and the nobility of Shakespeare. For the quality Brutus most lacked was the one Shakespeare had in superabundance: empathy. As this play demonstrates, he could acknowledge a person’s faults and limitations while also understanding that, from their point of view, what they were doing was perfectly right. And therein lies both the secret of his art and the moral value of his works.

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Review: The World at War

Review: The World at War

The World At WarThe World At War by Mark Arnold-Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consisting of 26 episodes, each about 50 minutes long, The World at War traces the history of the Second World War from its pre-War beginnings to its aftermath. The program is remarkable in scope, covering the relevant political history of the United States, England, Germany, and Japan; the war efforts in north Africa and southeast Asia; the Russian and the Western front, as well as the final push against Japan; the bombing campaigns and their effects on civilian life; the struggle of the Allied shipping fleet against the German U-boats; the final peace negotiations in Europe and Asia, and the concomitant haggling between the U.S.S.R. and the West; the horrors of the Holocaust; and much else.

But the series has depth as well as breadth. There are hours and hours of archival footage—of battles, bombings, bombardments, protests, speeches, life on the front line, civilian life, negotiations, military parades, invasions, celebrations, triumphs, massacres, tragedies—much of it never used before, unearthed by the program’s research team.

Even more impressively, there are hours of interview footage, from from Poles, Russians, French, Germans, English, Americans, Japanese. There are interviews of gunners, tank crew, infantrymen, sailors, pilots; interviews of housewives, firefighters, barmen, taxi drivers; as well as from politicians, advisors, generals, and even Hitler’s personal secretary and chauffeur. Considering that these interviews were made specifically for the series, from people directly involved in the action, this makes the raw footage (most of it unused) a valuable primary historical document. And this is not to mention the wonderful narration by Laurence Olivier, which is always tasteful, often moving, and sometimes chilling.

In short, the documentary is a masterpiece, bringing the drama of the war to life while also being supremely informative. If you want to watch any documentary about World War II, make it this one.

To speak personally, watching this documentary had a strange effect on me, because it made me realize how much my perspective has changed since I was a kid. Back then, I used to watch World War II documentaries because the war seemed like a comic book. It was a story with clear bad guys and good guys, and the good guys won in the end. It was a story of personal heroism and bravery, of self-sacrifice and honor, of hardships endured and battles fought for the greater good. I was even fascinated with the military technology, the tanks, war planes, battleships, and guns. I remember going to the military museum at West Point, and seeing replicas of the nuclear bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was something undeniably awe-inspiring about the ability to create so much destruction, to wield so much power.

This time around, I had a different reaction. The more I watched, the more I became overwhelmed with a sense of pointless loss, destruction, and violence. Millions of young men marching off to shoot other young men, and for what? Towns blown to pieces, cities burned to the ground, and, most of all, countless lives lost. People shot, stabbed, drowned, burned; people executed by firing squad, hanging, the gas chamber. Beaches filled with bloated bodies, corpses rotting in the road, the remains grandmothers and children buried under piles of rubble. And it just kept going, the planes kept dropping bombs, the men kept throwing grenades, the tanks kept rolling on. By the end of the series, every episode made me feel sick.

When you see the numbers of the dead, it’s easy to grow numb. The totals become mere, meaningless statistics. But when you realize that those millions were composed of individuals, people with their own favorite song to whistle, shade of blue, local restaurant, people with their own quirks of personality, their own flaws and virtues, people who were loved and who loved in return, people who might have done anything had they survived the war, the enormity of the tragedy dawns on you. No matter what the aggressors hoped to gain from the war, no matter how glorious it seemed, it could not have been worth it.

The documentary does not shy away from the horrors of war, but dwells on them, and for good reason. For if there is any lesson to be learned from World War II, it is simply this: We must do everything in our power to avoid repeating that catastrophe.

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Basking in the Basque Country: Bilbao

Basking in the Basque Country: Bilbao

(For ease of navigation, I have split my original post into four parts: click here for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, here for the Vizcaya Bridge, and here for San Sebastián.)

If you travel north-east from Madrid, towards the elbow where the northern coast of Spain meets the western coast of France, you will eventually reach one of the most fascinating corners of the country: el País Vasco, or the Basque Country.

The Basques are an ethnic group indigenous to the region, and they’ve been around a long time. Their origins cannot be precisely determined, but it is thought that they represent a living lineage of the people who occupied Europe before the Roman expansion. This is believed because their language, Basque (Euskara, as they call it), is unrelated to any of the neighboring Romantic languages. That’s clear at a glance. Look at even a Basque street sign, and your eye will rebel at the confusing jumble of consonants—so thick that even German would flee in terror. The language is absolutely isolated; there is nothing similar, no dialects even remotely related. Its survival is an indication of the Basques’ remarkable toughness.

The Basque region has always been troublesome for Spain. This is understandable, considering that the Basques have a different language and culture. Basque separatism has existed since at least the time of Ortega y Gasset, who identified it in his book, España Invertebrada (1922), as one of the forces of disintegration in modern Spain.

Much more recently, the Basque terrorist group ETA fought for independence. To date they have killed over 800 people, and that number rises when you include injuries and kidnapping. Thankfully there haven’t been any attacks in many years. But this antagonism between the Basques and the Spanish still exists. Just this month, while working at a summer camp, some kids from Bilbao got very angry when kids from Madrid started making fun of them for being Basque. And one of those Basque kids kept telling me “I don’t like Spain,” even though he lived in Spain and spoke Spanish far better than Euskara.

For all these reasons, I have long been interested in visiting the region; and this is not to mention all the friends who recommended going. So GF and I decided to spend a long weekend exploring the Basque Country for ourselves. Our first stop was the most populous city: Bilbao.



Bilbao is a city of industry. On our train ride from the suburbs to the city center, we passed dockyards, cranes, shipping containers, and factories. Bilbao is situated on an estuary; and the whole riverside, from the city center to the Bay of Biscay, is a scene of unbroken industry. Unlike many Spanish cities, Bilbao is a place bent on the future. On our way in, GF and I passed the Exhibition Center—a daring building, erected in 2004, that looks like a waiter carrying too many plates in one hand. Once you reach the center of Bilbao, a circular glass skyscraper towers overhead; and a modern bridge made of twisting metal spans the river. Even the garbage disposals look like robots.


But Bilbao also has history. The historical center of the city is the Casco Viejo, which is where we headed to first. It is a lovely area, with narrow streets and plentiful restaurants. One of the most famous things about the Basque country is the food. Instead of tapas, they have pintxos, which are more or less the same thing—small servings of food, mostly on bread.

Our Airbnb host recommended the Casco Viejo for eating; and since every restaurant was advertising pintxos, we randomly picked one and sat down. I’m sorry to say that, although good, the food did not leave a deep impression on me. Indeed, I cannot say that I found the food in Bilbao noticeably different from the food in, say, Logroño—that is to say, it seemed fairly typical of Spanish food. It’s good food, to be sure, but I expected something more distinct. Instead, we had croquetas on bread, jamón on bread, tortilla on bread, chorizo on bread, and so on. In any case, it was inexpensive and filling, so I cannot complain.

We spent some time wandering around the Casco Viejo, enjoying the medieval streets. We wanted to visit the cathedral, which is small and has a lovely façade; but it was closed, for whatever reason. So we decided to leave the old area, and walk towards Bilbao’s main attraction: the Guggenheim Museum.

The River, with Bilbao’s lovely art nouveau train station

The walk towards the Guggenheim was delightful, taking us along the riverside. In some sections I was reminded of Paris, with elegant apartment buildings and the old Santander train station, decorated in a colorful art nouveau style. Then the city began to look more modern. Rectangular glass buildings, brutally square, towered overhead; and a small white suspension bridge came into view. Soon we could see the Guggenheim itself, although its strange form was mostly hidden from view by apartment buildings and another suspension bridge. Next to this bridge, two odd, grey towers curled up towards the sky, serving no apparent function but decoration.


As we neared, I grew increasingly excited. I had heard of the Bilbao Guggenheim before I even came to Spain, and had longed to see it ever since. My anticipation growing, we walked under the bridge and turned a corner.

The Guggenheim

The sight did not disappoint. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Bilbao Guggenheim is covered in overlapping titanium strips, meant to look like the scales of a giant fish. The curling form of the building is also reminiscent of a fish, or perhaps of a massive, misshapen boat. Indeed, the building looks more at home in water than on land—a feeling reinforced both by a large pond in front and its location right next to the river. Just as in Gaudí’s work, there is hardly a straight line to be found; everything swells and curves, contracts and expands. In front, a large statue of a ghastly, nightmarish spider welcomes visitors to the museum. It is not exactly a beautiful place, but undeniably intriguing.

We found the entrance and went inside. The first thing we saw was a work by Andy Warhol. Consisting of at least fifty separate silkscreens, the work was an exploration of color and shadow. Essentially, Warhol just took the same silkscreen and made copies of it with many different colors (mostly bright neon). I enjoyed walking around the room, seeing how the image changed as I went along, but GF was deeply unimpressed with the piece. And I cannot say I found it terribly inspiring, either.

My favorite room in the museum was the largest. It housed Richard Serra’s massive installation, The Matter of Time. The work consists of long, thin metal strips, far taller than a person, arranged in geometrical patterns throughout the space. Some of these are in waves, some circles, some spirals. The feeling of walking through it is rather like being lost in a maze. Several times I lost track of GF, and had to search through the odd shapes to find her. The acoustic properties were also interesting, the metal sheets creating massive echoes, amplifying my footsteps into a loud clacking. The way that the installation warped and stretched my perception of space made it a true work of art.

The most well-represented artist in the museum was Louise Bourgeois. She is mostly known for her three-dimensional installations, which often use materials found around the house. In content, her work tends to be highly autobiographical. The aforementioned spider in front of the museum, which is her work, is meant to represent her mother. This strikes me as rather grim, but as the audioguide informed us, the spider’s weaving is supposed to represent nurturing and protection—though I’m not sure I buy that. Her relationship with her father does not seem to have been any better. One of her most famous works, Destruction of the Father, is an abstract depiction of a banquet in which the children have rebelled, killed, and eaten their father. The whole installation is made of soft materials, illuminated with red light that makes everything look like flesh; and the “children,” the “food,” and the “table” are formless blobs. In sum, I find her work a bit creepy.

The most beautiful room in the museum was the one dedicated to 20th century Parisian art. Unfortunately, while I remember being quite pleased with the paintings, the only canvases that stick out in my memory are Robert Delaunay’s portrayals of the Eiffel Tower. These are wonderful works, with the towering form of the Eiffel Tower squeezed, compressed, stretched, and twisted, standing over a trembling Paris below. There is an attractive energy and dynamism to the paintings, which fit well with the aesthetic of Bilbao, for Delaunay’s painting, the Eiffel Tower, and Bilbao are all oriented towards the technological future. More generally, I found the works in those rooms satisfied my ideal of what art should be—original, daring, personal, and yet informed by a tradition of technical competency and well-worn standards of beauty.

Eiffen Tower Delaunay

This does not apply to another room in the Bilbao Guggenheim, the one dedicated to “Masterpieces.” This label may have been tongue-in-cheek, for the works contained therein were, one and all, large canvasses covered in either a monochromatic shade of paint, or merely splattered haphazardly with colors. One of them, I remember, looked like someone had randomly thrown blue paint at a white canvass; but the audioguide informed me that the artist had a nude model covered in paint roll around on it. Another one (if memory serves) consisted of an amorphous blob of green, yellow, and blue, which the audioguide explained was meant to represent the countryside of the artist’s youth. It’s things like that which give modern art a bad name. True, there was a work by Mark Rothko, who I tend to enjoy. Apart from this, however, I was left cold. I spent about ten minutes doing my best to appreciate the works, and then finally gave it up.

It took us about three hours to see the whole museum, and then we were out on the street again. My final assessment of the museum’s collection is the same as my opinion of the building itself: not exactly beautiful, but intriguing. There are times when I feel that the modernist emphasis on originality and personal expression has been horrid for visual art. By jettisoning tradition they have abandoned both the technical facility and the standards of beauty that have guided the best artists for hundreds of years. But sometimes, when I see something truly strange and fascinating, I think that this search for new modes of expression, new aesthetics, new mediums, new techniques—in a word, for newness—is both necessary and good. It is, in any case, true that it is impossible to reproduce the aesthetics of earlier times without producing sterile works; great art must reflect both the times of its birth and the vision of its creator.

I wanted to see more, but our day was over. Since we had spent the morning in the car, it was already quite late. We ate dinner and went back to our Airbnb to rest. Originally we planned to spend two days exploring Bilbao, but a recommendation from our Blablacar driver made us change those plans. Instead, we would try to see the Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and PoetryThe Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry by Walter Pater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort.

I had no idea what to expect from these essays. The only reason I became aware of Pater was because a copy of this book was sitting on the bathroom floor in my friend’s father’s house. Since my friend’s father is a successful painter, I naturally took note of a book about art so intimately placed. Much later, after finishing Burckhardt’s famous analysis of the Renaissance, and with my trip to Rome looming, I decided that I would finally see why a painter sought out this book for his bathroom inspiration.

Pater was an idiosyncratic fellow, and these essays certainly reflect that. Some of the topics he covers are expected: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Others are more surprising: Joachim du Bellay, a Frenchman who wrote a defense of the French language; two medieval French stories about love and adventure; and Johann Winckelmann, the 18th century German classicist. Clearly, Pater’s conception of the Renaissance was far broader than Burckhardt’s, who considered the Renaissance a strictly Italian affair. Also broad is Pater’s conception of criticism: for him, it is not merely a vocation, but an entire philosophy of life.

I am referring specifically to the famous “Conclusion” that is tacked on to the end of these essays. In it, Pater puts forward a whole aesthetic philosophy of life: Everything is in flux; both matter and mind are temporary; the only thing we have is the moment; and since death may come at any time, and will come inevitably, the only rational response is to enjoy this moment as best you can. Now, some thought that Pater was advocating hedonism, but that is far from the case. He was, rather, an aesthete; and for him, “enjoying the moment” meant finding the most beautiful shade of green in a field of grass, or observing the play of light on a windowpane—that sort of thing. The ability to be constantly, delicately, indefatigably absorbed in one’s senses, and yet have the focus and taste necessary to select from these perceptions the most lovely, is what Pater meant with his famous suggestion to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,” which for him is “success in life.”

At times, the age of these essays showed. This was most conspicuous in Pater’s essay on Giorgione, in which he bases his whole appreciation on one painting, elevating it to the height and epitome of Giorgione’s aesthetic—a painting which is now believed to be by Titian. But for the most part, the essays have retained their force and interest. Indeed, you may not realize how original this book was, since it anticipated and shaped so many of our attitudes about art and the Renaissance. To pick just one example, Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, dwelling on her mysterious smile, certainly helped spur on our fascination for that work.

Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Pater actually deepened my appreciation for the Renaissance works he discussed. This is due, I think, to his ideal of the critic: to be acutely sensitive to the power of art, and to be finely discriminating of what is more or less beautiful. Sensitive and discriminating Pater certainly is. (Several times I wondered if he passed out while writing his essays, since, judging by his breathless and insistent tone, he was always to be right on the cusp of a brilliant epiphany or a transcendent experience. It must have been exhausting.)

But notice was is lacking from his ideal of the critic: to analyze, to discuss, to inform. The critics who have most helped me appreciate art are those who taught me about the painting the artist; who showed me what to look for, how best to situated the painting within a certain context; in short, who pulled me into the world of the painting. But since Pater holds up sensitivty and discrimination as ideals, he is faced with the problem: how does one communicate those qualities, which are personal, to somebody else? To do this, he resorts to writing long rhapsodies, reveries, aesthetic ecstasies about the works under consideration. These passages are almost uniformly brilliant, often breathtaking. Nevertheless, it felt more like watching Pater look at a painting, overhearing the thoughts and associations the painting inspires in his brain, rather than learning how to appreciate the painting myself.

I cannot finish this review without discussing Pater’s prose. He is considered to be one of the great stylists, and this reputation is well deserved. The man was such a brilliant writer that it often seemed irrelevant what he was writing about; he could write an essay on the underside of a mosquito and it would be good literature.

This is not to say that he has no limitations. Most conspicuously, he has not even a trace of the epigrammatic. If a point can be made in ten words, Pater will give you fifty, though those fifty will be as finely crafted as a Baroque statue. His sentences never arrest you or stop you short, but rather overwhelm you, burying you under a pile of clauses, metaphors, images, until you’re short of breath and so dazzled that it seems someone has shone a flashlight in your eyes. Comparisons with Proust and Woolf, especially the latter, come readily to mind; but Pater has a manic insistence that makes his writing uniquely urgent.

Another limitation is that Pater seems incapable of that kind of easy grace, that effortless virtuosity, which many of the greatest writers display. Rather, his prose strains every nerve, exerts every muscle, panting and sweating as it pushes itself onward. This impression is, apparently, an accurate one: According to Wiki, he obsessively polished, tweaked, and rewrote his works, until every word, every sentence, every paragraph was just to his taste. This makes his prose like a super-ornate jewel, breathtaking in its designs, its symmetries, and its technical daring; yet for all that rather delicate and precious, and inevitably a bit ostentatious.

I will leave you with a passage from his essay on Michelangelo:

And of all that range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in possession of our inmost thoughts—dumb inquiry over the relapse after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change, the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing, consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their hearts, the new body—a passing light, a mere intangible, external effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.

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On Justice

On Justice

A question that I often ask myself, especially now during the election season, is this: What makes a society just? Specifically, what are the criteria that determine whether a law is legitimate or a government is principled? I do not intend this question to be a legal question; whether something is constitutional is for me a secondary matter. The primary matter is this: What are the values on which a constitution is based that make it a worthy document?

Justice consists of the standards by which we determine whether a society is fair.

Justice is always a meta-standard—a standard applied to other standards that allows us to determine whether these other standards are worthy. For example, our standards of justice can be applied to our standards of ethics, to determine whether they need changing. But justice deals with other things besides crime and punishment. Economic justice deals with the fairness of the distribution of economic means; and social justice deals with the fairness of the treatment different demographic groups in the society. All of these, however, deal with the fairness of certain standards, whether they are the standards for determining whether someone should go to jail, make a lot of money, or be treated differently.

The crux of the matter, of course, is what we mean by fair. This is what philosophers, politicians, and virtually everyone else disagree about. The problem is that fairness often seems like a self-evident concept, when it reality it is far from that.

To start, what seems fair or unfair can depend very much on your situation. Let us say a lion managed to grab a gazelle and is about to eat it. From the gazelle’s point of view, this situation is monstrously unfair. The gazelle didn’t do anything to the lion, nor anything to anyone else, so why should it be the one being eaten? From the lion’s point of view, on the other hand, the situation is absolutely fair. The lion was born with certain dietary needs; it has to hunt and kill to survive; it picked the gazelle it found easiest to catch. What’s unfair about that? Should the lion starve itself?

Of course, lions and gazelles have no concept of fairness, so they lack this particular problem. But we have to deal with it. Finding a standard that can satisfy everyone in a given community is, I think, impossible. Every standard of fairness is bound to disappoint and embitter some. This is the basic tragedy of life. We can mourn this, but also learn from it. Since disappointment is unavoidable, and since perspective colors our notions of fair and unfair, it is clear that emotion alone cannot be the basis of a consistent standard of justice. We need something more objective, a clear set of principles that can be applied to any situation.

Let us start, as so many philosophers have before, with people in a so-called State of Nature. By this, I only mean people living without community of any sort—without rules, laws, or government, each person looking out for themself.

In this hypothetical (and wholly imaginary) situation, every person is maximally free. The only restrictions on people’s actions exist through the necessities of life. If they want to survive, the natural people must devote time and energy to finding food and building shelter for themselves. If they choose not to kill another person, it might be because they want that person’s help or because they are afraid of vengeance; but not because of moral scruples or fear of legal persecution. If a natural person finds a loner in the forest and decides to kill him and take his stuff, there might not be consequences. It is up to each individual what to do. Their every action is thus a calculated risk.

There are clearly some advantages to this hypothetical state of affairs. Most conspicuously, each person is a master of themself and does not have to listen to anybody. They can live where they like, how they like; they can eat, sleep, and play whenever they wish. But the disadvantages are also considerable. The main problem is lack of security. Without laws or police, you would always need to fear your neighbor; without a social safety net, you would always live at the mercy of the elements. It would be a life of maximal freedom and constant danger.

To repeat, I am not saying that this ‘Natural State’ ever existed; to the contrary, I do not think humans ever existed without communities, and I am only calling it ‘natural’ in keeping with the philosophical tradition. I am merely using this scenario to illustrate what a situation of maximal freedom would look like—wherein the only checks on a person’s actions are due to natural, and not social, constraints; wherein bare necessity, and not rules, custom, or law, are what guide life.

Now let us imagine what will happen if the people decide to get together and form a little community. This will clearly entail some changes. Most relevantly for my purposes, the people will have to start developing ways of organizing their actions. This is because, as they will soon discover, their unbridled desires will inevitably come into conflict.

If, for example, there are 10 apples and 10 people, it might be the case that each person wants all ten for themself. But when each of them tries to take all the apples, they will of course start arguing. If they are going to continue living together, they need to develop a solution.

Perhaps three of them fashion spears and shields, and use their weapons to impose their will on the other seven. Thus an oligarchy emerges, in which the three masters make the seven slaves gather apples for them, leaving the slaves only the cores for meager sustenance. The masters punish disobedience, hunt down deserters, and grow fat while the others wither away.

This is the classic Might Makes Right solution to the problem of human society. Thinkers since Plato have been grappling with it, and as long as humans live together it will be a constant temptation. Nietzsche would say that a society wherein the strong dominate the weak is the fairest society of all—fairness itself, he might say, since people are being divided due to the natural law of strength and not the artificial law of custom. The devotees of Realpolitik—Thucydides and Machiavelli, to name just two—find this dominance of the strong over the weak inevitable; and the Social Darwinians go further and find it desirable.

Admittedly, the use of force does solve the problem of conflict, albeit brutally. A powerful few, by violent means, can indeed reduce infighting enough to produce a stable society. But I think most people instinctively recoil from the solution as unjust. After all, being born strong, violent, and domineering does not make you any more deserving of power than being born weak, meek, and kindhearted.

But let us a take a closer look. In my society—namely, the modern West—we have attempted (in theory) to create a meritocracy, wherein the most intelligent and innovative people are able to become wealthy. But is a meritocracy of mind any more fair than a meritocracy of muscle? Is it any better to reward the clever than the cruel? Perhaps both systems are unfair, since they reward people based on an attribute that is not within their control. After all, you can’t choose whether you’re born a genius any more than whether you’re born a warrior. Yes, rewarding the bright involves less bruising and bloodshed than rewarding the belligerent; but is it, in the strict sense, any more fair?

I think so, for the following reason. In a meritocracy of intelligence (in theory, at least) everybody possesses the same rights; whereas in a society governed by Might Makes Right, the rulers have different rights than the ruled. A simple example will suffice. If you agree to play chess with your friend, probably you won’t complain of injustice if your friend easily defeats you. Both of you are playing by the same rules, and your friend, either through practice or natural talent, simply operated within these rules more effectively than you did. But if your friend took out a knife, held it to your throat, and declared himself the winner, this would be clearly unfair, because your friend gave himself an extra dimension of power that you lacked.

Admittedly, a true advocate of Might Makes Right can, with total consistency, insist that the situation is still fair, since you could have thought of using a knife, too. Your friend had an idea you didn’t; what’s unfair about that? Using this logic, any rule-breaking can be regarded as fair, since anybody could have thought of any breach of the rules. To repeat, ‘fairness’ is a slippery concept; and some purists would insist that the only real fairness exists in the law of survival of the fittest. After all, aren’t all the rules of society just artificial contrivances used by the weak to entrap the strong? Many have thought so.

All I can say is that the advocates of Nietzsche’s Will to Power and Social Darwinism do indeed have a self-consistent worldview that cannot be refuted without begging the question. Personally, I find a world governed by Might Makes Right immoral. All moral systems, in my view, must exist between equals and benefit each individual who takes part in it. Thus a society based on violent coercion cannot be moral—at least for me—since the members abide by the rules out of fear and not self-interest. Granted, a Social Darwinian or a Nietzchean would have a very different concept of morality so again my criticism is still begging the question. All I can plead, therefore, is that I find Might Makes Right distasteful; so while acknowledging its logical appeal I will focus on other solutions to the problems of human society.

Now let us return to the problem of the ten people and their ten apples. We have considered and rejected the possibility of violent coercion, though my rejection was personal rather than philosophical. (The thorny problem with ‘justice’ is that it deals in fairness; and how do you decide if your standard of fairness is fair? Obviously you cannot without using circular logic, and thus your personal preferences come into play. As you will see shortly, we’re about to encounter this same problem again.)

We shall consider another solution: The community comes together and decides that the apple supply must always be divided equally between its members. Thus with ten apples each person gets one apple; with five apples each person gets a half, and so on. This is communism, of course, and represents another classic response to the problem of human society. Instead of the brutal law of strength, we get the perfect law of equality.

There is a certain elegance and undeniable appeal to communism. After all, what could be more fair than everyone getting the same thing? But upon closer inspection, it is easy to see how a communist system can also be considered unjust.

An obvious consideration is that every person does not have the same needs. If nine people were healthy but one person had a medical problem, would it be fair for every person to get the same amount of medical attention? Obviously that would be absurd; and even a hardliner communist would admit that perfect equality should be abandoned with regards to medical care, since different people clearly have different needs.

But if individuals differ in their needs for medical care, how else might their needs differ? Perhaps one person only feels good after nine hours of sleep, while the others feel fine after seven. Is it then fair to ask all of them to sleep eight? Perhaps not. We can give the needy sleeper a special dispensation to sleep nine hours. But then won’t this person be doing less work then the rest? Isn’t that unfair too?

A trickier problem is distinguishing a need from a desire. We distinguish between the two quite strictly in our language, but in reality the difference is not so clear. To pick a silly example, if nine of the community prefer apples but one abhors apples and loves pears, this pear-lover will be doomed to constant gustatory dissatisfaction if all decisions with regard to the food supply are taken collectively. This sounds quite trivial, but the point is that different things make different people happy; thus giving every person the same thing, while fair with regard to supply, is possibly quite unfair in terms of satisfaction.

An additional possibility of unfairness is differential contribution. In a communist community, some people may work harder, innovate more, and keep scrupulously to the rules; others may not carry their weight, or may otherwise take advantage of the system. In sum, different people will contribute different amounts to the community. Some of this difference will be due to ability, and some to personality. In any case, it is arguably quite unfair that, whatever you put into the collective, you take out the same amount.

The above criticisms are not meant to discredit communism; rather, they are only meant to show that, even in ostensibly the most perfectly fair system, unfairness still exists. (Unfortunately, unfairness of some sort always exists.) As an individualist, I am not attracted by communism because I think people have different needs, desires, and abilities, and that society should reflect these differences; but this preference of mine is obviously of emotional and not philosophical character. In any case, I do not know of any successful large-scale, long-term societies that had a truly communist character (most ‘communist’ countries being so in name only); so I feel justified in moving on from communism as a possibility.

Let us return, therefore, to our ten people with their ten apples. They tried a military oligarchy, and there was a rebellion; then they tried communism, but they grew resentful and dissatisfied. Then somebody has a bright idea: Whoever picks the apple owns it. The picker can choose to eat it, store it, or give it away; but under no circumstances can another person take it without permission; and if anyone is caught stealing the thief will have to pay a three apple penalty. Our society just invented the right to private property. Thus we see the birth of rights as a tool for organizing society.

There is nothing natural or God-given about a right. Rights are privileges agreed upon by the community, and exist by consent of the community. Rights are ways of organizing what people can and cannot do, to ensure that each person has a clearly delineated sphere of free action that does not impinge upon those of others. In other words, rights restrict people’s freedom at the point at which their freedom interferes with the freedom of their neighbors. A right to kill would thus be logically absurd, since if you killed me you would have deprived me of my right to kill. In other words, exercising your right extinguished my ability to exercise mine. This clearly will not do. This is why murder, larceny, and rape cannot be made into rights: They cannot be made universal, since they are actions that by definition involve the violation of other people’s autonomy.

Limitations on people’s actions are only justified insofar as these limitations protect the freedom of others. Anything beyond this is unnecessary and therefore unjust. Thus a law against homicide is valid, but a law forbidding the eating of sesame seeds cannot be justified, since that action does not deprive anybody else of their liberty. The aim is to secure for each individual the biggest allowable range of mutually consistent actions. To accomplish this, it is more suitable to define rights negatively rather than positively. Rights, in other words, ought to be defined as freedoms from rather than freedoms to, in order to secure the maximum amount of available action. This is consistent with the principle that freedom should only be limited at the points at which they interfere with the freedoms of others, since the rights are defined as freedom from this interference.

We return, now, to our apple community. Things are going along quite well in this new system. Then something happens: a man breaks his leg, and thus cannot pick apples any more. He begins to starve, while his neighbors continue happily along. So one night he makes a proposal of a new rule: When a member of the community is hurt, the healthy members must donate a certain fraction of their food to support the injured person during their convalescence. Since anybody can get injured, the man argued, this rule could potentially benefit any one of them. The healthy members disagree with the proposal, arguing that contributing their own food to another person is an infringement of their rights.

Which party is correct? More broadly, I want to ask how disputes like these should be resolved, when members of the community differ in their preferences of rights.

To answer this, I will introduce a Hierarchy of Rights.

Rights can, I believe, be ordered into a hierarchy from more to less fundamental. The measure of a right’s importance is the degree of autonomy that the right entails. Thus the most fundamental right is to life, since without life no other rights can be enjoyed. The right to be free from taxation is, by comparison, less important, since the loss of autonomy suffered through starvation is greater than the that suffered through taxation.

In the above case, therefore, I think the just thing to do is to impose a tax to keep the injured man alive. Contrarily, if somebody wanted to tax the population to build a gigantic statue of himself, this should be rejected, since the freedom to use one’s own money is more fundamental a right than the freedom to build giant statues. Having money appreciably increases your autonomy, while having a giant statue does not, and autonomy is the measure of a right’s importance.

Let us apply this line of thinking to a contemporary problem: Gun Control. Constitutional problems aside, I think it is clear that gun regulation is justifiable within this system. If the freedom to buy an assault riffle is interfering with another person’s freedom from violent death, obviously the first must be curtailed in some way, since it is the less fundamental right. Regulating firearms is thus justifiable in the same way as instituting taxes for welfare programs.

This same line of thinking applies to many other areas of life. We regulate car speed because the right to drive as quickly as you like is superficial in comparison with the right to life; and we regulate the finance industry because the right to speculate on the markets is less important than the right to our own money. In short, some rights are more important than others, since they entail a greater degree of autonomy; and to protect these fundamental rights it is justifiable to limit other rights of less importance.

Failing to distinguish between the importance of different rights is a mistake that I have often encountered. Once, for example, I spoke with a libertarian who argued that everybody should be able to own nuclear weapons. He argued this because, being a libertarian, he thought everybody should have as much freedom as possible. But this fails to take into account that, without limits, your autonomy will at some point interfere with mine. Maximal freedom is simply impossible in a society. The idea of allowing citizens to buy nuclear weapons is an obvious example: If one person used a nuclear weapon, in a flash they would deprive millions of people of their lives, and thus all of their rights. Thus for the sake of protecting personal liberty—not to mention human life—it is necessary to prevent individuals from possessing weapons of this kind. In other words, libertarians should be in favor of limiting access to weapons, since weapons deprive people of their liberty.

Similarly absurd was the argument that gay people should not marry because it offended people’s religious sensibilities. The right to marry is a quite fundamental, being of great social, personal, and financial importance; while the right not to be offended is not a right at all. (Anybody can potentially get offended at anything, since being offended is an emotional reaction; thus it would lead to absurdities to try to ban everything that offends.) While I am at it, polyamorous marriages should also be legal, I think, so long as all the parties consented. In general, I do not see why the love lives of consenting adults should be regulated at all.

The only justification for regulating or banning something is that it could potentially deprive somebody of their autonomy. The highly addictive and dangerous nature of drugs like cocaine and heroine give a compelling case for regulation, since it is possible that the substances compromise people’s ability to choose freely. And if you influence me to try cocaine, and I get addicted, you will have compromised my autonomy just the same as if you’d stolen from me. (This is philosophically interesting territory: Should you have a right to choose to do something that might compromise your ability to choose? It’s a tricky problem, but I think there are good grounds for banning certain substances, both because they cause people to act in ways they regret and, through their repercussions to people’s health, create a strain on the public health system.)

Likewise, I think it is the right choice to regulate, but not to ban, cigarettes and alcohol, since the addictive nature of the first and the intoxicating effects of the second can compromise a person’s autonomy. In the case of marijuana, on the other hand, I think that it is absolutely unjust that it has been made illegal and that people have been jailed for its possession. It is not a powerful drug, and does not limit people’s autonomy to the degree that an absolute ban is justified. More generally, I think many of the laws surrounding drug possession in the United States are good examples of unjust laws—some of them banning substances with insufficient justification, others imposing unduly harsh penalties for crimes of a non-violent nature. (As I wrote elsewhere, punishments are only justifiable insofar as they act as effective deterrents.) But let me return to the main subject.

This hierarchy of rights conception is obviously quite abstract, and without deliberate care will not be put into practice. In the above case of the ten people, I doubt that the one injured party would be able to prevail upon the nine healthy ones to give up a fraction of their food. The poor fellow might starve.

This is a constant danger in any community: the tyranny of the powerful. The powerful might be a majority, a race, a sex, or a class. This is one reason why I think government is a necessary institution in any large community. I do not see, in other words, how justice could be enforced in an anarchic system; and for this reason I am generally hostile to anarchism. Without a government, what would prevent the strong from preying on the weak? An anarchist will easily retort that the government is far from an ethically perfect entity, and indeed the state has often become the very thing we need protection against. This is true, and to prevent this careful measures must be taken.

The strategy used in the United States is a model example: divide up the government’s powers between different branches, with checks and balances between them. A division of powers between different levels of government and regions of the country—in other words, Federalism—is also an excellent practical measure against state tyranny. All the powers of each branch of government must be made explicit in a constitution, thus making any breaches easy to detect. Periodic elections also help to hold the government accountable to the people, as well as to prevent any one individual from accumulating too much power. Sad to say, no government and no constitution will ever be immune to totalitarian impulses, which is why a free press and an active, vigilant citizenry are necessary for a healthy state. But this is an essay on justice, not a plan of government.

The most just societies are those that keep the hierarchy of rights most clearly in view. When a just government balances the right of one person to buy thirteen private jets against the rights of a beggar to have food and shelter, it always sides with the latter. In general, the more resources, power, and privilege you have, the more justifiable it becomes to curtail your rights to your own property with the aim of redistribution. This is the justification behind welfare, food stamps, and Medicare; this is the reason why we have a graduated income tax. If you have one billion dollars, it does not appreciably affect your autonomy to be deprived of a large percentage of your income. On the other hand, government welfare programs allow worse-off people to stay alive and to find work, which are fundamental to their autonomy.

The above sketch is my preferred solution to the problem of creating a standard of justice. A system of rights, ordered into a hierarchy, allows each citizen a definite sphere of autonomy. This is important, because I think every person should be an authority over themself. Nobody knows your needs and desires better than you do; thus you are the person who best knows how to secure your own livelihood and attain your own happiness. Allowing people to order their own lives is not only good for each person individually, but is also good for the society as a whole. When people can think for themselves and reap the benefits of their own innovations, it provides both the means and motivations for a thriving society.