Review: Aristotle’s Physics

Review: Aristotle’s Physics

PhysicsPhysics by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the ancient thinkers that medieval Christians could have embraced, it always struck me as pretty remarkable that Aristotle was chosen. Of course, ‘chosen’ isn’t the right word; rather, it was something of a historical coincidence, since Aristotle’s works were available in Latin translation, while those of Plato were not.

Nonetheless, Aristotle strikes me as a particularly difficult thinker to build a monotheistic worldview around. There’s simply nothing mystical about him. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, and his eyes are level with the horizon. Whereas mystics see the unity of everything, Aristotle divides up the world into neat parcels, providing lists of definitions and categories wherever he turns. Whereas mystics tend to scorn human knowledge, Aristotle was apparently very optimistic about the potential reach of the human mind—since he so manifestly did his best to know everything.

The only thing that I can find remotely mystical is Aristotle’s love of systems. Aristotle does not like loose ends; he wants his categories to be exhaustive, and his investigations complete. And, like a mystic, Aristotle is very confident about the reach of a priori knowledge, while his investigations of empirical reality—though admittedly impressive—are paltry in comparison with his penchant for logical deduction. At the very least, Aristotle is wont to draw many more conclusions from a limited set of observations than most moderns are comfortable with.

I admit, in the past I’ve had a hard time appreciating his writing. His style was dry; his arguments, perfunctory. I often wondered: What did so many people see in him? His tremendous influence seemed absurd after one read his works. How could he have seemed so convincing for so long?

I know from experience that when I find a respected author ludicrous, the fault is often my own. So, seeking a remedy, I decided that I would read more Aristotle; more specifically, I would read enough Aristotle until I learned to appreciate him. For overexposure can often engender a change of heart; in the words of Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” So I decided I would stick with Aristotle until I loved him. I still don’t love Aristotle, but, after reading this book, I have a much deeper respect for the man. For this book really is remarkable.

As Bertrand Russell pointed out (though it didn’t need a mind as penetrating as Russell’s to do so), hardly a sentence in this book can be accepted as accurate. In fact, from our point of view, Aristotle’s project was doomed from the start. He is investigating physical reality, but is doing so without conducting experiments; in other words, his method is purely deductive, starting from a few assumptions, most of which are wrong. Much of what Aristotle says might even seem silly—such as his dictum that “we always assume the presence in nature of the better.” Another great portion of this work is taken up by thoroughly uninteresting and unconvincing investigations, such as the definitions of ‘together’, ‘apart’, ‘touch’, ‘continuous’, and all of the different types of motions—all of which seem products of a pedantic brain rather than qualities of nature.

But the good in this work far outweighs the bad. For Aristotle commences the first (at least, the first, so far as I know) intellectually rigorous investigations of the basic properties of nature—space, time, cause, motion, and the origins of the universe. I find Aristotle’s inquiry into time particularly fascinating, for I’m not aware—at least, I can’t recall—any comparatively meticulous investigations of time by later philosophers I’ve read. Of course, Aristotle’s investigation of ‘time’ can be more properly called Aristotle’s investigation of the human experience of time, but we need not fault Aristotle for not thinking there’s a difference.

I was particularly impressed with Aristotle’s attempt to overcome Zeno’s paradoxes. He defines and re-defines time—struggling with how it can be divided, and with the exact nature of the present moment—and tries many different angles of attack. And what’s even more interesting is that Aristotle fails in his task, and even falls into Zeno’s intellectual trap by unwittingly accepting Zeno’s assumptions.

Aristotle’s attempts to tackle space were almost equally fascinating; for there, we once again see the magnificent mind of Aristotle struggling to define something of the highest degree of abstractness. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with a good definition of space. It’s hard, right? The paradox (at least, the apparent paradox) is that space has some qualities of matter—extension, volume, dimensions—without having any mass. It seems, at first sight at least, like empty space should be simply nothing, yet space itself has certain definite qualities—and anything that has qualities is, by definition, something. However, these qualities only emerge when one imagines a thing in space, for we never, in our day to day lives, encounter space itself, devoid of all content. But how could something with no mass have the quality of extension?

As is probably obvious by now, I am in no way a physicist—and, for that matter, neither was Aristotle; but his attempt is still interesting.

Aristotle does also display an admirable—though perhaps naïve—tendency to trust experience. For his refutation of the thinkers who argue that (a) everything is always in motion, and (b) everything is always at rest, is merely to point out that day-to-day experience refutes this. And Aristotle at least knows—since it is so remarkably obvious to those with eyes—that Zeno must have committed some error; so even if his attacks on the paradoxes don’t succeed, one can at least praise the effort.

To the student of modern physics, this book may present some interesting contrasts. We have learned, through painstaking experience, that the most productive questions to ask of nature begin with “how” rather than “why.” Of course, the two words are often interchangeable; but notice that “why” attributes a motive to something, whereas “how” is motiveless. Aristotle seeks to understand nature in the same way that one might understand a friend. In a word, he seeks teleological explanations. He assumes both that nature works with a purpose, and that the workings of nature are roughly accessible to common sense, with some logical rigor thrown in. A priori, this isn’t necessarily a bad assumption; in fact, it took a lot of time for us humans to realize it was incorrect. In any case, it must be admitted that Aristotle at least seeks to understand far more than us moderns; for Aristotle seeks, so to speak, to get inside the ‘mind’ of nature, understanding the purpose for everything, whereas modern scientific knowledge is primarily descriptive.

Perhaps now I can see what the medieval Christians found in Aristotle. The assumption that nature works with a purpose certainly meshes well with the belief in an omnipotent creator God. And the assumption that knowledge is accessible through common sense and simple logical deductions is reasonable if one believes that the world was created for us. To the modern reader, the Physics might be far less impressive than to the medievals. But it is always worthwhile to witness the inner workings of such a brilliant mind; and, of all the Aristotle I’ve so far read, none so clearly show Aristotle’s thought process, none so clearly show his mind at work, as this.

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Review: The Stranger

Review: The Stranger

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In Search of Lost Time

The Stranger is a perplexing book: on the surface, the story and writing are simple and straightforward; yet what exactly lies underneath this surface is difficult to decipher. We can all agree that it is a philosophical novel; yet many readers, I suspect, are left unsure what the philosophical lesson was. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. Yes, Camus hits you over the head with something; but the hard impact makes it difficult to remember quite what.

After a long and embarrassingly difficult reread (I’d decided to struggle through the original French this time), my original guess as to the deeper meaning of this book was confirmed: this is a book about time. It is, I think, an allegorical exploration of how our experience of time shapes who we are, what we think, and how we live.

Time is highlighted in the very first sentence: Meursault isn’t quite sure what day his mother passed. Then, he makes another blunder in requesting two days off for the funeral, instead of one—for he forgot that the weekend was coming. How old was his mother when she died? Meursault isn’t sure. Clearly, time is a problem for this fellow. What sort of a man is this, who doesn’t keep track of the days of the week or his mother’s age? What does he think about, then?

For the first half of the book, Meursault is entirely absorbed in the present moment: sensations, desires, fleeting thoughts. He thinks neither of the past nor of the future, but only of what’s right in front of him. This is the root of his apathy. When you are absolutely absorbed in the present, the only things that can occupy your attention are bodily desires and passing fancies. Genuine care or concern, real interest of any kind, is dependent on a past and a future: in our past, we undergo experiences, develop affections, and emotionally invest; and these investments, in turn, shape our actions—we tailor our behavior to bring us closer to the things we care about. Without ever thinking of the past or the future, therefore, our life is a passing dream, a causeless chaos that dances in front of our eyes.

This is reflected in the language Camus uses. As Sartre noted, “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We tumble from sentence to sentence, from nothingness to nothingness.” By this, Sartre merely wishes to highlight one aspect of Meursault’s thought-process, as mirrored in Camus’s prose: it avoids all causal connection. One thing happens, another thing happens, and then a third thing. This is why Camus so often sounds like Hemingway in this book: the clipped sentences reflect the discontinuous instants of time that pass like disjointed photographs before the eyes of Meursault. There is no making sense of your environment when you are residing in the immediate, for making sense of anything requires abstraction, and abstraction requires memory (how can you abstract a quality from two separate instances if you cannot hold the two instances in your mind at once?).

Now, the really disturbing thing, for me, is how easily Meursault gets along in this condition. He makes friends, he has a job, he even gets a girlfriend; and for quite a long time, at least, he didn’t get into trouble. Yet the reader is aware that Meursault is, if not a sociopath, at least quite close to being one. So how is he getting along so well? This, I think, is the social critique hidden in this book.

Meursault lives a perfectly conventional life; for a Frenchman living in Algeria during this time, his life could hardly be more ordinary. This is no coincidence; because he’s not interested in or capable of making decisions, Meusault has simply fallen into the path provided for him by his society. In fact, Meursault’s society had pre-fabricated everything a person might need, pre-determining his options to such an extent that he could go through life without ever making a decision. Meursault got along so well without having to make decisions because he was never asked to make one. Every decision was made by convention, every option conscribed by custom. If Meursault had not been locked up, chances are he would have simply married Marie. Why? Because that’s what one does.

So Camus lays out a problem: custom prevents us from thinking by circumscribing our decisions. But Camus does not only offer a diagnoses; he prescribes a solution. For this, we must return to the subject of time. When Meursault gets imprisoned, he is at first unhappy because he is no longer able to satisfy his immediate desires. He has been removed from society and from its resources. This produces a fascinating change in him: instead of being totally absorbed in the present moment, Meursault begins to cultivate a sense of the past. He explores his memories. For the first time, he is able, by pure force of will, to redirect his attention from what is right in front of him to something that is distant and gone. He now has a present and a past; and his psychology develops a concomitant depth. The language gets less jerky towards the end, and more like a proper narrative.

This real breakthrough, however, doesn’t happen until Meursault is forced to contemplate the future; and this, of course, happens when he is sentenced to death. His thoughts are suddenly flung towards some future event—the vanishing of his existence. Thus, the circle opened at the beginning is closed at the end, with a perfect loop: the novel ends with a hope for what will come, just as it began with ignorance and apathy for what has passed. Meursault’s final breakthrough is a complete sense of time—past, present, and future—giving him a fascinating depth and profundity wholly lacking at the beginning of the book.

In order to regain this sense of time, Meursault had to do two things: first, remove himself from the tyranny of custom; second, contemplate his own death. And these two are, you see, related: for custom discourages us from thinking about our mortality. Here we have another opened and closed circle. In the beginning of the book, Meusault goes through the rituals associated with the death of a family member. These rituals are pre-determined and conventional; death is covered with a patina of familiarity—it is made into a routine matter, to be dealt with like paying taxes or organizing a trip to the beach. Meusault has to do nothing except show up. The ceremony he witnesses is more or less the same ceremony given to everyone. (Also note that the ceremony is so scripted that he is later chastised for not properly playing the part.)

At the end of the book, society attempts once again to cover up death—this time, in the form of the chaplain. The chaplain is doing just what the funeral ceremony did: conceal death, this time with a belief about God and repentance and the afterlife. You see, even on death row, society has its conventions for death; death is intentionally obscured with rituals and ceremonies and beliefs.

Meursault’s repentance comes by penetrating this illusion, by throwing off the veil of convention and staring directly at his own end. In this one act, he transcends the tyranny of custom and, for the first time in his life, becomes free. This is the closest I can come to an Aesopian moral: Without directly facing our own mortality, we have no impetus to break out of the hamster-wheel of conventional choices. Our lives are pre-arranged and organized, even before we are born; but when death is understood for what it is—a complete and irreversible end—then it spurs us to reject the idle-talk and comforting beliefs presented to us, and to live freely.

This is what Camus would have all of us do: project our thoughts towards our own inescapable end, free of all illusions, so as to regain our ability to make real choices, rather than to chose from a pre-determined menu. Only this way will we cease to be strangers to ourselves.

(At least, that is the Heideggerian fable I think he was going for.)

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Quotes & Commentary #37: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #37: Emerson

 

The years teach much which the days never know.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time is curious. It is the most insubstantial of fabrics—impalpable, immaterial, invisible and ever elusive—and yet inescapably real.

Like a barren plain, time is flat and featureless.

The natural world gives time some structure. The turning of the earth about its axis gives us night and day, and the tilting of the earth’s axis gives us the seasons. The longest cycle of all is the earth’s journey around the sun, something that we are about to celebrate.

Humans, never content with nature, have added new landmarks to time’s endless uniformity. We name the seasons and divide them up into months; we name these months and divide them up into days; we name the days and give each day twenty-four hours; and each one of these hours carries with it a customary activity—eating, sleeping, working, playing.

Humans simply cannot abide the emptiness of time. We cannot tolerate time’s continuity, time’s running ever onward, forward, never pausing, never returning, time’s endless movement into the infinite future. All this makes us uncomfortable.

Thus we try to make time cyclical. As we are pushed along, we stick posts in the ground to mark our passing, and try to separate each one of these posts by the same stretch of ground. We go through the year marking the same periodic holidays and private anniversaries. The new year is our universal benchmark, the measuring post by which we all orient ourselves.

Since time is featureless, it is purely arbitrary where we place this marker. We could, if we wanted, chose to regard March 1st or September 27th as the New Year. And isn’t it absurd that we try to divide something continuous, like time, into discrete elements, like years? Isn’t it silly that we think 2016 transforms itself into 2017 in one instant, instead of gradually fading one to the other as time rolls along?

But we need structure. We need landmarks in the barren expanse to remind us how far we have gone, and how far we have to go. This is why New Year’s Eve is valuable: it gives us the chance to pause and reckon up what has come to pass, what was good, what was bad, and what we could do to preserve the good and shed the bad. It gives us the opportunity to delineate, however vaguely, the arc of our lives.

Things invisible day by day reveal themselves in this wider perspective. A mass of senseless trivialities, taken together, can reveal a design and purpose that lay buried under daily cares.

Life must be lived moment to moment; but these moments, so ordinary and unremarkable, can manifest stories of the deepest significance. These stories are our lives, viewed from afar, and we need to reread these stories every once in a while to keep ourselves on the right track. 

Have a happy near year, everyone.

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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