Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings

Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings
Basic Writings

Basic Writings by Martin Heidegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let things: be.

A Gentle Warning

In matters philosophical, it is wise to be skeptical of interpretations. An interpretation can be reasonable or unreasonable, interesting or uninteresting, compelling or uncompelling; but an interpretation, by its very nature, can never be false or true. Thus, we must be very careful when relying on secondary literature; for what is secondary literature but a collection of interpretations? Personally, I don’t like anybody to come between me and a philosopher. When a philosopher’s views are being explained to me, I feel as if I’m on the wrong end of a long game of telephone. Even if an interpreter is excellent—quoting extensively and making qualified assertions—his interpretation is, like all interpretations, an argument from authority; to interpret a text is to assert that one is an authority on the text, and thus should be believed.

Over generations, these interpretations can harden into dogmas; we are taught the “received interpretation” of a philosopher, and not the philosopher himself. This is dangerous; for, what makes a classic book classic, is that it can be read repeatedly—not just in one lifetime, but down the centuries—while continuing to yield new and interesting interpretations. In other words, a philosophical classic is a book that can be validly and compelling interpreted a huge number of ways. So if you subscribe to another person’s interpretation you are depriving the world of something invaluable: your own take on the matter.

In matters philosophical, I say that it is better to be stupid with one’s own stupidity, than smart with another’s smarts. To put the matter another way, to read a great book of philosophy is not, I think, like reading a science textbook; the goal is not simply to assimilate a certain body of knowledge, but to have a genuine encounter with the thinker. In this way, reading a great work of philosophy is much more like travelling someplace new: what matters is the experience of having been there, and not the snapshots you bring back from the trip. Even if you go someplace where you can’t speak the language, where you are continually baffled the whole time by strange customs and incomprehensible speech, it is more valuable than just sitting at home and reading guide books. So go and be baffled, I say!

This is all just a way of warning you not to take what I will say too seriously, for what I will offer is my own interpretation, my own guide-book, so to speak. I will make some assertions, but I’d like you to be very skeptical. After all, I’m just some dude on the internet.


An Attempt at a Way In

The best advice I’ve ever gotten in regard to Heidegger was in my previous job. My boss was a professor from Europe, a very well educated man, who naturally liked to talk about books with me. At around this time, I was reading Being and Time, and floundering. When I complained of the book’s difficulty, this is what he said:

“In the Anglophone tradition, they think of language as a tool for communication. But in the European tradition, they think of language as a tool to explore the world.” He said this last statement as he reached out his arm in front of him, as if grabbing at something far away, to make it clear what he meant.

Open one of Heidegger’s books, and you will be confronted with something strange. First is the language. He invents new words; and, more frustratingly, he uses old words in unfamiliar ways, often relying on obscure etymological connections and German puns. Even more frustrating is the way Heidegger does philosophy: he doesn’t make logical arguments, and he doesn’t give straightforward definitions for his terms. Why does he write like this? And how can a philosopher do philosophy without attempting to persuade the reader with arguments? You’re right to be skeptical; but, in this review, I will try to provide you with a way into Heidegger’s philosophy, so at least his compositional and intellectual decisions make sense, even if you disagree with them. Since Heidegger’s frustrating and exasperating language is extremely conspicuous, let us start there.

Imagine a continuum of attitudes towards language. On the far end, towards the left, is the scientific attitude. There, we find linguists talking of phonemes, morphemes, syntax; we find analytic philosophers talking about theories of meaning and reference. We see sentences being diagrammed; we hear researchers making logical arguments. Now, follow me to the middle of this continuum. Here is where most speech takes place. Here, language is totally transparent. We don’t think about it, we simply use it in our day to day lives. We argue, we order pizzas, we make excuses to our bosses, we tell jokes; and sometimes we write book reviews. Then, we get to the other end of the spectrum. This is the place where lyric poetry resides. Language is not here being used to catalogue knowledge, nor is it transparent; here, in fact, language is somehow mysterious, foreign, strange: we hear familiar words used in unfamiliar ways; rules of syntax and semantics are broken here; nothing is as it seems.

Now, what if I ask you, what attitude gets to the real essence, the real fundamentals of language? If you’re like me, you’d say the first attitude: the scientific attitude. It seems commonsensical to think that you understand language more deeply the more you rigorously study it; and one studies language by setting up abstract categories, such as ‘syntax’ and ‘phoneme’. But this is where Heidegger is in fundamental disagreement; for Heidegger believes that poetry reveals the essence of language. In his words: “Language itself is poetry in the essential sense.”

But isn’t this odd? Isn’t poetry a second or third level phenomenon? Doesn’t poetry presuppose the usual use of language, which itself presupposes the factual underpinning of language investigated by science? In trying to understand why Heidegger might think this, we are led to his conception of truth.

If you are like me, you have a commonsense understanding of what makes a statement true or false. A statement is “true” if it corresponds to something in reality; if I say “the glass is on the table,” it is only true if the glass really is on the table. Heidegger thinks this is entirely wrong; and in place of this conception of truth, Heidegger proposes the Greek word “aletheia,” which he defines as “unconcealment,” or “letting things reveal themselves as themselves.”

It’s hard to describe what this means abstractly, so let me give you an example. Let’s say you are a peasant, and a rich nobleman just invited you to his house. You get lost, and wander into a room. It is filled with strange objects that you’ve never seen before. You pick something up from a table. You hold it in your hands, entranced by the strange shape, the odd colors, the weird noises it omits. You are totally lost in contemplation of the object, when suddenly the nobleman waltzes into the room and says “Oh, I see you’ve found my watch.” According to Heidegger, what the nobleman just did was to cover up the watch in a kind of veneer of obviousness. It is simply a watch, he says, just one among many of its kind, and therefore obvious. The peasant, meanwhile, was experiencing the object as an object, and letting it reveal itself to him.

This kind of patina of familiarity is, for Heidegger, what prevents us from engaging in serious thinking. This is why Heidegger spends so much time talking about the dangers of conformity, and also why he is ambivalent about the scientific project: for what is science but the attempt to make what is not obvious, obvious? To bring the unfamiliar into the realm of familiarity? Heidegger thinks that this feeling of unfamiliarity is, on the contrary, the really valuable thing; and this is why Heidegger talks about moods—such as anxiety, which, he says, discloses the “Nothing.” Now, it is a favorite criticism of some philosophers to dismiss Heidegger as foolish by treating “Nothing” as something; but this misses his point. When Heidegger is talking of anxiety as the mood that discloses the “Nothing” to us, he means that our mood of anxiety is the subrational realization of the bizarreness of existence. That is, our anxiety is the way that the question faces us: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This leads us quite naturally to Heidegger’s most emblematic question, the question of Being: what does it mean to be? Heidegger contends that this question has been lost to history. But has it? Philosophers have been discussing metaphysics for millennia. We have idealism, materialism, monism, monadism—aren’t these answers to the question of Being? No, Heidegger says, and for the following reason. When one asserts, for example, that everything is matter, one is asserting that everything is, at base, one type of thing. But the question of Being cannot be answered by pointing to a specific type of being; so we can’t answer the question, “what does it mean to be?” by saying “everything is mind,” or “everything is matter,” since that misses the point. What does it mean to be at all?

So now we have to circle back to Heidegger’s conception of truth. If you are operating with the commonsense idea of truth as correspondence, you will quite naturally say: “The question of ‘Being’ is meaningless; ‘Being’ is the most empty of categories; you can’t give any further analysis to what it ‘means’ to exist.” In terms of correspondence, this is quite true; for how can any statement correspond with the answer to that question? A statement can only correspond to a state of affairs; it cannot correspond to the “stateness” of affairs: that’s meaningless. However, if you are thinking of truth along Heidegger’s lines, the question becomes more sensible; for what Heidegger is really asking is “How can we have an original encounter with Being? How can I experience what it means to exist? How can I let the truth of existence open itself up to me?”

To do this, Heidegger attempts to peel back the layers of familiarity that, he feels, prevents this genuine encounter from happening. He tries to strip away our most basic commonsense notions: true vs. false, subject vs. object, opinion vs. fact, and virtually any other you can name. In so doing, Heidegger tries to come up with ways of speaking that do not presuppose these categories. So in struggling through his works, you are undergoing a kind of therapy to rid yourself of your preconceptions, in order to look at the world anew. In his words: “What is strange in the thinking of Being is its simplicity. Precisely this keeps us from it. For we look for thinking—which has its world-historical prestige under the name “philosophy”—in the form of the unusual, which is accessible only to initiates.”

What on earth are we to make of all this? Is this philosophy or mystical poetry? Is it nonsense? That’s a tough question. If by “philosophy” we mean the examination of certain traditional questions, such as those of metaphysics and epistemology, then it might be fair to say that Heidegger wasn’t a philosopher—at least, not exactly. But if by “philosophy” we mean thinking for the sake of thinking, then Heidegger is a consummate philosopher; for, in a sense, this is the point of his whole project: to get us to question everything we take for granted, and to rethink the world with fresh minds.

So should we accept Heidegger’s philosophy? Should we believe him? And what does it even mean to “believe” somebody who purposely doesn’t make assertions or construct arguments? Is this acceptable in a thinker? Well, I can’t speak for you, but I don’t accept his picture of the world. To sum up my disagreement with Heidegger as pithily as possible, I disagree with him when he says: “Ontology is only possible as phenomenology.” On the contrary, I do not think that ontology necessarily has anything to do with phenomenology; in other words, I don’t think that our experiences of the world necessarily disclose the world in a fundamental way. For example, Heidegger thinks that everyday sounds are more basic than abstract acoustical signals, and he argues this position like so:

We never really first perceive a throng of sensations, e.g., tones and noises, in the appearance of things—as this thing-concept alleges; rather we hear the storm whistling in the chimney, we hear the three-motored plane, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen. Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves. We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds. In order to hear a bare sound we have to listen away from things, divert our ear from them, i.e., listen abstractly.

To Heidegger, the very fact that we perceive sounds this way implies that this is more fundamental. But I cannot accept this. Hearing “first” the door shut is only a fact of our perception; it does not tell us anything about how our brains process auditory signals, nor what sound is, for that matter. This is why I am a firm believer in science, because it seems that the universe doesn’t give up its secrets lightly, but must be probed and prodded! When we leave nature to reveal itself to us, we aren’t left with much.

And it was clear that I’m not a Heideggerian from my introduction. As the opening quote shows, he was partly remonstrating against our dichotomy of subjective opinion vs. objective fact; whereas this notion is the very one I began my review with. You’ve been hoodwinked from the start, dear reader; for by acknowledging that this is just one opinion among many, you have, willingly or unwillingly, disagreed with Heidegger.

So was reading Heidegger a waste of time for me? If I disagree with him on almost everything, what did I gain from reading him? Well, for one thing, as a phenomenologist pure and simple, Heidegger is excellent; he gets to the bottom of our experience of the world in a way way few thinkers can. What’s more, even if we reject his ontology, many of Heidegger’s points are interesting as pure cultural criticism; by digging down deep into many of our preconceptions, Heidegger manages to reveal some major biases and assumptions we make in our daily lives. But the most valuable part of Heidegger is that he makes you think: agree or disagree, if you decide he is a loony or a genius, he will make you think, and that is invaluable.

So, to bring this review around to this volume, I warmly push it into your hands. Here is an excellent introduction to the work and thought of an original mind—much less imposing than Being and Time. I must confess that I was pummeled by Heidegger’s first book—I was beaten senseless. This book was, by contrast, often pleasant reading. It seems that Heidegger jettisoned a lot of his jargon later in life; he even occasionally comes close to being lucid and graceful. I especially admire “The Origin of the Work of Art.” I think it’s easily one of the greatest reflections on art that I’ve had the good fortune to read.

I think it’s only fair to give Heidegger the last word:

… if man is to find his way once again into the nearness of Being he must first learn to exist in the nameless. In the same way he must recognize the seductions of the public realm as well as the impotence of the private. Before he speaks man must first let himself be claimed again by Being, taking the risk that under this claim he will seldom have much to say.

View all my reviews

Review: Père Goriot

Review: Père Goriot
Père Goriot

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Money is life; money accomplishes everything.

I recently worked as a slush pile reader for a literary magazine, sorting out the best stories from the flurry of submissions. Many of these were quite expertly written—sharp prose, snappy beginnings, intriguing plots, quirky characters, and all of the other boxes ticked. However, the lion’s share lacked something which I came to call “weight.”

The stories never escaped the sense of airy insubstantiality that besets much fiction, that nagging and persistent sense of emptiness—in short, of being entirely fiction. The characters spoke with the voices of puppets and moved in a daydream world. I could not believe, so I did not care. Balzac presents a striking contrast. From the very start, this novel is heavy-laden with realistic details snatched from history and from daily life. Far from being phantasmagoric, the setting is etched into the memory with acid, becoming more real than the characters themselves.

Doubtless this ability to lend the weight of reality to his stories is what made Balzac the father of realism. But Balzac’s realism is most impressive in his depiction of the Paris of the Bourbon restoration; it does not extend so forcefully to his characters. Even the best characters in this book are rather one-dimensional and static; they achieve force through intensity, not complexity. Balzac endows each of his creations with an overwhelming passion, a monomania. In the case of Goriot it is his daughters; with Rastignac, social clout; and with Vautrin, a general diabolical glee.

But if Balzac does not stop at these monomanias, for he is at pains to show that each of these passions is fundamentally rooted in money. Goriot loses the affection of his daughters by giving away his last bit of money; Rastignac realizes that money is the key to social success; and Vautrin wishes to buy a plantation in the American south. For a nineteenth-century novel, this is refreshing. Balzac eschews the usual plot mechanics of romance and marriage in favor of the far more contemporary problem of making one’s way in a morally treacherous world. He is a genius at revealing how mercenary motives worm their way into even the most intimate of relationships.

Given Balzac’s reputation for realism, I was surprised by the amount of melodramatic passion on display in this novel. Often this was a weakness, loading the book down with declamations and hysterics. But, at times, it allowed Balzac to reach a level of emotional intensity that was almost operatic. This was particularly true in the final scene, where the combination of grinding poverty, total desperation, and feverish despair reached Dostoyevskian proportions. Indeed, Pere Goriot was a major influence on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as is clear from the many parallels between the two books.

The final result is a book which, if aesthetically rough and conceptually limited, is both an incisive look at the hypocrisies of society and a gripping work of art.



View all my reviews

Review: Maxims

Review: Maxims
Maxims

Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not like to praise, and we never praise without a motive.

François Duc de La Rochefoucauld was something of a bungler in life. The scion of a great house, the beneficiary of a princely education, the young nobleman got himself mixed up in all sort of plots and intrigues, eventually getting himself locked in the Bastille and later banished to his estate. As a result of this rather undistinguished career in the world, he developed into a man-of-letters, achieving far more success on the page than in the palace.

La Rochefoucauld made a permanent contribution to literature with his Maximes: a collection of cutting aphorisms on the vanity of human nature. His perspective is cynical: seeing bad motives behind even the best actions. Or in his opening words: “Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised.” And I do not think that one must be a defeated aristocrat in order to see the truth in many of his pronouncements. Here he is his describing me:

One of the reasons that we find so few persons rational and agreeable in conversation is there is hardly a person who does not think more of what he wants to say than of his answer to what is said. The most clever and polite content themselves with only seeming attentive while we perceive in their mind and eyes that at the very time they are wandering from what is said and desire to return to what they want to say.

This also certainly applies to me: “How is it that our memory is good enough to retain the least triviality that happens to us, and yet not good enough to recollect how often we have told it to the same person?” But do not think that I am somehow superior for admitting to these shortcomings; for “We own to small faults to persuade others that we have not great ones.” And do not attempt to compliment me: “The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.” There is no way out.

I often found myself laughing at these aphorisms. So many of them ring true to my experience. And they represent a perspective too rarely expressed in daily life. Selfless action is a deeply appealing concept; and many people wish fervently to believe in it. Yet it is an incontestable fact that most of what we do, even apparently altruistic actions, benefits ourselves in one way or another.

Politicians fight to pass legislation to benefit their constituents, who then return the politician to power; businessmen give their employees a raise, who thus work harder and take less vacation; a friend picks me up from the airport, but he expects me to do something for him in the future; a man returns a wallet he found on the street, is given a reward, and then is lauded on social media. And of course, altruism towards one’s family is the easiest thing to explain this way, since the family is just an extension of the self—psychologically and genetically.

Some may find this way of thinking gloomy and unproductive. But I do think it is important to keep in mind our tendency to act out of self-interest; for, in my experience, it is those who are most attached to the idea of selfless action who most often treat other people badly. It is a dangerous thing to think that virtue is on your side. And, personally, I find it a great relief to see myself as an ordinary animal rather than a moral machine. Self-knowledge requires knowledge of our less honorable motives; and pretending otherwise can lead to a kind of self-alienation: “We become so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that at last we are disguised to ourselves.”

But this dark view of human nature must be tempered in two respects. First, not even La Rochefoucauld thought that all actions were driven by vice. He thinks true virtue is rare, but that it does exist. Second, La Rouchefoucauld often points out that our vices prompt us to act more virtuously than virtue ever could: “The praise bestowed upon us is at least useful in rooting us in the practice of virtue.” Or, elsewhere: “Interest which is accused of all our misdeeds often should be praised for our good deeds.” After all, the actions I described above are all virtuous actions.

And this, for me, is the key insight of La Rochefoucauld’s cynicism: seeing our self-interest, not as inherently bad, but as a kind of neutral force which can be channeled for good or for evil. This insight alone could prevent a lot of needless guilt. More importantly, once we accept this premise, we can more easily shape our lives and societies. For we have discovered the secret of living together: finding arrangement in which self-interest overlaps.

View all my reviews

Review: Pascal’s Pensées

Review: Pascal’s Pensées

Pensées by Blaise Pascal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pascal seems to have been born for greatness. At a young age he displayed an intense talent for mathematics, apparently deducing a few propositions of Euclid by himself; and he matured into one of the great mathematical minds of Europe, making fundamental contributions to the science of probability. While he was at it, he invented an adding machine: the beginning of our adventures in computing.

Later on in his short life, after narrowly escaping a carriage accident, the young man had an intense conversion experience; and he devoted the rest of his energies to religion. A committed Jansenist (a sect of Catholics deeply influenced by Calvinism), he set out to defend his community from the hostile Jesuits. This resulted in his Provincial Letters, a series of polemical epistles now considered a model and a monument of French prose. This was not all. His most ambitious project was a massive apology for the Christian faith. But disease struck him down before he could bring his book to term; and now all we are left with are fragments—scattered bits of thought.

Strangely, it is this unfinished book—not his polished prose, not his contributions to mathematics—which has become Pascal’s most lasting work. It is a piece of extraordinary passion and riveting eloquence. Yet it is also disorganized, tortured, incomplete, uneven, abrupt—at times laconic to the point of inscrutability, at times rambling, diffuse, and obscure. How are we to judge such a book?

Pascal alternates between two fundamental moods in the text: the tortured doubter, and the zealous convert. Inevitably I found the former sections to be far more compelling. Pascal was an avid reader of Montaigne, and seems to have taken that French sage’s skepticism to heart. Yet Pascal could never simulate Montaigne’s easy acceptance of his own ignorance; the mathematician wanted certainty, and was driven to despair by Montaigne’s gnawing doubt. Thus, though Pascal often echoes Montaigne’s thoughts, the tone is completely different: anguish rather than acceptance.

Montaigne’s influence runs very deep in Pascal. Harold Bloom famously called the Pensées “a bad case indigestion in regard to Montaigne,” and notes the many passages of Pascal which directly echo Montaigne’s words. Will Durant goes even further, writing that Pascal was driven nearly to madness by Montaigne’s skepticism. There is, indeed, a shadow of mania and mental imbalance that falls over this work. Pascal gives the impression of one who is profoundly unhappy; and this despair both propels him to his heights and drags him to his depths.

At his best, Pascal strikes one as a kind of depressed charismatic genius, writing in the mood of a Hamlet. Cynicism at times overwhelms him, as he notes how our vanity leads us to choose our professions and our habits just to receive praise from other people. He can also be a pessimist—noting, like Schopenhauer, that all earthly pleasures are unsatisfactory and vain. Pascal had a morbid streak, too.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

We also have the misanthrope, in which mood he most nearly approached the Danish prince:

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!

But I think even more moving that these moods is Pascal’s metaphysical despair. He wants certainty with every inch of his soul, and yet the universe only inspires doubt and anguish: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” As a scientist during the age of Galileo, Pascal is painfully aware of humanity’s smallness in relation to the vast void of the universe. He struggles to establish our dignity: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Yet his existential desperation continually reasserts itself, no matter how often he defends himself against it:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith.

He finds neither negative nor positive confirmation, however, and so must resort to a frenzied effort. Perhaps this is where the famous idea of the wager arose. Pascal’s Wager is simple: if you choose to be religious you have very much to gain and comparatively little to lose, so it is an intelligent bet. Of course there are many problems with this line of thinking. For one, would not an omniscient God know that you are choosing religion for calculated self-interest? Pascal’s solution is that, if you force yourself to undergo the rituals of religion—fasting, confession, mass, and the rest—the belief will gradually become genuine.

Perhaps. Yet there are many other problems with the wager. Most noticeable, nowadays, is Pascal’s treatment of the religious problem as a binary choice—belief or unbelief—whereas now we have hundreds of options to choose from as regards religions. Further, Pascal’s insistence that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose is difficult to accept. For we do have something to lose: our life. Living a strictly religious life is no easy thing, after all. Also, his insistence that the finite existence of our life is nothing compared to the potential infinity of heavenly life leaves out one crucial thing: If there is no afterlife, than our finite existence is infinitely more valuable than the nothingness that awaits. So the wager does not clarify anything.

In any case, it is unclear what use Pascal wished to make of his wager. The rest of this book does not make any mention of this kind of strategic belief. Indeed, at times Pascal seems to directly contradict this idea of an intellectually driven faith, particularly in his emphasis on the role of emotion: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or, more pithily: “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.”

This, for me, summarizes the more enjoyable sections of the book. But there is a great deal to criticize. Many of the arguments that Pascal makes for belief are frankly bad. He notes, for example, that Christianity has been around since the beginning of the world—something that only a convinced young-earther could believe nowadays. There are many passages about the Jews, most of which are difficult to read. One of his most consistent themes is that God hardened the hearts of the Jews against Christ, in order that they be unwilling “witnesses” to future generations. But what kind of divine justice is it to sacrifice a whole people, intentionally blinding them to the truth?

Indeed, virtually every statement Pascal makes about other religions reveals both an ignorance and a hostility greatly unbecoming of the man. And his explanation of the existence of other religions, as a kind of specious temptation, is both absurd and disrespectful: “If God had permitted only one religion, it would have been too easily recognizable. But, if we look closely, it is easy to distinguish the true religion amidst all this confusion.”

I suppose this is one of the great paradoxes of any kind of religious faith: Why did God allow so many to go astray? But conceiving of other religions as snares deliberately placed by God seems extremely cruel on God’s part (as well as wholly dismissive of other faiths). In any case, it is just one example of Pascal’s pitiless piety. He himself warns of the danger of the moral sense armed with certainty: “We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.” And yet his own religious convictions can seem cruel, at least psychologically: dwelling obsessively on the need to hate oneself, and insisting that “I am culpable if I make anyone love me.”

Pascal also has a habit of dwelling on prophesy, repeatedly noting that the Old Testament prefigured the coming and the life of Jesus—which is clear if we interpret the text in the “right” way. Of course, this is open to the obvious objection that any text can predict anything if it is interpreted in the “right” way. Pascal’s response to this is that God is intentionally mysterious, and it would have been too obvious to have literally predicted Jesus and his works. The ability to see the prophesy differentiates those to whom God sheds light, and those whom God blinds. Once again, therefore, we have this strangely cruel conception of God, as a Being which arbitrarily prevents His creatures from seeing the truth.

As I think is clear from the frantic tone, and the many different and contradictory ways that Pascal tries to justify belief, he himself was not fully convinced by any of them. His final desperate intellectual move is to abandon the principle of logical consistency altogether. As he says: “A hundred contradictions might be true.” Or elsewhere he tells us: “All their principles are true, skeptics, stoics, atheists, etc. … but their conclusions are false, because the contrary principles are also true.” Yet if he had taken this idea seriously, he would have seen that it completely erodes the possibility of justifying any belief. All we have left is to go where the “heart” guides us; but what if my heart guides me towards Chinese ancestor worship?

Another reviewer on this site noted Pascal’s power to convince religious skeptics. But, as you can see, I found the opposite to be true. Pascal’s morbid unhappiness, his frantic doubt, his shoddy reasoning, do not inspire any wish to join him. To the contrary, one regrets that such a fine mind was driven to such a self-destructive fixation. Still, this book deserves its canonical status. Though at times nearly unreadable, in its finest passages the Pensées is as sublime as anything in literature. And, though Pascal falls short of Montaigne in many respects, he is able to capture the one element of experience forbidden to the benign essayist: an all-consuming despair.

View all my reviews

Review: Being and Nothingness

Review: Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slime is the agony of water.

I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.

Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.

One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.

Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”

Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.

Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.

This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.

This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.

This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.

Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.

All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.

No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.

In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.

This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?

The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.

Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.

In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.

Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.

This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.

But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.

Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.

Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.

Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.

Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)

In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.



View all my reviews

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Like so many people, I went through a dinosaur phase as a child. It was almost inevitable. Growing up on the Upper West Side, I could visit the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. Natural selection has overcome many engineering problems—flight, sight, growth, digestion—and it has certainly not failed in its ability to awe little boys. I picked up this book to finally learn something about these ancient beasts.

Any fair evaluation of this book must conclude that it does its job: it summarizes new discoveries about dinosaurs in accessible prose. Brusatte goes through the entire chronology of the group, from their beginnings as unremarkable reptiles which emerged after the great Permian-Triassic Extinction, to their gradual rise, growth, spread, and diversification, and finally to their eventual end—wiped out by an asteroid.

There are many interesting tidbits along the way. Dinosaurs had the efficient lungs we find in modern birds, which are able to extract oxygen during the inhale and exhale. They also had primitive feathers, which looked more like hairs. Indeed, modern birds are dinosaurs in the strict sense of the word. I was particularly surprised to learn that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived and hunted in groups; and that they achieved their massive size extremely quickly—growing several pounds a day for years on end.

I also appreciated Brusatte’s descriptions of the methods that paleontologists use—new statistical techniques for analyzing fossils, or piecing together ancient ecosystems, or determining rates of evolutionary change. Nowadays paleontologists to not merely look for old bones, but they study living animals to make hypotheses about the speed, strength, and size of these extinct creatures. One researcher even studied fossils under a microscope to deduce the color of the feathers from the indentations. Brusatte also covers some of the history of dinosaur research, which is surprisingly colorful—especially the tragic life of the Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás.

So the book undoubtedly accomplishes its goal. My only complaint is the style. When Brusatte sticks to the science, he is clear and engaging. But whenever he chooses to embellish the story—which is rather too often—the prose becomes strained and grating. Here is a description of a seagull that opens his chapter on birds:

When the sun breaks through for a moment, I catch a glint reflected in its beady eyes, which start to dance back and forth. No doubt this is a creature of keen senses and high intelligence, and it’s onto something. Maybe it can tell that I’m watching. Then, without warning, it yawns open its mouth and emits a high-pitched screech—an alarm to its compatriots, perhaps, or a mating call. Or maybe it’s a threat directed my way.

In fairness, I did enjoy his description of what the dinosaurs would have experienced in the first few minutes after the asteroid impact.

More irksome, however, were the thumbnail sketches of his colleagues, which are interspersed throughout the book. I would have understood the necessity of these passages if Brusatte were introducing a researcher who would play an important role in the book. Yet inevitably these researchers were introduced with fanfare only to be immediately dropped. What is more, Brusatte always focuses on the quirkiest aspects of these researchers, in a superficial attempt at coolness; and he also makes sure to tell us that he is one of their best friends.

In one particularly aggravating example, Brusatte describes one researcher’s fashion (“leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos”), ethnicity (“half-Irish, half-Chinese”), hobbies (“raving and even occasionally DJ-ing in the trendy clubs of China’s suddenly hip capital”), and conversation style (“delivering caustic one-liners one moment, speaking in eloquent paragraphs about politics the next”). Does this add anything of value to the book?

These stylistic irritations mar what is otherwise an excellent popular book about dinosaurs. And since these offending passages do not add anything to the substance of the book, my advice is just to skip on until he gets back on the subject of dinosaurs—a topic which brings out the best in Brusatte.

View all my reviews

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Keats: Poems by John Keats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

As a dedicated book reviewer, it is my job to say why I like certain books and dislike others. When it comes to nonfiction, this is reasonably straightforward: if the exposition is clear, if the arguments are logical, if the ideas are reasonable—then it is a worthy book. Nonfiction aims for truth, and truth can at least be tested. With literature, however, the task is somewhat more fraught. Beauty is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. We can break down a novel’s strengths and weaknesses by category—good prose, bad pacing, fine dialogue, shallow characterization—but ultimately these evaluations, however much we justify them, rest upon gut reactions.

Why does one sequence of musical notes create a pleasing melody, another a forgettable ditty, and a third a nonsensical jangle? Why do certain combinations of words strike the ear as just right, and others as discordant? Formal analysis can clarify and categorize the sorts of sounds and structures that people tend to enjoy. But it can never explain why we enjoy them in the first place, nor why different people enjoy them to different extents. If literary criticism is to be a worthwhile exercise it requires, then, that the gut reactions of the audience members are at least roughly alike—that we are similarly constituted as regards to beauty.

Shared education contributes towards this similarity; as does, presumably, the basic resemblance of our natures. But does this bedrock of shared taste constitute something durable and permanent enough so that we may say a great artist hits upon the “truth” of art—appealed to something permanent in ourselves—in the same way that a scientist may hit upon a “truth” of nature? Many have thought so. And it strikes me that something like this must be the case if we wish to call any form of art “universal”—namely, that it is a true expression of what we share.

I mention this because the relationship of beauty to truth is one of the great themes of Keats’ poetry. At the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—a line that has been endlessly analyzed. Certainly the widespread and steady popularity of his poems may argue that, indeed, Keats hit upon some basic truth of art. But what could that mean?

The issue of translation may bear on the question. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable; and the bilingual edition I read ironically proved the point. The Spanish consistently failed to evoke the sublimity of the original. Here, for example, are two famous lines from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

And here is the Spanish translation:

Entonces me sentí como un astrónomo
cuando ve frente a sí un Nuevo planeta

Translated back into English this reads something like: “Then I felt like an astronomer when he sees a new planet in front of him.” Despite preserving the literal meaning, this obviously loses all of the magic of the line. “Watcher of the skies” is infinitely more romantic than “astronomer,” and “sees in front of him” has none of the mystery of “swims into his ken.” In short, the rich beauty of the language does not survive; and the poem becomes a rather bland statement about enjoying a new edition of Homer, rather than an evocation of the grandeur of nature and art.

(I do not think it was the translator’s fault. Spanish is very different to versify than English; and the literal Spanish translation would preserve meaning at the expense of rhythm.)

Yet if Keats’ poetry is truly untranslatable, then how could it contain truth? After all, one could translate Newton’s work into Spanish, French, German, or Japanese, and it would contain just as much truth (or untruth) as in the original. Science is not linguistically bound. Admittedly, the boundary of translation is not equivalent for all forms of poetry. Homer’s works are still riveting in English; and Dante’s vision survives (at least partially) its journey from Medieval Florentine. Lyrical poetry seems to fare the most poorly.

The obvious difference between Homer and Keats is that Homer’s appeal lies in the story, while Keats’ relies on his linguistic brilliance. And, for my part, it is easier to see how a story can contain a semblance of “truth,” rather than a beautiful string of words. Assuming that some experiences in life are universal, that some emotional crises are recurring, that some existential state is inescapable, then a great story may be able to capture something common and durable about the human condition. A beautiful poetic line, on the other hand, has a purely formal appeal—charming not in what it says, but in how it says it—and this perfection of expression, being untranslatable, must fall short of universal art.

Nevertheless, to describe Keats as merely a brilliant wordsmith would be an absurd underestimation. As his letters prove, he was thoroughly educated and keenly intelligent. His poems abound with perplexing classical references. And, in any case, words are never mere sounds; they are laden with meaning; and even the briefest of lyrical poems are pregnant with thought. Contemplation permeates Keats’ work. In his poems we find the focused musings of a highly original man as he meditates on entirely common occurrences: Autumn, Melancholy, Nature, Art—the list goes on.

Here is where Keats’ art may be said to be “universal”—and, in some sense, “true” to the human condition. For many of us have stood, amazed, before a work of art, or felt thrilled upon opening a book, or listened yearningly to a bird singing outside a window—or any number of comparable experiences. Yet only Keats and his ken have taken these fleeting twinges of emotion, reflected deeply upon them, and captured them in words so felicitous that they are impossible to forget once heard. Like the revelers on the Grecian Urn, Keats has frozen time.

It may be that this lyrical form of art, being so bound up in brilliance of expression, is less universal and less durable than works of narrative. But for those who are, by chance, linguistically equipped to enter Keats’ world, then his poems contain just as much artistic “truth” as the oldest tales and the finest melodies.

View all my reviews

Review: Henry V

Review: Henry V
Henry V

Henry V by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men of few words are the best men.

This is a masterful play, likely one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly enjoyable. Aided by the chorus, the story moves quickly; and there is none of the artificial machinery of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies—mistaken identities, secret plots, and the like—but, instead, a story focused on one man’s glorious ascent. This is Henry; and his character is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrayals of a charismatic leader we have. He is the play. Just as he dominates everyone on the stage, so he dominates us, the audience.

The result is a mesmerizing patriotic spectacle. Even if you have grave reservations about the justice of invading France, and even if you can see through Henry’s rhetoric, it is impossible to resist his call to follow him. But how did Shakespeare himself feel about the hero king? One cannot be sure. Nevertheless, there is enough irony in the play to suggest that the playwright entertained his own doubts. Most telling, for me, was the conversation between the disguised Harry and the soldier Williams. After the soldier expands upon the horrors of war—limbs chopped off, men crying for a surgeon, wives and children left alone—he concludes that the king will be responsible for a great evil if the cause be not just. Harry then responds with a fine bit of extremely specious reasoning:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon the father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, by assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.

Anyone, I suspect, can see the clear difference between a misfortune befalling a servant and a wound suffered by a soldier sent into battle. And this is just one example of Henry’s refusal to consider the ethical ramifications of his decisions. Later on, when Henry discovers that the baggage train has been attacked, the noble king orders his soldiers to cut the throats of every prisoner. He is, in short, remorseless in the pursuit of what he considers his birthright.

The central question that the play asks, then, is whether Henry’s brilliant, charismatic leadership in some measure excuses all of the bloodshed that results from his choices. Now that the idea of monarchy has lost its hold on our imaginations, the argument that any land belongs to a king “by right” sounds barbaric. It thus seems difficult to justify the invasion of France on any reasonable ethical grounds. After all, France is not ruled by a cruel tyrant; and the people of France will likely be no happier under Henry than under Charles VI.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to root for the young king. And this is true of many historic conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. They cloak themselves in glory and promise to inaugurate a new world, if only you follow them through the breach. Indeed, Fluellen explicitly compares Henry to Alexander, noting how the latter killed one of his best friends while drunk, just as Henry rejected his friend and mentor Falstaff. (And Mistress Quickly’s narration of Falstaff’s lonely death is one of the more affecting moments of this play.) It seems strange that these military conquerers have commanded so much praise throughout the ages. Plutarch’s Lives is little more than a compendium of so many Henrys. Yet as Voltaire said:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

All this being said, it must be noted in favor of these conquerors that their less charismatic counterparts are not necessarily better in terms of the common good. In Richard II, the beginning of this tetralogy, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of just such an ineffectual king, a man who has the sensibility of a poet but not the strong will of a commander, and whose poor decisions result in a civil war. Historically, peace at home has often been kept at the cost of war abroad, and vice versa. Conquered land is seldom kept, but the state is strengthened in the meantime; and a country united against an enemy may be preferable to one divided by faction.

Clearly, a country at peace at home and abroad is preferable to either alternative. But historically speaking, this option has not often existed. I do not think this excuses the bloodshed of conquests, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why these warlike men have so often been treated as heroes, when nowadays we are apt to see them as villains. That, and a play about Isaac Newton would likely not be as entertaining.

View all my reviews

Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)

Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)
Micromegas

Micromegas by Voltaire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, for me, is a perfect little book—part science-fiction, part philosophy, and all wit.

I confess that I have always been somewhat lukewarm towards the more famous Candide, perhaps because that book pokes fun at an idea that I have never believed nor even taken seriously—namely, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But this book explores an idea which I have often contemplated: the smallness of our species in the universe.

In a way, the idea is not very sensible, since size is a relative term, and in any case physical size has nothing to do with importance. Nevertheless, when you look out of a plane window or down a skyscraper, and marvel at the almost comical smallness of buildings, cars, and people, it is an irresistible thought—that all of the things we concern ourselves with are ultimately without consequence.

One can perhaps see this book as a farcical precursor to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which uses science rather than wit to emphasis our littleness. Both books come to the same point: we do not know far more than we know, we cover our ignorance with myths and theories, and we fight and kill one another for absolute trivialities. As one of the book’s philosopher says, “Did you know, for example, that as I am speaking with you, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,00 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and that we have used almost the whole surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial?”

The final message of the book is rather bleak and even nihilistic, if lightened by Voltaire’s humor: that humanity is vanishingly unimportant. This is not exactly good philosophy, nor is it even necessarily good moralizing, since if nothing means anything we might as well do what we want. However, this “cosmic” perspective can, I think, be used to moderate ourselves: as a timely reminder of our ultimate ignorance and of our ultimate insignificance. It can at least help us to take ourselves a little less seriously. And, as Betrand Russell observed of Spinoza’s cosmic philosophy:

There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.


Zadig/L'Ingénu

Zadig/L’Ingénu by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we must have fables, for heaven’s sake let them at least be emblems of truth.

Here are two more tales of Voltaire, one written before and one after the famous Candide. All three center on a young man in love with a beautiful girl, whose love is thwarted as he is tossed about by fortune. Yet in content and tone the three are fairly divergent.

Zadig, the earliest of the tales, is set in the orient of the Arabian Nights. The titular hero is excellent in every way; he is wise, he is dexterous, he is honorable, and he even practices the art of deduction as well as Sherlock Holmes. Yet no matter what he does, misfortune follows close at his heals.

So far the tale more or less resembles Candide. However, Voltaire ends the story on an unexpected note. Zadig’s misfortunes eventually lead him to marry the woman he loves and become king; and the moral is that, as Pope said, all partial evil leads to universal good. In other words, one must trust fate and not presume to denounce bad luck. This is striking because it is the exact moral that Voltaire so mercilessly parodies in Candide. It appears the younger Voltaire was more optimistic.

The last tale, L’Ingénu (or “The Child of Nature” as the translator renders it) is about an American native who ends up in Breton and tries to integrate. This tale is more pointedly satirical than Zadig, as Voltaire goes out of his way to mock the hypocrisy of French catholics. In tone this tale is not nearly so lighthearted; indeed, in style it is more novelistic than joyfully silly. The final message is that French society is deeply corrupt and that many misfortunes are simply the result of human wickedness. And as the last sentence of the book tells us: “Misfortune is no use at all!”

Optimistic or pessimistic, these two tales are gems of wit from a humane thinker and a sharp writer. Everything I read of the French imp increases my admiration for him.



View all my reviews