Mar 042014
 
Me, in Italy, with food.  Perfection.

Me, in Italy, with food. Perfection.

Hello, all.  I am happy to announce that some recent, positive life changes mean that I’m now sufficiently comfortable in my career that I don’t feel I need to keep this blog anonymous anymore.

So, here I am: Ada Palmer, historian, a writer, composer.  I am an Assistant Professor in the History Department of Texas A&M University, where I teach mostly the Italian Renaissance, and long-term intellectual history.  My first academic book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which talks about the rediscovery of classical science in the Renaissance and its impact on science and religion, is coming out in Summer 2014 from Harvard University Press.  I also write science fiction and fantasy, and I am delighted to announce that my first science fiction novel is coming out from Tor Books in 2015.

I also compose and perform a cappella music for the a cappella folk group Sassafrass.  Our big Viking mythology project, Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, should be released on CD and DVD this summer (thanks to Kickstarter, hooray!). And on the side I write Ex Urbe, and sometimes write articles or book introductions about anime and manga (another area I research).  I sometimes work as an historical consultant for various manga and anime companies.  It’s an eclectic mix, but that’s what generates the eclectic mix of topics, and approaches to topics, that I explore here.  For me, writing Ex Urbe is fun because it lets me share and explore the exciting things I run across and think about during my history research and teaching, but in a more freeform and open way, without the constraints of academic publishing, not to mention its infinite delays.

In other fun news, I am now blogging for Tor.com.  I have two posts up now, one on Ragnarok and one on horror manga. From now on, I will add links here whenever I have a new Tor.com post, and I will also make little announcements as my various publications approach, so you can see whether you think you’d enjoy the historical monograph, or the music, or the novels.  And I hope that seeing how much I’m doing will help you understand why I update Ex Urbe fairly rarely.  If there’s a long gap between entries, you can assume it’s because there’s either a research trip or a deadline for some exciting project on my plate, and henceforth I’ll post from time to time to tell you what those projects are.  You can also follow me on Twitter (Ada_Palmer); I use it rarely, either for announcements or to share fun history things.

The “About” page has been updated with this info.  For more, please visit AdaPalmer.com.  

And this seems like a good moment to thank you all for reading, and for the many enthusiastic comments and e-mails I have received over the past years.  Ex Urbe is a substantial amount of work, and when deadlines press it sometimes gets hard for me to convince myself that it’s worthwhile to take time away from grading and copy edits to write blog entries.  But the enthusiastic feedback here, combined with the genuinely stimulating responses and discussions that get going in the comments, continually re-convince me that this too is a very valuable way I can contribute to the Great Conversation.  I think Socrates agrees.

And now I shall leave you to enjoy the second installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series, which I posted a few seconds ago.

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Mar 042014
 

CriterionOfTruthbCome to rescue us from the dark and gloomy wood of Doubt in which we have been wandering since my last post (did you say hello to Dante?) comes the Criterion of Truth!  The idea that, while the skeptics are correct that logic and the senses sometimes fail, they do not always fail, and  if we carefully study when they fail, and why, if we identify the source of error, we can differentiate reliable knowledge from unreliable knowledge.  For example, our eyes may deceive us when we judge a stick half-submerged in water to be bent, but if we add the testimony of other senses (touch), and of repeated experience (last time we saw an object half-way into water) we can identify the error, and henceforth say that we will not trust sense data based  on visual information about objects half-submerged in transparent liquids, but that other sense data may be reliable.   Once the causes of error have been defined, once we have a criterion for judging when knowledge is uncertain and when it is reliable, if we thereafter base our conclusions only on what we know is certain, then our conclusions will be reliable, eternal and divine, a steady foundation upon which we may proceed in safety toward that godlike happiness we seek.  The Criterion of Truth is the clean and steady light of compromise, which does not banish all shadow, but, like a lantern in the dark, allows a philosophical system to have dogmatic elements while still conceding that much remains in shadow. 

Fist punching through hole in paper“Quite wrong!” cries our Pyrrhonist.  “You have it all backwards!  Doubt is the steady path toward eudaimonia.  The absence of the possibility of certainty is our liberation, not our bane!  It is when we embrace the fact that we cannot have certainty that we are finally free from the risk of having our beliefs overturned and our Plutos and Brontosaurs snatched away.  It is when truth is firmly beyond human reach that we can finally relax and stop being plagued by curiosity and the endless, restless quest for information.  The Criterion of Truth is not a light in darkness, it is a battering ram which has pierced our clean and serene sanctum and smeared it with all the muddled and confusing chaos that  we worked so hard to banish!  Don’t build a path on this foundation!  However steady it may seem, the ground could still give way at any moment and shatter all.  And even if it doesn’t, the path will never end.  You will exhaust yourself on its construction, your age-gnarled hands still struggling to lay stones when you breathe your last, with never a glimpse of the end in sight, just infinity of toil and darkness.  And the you will inflict the same curse upon your children, and your children’s children, and your children’s, children’s, children’s children!”

Philosophy-subway-mapWhether one sees it as a blessing or a curse, developing a Criterion of Truth is what has allowed, and still allows, dogmatic philosophical systems to exist and progress in a fertile and symbiotic relationship with skepticism, instead of ending with the blank serenity where Pyrrho and other absolute skeptics wanted to dwell forever.  Every philosopher with any dogmatic ideas has a criterion of truth (“Yes, even you, Sartre,” says Descartes, “Don’t give me that look!”), and an explanation for the source of error, and frequently I find that, when I am feeling awash in the ideas of a new thinker, one of the best ways to start to get a grip on things is to find the criterion of truth, which gives me an anchor point from which to explore, and to compare that thinker to others I am more familiar with.

Today I shall attempt something a bit compressed but hopefully the compression itself will be fruitful. I intend to briefly examine three of the major classical schools (Platonism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism) and explain just enough of each system to make clear its criterion of truth and its explanation for the source of error.  By laying these out in a compressed form, side-by-side, I hope to show clearly how skepticism is at play in each of the dogmatic systems, and to show what the early approaches to it were, so that when I move forward to major turning points in skepticism it will be clearer just how new and different the new, different things are.  Tradition dictates that I start with Platonism, but Socrates is looking a little too aggressively eager now that I mention Plato, and furthermore he was being mean to Sartre while we were away (Don’t pretend you didn’t know that dialog trying to define “being” would make him cry!), so I shall instead start with Epicurus:

StickInWaterThe Epicurean Criterion of Truth: Weak Empiricism

Take the stick out of the water.  Epicureanism faces up to the skeptical challenge to the reliability of sense data and still chooses to promote the senses as our primary source of information, simply proposing that we should not rely upon first impressions, but should consider sense data reliable only after careful investigation, ideally using multiple senses and instances of observation.  But there is more to it than that.

Epicureanism is a mature form of classical atomism, positing that on the micro-level matter is composed of a mixture of vacuum and invisibly tiny, individual components or seeds known as “atoms” which exist in infinite supply but finite varieties (see the modern Periodic Table), and that the substances and patterns we see in nature are caused by different recurring combinations of these atoms.  If the same kind of sand appears on two unrelated beaches, it is composed by chance of the same combination of atoms.  If a piece of wood is burned and goes from being brown, firm and porous to being white and powdery, some atoms have left it (in the smoke, for example), and the remaining ones look different.

Look: wood!  Don't recognize it?  Then don't trust your eyes!

Look: wood. Don’t recognize it? Then don’t trust what your eyes tell you!

Atoms too are responsible for the apparently changeable properties of objects (remember the seventh mode of Pyrrhonism, that we cannot have certainty because objects take multiple forms).  The properties of substances do not derive from atoms themselves but from their combinations.  Colors, smells and flavors are all effects of the shapes of atoms, so it is not true that sweet substances contain sweet atoms and red substances red atoms, rather sweet substances contain smooth atoms which are pleasant to the tongue rather than rough, and red objects contain atoms whose combinations create redness.  If bronze is red and then turns green, or wood is brown but burns and turns gray, then atoms have entered or left and the new combinations create a different color.  And it is on this atomic basis that the Epicureans argue that (a) natural interactions of atoms and vacuum are enough by themselves to explain all observed phenomena, so there is no need to posit fearsome interfering gods, and (b) the soul is just a collection of very fine atoms, distributed in the body and breath, which disperse at death, so there is no need to fear a punitive afterlife.

Atoms are, believe it or not, largely a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and also have much to say about our stick in water.  As we all recall, Zeno’s arrow can never reach its target because the space in between can be infinitely subdivided into smaller distances which it must cross before it can finish its path, therefore motion is impossible.  Epicurus answers: yes.  Motion is indeed impossible.  Motion is an illusion.  The key is that space is not infinitely divisible, as Zeno proposed.  Atoms, according to the Epicurean system, are not only the smallest objects but the smallest subdivision of space; it is literally impossible to subdivide either atoms or space further.  (Note that if he were around now Epicurus would deny that our modern “atoms” are atoms – he would confer that title upon the smallest known sub-atomic particle, or reserve it for the piece smaller than that which all the king’s horses and all the king’s cyclotrons still can’t detect.)  The smallest distance any object can move is one atom-width – any more nuanced motion is impossible.  In other words, fluid motion is an illusion, and on the micro-level objects do not slide from one place to another.  Rather their atoms pop in an instant from one position to the next atom-width over.  One might call it microscopic teleportation.  It is by this means that the arrow moves: every component atom in the arrow teleports one space to the left each moment, and thus the arrow proceeds from right to left sequentially.

EpicureanMotion

Behold!  The secret atoms of this screen!

Behold! The secret atoms of this screen!  They don’t move, they teleport!

Positing micro-teleportation as a substitute for motion may seem alien, but it is something we make use of every day in the modern world, and it is in fact much easier to explain Epicurean theories of motion to modern computer-users than it was to people in the past.  As you scroll down this page, the cursor of your mouse and the text on the screen seem to move, but in fact nothing is moving.  Instead tiny pixels, the atom-widths of your screen, are changing color, or you could say that the black pixels that form the text are teleporting one pixel-width per moment as you scroll.  The eye, unable to see such fine distinctions, blurs that micro-teleportation into the illusion of motion.  Why couldn’t all motion be a similar illusion?  Zeno is defeated, and Reason is once again reliable.

Which is good because Reason is the heart of the system of knowledge Epicurus wants to build. The Epicurean atomic theory, after all, is based on a combination of observations of the sensible world and then logical deductions.  We observe that objects change their form when burned, that sea-soaked cloth hung up to dry becomes dry but remains salty, and that the same types of substances recur in many independent locations.  From this we deduce the existence of atoms of different types in different combinations without ever directly seeing them.  Zeno’s paradox of motion does not, in this interpretation, demonstrate that we can’t trust reason, but that we can’t trust rash, unexamined observations.  There seemed to be motion, but with time, patience, observation and reason the Epicurean has determined that that was a mistake, and found a better model.

Do atoms look like this?  We'll never know!

Do atoms look like this? We’ll never know!

But this does an interesting thing to sense data, which Epicurus still wants to be more our guide than naked logic.  Atomism, which predates Epicurus, seems to have itself arisen from observations of motes in a sunbeam, tiny particles which are invisible normally but visible only in special circumstances, and which all classical atomists cite as sensory evidence for the reality of atoms.  From motes in a sunbeam and raw logic, they derive the atomic theory.  As Epicureans strive to free themselves from fear of the unknown by observing and explaining natural phenomena through the interaction of atoms, they rely on what they can see, feel, hear and touch to derive their theories.  This is empiricism but it is (as Richard Popkin aptly named it) weak empiricism.  Why?  Because the reality beneath what we observe is invisible.  (“Exactly!” cries Sartre, leaping up with sufficient force to knock over  Descartes’ thermas.)  If atoms are undetectably tiny, and everything we see, taste and smell is a consequence of their combinations rather than the atoms themselves, then we can never have real knowledge of the fundamental substructure of being. There is an insoluble barrier between us and knowledge of true things, the barrier of minuteness.  Thus Epicurean empiricism involves surrendering forever any certain knowledge of the truth of things, but in return we can have fairly reliable knowledge based on careful, repeated observation using multiple senses, especially now that logic has been rescued from Zeno’s grasp and is once again our ally.

Source of Error: Twofold.  Limitations of the senses, which cannot see atomic reality; unquestioned acceptance of sense data and commonplace cultural assumptions (like superstitions about the gods) which are unreliable because they are not based on careful observation and analysis.

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on a combination of careful observation of the sensible world with multiple senses, and careful logical analysis.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the observable world, and we can make rational deductions about the insensible world which are reliable enough to act upon (since we cannot ever prove or disprove them), but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of the invisible atomic world which is Nature’s true reality.

This image from Fermilab is not letting us see the particle, but a computer image of instruments tracings of the residual energies related to the passage of what might be a particle.

This image from Fermilab does not let us see the subatomic particle, but a computer image of instruments’ tracings of the residual energies related to the passage of what might be such a particle.

At this point some readers are not particularly disturbed by Epicurus’ surrender of true knowledge of microscopic things.  After all, have advanced since 300 BC.  We played with microscopes in grade school, we named the proton and the quark and preon, we made molecules out of toothpicks and gummy candies, and the electric blood of splitting atoms blazes in our lightbulbs.  We fixed that weakness.  “Delusion!” Sartre says, and he is right that, on a fundamental level, this technological advancement has not let us reclaim what Epicurus surrendered.  However advanced our science, we still have no cause to believe we have yet perceived or even hypothesized the literally smallest increment of matter.  And, separately, even if we had a machine capable of perceiving the smallest part of matter, we would still be limited by our senses since the machine would have to use our senses to transmit its findings to us, transmitting only an approximation, rather than reality.   And in addition, the vast majority of our daily decisions would still be based on what we perceive at the macroscopic level.  Thus, even with technological aid, the Epicurean surrender of knowledge of the fundamental seeds of things is a considerable one, and divides all knowledge firmly into two camps, the perceivable world about which it is possible to have certainty, and the reality beneath about which it is not.  We have a path and shadows, dogmatism and skepticism coextant within one system.

The Platonic Criterion of Truth: the Forms

We instinctively judge these apples.

We recognize and judge these apples.

My approach to Platonism will be rather sideways, but I want to get us to its criterion of truth by a route that is as parallel as possible to Epicurus’.  So, for the vast majority of my readers who know basic Platonism already, please read along thinking about Zeno’s paradoxes and the stick in water how this way of outlining Platonism follows the same logical structure Epicurus did.

Plato, like the skeptics, acknowledges that the senses fail and deceive, and, like the atomists, observed that there are recognizable, recurring objects in nature that come into existence in independent parallel to one another: similar rocks, mountains, trees and animals in  distant corners of the Earth, which must, he reasoned, have some common source.  He also noticed that humans are able to recognize and identify these objects as being the same, even humans who have never met each other, or speak different languages, and even when the objects may have radically different colors and shapes disguising a shared structure – a disguise we see through.  Finally he noticed (something Epicurus did not discuss) the fact that humans not only naturally identify objects, but naturally judge them to be better or worse based on unspoken but nonetheless universal criteria.  Anyone can tell that a crisp, fresh apple is “better” and a withered, dry one “worse” without having to discuss or debate that fact, or even to be taught it.  I could show you a healthy and a diseased version of some deep-sea fish you’ve never heard of and you would nonetheless successfully identify them as “better” and “worse” exemplars of a completely new and unknown thing.

All humans instantly recognize that these trees are weirdly far from the 'form" of tree, and we are driven to want to know why.

All humans instantly recognize that these trees from the “crooked forest” are weirdly far from the ‘form” of tree, and we are driven to want to know why.

To explain these patterns, and this universal capacity to identify and judge “better” and “worse” examples of things, Plato posited that these objects must have a shared source, but instead of positing a combination of atoms, he posited a source independent of matter that supplied the object’s structure.  All quartz crystals, all trees, and all apples take their structures from a separate structure-supplying object, which exists independent of matter and time.  It has to, since the objects it generates can come into existence and be destroyed, but the pattern, the archetype, the source remains.  Plato named this structural archetype the “Form” and posited that these Forms exist in a separate level of reality.  They create the many material manifestations of their structure as a flag pole might cast many shadows on different objects at different times.  As some shadows are crisp, straight images of what casts them and others are vague, twisted or distorted, so objects are sometimes fairly straight and sometimes quite twisted manifestations of their Forms.  When we judge an object, we judge it based on how good an image it is, how closely it resembles the Form which is the source of its structure. Hence why anyone of any age, in any culture, without the necessity of communication, can judge the superior of two apples, and tell that twisty trees are weird.

The shadow flag is to the real flag as the real flag is to the Form.

The shadow flag is to the real flag as the real flag is to the Form.

But objects are never truly like their Forms because Forms exist on a completely different level of reality, just as the flag pole exists on a different level of reality from its shadows.  We know this the same way we know that the godlike eudaimonia we seek cannot be based on fleeting things like lust and truffles.  Forms are indestructible – no matter how many trees or apples burn, the Form remains.  With that attribute, in the Greek mind, go the others: Forms are eternal, unchanging, perfect, and divine.  They cannot be part of this changing and destructible reality, but must exist on some other layer of reality where change and destruction do not exist.  Note how this is in many ways exactly symmetrical to Epicurus’s atomic theory, in which atoms are indestructible, unchanging and perfect, and exist on an imperceptible micro-level accessible to us only by deduction, just as real-but-invisible as the Platonic realm of Forms.  Both posit a materially inaccessible world which is the source of the structures of the perceivable world.

This flag casts a very clear crisp shadow.  It is an excellent shadowflag, equivalent to the excellent apple.

This flag casts a very clear crisp shadow. It is an excellent shadowflag, equivalent to the excellent apple.

What about Zeno and the stick in water?  Simple: the motions of a flagpole’s shadow across the earth and ground aren’t rational but bizarre, bending and distorting, split in half at times by passing objects, changing and imperfect.  Just so the material world.  The stick in water looks bent, and motion is rationally impossible, because the entire layer of reality perceived by the senses is itself bent, distorted, an imperfect effect of a perfect reality elsewhere.  When we see the stick look bent, or realize that motion makes no sense, it is at that point that we are beginning to perceive the fundamental flaws in sensible reality, and realize that the true, rational, knowable structure lies elsewhere.

True knowledge, reliable, certain knowledge upon which we may build our path toward reliable, certain eudaimonia must therefore be knowledge of Forms, not of passing things.  We can have True knowledge of the Form of Apples, the Form of Trees, the Form of Justice, the Form of Humans, but we cannot have true knowledge of a particular apple, tree, case of justice v. injustice, or human, because such things are changing, imperfect, and perishable, so even if we could know them perfectly at one instant, that knowledge would not be lasting, not enough to be a real foundation for happiness.  The only permanent, certain knowledge is knowledge of eternal things, since all other knowledge is, like its objects, destructible.  Thus the Forms are the path to Happiness.

Is this a shadow of a flag?  Or of a woman in a knee-length skirt?  Distortions of shadows are a Source of Error.

Is this a shadow of a flag? Or of a woman in a knee-length skirt and her arms in front of her? Distortions of shadows are a Source of Error.  If you can mistake a flag for a woman, so too you can mistake injustice for justice, or right for wrong.

And now, without any need to address the soul, or Platonic love, or Truth, or the other great Platonic signatures, we can describe the Platonic Criterion of Truth:

Source of Error: The material world perceived by the senses is imperfect and illusory, and conclusions based on observation of it are full of error, and incomplete.

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on knowledge of the eternal Forms, which can be perceived by Reason.  So long as we rely only upon knowledge of abstract, eternal Forms and not on knowledge of specific material things, we will make no errors.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the Forms, i.e. of the eternal structures that create the sensible world, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.

Now, our friend Socrates has been waiting all this time to rant about how Plato put all this in his mouth, by using him as an interlocutor in his philosophical dialogs, when all Socrates stood for was the principle that we know nothing, and wisdom begins when we recognize that we know nothing.  But explicated like this, in a way which highlights how substantial a portion of human experience Plato has yielded to the shadows of skeptical unknowability, Socrates has far less cause to object.  Plato has taken “I know nothing” as his starting point, as, in fact, did Epicurus, both of them beginning by scrapping the received commonplaces of things people thought they knew about the material world, and instead trying to find a space for certainty far removed from the evidently-unknown world of daily experience.  We all know that Plato tried to appropriate Socrates to his system, painting Socrates as a Platonist and implying that Socrates agreed with all Plato’s dogmatic ideas as well as his skeptical ones.

Remember the modes of skepticism related to scarcity, and juxtaposition of objects?  This shadow of a flag is exciting to us because it is ON THE MOON!  This makes us consider it an excellent shadow of a flag, regardless of whether it is blurry or crisp.

Remember the modes of skepticism related to scarcity, and juxtaposition of objects? This shadow of a flag is exciting to us because it is ON THE MOON! This makes us consider it an excellent shadow of a flag, regardless of whether it is blurry or crisp.

But Plato was far from the only one to do this.  In the ancient world, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Aristotelians and Neoplatonists all make claims about Socrates really believing what they believed, that Socrates was really a skeptic, or a stoic sage, etc.  This is easy because Socrates left us nothing in his own voice, but also because all of them really did begin as he demanded, by doubting everything, declaring that “I know nothing” and then trying to work from that toward a system which carves out one zone for the knowable and surrenders another to the unknowable.  Attempts by later sects to appropriate Socrates reflect his fame, but also their universal gratitude for the way his refinement of skepticism created a starting point from which they could approach their Criteria of Truth, and start from there to lay their foundations.  And now that I’ve put it that way, Socrates seems much less set on picking a bone with Plato, and much more interested in the bones of the chicken drumsticks Sartre brought, which are much larger than those Descartes brought, which are larger than the ones Socrates is used to, a mystery which definitely bears investigation.  We can in part blame one “Aristotle”, though when I mention him our more modern thinkers smile knowingly, thinking of the many stages that had to pass between the ancient empiricist and the alien concept “progress.”

The Aristotelian Criteria of Truth: Categories and Definitions

Hello again, apples.  We are still judging you.

Hello again, apples. We’re still judging you.

Aristotle studied with Plato for decades, and his framework has a similar beginning.  Yes, we instantly recognize that apple is apple and cat is cat, even if we are on the other side of the world and recognize apple as ringo and cat as neko.  And we instantly judge the withered apple as being farther from what an apple ought to be than the crisp one.

What Aristotle doesn’t like is how Plato has the Forms exist in a hypothetical immaterial reality removed from the sensible reality.  Instead, he uses the term “form” to refer to structures within natural objects, which are not material but not immaterial either.  They are non-material.  This may sound like gibberish, but I recently demonstrated it very effectively to my class by taking two apples to the front of the classroom, setting them down while I had a drink of water, then violently smashing one of the apples with repeated blows from the butt end of the water glass, reducing it to a sticky green pulp and producing an extremely startled and, in the front rows, apple-bespattered classroom.  “What did I just destroy?” I asked.  It took only a few moments of recovery for one to supply: “The form of the apple.”  Aristotle even goes so far as to say that forms, rather than matter, are what senses sense.  When we see an apple our minds do not register the raw, chaotic matter, they register the structure: apple.  When we see smashed apple pulp even then we do not see matter, we see pulp, which has its own structure.  We never perceive matter, or rather never recognize matter, never understand matter.  All cognition takes place on the level of form, which is why we can identify “apple” at a glance and not have to spend a minute assembling the millions of points of perceived light and color together to deduce that it’s an apple.

KanchilBut if the form, for Aristotle, is a structure within individual objects, and is destructible, it can’t be a source of eternal certainty, nor can it explain how my colleague in Japan can recognize and judge apple identically to the way I do.  For this Aristotle posits Categories.  Universal categories exist in nature, non-material structures just like forms, into which the forms of objects fit.  Human Reason is capable of identifying these categories, by looking at objects, understanding their forms, and identifying their commonalities, functions etc.  We all see the apple and recognize that it fits in the category apple.  We further recognize that the category apple fits in the category fruit, that in the category “part of a plant” etc.  And that Stamen Apple is a sub-category within the category apple.  This allows us to identify and judge even objects which we have never seen before and have no names for.  You probably do not know at a glance what the creature pictured to the left here is, but you can identify that it belongs in the category mammal, possibly in the rodent category or maybe more like a tiny deer judging by those skinny legs, but certainly in the medium-sized, ground-dwelling, non-carnivore, probably scavenger eating fruit and bugs and things, not-dangerous-to-humans category.  (It is, in fact, a Kanchil or “mouse-deer”).  Similarly we can all categorize trees, rocks, fish, and other things.  Aristotelian categories are part of Nature itself, eternal and unchanging, and indestructible, since the category apple and the category Kanchil will be unchanged regardless of the creation or destruction of any individual.  A withered apple doesn’t harm the category apple, nor does a limping three-legged Kanchil, and the extinction of the T-Rex didn’t erase the category T-Rex.

Check out this Vaquita.  Even if you have never seen one before, you know what category it goes in.

Check out these Vaquitas. Even if you have never seen one before, you know what category they go in, and a lot about what they do.

The extinction of the Brontosaur didn’t erase the category Brontosaur either – it was our discovery that the category was wrong that did so, and here we get toward Aristotle’s ideas of certainty and error.  We had not defined our terms carefully enough, had accidentally separated two things that shouldn’t be, and thus were led to error.  Error caused by insufficiently clear definitions of our terms.  The categories are sources of true, certain and reliable knowledge.  Like with Plato’s forms, we cannot Know-with-a-capital-K individual things with certainty, since they are destructible and changing, and the apple which is fresh today will be withered next week.  But we can know the categories, and that it always has been and will be the nature of the apple to grow on trees and try to be sweet and colorful to attract animals to eat it and spread seeds, and that it always and will always be the nature of the T-Rex to be a humungous terrifying predator the sight of which inspires fear in all mammals and other smaller creatures.  One source of error is when we make mistakes about categorization.  We may mistake the Kanchil for a rodent, or a Vaquita for a dolphin, but with more careful observation we realize it is more closely related to a deer.  We may mistake the Brontosaur for its own species before we realize it is a juvenile version of another thing, as easy a mistake to make as thinking that a caterpillar and butterfly are different creatures until we examine more closely.  We also want to do this with things we may not, in modern parlance, think of as part of Nature, but just as there is the category “cetacean” within which exists the category “porpoise” so too there exist the category “integer” within which exists the category “prime number,” also the category “system of government” within which lies the category “democracy,” and the category “virtue” within which exists the category “justice.”  Aristotle, and the rest of Greece with him, does not draw our modern post-Rousseau line between “Natural” and “artificial” placing human works in the latter.  Birds are part of Nature, as are humans; birds’ nests are part of Nature, with a category, as are all the things humans create.  The category “web page” which contains the category “blog” is as natural as the category “tree”.

Zebu time!  You can tell that this Zebu both deserves to be near the category "cow" but also merits its own category.

Zebu time! You can tell with a glance at that head and that hump that this Zebu both deserves to be near the category “cow” but also merits its own category.

Thus Aristotelian certainty comes with careful, systematic investigation of the categories within nature, and if we want to reduce error we can do so best by studying and measuring and comparing objects we see until we can fit them into categories.  The more we study, and the more carefully we define our terms, the clearer our conversations will become, less given to assumptions, misunderstandings and error.  One source of error, therefore, is equivocal language, words that are sloppily defined and don’t refer to real categories in nature.  Brontosaur, planet, motion, Justice, good, are all sloppily-defined terms.  Any term which does not point to a real category in Nature is sloppy and may lead us to error.  If we use only vocabulary that is carefully worked through and points only at real categories, then our language will be clear, our communication perfect, and the possibility of error greatly reduced.  After all, we only want to be talking about categories, not anything that isn’t one.  Since, as with Plato’s forms, categories are eternal, unchanging and reliable.  On their foundation we can build our path.  As with Plato and Epicurus we have surrendered knowledge of individuals, in favor of knowledge of something structural which underlies them.

Excuse me: to proceed farther with Aristotle, I need to go get my fork.  Here it is.  (Or rather an image of it, one level less real, its Platonic shadow.)

photo (2)

This fork has been part of my life since I was a tiny girl, and it taught me about the Aristotelian sources of error.  When I was little, I would help put the silverware away.  This fork puzzled me.  Why?  Because I couldn’t figure out how to categorize it.

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Here you see my dilemma.  We had one slot for forks, which had tines and metal handles.  And one slot for knives, which had blades and wooden handles.  Where then goes this fork, which has tines but a wooden handle?  Let’s offer the dilemma to our Youth.

  • Youth: “I think it should go with the metal-handled fork.
  • Socrates: “Why?”
  • Youth: “Because it’s a fork.  It’s used for fork things, that’s more important than what it’s made of.”
What the heck is that?!  Well, I can already tell that it probably burrows, and is probably warm, and probably eats bugs or maybe plants?  And if there are different colored ones they're probably the same as this one?  I can figure out a lot before I'm told it is a Marsupial Mole.

What the heck is that?! Don’t know, but I can tell that it probably burrows, and is probably warm, and harmless to humans, and probably eats bugs or maybe plants? And if there are different colored ones they’re probably functionally the same as this one? I can figure out a lot before I’m told it is a Marsupial Mole.

*Ding!*Ding!*Ding!*  Correct!  The Youth, like my child self, has correctly identified the Aristotelian distinction between an “essential property” and an “accidental property”.  An essential property is a quality of something essential to it being itself, and filling the function it has in Nature; an accidental property is something that could change and it wouldn’t matter.  A cat can be black or tabby (accidental) but must be slinky, carnivorous, and endearing to its owner in order to fulfill the functions of a cat.  A tree must grow a woody trunk and produce leaves in order to fulfill the functions of a tree.  A fork must fit comfortably in my hand and lift chunks of food to my mouth for it to be a fork.  If the cat is orange, the tree is forked, and the fork is a futuristic rod that lifts food using a miniature tractor-beam instead of tines, those are accidents.  If these things fulfill these functions badly–if a cat is ugly, a tree is all bent and twisted and produces few leaves, or a plastic fork snaps when I try to skewer food with it–we judge them bad examples of what they are.  If these things don’t fill these functions at all–a quadrupedal mammal eats grass, a plant produces a soft viny stalk, and a piece of silverware cuts food in half instead of lifting it–we judge they do not belong in the categories cat, tree and fork respectively because they lack their essential properties.  If I had mistakenly stored my wooden-handled fork with knives, that would have produced error, the same source of error as when we mistake a Kamchil for a rodent, or when Descartes, living in the 17th century, reads an article about how people from Africa are not the same as people from Europe because their skin is a different color.  Mistaking accidental properties for essential ones has introduced error.  And to call a robot toy a “cat”, or a metaphor for understanding genealogy a “tree”, or a fifteen-foot fork-shaped sculpture a “fork” is to employ ambiguous language, not referring to its categories, introducing error.

Lamprey

I don’t have to know what this is called to put it firmly in the category of scary things that I do not want touching me. It is a lamprey, and a good argument for Aristotle saying that some things we understand universally.

But what about Zeno, and our stick in water?  For our stick in water Aristotle, much like the Epicureans, wants us to examine the stick more carefully, multiple times with multiple senses, to correct the mistake.  And, like the Epicureans and Plato too, he surrenders true knowledge of individual objects, saying we can know Categories with certainty, after careful examination, but not specific things.

As for Zeno, there he comes from a different angle, attempting to refute Zeno with pure logic.  Aristotle is big on observing Nature, but also on logical principles, especially a priori principles.  By these he means logical principles which are self-evidently true and require no knowledge or experience to be proved.  For example: The same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.  Think about it for a while, take your time.  It’s the case, and not only is it the case but it’s the case for lampreys, and thumbtacks, and hypothetical frictionless spheres, and ideas, and systems of government, and people.  Even if you were a brain in a jar that had never had any experience of the world outside the mind, you could identify that a concept cannot both exist and not exist at the same time.  Here’s another: “One” and “many” are different.  It is nonsense to imagine that a thing could be both singular and plural at the same time.  That too you can conclude without any basis in anything.

doughnut-holes-edNow, it is possible to use clever syntax to come up with what seem like counter-examples.  What about a doughnut hole: surely it exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, for this doughnut has a non-existence which is its hole, and yet here I am eating this doughnut hole.  No, says Aristotle.  That apparent contradiction is merely a function of unclear vocabulary giving two things the same label when they are utterly different.  Similarly this pomegranate is one and many at the same time.  Again, no: it is many seeds, but one pomegranate.  Use strict vocabulary, unambiguous terms, and discuss only categories, and you will find that Aristotle’s a priori principles are sound.

Reasoning from such starts, and using raw logic without recourse to any knowledge of the material world, he then takes on Zeno.  You cannot, says Aristotle, have infinite regression.  It may seem you can, but an infinite chain is a logical impossibility because it would never end and never start.  When you try to think about it, the mind rebels, just as it does when it tries to think of the one and the many being the same, or a thing both being and not being at the same time.  Thus, says Aristotle, Zeno’s paradox is proved false because infinite regression is logically false.  We can, now, rely on logic, so long as it is careful and methodical, and based on first principles and on comparison of the categories rather than leaping to conclusions directly from sense impressions of individual objects, which are flawed.

The Pythagorean Therum.  I know it again now, with certainty, thanks to Aristotle's first principles making me feel I can trust logic again, despite Zeno.  Hooray!

The Pythagorean Theorem. I know it again now, with certainty, thanks to Aristotle’s first principles making me feel I can trust logic again, despite Zeno. Hooray!

Sources of Error: (1) People using vague vocabulary that is unclearly defined and does not refer to anything Real, (2) Fallibility of individual material objects and rushed conclusions based on observations of such objects (note how similar this latter is to Plato).

Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based exclusively on either or a combination of a priori logical principles which are not dependent on anything other than logic to be certain, and on the eternal Categories which exist universally in Nature, and can be known through observation and discussed using a carefully-defined lexicon of philosophical vocabulary.

Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of logical principles, and of the Categories, i.e. of the eternal structures within Nature that the forms of objects fall into, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.

Thus we have a third path, clearly delineating the arena of certain, eternal knowledge (on the basis of which we may seek eudaimonia) and separating it from the unknowable, which we surrender forever to skepticism.  And once again the unknowable is the realm of matter, individual things, the essence which is given structure and comprehensibility by form.  Aristotle, like Epicurus, has given up any chance of understanding matter itself, confining the cognizable world to that of form and structure, the macro-level.  And he has surrendered knowledge of individuals, of this apple and this lamprey, granting us only the categories.  We can still know an enormous amount in Aristotle’s system, enough to build a vast system of knowledge, a library of definitions, a vast network of genus and species names, and an empirical basis for an entire scientific system.  Infinite knowledge lies before us on our Aristotelian path, infinite logic chains to follow, infinite categories to investigate, name, compare and discuss.  The surrender, like Epicurus’s surrender of the ability to see atoms, feels minor.

“It’s still delusion!” Sartre says.  “The surrender is vast!  Infinite!  Infinitely more vast and fundamental than your daily world imagines!” This outburst has been building up in poor Sartre for some time, which we can tell because since he’s been holding his knees and rocking back-and-forth and flushing, and only barely sociable enough to thank Descartes for that eclair (which is not, in fact, a lightning bolt but is a delicious pastry named “lightning bolt” in French, much to Aristotle’s chagrin).  And, at some risk of frightening our innocent interlocutor the Youth (whom I shall advise to have Socrates hold his hand through the next bit) I will let Sartre continue in his own words, an excerpt from his Nausea (note that this particular translation uses existence rather than being):

Gnarled Roots.jpg.opt911x683o0,0s911x683“So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”

CriterionOfTruthbBy this point our Youth is very glad to have his hand held, and Descartes is having second thoughts about sharing his eclair with what has evidently turned out to be a lunatic Lovecraftean cultist.  But I let Sartre speak here to demonstrate the fact that these surrenders, made in the earliest days of philosophy by system-weavers seeking to escape the web of Zeno and the Stick, are still substantial.  Even the most recent modern philosophy returns, from time to time, to these ancient surrenders to unknowability, and some try, like Sartre, to make new inroads toward knowing what the majority of thinkers have given up on.  New and, in Sartre’s case, scary inroads.  Every system-weaver since Plato may have a Criterion of Truth to be our light in the darkness, our path, our foundation, the circle line for the new philosophical subway system, but the fertile symbiosis between skepticism and dogmatism–the symbiosis which has borne such fruit: Platonic forms, genus and species, atoms, eventually the scientific method itself!–is also still sometimes a hostile symbiosis, and the wild, strong skepticism of Pyrrho still sometimes rears its head to plague Sartre and us, even as we make daily use of soft forms of skepticism like Epicurus’ weak empiricism, and Aristotle’s categories.

Of course, many are the centuries between Epicurus and Sartre, and many the new relationships between doubt and dogma, the new Criteria of Truth and new forms of shadowy un-knowledge which will press upon our fragile paths, before we reach the modern world. So we still have much more to explore in further chapters.  Good thing Descartes brought plenty of lightning bolts.

Feb 112014
 
This is the true villain of our story.  Give it time.

This is the true villain of our story. Give it time.

In the last month we have discovered that there are coral reefs near Greenland, that dung facilitates a symbiotic relationship between moths and treesloths, that one of King Arthur’s knights was black, that protons have a different diameter depending on how we measure them, and that the newly-discovered poems by Sappho may undermine what we thought we knew about Greek theories of the soul.  And we’re fine with all this.

It is easy for us to forget how the Scientific Method, at work behind all this research, is a uniquely flexible and dynamic belief system, one which enables our uniquely flexible and dyamic world.  Some will feel uncomfortable with me calling science a “belief system” but in this context I use the phrase “belief system” as a reminder of what the Scientific Method and its associated aparatus have displaced.  Science has not replaced religion–they coexist happily, productively, even symbiotically within many arenas, places and individuals, even as they chafe and vie in others.  But in the modern West, the Scientific Method has largely displaced older systems for guiding daily micro-decision-making which were more closely tied to religion.  We now use science-based reasoning a hundred times a day when we are called upon to make decisions.  Whether making a sandwich, buying a new teapot or evaluating an argument, we think about data from past experiences, bring in what facts and hypotheses we have accumulated from educated and informed living, consider the credibility of sources, ask ourselves questions about plausability, probability, evidence and counterargument, speculate about the range of possible errors and outcomes. We go through many steps, often fleeting but still present, before we assemble our sandwich (which recent nutrition advice seems plausible in the ever-changing range?) or buy our teapot (plastic so housemates won’t break it, or ceramic for environmental/health/aesthetic/flavor reasons?) or decide whether to grant a politician’s argument our provisional belief or disbelief.  Even for those members of modern Western society whose lives are powerfully informed by faith or institutional religion, who do seriously factor “What would Jesus/Apollo/Whatever do?” into the calculation, evaluatory criteria based on science and its method remain a substantial, if not exclusive, part of our aparatus for daily decision-making.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien.  St. Augustine is another figure whose skin tone is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making im pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

Check out this manuscript depiction of Sir Morien. St. Augustine is another figure whose skin is fascinating to observe as illustrators change it over the centuries, sometimes making him pale and blonde, sometimes deep deep African.

For my purposes today, the most important part of what I just described is that the belief or disbelief we extend to the politician (or to our teapot) is provisional.  We decide that a thing is plausible or implausible, and extend to it a kind of belief which is prepared for the possibility that we will be proven wrong.  That thing the politician said might turn out later to be false (or true) when new information arises.  A teapot, let’s say I pick one which claims to be safe and eco-sound because of XYZ carbon something something, it may seem that I have given its claims my complete belief if I buy the teapot, but that too is provisional since my long-term purchasing decisions for other objects will be informed by further information, changes in industry, and, of course, my empirical experience of whether or not this teapot serves me (and survives my housemates) well.  

What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn.  We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche.  When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great!  Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement.  Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm.  Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.

All this is a way of previewing the endpoint of the present series, in order to show how important the often-invisible role of doubt is in current human thought.  Without skepticism, and important developments in the history of skepticism, we could not have the Scientific Method occupy the position it does in modern daily lives.  So I want to sketch out here some of my favorite moments in the history of skepticism, not a complete history (for that see Popkin’s History of Skepticism or Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea), but the spicy highlights that I’ve most enjoyed.

A "stoa" i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora.  The name "Stoic" comes becuase they held meetings in a stoa.  So really "Porch-ist" is the literal translation.  The more you know!

A “stoa” i.e. covered porch, reconstructed in the Athenian agora. The name “Stoic” comes because they met in a stoa. So really “Porchist” is the literal translation. The more you know!

Dogma and Doubt

There are  many ways to subdivide philosophy, but one of the most useful is, in my view, the subdivision into dogmatic and skeptical.  I’m using these terms in their technical philosophical senses, so I do not intend to invoke any of the contemporary, negative cultural associations of “dogma” or “skeptic.”  (Philosophy and history are constantly plagued with the disconnect between formal uses and modern casual uses of terms like these, Epicurean, Hedonist, Realist, Idealist… and it’s worse when I learn the technical term before I meet the popular one.  I can’t tell you how confusing it was the first time I was in a conversation where someone used “libertarian” in its contemporary political sense, which I had never met, having learned it from Spinoza class.  Them: “FDR is a big foe of Libertarianism.”  Me: “Really?  I didn’t know FDR denied the existence of freewill.  Was he a materialist?  A stoic?”  And when I tell my students that, for the purposes of Plato class, “Realist” and “Idealist” are synonyms they sometimes look like they’re about to cry…)  For today’s purposes by “dogmatic” I mean any philosophical moment or system which argues that something can be known, or that there can be certainty.  By “skeptical” I mean a philospohical moment or system arguing that something cannot be known, or that there cannot be certainty.  In this sense, Aristotle’s argument that the existence of a Prime Mover can be logically proved from the principle that any chain of events must have a First Cause is dogmatic, as is the conviction that we know with certainty that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides.  Pierre Bayle’s argument that God’s existence can be known through faith alone is skeptical, as is the argument that quantum uncertainties like Heisenberg’s mean that material reality can never be fully understood because the act of perceiving it alters it.  Thus neither skepticism nor dogmatism is more or less tied to theism than the other – both are broad and diverse categories, and most great intellectual traditions have both in there somewhere.

Dogmatic philosophy is what most people usually think of when we think about philosophy: systems that propose particular things.  The Platonic Good, Aristotle’s Categories, Descartes’ vortices and and Heidegger’s Being are all founded in claims that we know or can know some thing or set of things with certainty.  Yet skeptical arguments, about what cannot be known, have coexisted with dogmatic claims throughout philosophy’s existence, and the two act as foils to one another, arguing, cross-polinating, hybridizing, and spurring each other on, and their interactions have been among the most exciting and fruitful in philosophy’s long history.

I will begin as close to the beginning as I can:

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato's Academy.  Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is?  I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Mosaic from Pompeii, identified as Plato’s Academy. Anyone know what that thing on the floor in the middle is?  With the round top? I was there with a gaggle of classicists and we were clueless.

Happiness in Ancient Greece:

While post-17th-century philosophy often puts its primary focus on the quest to explain and describe things and create a system of knowledge, one key unifying attribute common to just about all classical Greek philosophical schools, though different in each, is the goal of attaining eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), from “eu” = good, happy, fortunate, and “daimon” = spirit, soul.  It’s usually translated as happiness, but it’s both more specific and stronger.  Other renderings that help get the idea across include wellbeing, self-contentment, self-fulfillment, spiritual joy, and personal wellfare.  It is the kind of happiness which is deep, lasting, tranquil, reliable, complete, and, in the Greek sense, godlike or divine.  By “divine” I mean a list of attributes that most Greek philosophers associated with the gods, who were supposed to be immortal, unchanging, indestructable, eternally happy and satisfied, living in a bliss surrounded by beauties and free from pain.  These are not Homeric Greek gods who feud and lust and rage, but more abstract philosophical gods personifying unchanging eternal principles, the sort of gods Plato believed in and for which reason he wanted to censor Homer’s depictions of the more fallible and anthropomorphic ones.  The word daimon thus occupies a complex space, much debated, but can be rendered as a spirit, soul or thinking thing, referring to a category vaguely encompassing human souls, gods and intermediary spirits.  Thus, eudaimonia is the state of having a happy or fortunate spirit, so my favorite way of rendering eudaimonia is “the kind of happiness Platonic gods experience” i.e. long-term, untroubled, indestructable happiness.

Become a philosopher, lead a philosophical life as I do, and you will achieve, or at least approach, happiness–this is the promise made by every sect, from Epicurus and Seneca to Diogenes and Plato.  In the classical world, being a philosopher was much more about life, living well and demonstrating one’s philosophical prowess through one’s personal excellence and successes than it was about writing comprehensive masterworks expounding systems (See Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life).  Each classical philosophical school had its own path to happiness, and each entwined it with different parallel goals, such as the pursuit of personal excellence, or understanding of nature, or civic virtue, or piety, or worldly pleasure, or friendship, any number of things, but we find no classical school for which approaching eudaimonia through leading a philosophical life was not a core promise.

It's a weirdly small step from souls that exist in the same state as gods to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

It’s a weirdly small step from aiming at a godlike state of the soul to philosophers attempting to do the same things gods were supposed to be able to do, especially in Christianized periods where pagan gods were interpreted as angels.

I should note in passing that, in later classical writings, it becomes clear that they take the divine aspect of eudaimonia very seriously, and Neoplatonists especially refer to past philosophical sages as “divine,” arguing that Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Diogenes of Athens, Seneca and so on, had achieved states of philosophical happiness that made their souls identical with those of gods, even while they were contained within mortal flesh.  The daimon or soul which is happy in eudaimonia is, after all, categorically the same type of thing as a god, and one of the leading differences between a human soul and a divine one is that the divine one experiences indestructable happy serenity.  If a philosopher’s soul achieves the same state, is it not a god?  Particularly in a culture which already practiced deification and ancestor worshop?  Platonic claims about a philosophical soul growing wings, leaving the body and dwelling among the gods helped further cultivate this impulse.  The practice of Theurgy, philosophical magic, developed from the idea that such a divine soul, even while resident in human flesh, could work miraculous effects, such as levitation or generating light.

Now, eudaimonia is a high bar to achieve.  Indestructable, god-like happiness must be able to stand unchanged in the face of all changes, a great challenge in a human existence beset by a thousand evils including wolves, tyrants, malaria, civil war, famine, injustice, accidental dismemberment, urequited love, and human mortality.  All our surviving ancients agreed that real eudaimonia could not be dependent upon external sources, like fame, wealth, property, physical fitness, romantic love, even liberty of person, because such things could be taken away from you by fickle fate, making them unreliable, and your happiness destructable.  I say surviving ancients because we do not have the writings of the Hedonist school, which we know focused on positive, experiential pleasures including, probably, food, drink and sex, and who may have been an exception, but their exceptionality doomed them to be silenced by the dissenting majority.  Those who did agree agreed that eudaimonia had to be a state of the thinking thing, the mind or soul, independent of experience, body or social position.  It was most frequently connected with things like tranquility, self-mastery, acceptance, and taking enjoyment from things that cannot be destroyed, like Truth.  It was also connected with freeing the soul from cares, such as fear, anxiety, envy, ambition, possessiveness, and general attachment to Earthly, perishable things.

These classical philosophical schools developed guides for living and decision-making intended to facilitate a happy life, and those with systems of physics and ontology often tied those closely to their paths to happiness.  For example, the atomic explanations for the natural non-divine mechanisms behind thunder and lightning were promoted by Epicureanism  as something which could make people happy by freeing them from fear of being zapped by a wrathful Zeus.  Thus philosophical disciplines like physics, biology and even basic ontology were in their way tools of eudaimonia as much as they were attempts to explain things.  Modern scholars even debate whether, in such cases, the physics was the source of the moral philosophy, or a tool developed afterward to support it when eudaimonia seemed to need it as an ally.

One of the sources of pain and unhappiness from which such systems set out to free people was curiosity, i.e. the unhappiness that derives from hungering for answers.  This too needed to be satisfied to achieve the stability of eternal, godlike happiness.  The quest to end the pain caused by curiosity meant supplying answers, to questions big and small, but especially big. And they needed to be certain answers, which would be reliable and eternal, and stand up to the assails of fortune, or else eternal, reliable eudaimonia could not rest upon them.  This added extra energy to the quest for certainty.  One wanted to be really, really sure an answer was right, so one could rest comfortably with it, and be happy, and know it would never change.  And one wanted the facts which served as foundations for philosophers’ broader advice on how to achieve happiness to also be certain and unchanging.  If Plato says the key to happiness is Truth, Excellence and the Good, or Aristotle proposes his Golden Mean, you want their claims to be based in certainty.

Two tools were employed in pursuit of certainty: Logic and Evidence.  All dogmatic claims (i.e. claims of certainty) made by any of our classical thinkers were based on one, the other, or both.

Evidence includes any claims based on observation, sensation, lived experience, or, more technically, empiricism.  If Aristotle says bony fish and cartelagenous fish are different because he has dissected a hundred of them and can describe how their insides are different, that is empiricism.  If Thales or Heraclitus draw conclusions based on seeing how fire emerges from wood, that is empiricism.  If Plato asks us to think about when we’ve seen someone beat a dog and say whether it makes the dog better or worse, that too is a kind of empiricism.

Logic includes any argument based on reasoning instead of sense experience.  If Aristotle says that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, that is an argument based on logic.  If Plato asks us if beating a dog makes it worse with respect to the properties of horses or worse with respect to the properties of dogs, that is also an argument asking us to apply logic.

StickInWaterMeanwhile, in a nearby lake…

…a stick fell in a pond, and skepticism was born, like Venus, from the waters.  Or rather, from someone who saw the water, and saw a stick sticking half-way out of it, and noticed that the stick looks bent or broken at the point where it goes into the water.  And yet, the stick is not bent.  The person bends over and touches it, just to be sure, and the fingers confirm the wood is whole and strong.  My eyes are lying to me!  My eyes can’t be trusted!  If this stick isn’t bent, what else that my eyes have told me may be false that I haven’t yet realized?  What if the sky isn’t blue?  Or milk isn’t white?  What if trees have faces, chalk is actually as beautiful as gold, and the sky is swarming with exquisite creatures I have no way to detect?  And if I can’t trust my eyes, what about my ears?  My hands?  Sense perception is unreliable!  But in that case, how do I know anything I’ve experienced is as I thought it was?  Or even that anything is real?!  Panic!  Panic more! (Quietly in the background Descartes and Sartre are still carrying out the “Panic more!” instruction nearly two millennia later).

The stick in water is a genuine, ancient example, much discused by pre-Socratic philosophers.  We don’t know if it’s actually the first example, since the earliest conversations are lost to time, but it may be, and certainly if it isn’t it was something similar, one of the other optical distortions discussed by ancients, like how a square tower can be mistaken for a round tower when seen from a great distance.  What does survive is what later philosophers made of these early discussions of the mystery of the stick in water: epistemology, the study of knowledge, how we know things, and when we can or can’t have certainty.  The stick in water challenges any claim that the senses can be relied upon as a source of certainty.  Forever after, therefore, any philosopher who wanted to make any claim based on sense perception first had to have a way to explain how we could trust the senses despite this, and other, failings.

And the stick in water has a brother: Zeno’s paradoxes.  If the stick in water undermines the credibility of sense-perception, its partner, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, are what undermine the credibility of the other traditional source of information: logic.  You have all heard Zeno’s paradoxes before, but rarely in companionship with the stick in water, which is what gives them their oomph, so it’s worth revisiting one here:

zenomotionAn archer looses an arrow at a target.  Before the arrow reaches the target, it must go half way.  Next it must go half the remaining distance.  Then half that distance.  Then half that distance.  Half, half, half, half but we can do this forever, so the arrow can never actually reach the target, because it must cross an infinite number of micro-distances first, and nothing can travel infinite distance. Therefore, logically, motion is impossible.  Cue polite applause for the logical trick, as at the successful completion of an elegant and challenging ice skating routine.  (Cue also Descartes and Sartre glaring at anyone who’s still smiling.)

Why is this more than a cute trick?

  • Youth: “But we know motion is possible, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “How?”  (All philosophical dialogs are with Socrates, even when they aren’t.)
  • Youth: “Because I can hit you.  See?”  Hits Socrates.
  • Socrates: “Yes, very good.  So you know it is possible because you did it?”
  • Youth: “Exactly, Socrates.  I can do it again if you aren’t convinced.”
  • Socrates: “If you want to exercise your will in that way (if there’s such a thing as will) then that’s your choice (if there’s such a thing as choice), but first, perhaps you could explain to me, using logic, how you are able to hit me, if your arm has to cross infinite distance first?”
  • Youth: “I… um… I don’t think I can, Socrates.  I just know that I hit you, and could do it again.”
  • Socrates: “But you can’t explain logically why.”
  • Youth: “No.”
  • Socrates: “So wouldn’t you say, then, that logic is incapable of explaining motion?”
  • Youth: “I guess so, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “Doesn’t that bother you?  That logic fails to be able to explain something so seemingly simple?  Doesn’t that make you distrust logic itself as a tool?  It would seem that logic itself is unreliable and can’t lead to certainty.”
  • Descartes (quietly in the background): “Panic more!”
  • Youth: “I guess that’s so, Socrates, but it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers those weirdly dressed men over there.”
  • Socrates: “And why doesn’t it bother you?”
  • Youth: “Well, because I know that motion is possible because I can do it and see it.  I don’t need logic to explain it.”
  • Socrates: “So even without logic, you’re sure there is motion… because?”
  • Youth: “Well, because when I move my arm to hit you, I can see it.  When I touch you with my hand, I can feel the impact, the texture of your skin.  I can still feel it a little on my own skin, the spot where it struck yours.”
  • Socrates: “So you know there is motion because your senses tell you so?”
  • Youth: “Yes.”
  • Socrates: “So, since logic is unreliable, you choose to rely on the senses instead?”
  • Youth: “Yes.  I trust things I can see and touch.”
  • Socrates: “Then tell me, my young friend, have you ever happened to notice what happens when a stick falls so it’s sticking half-way into a pool of water?”
Zeno has several paradoxes.  In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never beat the tortoise in a race.

Zeno has several paradoxes. In this one, the famous runner Achilles is trying to overtake a tortoise, but before he does so he must catch half-way up with the tortoise, then half-way again, so he can never catch the tortoise.

Our youth, whom we shall now leave panicking on the riverbank along with Socrates, Descartes, Sartre and, hopefully, a comfortable picnic, has now received the full impact of why Zeno’s paradoxes of motion matter.  They aren’t supposed to convince you there’s no motion, they’re supposed to convince you that logic says there is no motion, therefore we cannot trust logic.  Their intended target is any philosopher *cough*Plato*cough*Aristotle*cough* who wants to make the claim that we one can achieve certainty by weaving logic chains together.  Anyone whose tool is Logic.  Meanwhile, the stick in water attacks any philosopher who wants to rely on sense perception *cough*Aristotle*cough*Epicurus*cough* and say that we know things with certainty through Evidence.  When you put both side-by-side, and demand that Zeno shoot an arrow at the stick in water that looks bent, then it seems that both Logic and Evidence are unreliable, and therefore that… there can be no certainty!

Don’t panic, be happy…

The double challenge of the stick in water and Zeno’s paradoxes had many effects.

One was to make all classical thinkers who wanted to maintain dogmatic principles work a lot harder to nuance their claims of certainty, to justify why and in what specific circumstances logic and evidence could be trusted, to explain why they sometimes failed or seemed to fail, and how one could reason or observe more carefully in order to achieve greater levels of certainty.  Thus these challenges to reason and evidence let dogmatic philosophers adopt skeptical tools and create systems which had space for both dogma and skepticism in the same system, hybridizing the two to achieve greater levels of clarity, complexity, dynamism and subtlety and jumpstarting countless great philospohcial leaps.  To give two quick examples, Aristotle attempted to create a system for achieving infallible logical information by saying that logic is 100% reliable if it is based on a combination of (A) unequivocal carefully defined terms, (B) self-evident first-principles, and (C) geometrically-strict syllogistic reasoning by baby-steps.  Stick to these and exclude logical leaps and unclear vocabulary and you can carve out an arena for reliable logic, even if that arena is necessarily finite and cannot touch everything.  Similarly Epicurus and Aristotle both proposed a kind of empiricism of repeated observation, where we do not trust just one glance at the stick in water but examine it carefully with all our senses, look at many sticks, and eventually draw conclusions we consider more reliable.  And at the same time, these same thinkers gave ground and mixed their dogmatism with skepticism by saying that logic or empiricism worked in some arenas but not others.  Epicurus, for example, says we can learn a lot from sense data but we can never learn true details of atomic level since we can’t see anything that small.  Aristotle similarly says we can learn about the level of the universe that we can experience and think about, the level of the objects we see and contemplate, but not about the chaotic base substructure which underlies the visible and comprehensible world.

sartre(Sartre, who has just been handed a sandwich by Socrates and is now unconsciously applying the Scientific Method as he considers whether or not to accept Descartes’ offer of mayonaise, looks up here to say that he agrees with Aristotle that there are vast and terrifying unknown depths of being which lie beneath perceived reality.  He thinks we should address our long-term attentions to that mystery, and that Aristotle is foolish to cling to pursuing the finite certainties offered by his logic chains and fish observations when no finite knowledge is helpful in the face of the raw unknown infinity beneath.  But Sartre is not interested in pursuing eudaimonia, even if he is interested in the short-term, destructable pleasure offered by Descartes’ excellent fresh mayonaise.)

But our ancient Greeks are interested in eudaimonia, and another product of these challenges to reason and evidence, apart from letting dogmatic philosophers hybridize with it, was the birth of Skepticism (big S) as a philosophical school, in addition to skepticism (small S) as an approach.  As an approach, skepticism is used by all sorts of thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle in their way, but it was also a school, a rival of Platonists and Stoics.  And, like all other ancient schools, Skeptics pursued eudaimonia.

How does doubt lead to happiness?  By allowing one to relax and resign one’s self to ignorance, says Pyrrho, the greatest name in pure classical skepticism.  We cannot know things with certainty, he says, and this is a release (much as Epicurus thought it was a release to believe there is no afterlife).  If we cannot know things with certainty, we don’t have to try.  We don’t need to go with Aristotle to the docks and dissect infinite fish.  We don’t need to sit with Plato and let him pretend to be Socrates through interminable dialogs.  We don’t need to follow Pythagoras and fast ourselves into a trance while contemplating the number ten.  We can stop.  We can say I don’t know, I can’t know, I’ll never know, no one else knows either, no one is right, no one is wrong (not even people on the internet!), so we can just return to our work and rest.  This too, say the skeptics, frees us from pain, from several pains that no dogmatic system can ever free us from.  It frees us from the exhaustion of the quest to know.  It also frees us from the stress we experience when we turn out to be wrong.  If you think you know something, and it’s overturned, that’s stressful and unpleasant.  It makes you feel angry, foolish, violated, shaken, abandoned.  If you never think you know anything about things, you will never experience the pain of being proved wrong.

killed-plutoYou know what the skeptics mean here.  You know because you are alive in 2014, and that means you remember when there were nine planets.  Weren’t you upset?  Wasn’t it distressing and upleasant, shaking your worldview?  We learned there were nine planets in kindergarden!  Of course Pluto is a planet!  Mike Brown, the scientist responsible for getting Pluto’s status stripped away receives hate mail, for precisely this reason: it hurts to be told you’re wrong.  And this is far from the only time you, reader, have experienced this.  There used to be such a thing as a Brontosaurus.  And a Triceratops.  (Youth: What!  We lost the Triceratops too!”)  There used to be four food groups, remember that?  And coral reefs used to exist only in the tropics, and moths used to have nothing to do with tree sloths, and you used to have a volume of the complete works of Sappho.  And the destruction of all these “truths” have unsettled us to different degrees, because we learned them at different times and they were integral to our worldviews to different degrees.  And some we are okay with and with others we smile at the angry t-shirts that say: I remember when there were Nine Planets!

Now, Aristotle would tell us the strife has been caused by the fact that we had not defined “Planet” carefully enough before, so it wasn’t an unequivocal term, and thus led us to confusion and misunderstandings.  “But!” says Pyrrho, “if you had never studied these things, if you had not been taught as a child to memorize dinosaurs, or rest your worldview on the label attached to a hunk of rock far off in the darkness where you never have cause to perceive it, then you would not experience this unhappiness!  Your belief that you knew something has made you unhappy, destroying eudaimonia.  Just admit that you do not know anything with certainty and then you need never experience such pain again!”  And in the case of things we were prepared for–the treesloth and the Sappho and Arthur having a knight of African descent–the Scientific Method told us to do just that, to be prepared for truth to be replaced when it was time, because it was never Truth, it was always provisional truth.

There are two kinds of Giraffes.  Two kinds of Giraffes!  They look identical, herd together, do the same thing, but won't interbreed!  How did this happen?  This makes no evolutionary sense!  It really bothers me!  Pyrrho: "It wouldn't if those pesky geneticists hadn't told you..."

There are two kinds of giraffes. Two kinds of giraffes! They look identical, herd together, do the same things, but won’t interbreed! How did this happen? This makes no evolutionary sense! It really bothers me! Pyrrho: “It wouldn’t if those pesky geneticists hadn’t told you…”

Ten Modes of Skepticism

Many exciting things will happen to skepticism as it leaves Greek hands before reaches ours.  It will be transformed by Bacon and Montaigne, by Averroes and Ockham, Descartes will finish his potato salad and have his day, and it has more refinement yet to undergo among the Greeks as well, and from their sunny riverbank Socrates and company will watch skepticism surge over the marble walls of Plato’s Academy like ants into their picnic basket.  But for today I want to leave you with a taste of raw classical skepticism, so you can taste it for a little while and have a taste of this oddest of philosophies which proposes un-knowledge, rather than knowledge, as its happy goal.  To that end, here, to finish, are examples of the Ten Modes of Pyrrhonism (i.e. the kind of raw skepticism practiced by Pyrrho) based on the handbook of Sextus Empiricus (one of our few surviving ancient skeptical authors).  It is a list of categories of sources of error, things that can make you be wrong.  Many are ones that we are very well prepared for in the modern world and remain on constant or at least near-constant guard against (though rather than guarding against the errors, what Pyrrho and Sextus want us to do is be on guard against imagining we aren’t making errros, i.e. to be on guard against thinking we know something.  I see Socrates is nodding in approval, and that the others are too polite to point out the crumbs on his chin).

The Ten Pyrrhonist Proofs that Nothing can be Known with Certainty:

  1. We cannot have certainty because different animals have different senses.  When do we encounter this?  When walking a dog, sometimes the dog stops to sniff in rapt fascination at a spot on the sidewalk where we see nothing interesting.  But evidently there is something very interesting there if a creature as intelligent as a dog is fascinated, and willing to disobey its friend and choke itself by pulling on its collar in order to study this fascinating thing.  What an error we commit being unable to see this fascination!  Or is the dog in error?
  2. We cannot have certainty because different human beings experience things differently.  When do we encounter this?  I encounter it when friends drink alcohol.  I do not enjoy alcohol.  Not only am I not supposed to have it (because of a specific medical condition), but it tastes like nasty poisonous motor oil to me, and yet I see my friends go into paroxysms of delight over the subtleties and complexities of drinks, and my civilization build entire buildings, institutions, customs and industries around this thing which my senses tell me is terrible.  My senses and those of my friends differ.  Clearly someone must be wrong, unless there is no right here?  I also have a color blind housemate who cannot tell that Hello Kitty Hot Chocolate is bright pink, and struggles to play the game Set in mediocre lighting.
  3. 54478811_bf0c4784c3We cannot have certainty because our senses disagree with each other.  If I want to know if something is good, I ask my senses.  Yet sometimes they disagree with each other.  My eyes tell me this artichoke is just made of smooth leaves, yet my touch tells me it is prickly.  My eyes tell me a lobster is scary and dangerous, and yet my tongue says is delicious. My eyes tell me the molten glass in this glassblowing demo looks goopy and exciting and like a fascinating texture like putty which would be awesome to touch, and yet my touch tells me owwwwwwwwwww hot hot hot hot hot!  My touch tells me this cat is delightful and fuzzy and yet my nose tells me I should not be near it because achooo!
  4. We cannot have certainty because sometimes the same things seem different and lead us to different judgments in different circumstances.  I might enjoy a food for a long time but then get food poisoning from it and, after that, always be revolted when I smell it.  I might feel warm at 70 degrees but then be sick and feel cold at 70 degrees.  I might think Gatorade is nasty but then be dehydrated and think it tastes great because my body craves elecrolytes.
  5.  We cannot have certainty because the same objects seem different from different perspectives.  A mountain that looks like a face from one angle looks like a random jumble from another.  A square tower seen from a distance seems round.  A stick in water looks bent.  The moon above a skyline looks much bigger than the buildings but we have no real sense from that of how enormously big it really is, and can only realize the latter using a lot of math, or a space shuttle.
  6. We cannot have certainty because we never see objects alone.  Have you ever had one of those articles of clothing that looks purple in some light and blue in other light, so people argue over which it is?  Because it looks one way next to one thing and another way next to another.  Well, what does it look like really?  We can never see anything alone, we always see it surrouneded by other objects including air.  If the stick is distorted by water, is it not also distorted by air?  By vacuum?  By light?  We do not see objects, only groups of objects.
  7. We cannot have certainty because things take multiple forms.  Bronze is red, except when it turns green.  Water is clear, unless it’s blue, or fluffy snow white.  Squid ink is black, unless it’s diluted to form purple, or sepia.  That molten glass is enticingly orange and squidgy.  What do any of these things really look like?
  8. The Muller Illusoin, illustrating type 8 doubt.

    Illustrating types 6 & 8 doubt.  Line segment AB is equal to line segment CD but looks longer.

    We cannot have certainty because we experience everything relative to other things.  We cannot see a thing without making some judgment about things that are relative: this clementine is small, this stick is long, this lake is large.  Small, long and large compared to what?  Other objects of comparison intrude themselves into our analysis.  The clementine is small compared to oranges, the stick long compared to other sticks, the lake large compared to my back yard.  But we cannot judge things without judging them relative to others.  To feed his fish for a while my father was growing Giant Amoebas.  Giant Amoebas!  Amoebas so big you could almost see them with the naked eye!  They were huge!  They were smaller than grains of sand and yet I thought they were huge!

  9. We cannot have certainty because we are biased by scarcity.  I love this one, and I love its classic example.  This is about how we judge things to be… well, frankly, how we judge them to be awesome or not.  For example, comets are awesome.  A little bright speck appears in the night that wasn’t there before, and flies across the heavens, really fast, so fast you can almost see it move!  When there is a comet we get very excited.  We discuss it, announce it, get out telescopes to look at it.  In past ages people might pray to it, or read omens from it; now we photograph it and shoot probes at it.  It’s super exciting: little bright speck in sky.  Okay.  So, every morning an enormous blinding ball of fire rises from the horizon, blotting out the night and transforming the entire sky to a wall of brilliant blue brightness streaked with rippling swaths of other beautiful colors, and it radiates down heat enough to transform our weather, burn our skin and feed countless life forms.  It is, from any sense-perception objective sense, ten skillion times more exciting than a comet.  But it’s just the sun, so, shrug.  We are biased by scarcity.  Two poems by Sappho and we all hear, but we find thousands of pages of unknown Renaissance poetry every year.
  10. We cannot have certainty because different peoples have different customs, habits, laws, beliefs and ethics, and are biased by them.  I think you all know this one.  Though it will take over a millennium for it to get to be so common, since cultural relitivism isn’t a broadly-discussed or accepted thing until the enlightenment when Montesquieu and Voltaire made themselves its champions.  Skepticism has a long road ahead of it, from Pyrrho to the present.  But for now, let’s sit back with Socrates and picnic on this raw form of classical, eudaimonist skepticism, challenging our science-loving, learning-loving, exploration-loving, post-enlightenment selves to test ourselves with the quesiton of whether it might be a safe and happy thing sometimes, in its own strange way, to not know.  And we should also comfort Sartre a bit–he hadn’t heard, before today, about poor Pluto.  (Descartes: “What’s Pluto?”  Socrates: “Are you sure you want to know?”)

Continue this foray into the history of skepticism with Part II: Classical Hybrids.

Jan 192014
 
Nude portrait of Voltaire as an old man (Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 1776)

Nude portrait of Voltaire as an old man (Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 1776) now at the Louvre, depicting the triumph of the intellect and human spirit over the limitations of flesh and time.  Read about it.

This is not a full post yet, but an update, and a recommendation.

The process of transitioning to new hosting is well underway, bugs are vanishing and new features will be online soon. The site is already loading faster, and other new things will follow.  UPDATE: the photo album is now fixed.  Links will be a little slower to regenerate, but they will in time.  Bug reports remain welcome.

Meanwhile, I have an enthusiastic recommendation to make for everyone who has been enjoying the historical and philosophical side of this blog. My work on figures like Machiavelli and topics like the history of atheism grew out of my training in intellectual history. The turning point that set me solidly on this path was a pair of classes on European intellectual development in the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Prof. Alan Kors at Penn. The lectures are truly amazing, clear and moving, chronicling the development of the scientific method, the crisis sparked by Thomas Hobbes, the new models of mind and nature advanced by Locke and Newton, the extraordinary and oft-neglected Pierre Bayle.  The second half covered advent of the Enlightenment, which gave me my first real taste of the great firebrands Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot, and the revolution-of the-mind which so shaped our present day. The very same lectures by Alan Kors are now available on CD/DVD/download through The Teaching Company, and usually cost more than $100, but they are temporarily on sale for about $30, a little more if you want the video version.  So if you enjoyed my Machiavelli series, and if you like audiobooks, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.  You can order them here.  (There is not, alas, a printed book equivalent of the same content by the same author, but his book Atheism in France, 1650-1729 is, while out of print and rare, independently excellent.)

Update: that sale is over but new ones come up sometimes and this page has coupons for The Great Courses.

Hopefully that will tide you over until my start-of-semester to-do list eases enough to let me write another essay.  Soon!

Jan 162014
 
It's naked!  The front of San Lorenzo in Florence seen from below, still waiting for the marble facade that Michelangelo never completed.  The rows of projecting stones were to enable the architects to attach the marble.

It’s naked! The front of San Lorenzo in Florence seen from below, still as bare as an unfinished website, waiting for the marble facing that Michelangelo et al. never completed. The rows of projecting stones were to enable the architects to attach the marble.  It’s hard to imagine without seeing it, but all the great Italian churches and cathedrals have substructures like this under their faces.

Visitors to the site today, and over the next few days, will notice that our beautiful e-porphyry facade has been stripped away, revealing the bare gray e-plaster beneath. ExUrbe.com is undergoing rennovations, switching to new hosting, which will enable faster loading loading times, patch various cracks in the e-structure, and get us away from some old e-construction materials which would definitely have caused structural instability over the next years. You will already notice the faster loading times, though the short-term cost of the present bare bones appearance, and the temporary absence of the Picture of the Day and most of the navigation menu. I and my web-architect are on the job, so thank you for your patience.

UPDATE: Progress has restored much of our porphyry, but the photo album and other features are still under reconstruction.  We’ll keep at it, but meanwhile bug reports are welcome in the comments.  Thank you.

From a distance the ridged texture of the stone doesn't look as extreme as the raking view from below.

From a distance, the ridged texture of the stone doesn’t look as extreme as when seen from close up.

Dec 232013
 

DSCN9541After the long silence since my last post, I wanted to put up something quick to reassure friends and readers who might find the silence worrisome.  I am currently in Italy, with my academic conference duties done, my laptop broken and my camera battery fried, so, with no means of being practically productive and a holiday before me, I have no choice but to tromp about museums and enjoy myself.  Accompanied by two good friends, I have carried on a lot of valuable debate with fellow historians, as well as philosophers and classicists.  I have also researched many manuscripts, books, paintings, sculptures and other artifacts, along with many varieties of cheese, pasta, cold cuts, gnocchi, meatballs, roasts, fruits, pizzas, and, of course, gelatos.  Sometimes fate is kind.

I am brimming with ideas for new posts, which I will start on as soon as I’m not on a borrowed machine and unstable hotel internet.  I appreciate your patience.  Meanwhile I will share a piece of Italian art fun:

This is an illuminated image from a Renaissance manuscript in the Laurenziana library in Florence.  From a page of the French translation of a 14th century Latin History of Rome, the Romuleon compiled by Benvenuto da Imola, this image shows the illustrator’s imagined version of the Carthaginian army camp.  In addition to armor and siege preparation, you can see a tent on the right-hand side where a doctor is performing surgery on a wounded officer’s leg.  This kind of image is extremely valuable for historians, in learning about what the Renaissance imagined the ancient world was like, which was very much not what we imagine it was like.  Hannibal’s lovely gold slit-sleeved coat and colorful hat are particularly choice touches.  This type of illustration is also useful as a snapshot for historians attempting to reconstruct information about fleeting artifacts of Renaissance culture, like tents, plumes, the little bottles you used for a meal, or for medical treatment, things which rarely survive in physical form but are casually depicted here by an artist imagining a camp scene, complete with a doctor’s equipment.  The illustration itself takes up a whole manuscript page, so pretty close in size to what you probably see on your computer screen:

November2011 076

 

Nov 222013
 

Thor-Character-Movie-Poster-Set-1-Tom-Hiddleston-as-Loki-The-God-of-Mischief(This is a tongue-in-cheek in-character “review” of the “plot” of Marvell’s film Thor 2: The Dark World.  You are hereby warned that it is filled with spoilers, and that it is absolutely not a straight, serious review. For earlier installments in the series, see my reviews of Thor, Avengers, Iron Man III, and my Recap.)

It was a bit much, I admit.  There is something to be said for the elegance of a simple plan, something with just three steps, something like, say…

  1. Get back into Asgard by allowing myself to be captured.
  2. Escape during the next convenient (chance or pre-arranged) chaos.
  3. Steal all the awesome stuff!  (Cosmic Cube, Infinity Gauntlet, etc.)

But that little period of imprisonment between steps 1 and 2 required patience, and patience breeds… Well, you must have had the experience of that anxious period when you’re waiting for the fruits of something you were working on, and you just can’t help adding to it?  Yes I’m dressed for the dance, but surely I could shine my shoes and sew fresh trim onto this jacket.  Yes this dinner menu is sufficient, but surely there’s time to also make an apple pie, and cookies, and some quiche. You think, “I’ll add just another couple brush strokes to this landscape,” and next thing you know you’ve painted an entire town, with a train pulling into the station, and a tickertape parade.

Seriously, Tess of the D'Urbervilles?  This is bordering on cruel and unusual!

Seriously, Tess of the D’Urbervilles? This is bordering on cruel and unusual!

They say a truly great artist knows when not to add to what is already perfect, but months in a box, months in a box surrounded by idiots, idiots who only give you a book a week because that’s how long it would take him to finish it, idiots who don’t even recognize a predator’s gaze when you snarl through the force field at them, idiots who… ahem, well, even the most supreme intellect succumbs to boredom’s urge to… overcomplicate. Just a little bit.

Because you know what’s more fun than chilling in a dungeon?  Chilling on a throne.

 

 

So gung-ho they aren't even really worth manipulating..

The masks were my suggestion, to help keep mythographers from figuring out what species they’re related to. Can’t end the mystery.

First off, don’t you just love the Svartálfar?  (That’s Dark Elves, for those not so good at pronouncing Icelandic.) Setting aside how hilariously confused Snorri Sturlson and the other saga writers are about them (Are they elves? Are they dwarves?  Were they invented purely to irritate anthropologists?), they’re so adorably simple!  “We hate light!”  Well, yes, all sensible people do, and the Aesir are jerks for having littered their tacky light-balls from Musfelheim all over the freaking cosmos, but instead of adopting a reasonable plan like, say, destroying the Sun, or tricking the Aesir into selling you the Sun and the Moon, or feeding them to wolves, the sort of plan a sensible*ahem*Jotun*ahem* individual might come up with, they come up with Operation: Destroy Everything. Including, you know, meat, and mead, and gold, and books, and conquerable peoples, and my most excellent boots (gotta looove my boots).  But the Svartálfar have this absoluteness and simplicity to their motives that makes recruiting them for a plan so effortless it’s almost zen.

“Would you like to help me d–”
“Yes!  Destroy!”
“OK, well, the plan is–”
“We will sacrifice ourselves to do it!  RAAAH!”
“Right, then.  Anyone want to stop on the way for pancakes and–”
“Destroy!  Accursed!  RAAAH!”

Today I think I'll quip entirely in limerick.  See if he notices.

Today I’ve prepared all my quips in dactyllic hexameter. Please somebody notice.

Needless to say Svartálfheim is not where one goes for a rich Socratic dialog.  I confess, the only times I usually trek out there are just to show off that I know where Svartálfheim actually is.  All nine worlds are accounted for, so is it part of Alfheim?  Nifflheim?  Vanaheim? In the dwarven tunnels under Midgard?  (Keep on stacking up those bribes, Snorri, and maybe someday I’ll tell you…)  But Svartálfheim is totally where you send your illusory projection when you suddenly realize you can’t stand sitting in this damned box another day playing endless rounds of “Guilt Trip: the Confrontation” the with the Yawnfather.  Get.  Me.  Out.  Now.

Svartalfheim: even more boring than Niflheim; at least there you can ice skate.

Svartalfheim: even more boring than Niflheim; at least there you can ice skate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, it’s getting harder to maintain the weakening third person pretense of these reviews, so shall we drop it?  I still maintain they’re “unbiased” because it’s only from the one being in the cosmos who knows what actually happened that you’ll get an accurate version.  But it is so much easier to explain when I can say “I” and “me” and “my” and not couch things in roundabout phrasing.

"No, Thor, I'm not playing it with you again...  Because it doesn't have any strategy!  It's not even a real game!...  Yes, I know it's called "War" but... There's no decision-making, it's dictated entirely by the cards, how can you still not see that...  No that isn't what real wars are like!

“No, Thor, I’m not playing it with you again… Because it doesn’t have any strategy; it’s not even a real game… Yes, I know it’s called “War” but… There’s no decision-making, it’s dictated entirely by the cards, how can you still not… Yes, yes I know it’s your favorite, but… No that isn’t what real wars are like!

I once taught myself how to stack a deck of cards.  For about twenty minutes it made playing cards brilliant, but after that it made it intolerably dull.  Until I realized I could stack the deck agianst myself, and then have to play extra-brilliantly to make up for it, and try to keep my opponent from noticing that I was double-cheating against myself. That was perfect. That was, and stayed, deliciously perfect. So this became precisely that. Awakening the Svartálfar was the deck I stacked against myself, a little handicap to make me have something else to occupy part of my attention so that returning to Asgard in secret, defeating Odin and replacing him on the throne won’t be laughably effortless. It’s like keeping one hand behind your back, only with a bit more alien invasion of Midgard. I told the Svartálfar they had to release the Great Red Macguffin on Midgard.  They didn’t ask me why Midgard.  I wonder whether “Midgard is the most fun!” would’ve meant anything to them…

So, the ham-handed Svartálfar naturally wanted to just break in and actually free me.  (And smash all their own ships while doing so: Smash!  RAAAH!)  It took quite a bit of talking to convince them to attack, free everyone except a certain someone, and count on a certain well-advertised transit monopoly to get my “captors” to release me themselves.  This was easily the scariest part of the plan.  No matter how great the efforts to advertise the transit monopoly, the whole thing hinged on the Thunderer thinking of something. For a while, waiting in the cell, it was an almost piercing paranoia: Will he not get it? Should I have hung neon lights in the sky reading “Only Loki Can Leave Asgard Without Bifrost!”?  But in the end he was precisely as stupid as I predicted, no more no less, and off we shot! With the nice perk of getting to undermine the honor and trust everyone had in the Thundrer, and Sif, and all his friends, and, most deliciously, Heimdall.  Heimdall commiting treachery… you know that’ll grate on his stony, laughter-killing heart a good, long time.  Until the day I pierce it through.  Most satisfactory.

Oh, and Frigg had to go.  I even had to direct the idiot Svartálf to her myself. But it was time. I can’t play Odin that convincingly, not well enough to fool her. Pity. I enjoyed Frigg.

"Do you want me to review the plan for you again?  Are you sure four times is enough?"

“Do you want me to review the plan for you again? Are you sure four times is enough?”

Aaaaaand, we’re off!  Quick hop to Svartálfheim. (Note: it didn’t occur to Thunderer to ask me why my tunnel was set to go straight to Svartálfheim without passing go or collecting two hundred fallen enemies.)  And now I get to savor the delicious triple-bluff pantomime of pretending to betray the Thunderer and side with the Svartálfar, only to suddenly reveal that I’m faking and help the Thunderer against the Svartálfar, who know the whole time I’m still with them, and then I get to pretend to get killed!  And then there’s the Thundrer all sad, wid’ his widdle guilt in his widdle cudly heart, awwww.

If course, I could’ve stuck with the Svartálfar a while longer, but they’re the types where if you say, “Can I have a lift home now, please?” they say “RIDE WITH US TO DEATH AND DESTRUCTION!  RAAAH!” and you say, “On second thought I’ll walk.”  Easier to go it solo.  But here’s where the ornamentation born of my impatience gets a little tangled.  I have business in Asgard but there are now Svartálfar running around, and Svartálfar are such short-term thinkers, not a tool one really wants to keep in hand during the long haul, and certainly not a group one wants to let succeed.  They must be dealt with.

Meanwhile, Ian the Intern.

Superfluous, but charming.

Never trust someone who says “Yes” to an unpaid internship.

Projecting myself in the persona of Ian the intern is, I confess, another of these ornaments that the plan probably could’ve done without.  But I was so bored, and it was so fun wriggling my way in so close to the Thunderer’s girlfriend-pet-thing whatever he thinks she is.

Sure, I coudl’ve just used good old Dr. Erik “Pants-less” Selvig to do everything I needed, but it was so much more entertaining to let him think he was free of my control, but then taunt him, from the inside, and from the outside as “Ian” and see how long it would take his non-negligable human intellect to snap like a mundane chain trying to hold a certain puppy.   I may have overdone it a bit with Erik.  No.  No, it was perfect.  Stonehenge was hilarious, and Tony did a great job having his Jarvis collect all the Youtube footage for me which I’ve been basking in between bouts of having to pretend being the Un-fun-father.  But the real fun was seeing how unscientific a conclusion I could lead Erik to without him realizing we weren’t in scienceland anymore.  I just had to lead him to the random spot I’d told the Svartálfar was the right place to set off the Great Red Macguffin.  I could’ve, you know, concentrated gravitational waves there, or made an illusory portal appear, or put weird lights moving across the photos taken by Hubble to make it look like a space thing was aimed there, but it was so much more fun scattering the clues around Stonehenge and other randomly selected ancient rocks.  Yes, Erik, draw an X between the henges, that’s totally science.  Ian the intern totally agrees.

Of course, one must get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, but one must not seem to get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, or people may start to talk.  So first one sends in the person least likely to be helping with a sinister plan: Thundergirlfriend!  Spacial instabilities are easy enough to arrange, enough to attract Team Thunderscience, and then it’s easy enough to whip up a portal to the hiding place of the ancient all powerful weapon which no one bothered to actually set a guard on (Is Asgard ready for a regime change or what?).  Of course, as soon as she got to the place where the distortions were she got so distracted by the kids and cute, I thought she’d never wander in the damned portal… had to have “Ian” accidentally lose the keys to keep her there.

Don'd mind me and my incredibly sophisticated space technology.  It's so easy it's not even really worth calling it subeterfuge.

Don’d mind me and my incredibly sophisticated space technology. It’s so easy it’s not even really worth calling it subeterfuge.

That was the beauty of “Ian” you see.  In that form, I could do anything.  No one would suspect.  And it was so plausible to have any technology I might need (“Oh, I don’t know what it does, I didn’t make it, I don’t know anything, I’m just an intern, dum-de-dum”) and no one would even ask!  And I could be on the internet doing anything science-looking or math-looking, or even beyond, and they’d just assume it was either work or some kind of videogame.  Even if someone looked over my shoulder and asked “What are those equasions?” or “How come that looks so much like the S.H.I.E.L.D. Mainframe?” or “Why are you text chatting with someone called SexyStark4evR and why do they keep calling you ‘master’?” I could just say “It’s a World of Warcraft thing,” and they’d never ask again.

I had to take down S.H.I.E.L.D., of course.  I would only have a narrow window of the Svartálfar releasing the full-blown Power Stone, and we needed unrestricted access to get the technology I had Tony build for me in place.  I wanted to not only gain a sample and the ability to reproduce the effect, but I also wanted to route my imprint onto the Stone, so I could gain control of it, and make sure I could track, activate and recall it from anywhere in the cosmos.  To do that I needed something beyond just Midgard tech, and while I could teach Tony to build the stuff, I couldn’t teach him to camouflage their non-Midgard origins well enough to hide it from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inevitable curiosity if they inspected our innocent detector rods that golly-gee coincidentally were also capable of defeating the big bad.  Also, S.H.I.E.L.D. might’ve brought Hulk – things get less fun around Hulk.  So, when perky-Thundergirlfriend-assistant-girl picked up her phone, it was vital that S.H.I.E.L.D. be fully occupied.  (A multi-billion-dollar international super organization not picking up a phone call from the team of human scientists with closest contact with the Asgardians?  And she doesn’t find that fishy?)

I gave Tony carte blanche to divert S.H.I.E.L.D. as he liked, with no command beyond “Entertain me.”  He took that one to heart, and has a mind which knows how to make the best of fleeting opportunities.  There was this Great Conjunction bringing Nine Worlds into alignment: just the sort of circumstance to make S.H.I.E.L.D. perfectly distracted, if it’s brought to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s enemies.  It was clearly established that Asgardian troops had just restored a fragile peace in vulnerable-little-village-infested Vanaheim.  A little push of HYDRA attention that way and Captain Flagpants couldn’t unpack his star-spangled space suit fast enough.

That left the Thunderer.  As ever, the Thunderer.

Must protect convenient emotional button-pushing device!

Must protect convenient emotional button-pushing device!  I mean, human!

Using “Ian” to push Thundergirlfriend to push Thunderer made it easy enough to make him pull his weight in eliminating the last Svartálfar before they could actually (shudder) destroy all the meat and mead and gold and books and conquerable peoples. Self-stacked deck defeated.  And as a bonus, since it’s been a while since my New York invasion, Midgard  got a fresh reminder reminder that the universe is teeming with monsters, Midgard is not prepared, and its Human defenders are useless, but we grand, divine Asgardians can protect them, we alone.  Must get these humans ready to embrace my rule.

As for the Thunderer, I couldn’t have him wandering Asgard with me on the throne, any more than I could have Frigg around.  It’s not that I thought I couldn’t deceive him, it’s that there are those idiot friends of his who’re pushing for him to take charge away from daddy, and a rival power base is… an inconvenient complexity.  And he’s irritating, and it would be so tempting to… tease.  Mustn’t let myself get distracted. But he’s too valuable a blunt instrument to just destroy. Banishment might make him, or others, try to reverse it, so the ideal was to get him to banish himself. The treason of freeing me got him thinking he deserved it, then a few choice reminders of his own incompetency compared with the Mirror of Princes that is yours truly, was the starting wedge.  I didn’t even have to drive it home, though.  Thundergirlfriend did that, plus the pathetic plight of the defenseless humans flattering the Thunderego into thinking he could do something valuable by living among them as some condescending protector. Cute. He really is too cowardly to be a sovereign. Realizing it may be the first slightly smart thing he’s ever done.

Hm... maybe a TV tray too?

Hm… maybe a TV tray too?

So now the prelude is complete, Midgard is freshly cowed, the Thunderer is gone, his friends are discredited, two Power stones are nicely under my control, and I’ve finally got reasonable quarters as I wait for the real first stage of my plan to get going.  Most satisfactory.

Only one thing went genuinely wrong: stupid Svartálfar smashed Odin’s throne!  I’d been waiting to sit in that damned throne again for so long, and you go and smash it!  I was so pissed when I got back to find a pile of rubble.  Oh, well.  At least the new one I designed has a more comfortable seat, and swivels, and has wi-fi, and a little screen in the arm rest so I can text with Tony during these endless valkyrie status reports.

SexyStark4evR: “Master! Cap just made a Facebook account!”
*TheOdinChat: “srsly? Whats he doing with it?”
SexyStark4evR: “Posting pictures of SHIELD 4th of july party”
TheOdinChat: “R they rlly bobbing 4 apples? lol look@Fury’s face!”
SexyStark4evR: “Im gonna send a friend request pretending to be Miss America. No, Miss Canada! Think he’ll agree to a date?”
TheOdinChat: “Im gonna invite him to Farmville. And Cookie Clicker.”
SexyStark4evR: “Master, you’re evil!”

*When the Lord of Asgard sleeps he sleeps The Odinsleep; when the Lord of Asgard chats he chats TheOdinChat. Must keep up the pretense.

And that is the story of how I walked effortlessly out of prison, saved Asgard and the universe from a danger I created, awoke and then defeated one of the great ancient rivals of Jotunkind, seized two Power Stones, crippled S.H.I.E.L.D., put my newest servant through his paces, further opened humanity’s eyes to the truth about aliens and gods that their leaders have been conspiring to hide, shattered Heimdall’s honor, tricked the Thunderer into banishing himself, seized my rightful throne, and finally faced my first truly worthy opponent: myself. Not bad for a plan I came up with in one night in a fit of boredom. I shall now accept applause.

Nov 032013
 

thor-the-dark-world-movie-poster-4The new Marvel movie “Thor: the Dark World” opens in just a few days, so for those who have been following my “unbiased” review series (and for those interested in starting) here is a brief refresher on the “real” plot of the Marvel movies.

Alternately, you can read my full-length analyses of the earlier films: Thor, Avengers,  and Iron Man III.

(And before I receive any more comments or e-mails attempting to correct my “mistakes”: this series consists of tongue-in-cheek, in-character reviews of these films, intended for fun and to add extra zest to watching.  Please relax and enjoy my reviews it in that spirit.)

We will begin, as Aristotle would recommend, with some syllogisms:

    1. Loki is brilliant
    2. Brilliant people produce brilliant plans
    3. THEREFORE: Loki produces brilliant plans

Second syllogism:

    1. The plans Loki attempted in the Thor and Avengers movies were bad plans
    2. Loki produces brilliant plans
    3. THEREFORE: those were not Loki’s real plans

Hereby we arrive at the single guiding principle which must inform our interpretation of the films: Loki’s activities so far were, in fact, a brilliant plan which succeeded, cunningly disguised as a terrible plan which failed.

Loki’s activities in the first film were a tour-de-force of misdirection, designed to secure and confuse his enemies about his true motives and lower their guard against him so he could freely put the mature stage of his plan into action.  The gods (doubtless influenced by Loki’s good advice) had put all Asgard’s transportation eggs in one basket, creating only one means of interstellar travel, Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge aka. giant conspicuous vulnerable zappy teleporter gizmo. Having first developed his own original and untraceable method for moving between planets (Pleasant exercise for an oft-bored brain), the next necessary step was to destroy Bifrost, securing a monopoly on faster-than-light travel and stranding the others in Asgard (or making them waste staggering amounts of power to escape, and run around like idiots in the meantime).  The fake plan with which he camouflaged this goal was not even quite a plan, more a feigned temper tantrum.

The wildly inconvenient mode of transit the Asgardians are left with after Loki's "defeat."

The wildly inconvenient mode of transit the Asgardians are left with after Loki’s “defeat.”

Having trapped Thor on Earth and incapacitated Odin, he took charge of Asgard (side perk: getting to boss everyone around for  bit = superfun!). He then pretended to discover the (bloody obvious) secret fact that he was actually Jotun-born (Duh! What other race could produce such cold and glittering genius?), and to flip out and try to overcome this shameful (ha!) background and prove his loyalty (ha!) to Odin by exterminating the rest of the Jotun race.  And by pure, natural, utterly serendipitous coincidence, the most efficient way to do that was to repurpose Bifrost into a super-destructo-laser (Didn’t realize it could do that?  That’s what you all get for spending your time drinking and skull-splitting, while only a certain someone read all the schematics).  Thus when Thor returned, he destroyed Bifrost (such a pity), and was so convinced by the flipping-out-traumataized-oh-woe-is-me-I-was-adopted little brother lie that he tried to “save” Loki despite everything, but instead Loki fell “helpless” into the void which, of course, he had no means of navigating (Aaaaah, the sweetness of success).  Securing interstellar transit monopoly without anyone realizing that was what you were after: 12,304 hours of scheming and a few bruises; leaving Thor and Odin with a giant guilt trip: priceless.

thor-the-dark-world-movie-poster1-550x777The Asgardians are now safely out of the way, and the overture can give way to the opening act.

In this camouflage plan, Loki makes a deal with random aliens in which he promises to deliver the Mighty Macguffin (currently possessed by S.H.I.E.L.D.) which will somehow let these aliens conquer the entire universe, and in return he gets the (puny) Earth (desirable for some reason?) while they get the entire rest of everything (go on, take it, I’ll pe peeerfectly happy just sitting here on this rock playing king of the humans…).  And to accomplish this he takes the following steps: (A) get captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., (B) hang around  in a cell for a while goading the Avengers, (C) escape making no attempt whatsoever to kill any of the Avengers who could’ve been easily killed and taking no advantage of his access to the secure inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, (D) help the aliens smash New York City for no particular reason (Loki smash?), (D) hang out in Tony Stark’s incredibly high-tech house for a while also for no particular reason (Loki dawdle?), and it is during this last step that he totally lets his guard down and gets captured by the Avengers despite numerous opportunities to escape (invisibility… teleportation… shapeshifting… alien allies… stairs…).  And everything else, particularly the bit where he revealed the existence of extraterrestrial life incontrovertibly to the entire human race, was totally accidental (Oopsies… was that me?).  Truly this is a cover-plan which only an idiot would believe.  Happily most of the Avengers are idiots, and of the exceptions, Banner has rather a lot on his mind, and Stark… now Stark is a toy worth playing with…

Asgard, a comfy place to wait, and think, and plan...

Asgard, a comfy place to wait, and think, and plan…

The true goals, of course, were to manipulate the Avengers, push Earth toward an interstellar war, and to wind up exactly where Loki wanted to wind up, back in Asgard close to Odin’s treasure trove of Cosmic Macguffins which make S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Mighty Macguffin look like a cracker jack prize, and Mjolnir look like the dinky rubber mallet which, in the grander scheme of things, it always has been, and always will be (Kids will cling to their toys…). And in the comfort of an Asgardian cell from which a well-prepared genius can effortlessly escape/project/whisper to agents/etc., we await the delectable invasion, at which point Loki will be freed by the Asgardians who are not quite stupid enough to forget the scintillating brain which really is their only possible salvation.  And in the chaos of that invasion, and with the Cosmic Macguffins in easy reach, the true  the plan will begin, at last, to turn…

"You're welcome, thanks for mentioning it."

“You’re welcome, thanks for mentioning it.”

I want to bring our attention back for a moment, to the detail that Loki very directly and very intentionally revealed the existence of aliens to the human race.  This is a truth the “good guys” at S.H.I.E.L.D. had been concealing for how long now?!  Hello, human race!  You’re not alone!  First contact!  What you’ve all been searching for, for so long!  Oh, and if the cosmic playground is a little rougher than you might’ve hoped, that’s only good for you.  Adds zest.  In fact, opening Earth’s interstellar relations with that tiny first foray in Manhattan may have been the kindest first contact he could offer Earth, since it’ll make the planet and its people prepare themselves for dealing with the idiotic stellar empires that are out there without dooming them to conquest-at-first-idiotic-diplomatic-snafu.  I mean, Galactus is out there, and Celestials, and the star-eating Phoenix entity.  A few space monsters in Manhattan is the cosmic equivalent of a light punch on the shoulder along with your “Hello.”  Frankly it’s Loki’s turn to stand before the human race and say “You’re welcome.”  But enough of that tangent… we have bigger fish to fry than Earth…

Smile

Boredom’s sweet, sweet end…

A full-scale alien invasion of the Earth, not some petty giant bugs squishing Manhattan, is a tricky thing to achieve, particularly with the most likely perpetrators, the Kree and Skrulls, locked in their eternal entertaining but rather monotonous war (Been there, manipulated that…).  Earth must be made to seem to be at just the right level of power, powerful enough to be a worthy target and to require a full invasion (delicious…) and not just a disappointing expeditionary force (bored now…).  But it can’t seem so powerful as to make the aliens bring genuinely overwhelming forces, since those might be too hot to handle while also juggling one’s usual thousand other balls, and might result in the accidental breaking of a few favorite toys.  Hence the necessity of carefully manipulating the Avengers so as to put just the right face forward, inviting just the right sized alien force.  And hence securing time alone in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ and, later, in Tony Stark’s house, to tap their security systems and technology and gain complete mastery of Earth’s defenses, so one is prepared to shape the Earth reaction, and consequent conflict, to precisely the scale one wishes (…but the third bowl of glorious carnage was juuust riiight…).

The best thing that ever happened to Tony Stark.

Perhaps the most fun, if not the most critical, details which, thanks to Loki’s elegant subtlety, many viewers seem to have missed: Loki had a mind-control wand.  It let him turn people into his minions.  He hit Tony Stark with it.  For no explicable reason it “seemed” that Tony Stark was completely immune (Yes, tell yourselves it’s ’cause of the mechanical heart thing… that’s totally plausible…).  Stark was, of course, in his own high-tech house with his Iron Man armor nearby, meaning he and Loki were under surveillance the entire time.  If you were Loki and mind-controlled-loyal-to-Loki Tony Stark (note, Stark and Loki, both smart dudes), would you have Stark kneel abjectly at Loki’s feet?  Or would you have him pretend he hadn’t been affected, so that no one in the Avengers would suspect that one of their own had been co-opted?

For further evidence that Tony Stark was and is still under Loki’s complete control, we have only to look to “Iron Man III”, a film which may seem like Loki isn’t in it at all.  Yet, when examined closely, it is clear that the entire film is  portrait of Stark’s internal transformation as his admittidly quite respectable mind (not a rival to Loki’s but respectable in a “clever puppy” kind of way) became gradually reconciled to his new servitude, and came around to accept and eventually embrace his new master.  An exceptional mind takes breaking in.  Thus, the film chronicles Stark’s conversion, from his initial trauma-like symptoms (the mind fighting to free itself… how cute..) to his concluding declaration that his former self was a “cocoon, and now I’m a changed man” (details in the Iron Man III review).  And in the midst of this, we saw the master himself visit Stark (lucky puppy…) in the guise of the implausibly wise and ingenious little boy “Harley”, confirming, for those of us who were anxious during the long wait fearing that poor Loki might be bored waiting in his necessary but annoying Asgardian prison, that our genius has means enough to project himself in mortal guise at will. At the end Loki showed his satisfaction with his new servant and played the kind master, teaching him how to finally repair his heart (It was clearly established that Stark couldn’t and then suddenly bing! he does? Good service is rewarded…)

LokiDialog“Oh, Loki, pretty please save us from the alien invasion you yourself set up!”   The trailers have already revealed that much of the plot of the forthcoming film, but it will be interesting to see whether the film reveals that Loki set up the invasion, or whether Loki and the writers will conceal it from Thor and Odin throughout.  It may be that Loki’s connection with the invaders will remain subtext only, but he (and the writers) may succumb at last to the desire to let him gloat.  Thus the board is set, and we can expect the coming film to finally show the first stages of Loki’s true plan unfolding.  For maximum enjoyment, as you watch next week, try to keep these basic “truths” in mind:

  1. Loki set up this alien invasion, got captured on purpose, and has been waiting for and planning something big.
  2. Loki carefully arranged the current limitations on transit to and from Asgard, and has secret transit methods of his own.
  3. Loki has complete access to and control of all the data and technology possessed by S.H.I.E.L.D. and by Tony Stark & co.  Any use of technology or troops of any kind anywhere in the film may (and likely is) part of his secret plan.
  4. Loki is a shapeshifter, and can teleport. Any character at any time may actually be Loki in disguise, and the disguise may not be overtly revealed by the script (these writers have proved their willingness to trust us to see through such things ourselves).
  5. While he seemed to be imprisoned in Asgard, Loki has had the ability to project himself in disguised form anywhere he likes, and has been setting up all sorts of delightful things in the background, working on Earth, and, presumably, other planets.
  6. Any and all opportunities to tease adorable Thor and expose his embarrassingly soft underbelly will be exploited.
  7. Tony Stark is not only under Loki’s control but now actively loyal to him.  During any and all scenes we must be wondering what exciting thing Tony Stark is secretly doing in the background at the same time to further his master’s plans.  If we are lucky, the DVD extended edition will contain a special disc showing the parallel adventures of Tony Stark behind the scenes (“Iron Man IV: Servant of Greatness)”, but even without that we can guess.
  8. Loki loves nothing more than to pull the wool over the eyes of enemies.  We can fully expect that, once again, his brilliant plan, which will succeed, will be disguised as a terrible plan which fails.  Don’t be deceived.

And with these critical “truths” in mind, I hope you will all enjoy Marvel’s “Thor: the Dark World.”  Oh, and if the Thunderer or Odin asks, I’ve been quietly in my cell the whole time…

Click here to read the next installment of the series: the Thor 2 Gloat-a-Thon.

Oct 312013
 
blabla

One of my favorite Italian advertising campaigns, the Batta shoe company’s “Difficult to Resist.”

Announcing a new page on Ex Urbe (in the Food section), an international Gelato Atlas, listing gelato locations in many cities and countries around the world.  It includes my own reviews and suggestions and reviews posted by Ex Urbe readers. Hopefully this will help everyone find good gelato near you!

Meanwhile, we have only a few days to go before the opening of the new Thor movie.  I will be sure to post a plot-so-far summary before the movie opens, so people who will enjoy it can have a refresher of my “unbiased” interpretation of what’s “really” going on in the Marvel movieverse, to enhance your viewing experiences.

My “unbiased” review of the new movie will follow, and after that I intend to start a new history and philosophy series comparable to the Machiavelli one, plus a couple more installments of Spot the Saint.

But first, some site updates to help things run more smoothly.

The Batta "Dificult to Resist" women's add.

The Batta “Difficult to Resist” women’s ad.

Also, I have noticed the site is loading slowly and having periodic errors where it says it’s unavailable, or that it has a database error.  I wanted to create a poll to ask readers how often this has affected you (so I could use that to decide whether to switch to a new hosting service) but attempting to create a poll made the website crash and shut down (not a good sign for my hosting service).  I would be grateful if readers could respond to this post to let me know if you have experienced bugs with Ex Urbe not loading properly, or other site issues, so I can know if the problem is a big one.  Also, please let me know if you have read regularly and not experienced any problems, since that too is helpful to know.  If the problem is causing people serious inconvenience then I will switch to a new hosting service soon – if it is not too bad, then I will wait until a few other deadlines are off my plate and then switch over.  Thank you.

Oct 132013
 
GelatoZ

Luscious, fresh, enticing… bad gelato.

Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).

First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.”  The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine.  The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance.  One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.

I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone.  Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help it coagulate, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are capable of sustaining very complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and also of concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbeto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk).  Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the frezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream.

“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”

In Florence, Perche no...! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

In Florence, Perche no…! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

I want to briefly combat this assumption.  At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade.  These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors.  Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking.  In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks.  And all were delicious.

Now, the test:

#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors.  Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell.  If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray.  If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor.  Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green.  The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar.  This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc.  Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign.  Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test.  But if still in doubt:

 

GelatoD

Poor quality fruit gelati. In the foreground left is strawberry and the right mixed berry (frutti di bosco), both in very creamy colors betraying the presence of dairy.

GelatoH

Good berry sorbets. Bottom right blueberry, bottom middle blackberry, bottom left sour cherry, top center strawberry, to its left raspberry, left of that an intentional dairy-mixed creamy frutti di bosco.

#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles?  Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding.  The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them).  Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign.  The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out.  Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter.  This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off.  You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served.  So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality.  Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.

GelatoE

Tall, eye-catching mounds of colorful gelato, not a good sign. The green in the middle is either pistachio or mint – either way, that’s food coloring we see.

GelatoF

Flat bins of good gelato, in a range of natural colors. Soft and served with flat paddles, not curved scoops.

Gelato1

Round metal lids protecting top quality all-natural gelato, in Rivareno (Florence).

#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits?  Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit.  All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year.  This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors.  Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.

GelatoB

July in Florence. Perche no…! serves blackberry (nearly black), fig (green and speckly since summer figs are young and not red yet), and vivid cantelope. If I saw blackberry in January or mandarin in July, I would worry.

#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon.  A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock.  Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors?  If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract.  If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract.  This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.

Gelato8

The difference with the lemon is very subtle and hard to photograph. This image may be useful: this is not lemon. The cone on the left is pear and persimmon, while the cone on the right is fior di latte and mango yogurt. Notice how the fruits, on the left, are a little bit more translucent, while the dairy flavors on the right have a milk opacity all the way to their melty edges. Persimmon and mango are both vivid colors naturally, so vivid here, while the pear is subtle and almost white.

GelatoG

The pistachio on the right here is clearly very artificial. The lemon on the left, though, is translucent, and you can see where it’s melting at the bottom of hte bin that it is becoming clear, rather than milky, when liquid. This place (in Venice, where fresh ingredients are extra expensive) is using artificial flavors and additives, but still doing its best to make a passable lemon sorbet.

#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna?  These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato.  It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives.  In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous.  Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla).  If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign.  If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good.  But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.

GelatoA

Center: fior di latte gelato drowned in flavored syrup. The syrups all over these (and the vivid color of the mint in the top left) are warning signs of lower basic quality underneath the sugary drizzle.

#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)?  This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful.  For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut.  Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.

Gelato13

An interesting case of what is obviously middle-quality gelato. To the left, “pear and Nutella” has used the supplemental flavors of chocolate and hazelnut to boost a pear which is obviously dairy-based. To the right, the vivid green flavor of the fig shows there are artificial colors but there are also flecks of peel, so this is real fig bolstered with additives. Not the best gelato, but far from the worst, and doing the best with what they have.

#7) Still in doubt?  Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what?  Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much.  Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense.  Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.

Gelato14What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?

Despair not!  You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately.  Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day.  These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience.  Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances.  Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu.  A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely.  Lemon is also a good fallback.  Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.

For more on gelato, see also my earlier post: Relax.  Have a gelato.

My next gelato-related project is to assemble a list of good gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel.  So far I have eaten gelato at good places in Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan, Montreal, New Orleans, New York, San Antonio and Washington DC, and I expect many more will follow.  If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list.  Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one.  Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combatting the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!