Review: Protagoras & Meno

Review: Protagoras & Meno

ProtagorasProtagoras by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited

In style the Protagoras is intermediate between the questioning Socrates of the early dialogues and the doctrinizing Socrates of the Gorgias. Here, Socrates is not only concerned in revealing the confusion of common notions, but also in advancing his own theories; yet the dialogue ends on an inconclusive note and, what is more, the ideas that Socrates advances are not the ones we recognize as Plato’s own mature philosophy.

As in the Gorgias, Socrates enters a gathering of sophists and their admirers, with the intent of questioning the practice of Sophism. Unlike Gorgias the rhetorician, however, Protagoras the sophist proves himself to be a formidable opponent. Indeed, in the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras has the upper hand, effectively resolving Socrates’ doubts regarding the teachability of virtue.

Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, because, if virtue is teachable, then why do good men have bad sons? And why are their no specialists in virtue, as there are specialists in medicine and carpentry? Protagoras counters, first, with a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that it was a gift of Zeus to all humans. Thus everyone is capable of virtue, and everyone is a teacher of virtue according to her ability; indeed you might say that virtue is taught all the time every day, just like Greek is. To illustrate the point, Protagoras uses a thought experiment involving a society where everyone played the flute. In such a society, some good men would likely have sons who were subpar flute players; but even the worst player in that society would likely be adept relative to a non flute-based society.

To drive home the point, Protagoras observes that punishment would be unreasonable if virtue were not teachable. For to punish as pure retribution is irrational and beastly—naked vengeance, which may satisfy anger but which will not undo any past wrongs. Punishment can only be rational if it is directed towards the future: to correct the wrongdoer and to discourage any others from following her example. The fact that the Athenians punish therefore proves that they believe that virtue can be taught.

Socrates uncharacteristically declares himself wholly satisfied and convinced by this answer. But one doubt remains: Are the parts of virtue, such as wisdom, courage, or piety, all independent, or are they all different names for the same basic thing? Protagoras at first asserts them to be different; a person may be courageous but impious, for example. However, Socrates trips him up with a question about opposites. Does everything have only one opposite? Yes, says Protagoras. So everything that is not wise is foolish? Of course. Then it is possible for piety to be foolish? At this Protagoras hesitates, and attempts to stop the conversation. Meanwhile, Socrates puts forth his doctrine that virtue is knowledge, specifically knowledge of pleasure and pain; and that this knowledge allows us to accurately estimate the pleasant and painful consequences of actions, and to make the best choice. (Plato would not persist with this position.)

In the course of this argument, Socrates and Protagoras have a dispute about the length of their responses. After Protagoras gives a little speech in answer to a question, Socrates professes himself too forgetful to follow long utterances, and requests that Protagoras stick with short answers. (This request is made to Gorgias, too.) Protagoras bristles at this and wants to quit; it takes the surrounding party to convince him to carry on. This seems to have been one of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) main complaints against the sophists, namely that they conceal poor reasoning in extended eloquent speeches. Plato also takes the opportunity to poke fun at those who argue by quoting and interpreting poems, putting a long and wholly implausible interpretation of a poem in Socrates’ mouth, thus illustrating that with sufficient ingenuity any meaning can be extracted from any poem.

The combatants disperse as friends and Socrates lives to argue another day.

MenoMeno by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Reading this dialogue immediately after reading the Protagoras confronts the reader with the mystery of Plato. For here are two dialogues, both about the same questions—What is virtue? Can it be taught?—and coming to opposite conclusions. And this leads to still more questions: Was Plato’s own opinion changing? Or was he representing Socrates’ opinions in one dialogue and his own opinions in another? Or did Socrates’ own opinion change? Or is it some other mixture of reported and original thought? It is impossible to know the answer—but that has never stopped philosophers.

The Meno is a fine example of Plato’s economy. Not a word is wasted in this dialogue. We begin with the inquiry and jump straight into difficulties. Can virtue be taught? Well, what is virtue? Meno says that each type of person has their own virtue—women, men, slaves, citizens, children, adults, and so on. To which Socrates responds that these virtues, qua being virtues, must all have at least one quality in common. (Here Wittgenstein would interject.) Then Meno throws up his hands, declares himself stunned, and offers his famous paradox (quoted above).

Socrates weasels his way out of this with the Platonic doctrine of remembrance. What if we are born (rather, reborn) already filled with true knowledge, and must merely remember what our souls learned during their sojourns in heaven. He demonstrates by leading one of Meno’s young slaves through a mathematical demonstration of square roots. By making the correct deductions, the boy is able to find the right conclusions, from which Socrates concludes that the boy “knew” the information all along. (Though this conclusion will likely strike most of us as absurd, one must keep in mind that, for Plato, all empirical knowledge—knowledge gained through the senses—was not truly knowledge at all, since the observed world changes, but the Truth remains forever eternal.)

The slave boy retreats, enlightened but not emancipated (depressingly, not even great thinkers had scruples about slavery back then), and Socrates and Meno return to the original question. Anytus the politician then appears, whom Socrates uses to prove that the sons of great men are often rather ordinary as far as virtue is concerned, which prompts Anytus to warn Socrates not to slander citizens (he would later be an accuser of Socrates during his trial). There are two possible explanations for this: Either virtue cannot be taught, in which case it is not knowledge; or these great men did not themselves possess the knowledge of virtue.

This second option is pursued by Socrates, who makes a delicate division between “knowledge” and “true opinion.” These may sound identical, but for Socrates the latter is distinguished by not being properly justified. If, for example, I guess that a book of poetry is under the table, and it is under the table, I have true opinion, since I was correct, but not knowledge, since my being correct was fortuitous. Socrates concludes that these great men acted virtuously from true opinion—vouchsafed by the gods—and not real knowledge, since they could not transmit their virtue.

As a teacher myself, I cannot help being interested in the questions of this dialogue. For me, the fundamental paradox was aptly summed up by Gibbon: “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” That is, teaching will most benefit those who least need teachers, since they are motivated to learn on their own, and vice versa. This seems to apply as much to mathematics as it does to virtue. Can a virtuous Hadrian whip a vicious Commodus into shape? I am skeptical. And yet, it is this quixotic task I have set before me.

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Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the most iconic of Plato’s works, the closest thing that philosophy has to a Sermon on the Mount. And just as with our Biblical narratives, the dialogue presents a historical difficulty. To what extent is this speech fact, and to what extent invention? The only other record we have of the trial is from Xenophon, who wasn’t even there. Plato was there—or at least he asserts that he was—and yet it beggars belief that the young, would-be amanuensis could retain the entire speech in his mind after one hearing, or that he could write it down with tolerable accuracy as the events unfolded. It seems far more likely (to me at least) that this speech is more or less a fabrication made well after the fact, attempting to preserve the flavor and impression of Socrates’ final speech but not the exact words themselves.

All speculation notwithstanding, the essential facts are preserved: Socrates was accused of denying the gods and of corrupting the youth, made a bold and waggish defense of himself, was convicted, refused to mitigate the consequences, and triumphantly accepted the death penalty. Yet what really emerges from this speech is not a record of events but the portrait of a man.

Here Plato reveals himself to be a writer of the highest order. Fact or fiction, Plato’s Socrates is one of the great characters of literature. Though Socrates’ life is at stake, he does not falter for a moment. He treats the accusations with amusement, dismissing them with playful arguments that reveal his absolute indifference to the outcome. Far from bowing and scraping to preserve his life, Socrates flaunts his superiority to his accusers, couching his boasts in an ironical humility. He is a man in perfect control of himself and in perfect peace with the world.

Even if the real Socrates was truly this remarkable, it would have taken a writer of exquisite talent to effectively render him in prose. And if this is largely Plato’s invention, we must rank him along with Shakespeare, for Socrates utters now-famous phrases nearly as quickly as Hamlet. Western philosophy could not have asked for a more rousing beginning.

CritoCrito by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saga of Socrates’ trial and death continues. This time his friend, Crito, visits him in his cell to try to persuade him to escape into exile. Socrates is true to form, insisting that nothing—not the reputation of himself or his friend, nor concern for his own life—ought to be considered except reason. Crito must attempt to persuade Socrates to escape. The dialogue ends with the famous personification of the Laws of Athens, in the course of which Plato hits upon one of the earliest formulations of the social contract: by living in Athens, Socrates implicitly agrees to be bound by her laws. Since Socrates’ enjoyed the benefits of the laws, he must accept their penalties.

More so than in the Apology, one feels here that this is Plato’s invention and not something that actually occurred. The dialogue seems especially crafted to rehabilitate Socrates’ reputation, portraying the old philosopher as a dutiful citizen with a patriotic love of Athens. As a piece of drama the dialogue is one of Plato’s finest. It has considerable philosophic importance, too, for its aforementioned prefiguring of the social contract. Nevertheless I confess that I find Socrates’ reasoning extremely thin. Surely laws may be unjust; and a law may be just in itself and yet unjust or mistaken in its execution. If that is so, should the citizen passively accept it simply because it is the law? One senses the fine Socratic irony here, too, arguing playfully rather than sincerely. Socrates surely had compelling reasons to accept his death—but one doubts that pure patriotic regard of law was the whole of it.

CharmidesCharmides by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the early inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Socrates, just come back from fighting in the Peloponnesian War, meets two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides. The latter of these is portrayed as a handsome youth, graceful of form and pure of mind. (Ironically enough, after the disastrous defeat of Athens in the war, both Critias and Charmides went on to become members of the Thirty Tyrants.) Socrates takes the opportunity to question Charmides about a Greek term that is rather unsatisfactorily translated into English as “temperance.”

The conversation takes many twists and turns, following the normal Socratic procedure: a definition is proposed (in this case, living quietly), an exception to the definition is found, a new one is proposed, and the process continues. As often happens in these early dialogues, the conversants seem to only get further from the point the longer they speak, getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of dialectic. Here we also see a quality that commonly irks readers of Plato, the tendency of Socrates’ interlocutors to give their unwavering assent to whatever rhetorical question, thought experiment, or logical distinction that Socrates poses, even when obviously fallacious. We also see Plato’s early tendency to get wrapped up in merely verbal confusions that hardly make sense when translated.

In any case, the dialogue takes an interesting turn when Critias proposes that temperance is a kind of meta-knowledge, the knowledge of knowledge. But how could we know for sure whether we knew something or not? And besides, how would that knowledge be useful? Merely knowing that we knew the art of medicine, for example, would be inconsequential compared to the knowledge of medicine itself. But how could temperance be inconsequential knowledge, if it is an important and noble attribute? The dialogue proceeds thus, seeming to intentionally confuse the issue through its series of involutions. But Plato will return to these questions with a vengeance.

LachesLaches by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is another of the inconclusive dialogues. Socrates is asked by a couple of older men, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether to educate their sons in the art of fighting in armor. Socrates characteristically shifts the theme to a more abstract inquiry: What is courage? Commonsense definitions—such as “to stand and fight” or “to endure”—are quickly eliminated as admitting of exceptions. Nicias, a well-educated general, then proposes that courage is a certain kind of knowledge: that of future good and evil. After further dialectical maneuvering, the conversants find that they have gotten too general and have defined all of virtue and goodness, while leaving the specific nature of courage undefined. Socrates shrugs his shoulders and they break for lunch.

Though the question of courage is of somewhat limited philosophical interest, I do think that Plato hits upon the oft-overlooked role of knowledge (or lack of knowledge) in this seemingly physical or emotional virtue. This is characteristic of Plato, of course, for whom knowledge and goodness are tightly linked. Argument aside, the well-drawn characters of this dialogue are yet another example of Plato’s talent as a dramatist.

LysisLysis by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This dialogue is normally grouped along with Laches and Charmides as an early, inconclusive dialogue. They are also alike in providing amusing portraits of life in Athens. This dialogue, for example, has a humorous beginning. Ctesippus complains to Socrates that Hippothales is always going on about his great love for the beautiful youth, Lysis, and composing horrid love poems in honor of his beloved. Socrates chides Hippothales and professes to demonstrate the correct way to speak to a beloved. What commences from this, however, is a rather ordinary Socratic interrogation—this time about the relationship of privilege to knowledge—which I doubt was very useful to the would-be wooer.

The topic of the dialogue then abruptly shifts to the nature of friendship. My general impression from reading Ancient Greek writings it that friendship was a far more important institution for the Greeks than it is for us. In any case Socrates and his interlocutors make little headway with this seemingly obvious problem. Is friendship the attraction of like to like? of like to unlike? of good to good? of neutral to good?—and so on, until they call it quits. I do think that the nature of friendship, which we are wont to take for granted, is an interesting topic to explore. But this dialogue contains, at best, only suggestions for future investigation.

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This work hardly merits the term “dialogue,” being mainly taken up by a lengthy speech. Socrates professes to have learned a funeral oration from a woman named Apia, who was Pericles’ consort. Plato seems to have been simultaneously parodying the practice of giving these speeches, but also proving his superiority to other writers of the genre, particularly Thucydides. If it was Plato’s goal to best the historian, he fell far short; and nowadays the speech reads like a silly rhetorical exercise, albeit of some historic importance.

IonIon by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lovely little dialogue, one of Plato’s shortest works, involves Socrates and the rhapsode, Ion. Ion is a rhapsode, which means that he recites, embellishes, and interprets poetry. In Ion’s case he is specialized in Homer, and admits that he knows nothing about any other poet. Socrates pounces upon this. How is it possible to master the best and most difficult of something, and leave the rest untouched? Also, how can Ion give sensible interpretations of the events of Homer’s poetry, when he does not have any of the skills—fishing, sailing, leading armies, and so on—mentioned in the poems?
Ion is not the brightest fellow, and is not able to give any sensible answer to these questions.

Socrates presses his point that Ion has no real knowledge and instead practices his art through inspiration. This, of course, is a famous Platonic assertion, which reappears many times throughout his works. However, I find his reasoning supremely unconvincing here. There is no absurdity in only understanding Homer and no other poet; poetry is not mathematics, with the more complex manifestations derived from the simpler. Further, there is no absurdity in being able to interpret a poetic passage about fishing while knowing fairly little about fishing itself. These ideas apparently did not occur to Ion (or Plato). But the simplicity of Ion, who is oblivious to Socrates’ irony, is winsome enough to make this a delightful read.

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Euthyphro begins the story of the trial and death of Socrates. It is one of Plato’s best known and, I think, best executed pieces. Here we see the Socratic dialogue form stripped to its bare essentials, with only two speakers, one problem, and minimal framing. Socrates is on his way to his trial; he has been accused, among other things, of impiety. He meets Euthyphro, a soothsayer, who is on his way to his own trial; he is prosecuting his father for murder, after his father’s negligence led to the death of a worker who had, himself, killed a slave. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he can be sure that this prosecution is the right thing to do, which leads to a discussion of piety.

The argument takes many turns, of course, but boils down to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: Is an action pious because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is pious? While this may seem like mere sophistry, the implications of this question are immensely destructive to theistic ethical codes. For if morality exists independently of God (or, in other words, if we can know what is right or wrong without consulting the divine will) why consider God the fountain of good? And if morality is defined by the will of a God, how can we know what that will is? Perhaps via revelation: but then how distinguish legitimate and fake revelation? For if morality had no existence except the will of God, then no revelation, however apparently abominable, could be discounted. And since eyewitness testimony is nefariously unreliable, virtually no test would be able to unequivocally determine which “revelation” was to be followed. The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that good and bad can be distinguished without any supernatural considerations.

Euthyphro is, thus, of immense philosophical interest. It is also a dramatic masterpiece. Socrates’ ironic demeanor in dealing with the dense Euthyphro is delicious. Perhaps in no other work has Plato so convincingly shown the contrast between the reflective and the non-reflective mind. I continually found myself chuckling as I read. Yet again I am amazed that Plato, who started the Western philosophic tradition, remains its most able writer.

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Review: Gorgias

Review: Gorgias

GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Quotes & Commentary #28: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #28: Nietzsche

I would believe only in a god who could dance.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

This is one of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes. Like a catchy tune, it sticks effortlessly in the memory after one hearing. Perhaps this is only because it conjures up such a silly image. I imagine the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, bearded and robed, skipping and dancing from cloud to cloud, filling heaven with capricious laughter.

But why is this image so silly? Why was Michelangelo, along with so many others, inclined to picture God as solemn, grave, and frowning? Why is a dancing deity such a paradox?

A true god would have no need to be serious and severe; those values are for stern parents, Sunday-school preachers, and ruler-snapping teachers. I know this from my own teaching experience: Putting on a strict, frowning, joyless countenance is a desperate measure. Teachers do it in order to reduce their yapping, fidgeting, giggling, scatterbrained kids into hushed, intimidated, obedient students. But would a god need to resort to such scare-tactics?

This observation is part of Nietzsche’s aim, to resuscitate the Dionysian in European life. By Dionysian, Nietzsche meant the joys of passion, disorder, chaos, and of creative destruction. The Dionysian man identifies with the stormy waves smashing the shore, with the lion tearing into its prey. He is intoxicated by earthly life; every sensation is a joy, every step is a frolic.

This is quite obviously in stark contrast with the Platonic ideal of a philosopher: always calm and composed, scorning the pleasures of the body, worshiping logical order and truth. A true Platonist would never dance. Christianity largely adopted this Platonic idea, which found ultimate expression in the monastic life—a life of routine, celibacy, constant prayer, scant diet, and self-mortification—a life that rejects earthly joys.

I have found myself thinking of this quote because I recently went to a dance club, something I seldom do. Now, at least in theory, I consider myself more of a Nietzschean than a Platonist when it comes to dancing. I don’t see any reason why it should be scorned. And yet every time I get into a situation where I need to dance, I find it distasteful.

The whole thing is a physical ordeal. There must be a better way to find a mate. Behind a booth, a DJ stand there (this one was a middle-aged man, clean-shaven), his head bobbing under the weight of headphones that look more like earmuffs, digitally splicing together song after song, which blare and pound on the strained speakers.

The sound waves bounce off the floors and the walls, creating a super-charged intensity in the atmosphere that makes every molecule in your body vibrate uncomfortably. Conversation is impossible. Men and women shake, jiggle, step rhythmically to the left and the right. None of them are sure what to do with their arms: some arms thrash about haphazardly, some hands are tensed into tight fists. A few are good dancers; the rest are ridiculous.

A few of the men come on rather strongly; they do nothing but prowl around the women, looking for openings. Most of this sort are not the most impressive specimens. Meanwhile, it is hot. Every bouncing body is covered in sweat, and occasionally you’ll get whiffs of the odor.

In short, I find it a bit ridiculous. My usual inclination is to stand in the corner, sipping a drink, wryly observing. But that’s anti-social. So I try to make myself dance. Usually, however, I am far too sober and aware of my surroundings to take any pleasure in it. I would rather have a conversation and learn about somebody else than stand there and bob next to them.

There have been times—not many, but a few—where I have successfully overcome my initial distaste. I need to be in a very specific mood, when I am simply tired of thinking, full of energy, and comfortable with my surroundings. And I admit, I had a good time dancing. I wish I could access this state of mind more consistently. I don’t like being so judgmental, delicate, and self-conscious (seeing everyone around me looking so silly makes me feel silly too). But no matter how hard I try, usually I can’t make myself enjoy it. So I do like I did the other night: I go home.

I don’t think Nietzsche did much dancing himself, anyway. Like him, I’d rather write.

Review: Story of Philosophy

Review: Story of Philosophy

The Story of PhilosophyThe Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Story tried to salt itself with a seasoning of humor, not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.

A long time ago, as I began to set about learning philosophy, I bought a used copy of this book, which sat, unread, on my shelves for a few years, its yellowed pages only growing more yellow, and its already cracked and broken spine castigating me from my bookshelf every time I passed by. Thus, about four or five months ago, I finally decided to read this book; but I quickly lost interest. Every time I put the book down, I waited a long time before picking it up again; and it was only when I downloaded an audiobook, last month that I was able to finish Durant’s popular history of philosophy.

This difficulty in finishing is the clearest indication of how I felt about it: I was unimpressed. Though by no means a bad book, and one with many good qualities, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone, for I believe Durant does an injustice to his topic. Simply put, this is both a poor history of and introduction to philosophy; it fails to convey adequately what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how philosophy developed. There is little of intellectual or academic interest in these pages, and despite its eloquence I often managed to find it quite dull.

The trouble comes early on, when Durant makes this announcement:

The author believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself.

The absurdity of the above paragraph is obvious to anyone who has read a fair share of philosophy. Writing a history of philosophy while omitting epistemology is like writing a history of chemistry while refusing to talk about chemical bonds. Epistemology is a central part of philosophy, and, besides, a central concern of the greatest modern philosophers; so any treatment of the subject lacking epistemology is doomed to miss the mark. Besides this, I would also like to point out that the above paragraph reveals an intellectual weakness as well. How could epistemology be the subject of psychology, a science? Epistemology asks “What is knowledge?” This is clearly not a subject that can be investigated empirically or decided scientifically, for scientific investigation already presupposes that knowledge is empirical in nature. So already Durant is showing himself to be a poor philosopher, as well as a poor historian.

When we get into the thick of Durant’s book, we encounter an even more general problem. Durant’s modus operandi throughout this work is to treat the ideas of philosophers as byproducts of their experiences and their personalities. Not only does this often leads him into cheap psychoanalyzing (such as speculating about how Nietzsche’s father and mother influenced his outlook) as well as broad and often ridiculous generalizations about peoples and places (the Germans do this, the Jews do that), but, more damningly, turns systems of philosophy into mere quirks of personality and whims of fancy. In this book, philosophers are artists, not thinkers. Although Durant would have you believe that this is the wise and cosmopolitan perspective on the matter, this fails completely to do justice to these men.

Philosophy is, among other things, the art of argumentation. Philosophers, at least good philosophers, are extremely focused on the logical reasons for their beliefs. This is embodied in that great creation-myth of Western philosophy, Plato’s tales of Socrates, wherein that old sage wanders from citizen to citizen, perpetually demanding to know the reasons why they believe what they do. Plato’s Socrates is always asking, What do you mean by this word? And why do you mean it that way? The final goal of the philosopher is to harbor no dogmatic opinions—and by dogmatic I mean opinions that are accepted without scrutiny—but rather to probe and investigate every assumption, idea, and goal in life.

Durant’s treatment of philosophers does exactly the opposite. In Durant’s hands, philosophers are mere pundits, who spout theories left and right without taking the time to justify them. Durant’s chapters on their ideas are mere liturgies of opinions; and the final impression is that philosophy is just the art of having pompous and high-sounding views about grandiose subjects. It is absolutely worthless to know that Plato believed in a world of ideal forms without knowing why he did so; and the same goes for every other philosopher’s view. This emphasis on reason and argument is what separates philosophy from philosophizing; but you will find almost exclusively the latter in this book.

I would be being unfair if I didn’t acknowledge that many of this book’s faults are due to its genesis. This book was originally published as a series of pamphlets for the Blue Book series, which were inexpensive paperbacks for worker education. This origin largely explains why this book contains such a huge chronological leap, from Aristotle all the way to Francis Bacon, and also why Durant continually emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, the biographical over the intellectual.

Less excusable, perhaps, was Durant’s choice to write a chapter on Voltaire, who wasn’t even a philosopher, and Herbert Spencer, who was obsolecent even back when this book was written. Much better would have been a chapter on John Locke, who formulated many of the ideas later endorsed by Voltaire, and John Stuart Mill, a contemporary of Herbert Spencer who has had a much more lasting effect on the subsequent history of philosophy. While I’m at it, I think a chapter on Descartes would have been much better than a chapter on Francis Bacon (who is a fairly minor figure in the history of philosophy), for Descartes was also a pioneer of science, as well as a great mathematician, not to mention the father of modern philosophy.

For these reason, I would much more highly recommend Russell’s History of Western Philosophy over this book, as Russell, being himself a philosopher, at least does his best to reconstruct the reasons for other philosophers’ views, even if Russell sometimes falls short in this task. (I also want to note, in passing, that Durant considers Russell’s early work in logic and mathematics to be pure hogwash, whereas most philosophers today consider that to be Russell’s most enduring work.)

The only place that Durant surpasses Russell is in his chapter on Kant, which I think is a truly excellent piece of work, and a good place to start for any students seeking to understand that obscure German metaphysician. Other than this brief flash of sunlight, the rest of this book is nothing but passing storm clouds, rumbling ominously, constantly threatening to rain, and yet passing overhead with nary a drop, leaving us as parched as they found us.

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Quotes & Commentary #20: Locke

Quotes & Commentary #20: Locke

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience: in that, all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

—John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

This passage is one of the most famous formulation of the tabula rasa account of the human mind. Tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate,” which is the traditional metaphor used to explain the theory. At birth, the mind is like a blank chalk board, devoid of writing; our experience is the hand that writes upon us; and our knowledge is the end result.

John Locke held that there was nothing in the mind that did not originate in the senses. Yes, we could have abstract ideas, like our notion of a triangle; but these ideas were simply generalizations from individual triangles that we have experienced through our eyes. Thus all knowledge, however general, abstract, or theoretical, was just a summary of our experience.

In Locke’s own lifetime, this idea was contested by Leibniz, who wrote an entire book-length response to Locke’s Essay, arguing that the mind needed certain innate principles in order to acquire knowledge. And this puzzle—the respective roles of experience, sense data, induction, deduction, and abstraction in our knowledge of the world—forms the basis of Kant’s magnificent Critique of Pure Reason.

Locke was a philosopher, and thus his Essay is largely concerned with epistemology—the nature, limit, and acquisition of knowledge. Yet this debate—empiricism versus rationalism, the “blank slate” versus “innate ideas”—is often reframed, in today’s world, as a scientific controversy.

The most famous example of this that I’m aware of is the controversy in linguistics. How much structure must we posit in the human brain in order to account for language acquisition? These classic answer to this question was given by Chomsky. He argued that, contrary to Locke, we can’t imagine the brain at birth as a blank slate, but must assume an enormous amount of complex machinery.

Several arguments led him to this conclusion, the most famous of which was the “poverty of input.” This is the observation that, without some kinds of basic assumptions guiding their derivation, children are not exposed to nearly enough examples of language in order to derive the correct grammatical form. For the human infant trying to guess the meaning of an unknown sentence, there are an enormous number of logical possibilities. If the language learner had to eliminate each one of these possibilities one by one, then it would take far too much time. Thus some in-built, innate schema must allow them to guess intelligently.

Not only that, but for the learner attempting to divine the deep structure from the surface structure, they must contend with the fact that the surface structure of a language is often misleading. Consider these two sentences: (A) “I expected the doctor to examine John,” and (B) “I persuaded the doctor to examine John.” Now let’s say we transform the first sentence into the passive voice: “I expected John to be examined by the doctor.” Notice that the meaning of this sentence is identical with the earlier sentence.

Suppose the learner, reasoning by analogy, transformed sentence (B) the same way, resulting in “I persuaded John to be examined by the doctor.” Now notice that the meaning of this new sentence is different from the first one. In the active voice the doctor is being persuaded, and in the passive voice John is. And this, despite undergoing what, superficially at least, appears to be the same transformation as sentence (A). Clearly, there is more to the grammar than meets the eye.

From all this, Chomsky concludes that there must be a “Universal Grammar,” which is a schema in the brain that determines which types of grammatical rules are permissible. Put more simply, Universal Grammar is something that allows learners to guess intelligently, rather than randomly, about the structure of language. Clearly such a schema would be a lot of information to be born with. In this, Chomsky resembles Leibniz and Kant far more than Locke and Hume.

But you don’t really need any of Chomsky’s arguments to realize that there must be some innate organization in our brains that allow us to learn language. After all, almost every person learns a language, while dogs and cats, who also have brains, and who are exposed to about as much language, never pull it off. Computers are better at many cognitive tasks than humans; and yet a few minutes with Google Translate is enough to convince anyone that computers haven’t quite gotten the hang of language. Clearly there is something special about the human brain that allows us to acquire language, while cats and computers struggle.

Thus we are left with several interesting questions. First, how much information and organization does the human brain possess at birth? How much of this information consists of general learning strategies, and how much is specific to language acquisition? And what exactly does this information consist of? Chomsky’s model of Universal Grammar, for example, was an attempt to answer this last question, by proposing a set of conditions that all languages must abide by. But his model has of late been criticized, first, for positing too much organization, and second, for failing to account for the structure of certain rare languages.

I am not a linguist, and thus I cannot hope to solve this controversy, or even make an interesting contribution to it. I only want to point out that this debate, although new in form, harks all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought all knowledge was buried in the mind, and all philosophers had to do was uncover it; and Aristotle, like Locke, thought that knowledge derived from the senses. It is obvious to everyone by now that either extreme must be wrong. But apparently 2,500 years hasn’t been enough time for us to come to a conclusion.

Review: Philosophical Investigations

Review: Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read first Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and then follow it with his Philosophical Investigations, you will treat yourself to perhaps the most fascinating intellectual development in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein has the distinct merit of producing, not one, but two enormously influential systems of philosophy—systems, moreover, that are at loggerheads with one another.

In fact, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to tackle this work without first reading the Tractatus, as the Investigations is essentially one long refutation and critique of his earlier, somewhat more conventional, views. But because I wish to give a short summary of some of Wittgenstein’s later views here, I will first give a little précise of the earlier work.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues that language has one primary function: to state facts. Language is a logical picture of the world. A given proposition mirrors a given state of affairs. This leads Wittgenstein to regard a great many types of utterances as strictly nonsense. For example, since ethics is not any given state of affairs, language couldn’t possible picture it; therefore, all propositions in the form of “action X is morally good” are nonsense.

Wittgenstein honestly believed that this solved all the problems of philosophy. Long-standing problems about causation, truth, the mind, goodness, beauty, etc., were all attempts to use language to picture something which it could not—because beauty, truth, etc., are not states of affairs. Philosophers only need stop the attempt to transcend the limits of language, and the problems would disappear. In his words: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”

After publishing this work and taking leave of professional philosophy (as he thought it had been dealt with) Wittgenstein began to have some doubts. Certain everyday uses of language seemed hard to account for if you regarded language as purely a truth-stating tool. These doubts eventually culminated in a return to Cambridge, and to philosophy. His posthumously published Investigations represents the fullest expression of his later views.

So what are these views? Well, first let us compare the styles of the two works. The writing in both the Tractatus and the Investigations is extraordinary. Wittgenstein is one of the very finest writers of philosophy, in a league with Nietzsche and Plato. He uses almost no technical terms, and very simple sentence-structures; yet his phrases can stick in the mind for months, years, after first reading them. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with my German tutor about learning a foreign language. To something I said, she responded, “Die Grenzen meiner Spracher bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.” (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”—a quote from the Tractatus.)

Although the the writing in both works is equally compelling, the structures are quite different. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s argument is unified, complete; he even numbers his sentences as primary, secondary, and tertiary in terms of their importance to the argument. In that work, we can clearly see the influence of Bertrand Russell’s logicism: language is reduced to logical propositions, and the argument is organized along logical grounds.

The reader of the Investigations will encounter something quite different. Wittgenstein writes in similarly terse aphorisms; he even retains a numbering-system for his points—each individual point getting its own numbered paragraph. The numbering of these paragraphs, however, is cumulative, and does not express anything about their significance to his larger design. It is almost as if Wittgenstein wrote down his thoughts on numbered flash cards, and simply constructed the book by moving the flash cards around. Unlike the Tractatus, which resolves itself into a unified whole, the Investigations is fragmentary.

I begin with style because the contrast in writing is a clue to the differences in thought between the earlier and later works. Unlike the Tractatus, the Investigations is rather a collection of observations and ideas. The spirit of Wittgenstein’s later enterprise is anti-systematic, rather than systematic. Wittgenstein aims not at erecting a whole edifice of thought, but at destroying other edifices. Thus, the text jumps from topic to topic, without any explicit connections or transitions, now attacking one common philosophical idea, now another. The experience can often be exasperating, since Wittgenstein is being intentionally oblique rather than direct. In the words of John Searle, reading the Investigations is “like getting a kit for a model airplane without any explanation for how to put it together.”

Let me attempt to put some of these pieces together—at least the pieces that were especially useful to me.

Wittgenstein replaces his old picture metaphor with a new tool metaphor. Instead of a word being meaningful because it pictures a fact, the meaning of a word is—at least most of the time—synonymous with the social use of that word. For example, the word “pizza” does not mean pizza because it names the food; rather, it means pizza because you can use the word to order the food at a restaurant. So instead of the reference to a type of object being primary, the social use is primary.

This example reveals a general quality of Wittgenstein’s later thought: the replacement of the objective/subjective dichotomy with the notion of public, social behavior.

Philosophers have traditionally posited theories of meaning that are either internal or external. For example, pizza can mean the particular food either because the word points to the food, or because the word points to our idea, or sensation, of the food. Either language is reporting objective states of affairs, or subjective internal experiences.

Wittgenstein destroys the external argument with a very simple observation. Take the word “game.” If the external theory of meaning is correct, the word game must mean what it does because it points to something essential about games. But what is the essential quality that makes games games? Is there any? Some games are not social (think of solitaire), some games are not trivial (think of the Olympic Games), some games are not consequence-free (think of compulsive gambling), and some games are social, trivial, and consequence-free. Is a game something that you play? But you also play records and trombones. So what is the essential, single quality of “game” that our word refers to?

Wittgenstein says there isn’t any. Rather, the word “game” takes on different meanings in different social contexts, or modes of discourse. Wittgenstein calls these different modes of discourse “language-games.” Some examples of language games are that of mimicking, of joking, of mourning, of philosophizing, of religious discourse. Every language game has its own rules; therefore, any proposed all-encompassing theory of language (like Wittgenstein’s own Tractatus) will fail, because it attempts to reduce the irreducible. You cannot reduce chess, soccer, solitaire, black-jack, and tag to one set of rules; the same is true (says Wittgenstein) of language.

Another popular theory of meaning is the internal theory. This theory holds that propositions mean things by referring to thoughts or sensations. When I refer to pain, I am referring to an internal object; when I refer to a bunny, I am referring to a set of visual sensations that I have learned to call ‘bunny’.

Wittgenstein makes short work of this argument too. Let’s start with the argument about sensations. Wittgenstein points out that our ‘sensations’ of an object—say, a bunny—are not something that we experience, as it were, purely. Rather, our interpretations alter the sensations themselves. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein uses perhaps the funiest example in all of philosophy, the duck-rabbit:


As you can see, whether you interpret this conglomeration of shapes, lines, and spaces as a rabbit or a duck depends on your interpretation; and, if you had never seen a duck or a rabbit in your life, the picture would look rather strange. Ernst Gombrich summed up this point quite nicely in his Story of Art: “If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression?”

The point of all this is that trying to make propositions about sense-impressions is like trying to hit a moving target—since you only see something a certain way because of certain beliefs or experiences you already hold.

The argument about inner feelings is equally weak. For example, when we learned the word pain, did someone somehow point to the feeling and name it? Clearly, that’s impossible. What actually happens is that we (or someone else) exhibited normal behavioral manifestations of pain—crying, moaning, tearing, clutching the afflicted area. The word pain then is used (at least originally) to refer to pain-behavior, and we later use the word ‘pain’ as a replacement for our infantile pain-behavior—instead of moaning and clutching our arm, we tell someone we have a pain, and that it’s in our arm. This shows that the internal referent of the word ‘pain’ is not fundamental to its meaning, but is derivative of its more fundamental, public use.

This may seem trivial, but this line of argument is a powerful attack on the entire Cartesian tradition. Let me give you an example.

René Descartes famously sat in his room, and then tried to doubt the whole world. He then got down to his own ego, and tried to build the work back up from there. This line of thought places the individual at the center of the epistemological question, and makes all other phenomena derivative of the fundamental, subjective experience of certainty.

But let us, as Wittgenstein advises, examine the normal use of the word “to know.” You say, “I know Tom,” or “I know American history.” If someone asked you, “What makes you say you know Tom and American history?” you might say something like “I can pick Tom’s face out of a crowd,” or “I could pass a history test.” Already, you are giving social criteria for what it means to know. In fact, the word “to know” presupposes the ability to verify something with something that is not yourself. You would never verify something you remember by pointing to another thing you remember—that would be absurd, since your memory is the thing being tested. Instead, you indicate an independent criterion for determining whether or not you know something. (The social test of knowledge is also explicit in science, since experiments must be repeatable and communicable; if a scientist said “I know this but I my can’t prove it once more,” that would not be science.)

So because knowing anything apparently requires some kind of social confirmation, the Cartesian project of founding knowledge on subjective experience is doomed from the start. Knowing anything requires at least two people—since you couldn’t know if you were right or wrong without some kind of social confirmation.

Wittgenstein brings this home with his discussion of private language. Let’s say you had a feeling that nobody has told you how to name. As a result, you suspect that this feeling is unique to yourself, and so you create your own name for it. Every time you have the feeling, you apply this made-up name to it. But how do you know if you’re using the name correctly? How do you know that every time you use your private name you are referring to the same feeling? You can’t check it against your memory, since your memory is the very thing being doubted. You can’t ask somebody else, because nobody else knows this name or has this sensation. Therefore, merely thinking you’re using the name consistently and actually using the name consistently would be indistinguishable experiences. You could never really know.

Although Wittgenstein’s views changed dramatically from the early to the late phase of his career, you can see some intriguing similarities. One main current of Wittgenstein’s thought is that all philosophical problems result from the misuse of language. Compare this statement from the Tractatus, “All philosophy is ‘Critique of language’,” with this, from the Investigations: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In both works, Wittgenstein is convinced that philosophical problems only arise because of the misuses of language; that philosophers either attempt to say the unsayable, or confuse the rules of one language-game with another—producing nonsense.

I cannot say I’ve thought-through Wittgenstein’s points fully enough to say whether I agree or disagree with them. But, whether wrong or right, Wittgenstein already has the ultimate merit of any philosopher—provoking thought about fundamental questions. And even if he was wrong about everything, his books would be worth reading for the writing alone. Reading Wittgenstein can be very much like taking straight shots of vodka—it burns on the way down, it addles your brain, it is forceful and overwhelming; but after all the pain and toil, the end-result is pleasant elation.

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Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.

Review: The Magic Mountain

Review: The Magic Mountain

The Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.

In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.

I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.

The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.

Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.

The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.

When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.

Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.

What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.

Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.

Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.

But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.

Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.

Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.

When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.

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The Upanishads

The Upanishads

The UpanishadsThe Upanishads by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it interesting how pervasive is the mystic idea of unity. From transcendentalists to scientists to Buddhists to Christians to Hindus, I hear this same thing emphasized repeatedly—everything is one. Physicists wax poetic about how our bodies are made of star-dust. Biologists and naturalists wonder at the unity of life on earth. Christians celebrate the infinite simplicity of God. Spinoza’s philosophy proclaims the oneness of all reality. Walt Whitman had this to say:

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers… and the women my sisters and lovers

And here is Herman Hesse:

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realization, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness.

Opening yourself up to this realization is the corner-stone to many words of wisdom I’ve so far come across. When it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is no new thing under the sun,” what else could this mean that reality is ever the same, that all change is superficial, that all is one?

Just so in The Upanishads, where it is written that “He who perceives all beings as the Self, how can there be delusion or grief for him, when he sees this oneness everywhere?”

This equating self with cosmos can also be found in Plato. In fact, the Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’ takes on a different meaning in this context. Since, for Plato, the soul of a man is that which takes part in the realm of ideals, knowing this soul puts oneself in more intimate contact with this ultimate reality. So self-knowledge is the key to wisdom, and wisdom consists in the knowledge that all is one. To quote again from The Leaves of Grass, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The parallels with Plato are actually astounding. In both Plato’s works and The Upanishads, the soul is likened to a driver on a chariot. Both systems divide the self or soul in similar ways. Both have an idea of reincarnation. And in both systems one finds the idea that true enlightenment comes from detached introspection.

I suspect that the intellectual knowledge that the universe is, in a sense, one thing, is not really what wisdom is all about. That we are made of materials created by exploding stars may be factually correct; but the statement’s emotional power does not come from that fact, but by what the fact implies—that you’re troubles and anxieties pale in comparison to the miracle of being alive in the universe. And truly, it is a miracle. I think scientists, Christians, Hindus, Platonists, and Buddhists can all agree with that.

To quote Bill Bryson’s fantastic A Short History of Nearly Everything:

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

But Wittgenstein might have said it best: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

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