exurbe

Aug 122017
 

With my wonderful father Doug Palmer after the Hugo ceremony.

Last night I was overjoyed and overwhelmed to receive the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon 75 here in Helsinki, Finland. I was so overwhelmed by this warmest of possible welcomes to the field that I mounted the stage crying too hard to actually read my speech. I also mounted the stage with difficulty, leaning heavily on my cane. Here is a transcription of the speech I ended up giving, which I want to follow with a few comments. You can see a video of the speech here.

Thank you very much. I have a speech here but I actually can’t see it. I can think of no higher honor than having a welcome like this to this community. This… we all work so hard on other worlds, on creating them, on reading them, and discussing them, and while we do so we’re also working equally hard on this world and making it the best world we possibly can. I have a list with me of people to thank, but I can’t read it. These tears are three quarters joy, but one quarter pain. This speech wasn’t supposed to be about invisible disability, but I’m afraid it really has to be now. I have been living with invisible disability for many years and… and there are very cruel people in the world for which reason I have been for more than ten years not public about this, and I’m terrified to be at this point, but at this point I have to. I also know that there are many many more kind and warm and wonderful people in this world who are part of the team and being excellent people, so, if anyone out there is living with disability or loves someone who has, please never let that make you give up doing what you want or working towards making life more good or making the world a more fabulous place.

I have never discussed my invisible disability in public before, so I want to add a little more detail here for those who must have questions. In my case, the pain comes and goes, often affecting me mildly or not at all, so many of you have seen me singing on stage, or in the classroom, or speaking at a conference with no sign of any pain, but sometimes, as last night, the pain sets in ferociously, too much to hide.

As is often the case with this kind of invisible and intermittent disability, the cause of mine is complicated: for me it’s a combination of Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the digestive system), plus P.C.O.S., and some other factors for which I continue to undergo testing. These conditions cause a variety of problems, including inflammation, swelling, and periodic spasms in my lower abdomen. Over the years, this has damaged the muscles of my pelvis. The damaged area can go into spasm at any moment, causing severe pain and difficulty walking, as happened last night. Sometimes the pain is gentle enough that I don’t even notice it. Sometimes it’s medium, so I can walk with a cane and work with effort but get tired easily. Sometimes it is too severe to let me walk or work at all. And once in a while it’s so severe that, without special breathing exercises, I can’t not scream. All medications powerful enough to deal with the stronger forms of the pain also make me extremely sleepy or out-of-it, too much to work, or teach, or give a speech at a Hugo ceremony. So last night, I faced the choice between revealing this to a large public, or turning down the invitation to go receive the honor that means so much to me. So I chose to go to the podium.

I had not discussed this in public before because being public about disability (especially for women) so often results in attacks from the uglier sides of the internet, a dangerous extra stress while I’m working hard to manage my symptoms. I have been open about my disability with my students and colleagues at the University of Chicago, every one of whom has been nothing but outstandingly supportive. In fact, much of the strength which helped me get through last night came from the earlier experience of discussing my disability with my students this past year when I had to explain that I might miss class for surgery. Their outpouring of warmth and support was truly beautiful, but I was also awed by how eager they were to discuss the larger issue of invisible disability, and to hear about how I’ve worked to balance my projects and career with my medical realities, a type of challenge which affects so many of us, and many of them. Thinking of their kindness helped me keep my courage up last night, when having an attack at such a public moment made it impossible to avoid having this same conversation in a much more public and therefore scary space.

I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2004, in the third year of my Ph.D. studies at Harvard. My first attack came suddenly, with no warning signs, on the morning I was supposed to have administered the final exam for one of my very first classes. Thanks to good medical care, and careful control of what I eat, the condition went into remission and was mostly dormant for several years, but it took a bad turn in autumn 2012, and another very bad turn in October 2015, which is when the pelvic damage reached its present level. From October 2015 through June 2017, almost half my days were “pain days,” i.e. days I am in too much pain to do anything but lie down. If I’m strong enough to, I usually watch Shakespeare DVDs, my way of at least doing some primary source research on Renaissance history even when I’m too weak to read or type.

Despite my disability, I have managed, over the past few years, to accomplish many things: publishing award-winning academic articles and my book on Lucretius in the Renaissance, securing a tenure track job at the  University of Chicago, composing and recording CDs of my music, and publishing science fiction novels which have now received the warmest welcome to the field I could imagine: the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook award for best first novel, and finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But the nasty flare-up that ate so much of 2015-2017 is the real reason that I haven’t posted to this blog much recently, and that the new Sassafrass CD still isn’t done, and that I didn’t do a “blog tour” for the release of my second novel, and that book four Terra Ignota still isn’t done, and that, for the first time, I’ve had to pull out of some academic publications I’d promised to be part of, and turn down invitations that my younger self could never imagine turning down. With more and more opportunities opening before me, one of the hardest parts of living with this disability is learning to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile things because I need to save those extra days, not for projects, but for pain.

What I have done, what I am doing, I am not doing alone. I have had so many kinds of help from so many people. They were who my speech last night was supposed to be about, because if there is a triumph here, it is the triumph of what can happen when a community of warm, generous people come together. So there was a long list of people I was planning to thank in my speech. I have incredibly supportive parents, Doug and Laura Palmer — thanks to them, I’ve never had to doubt that, when I need help, it will be there. That feeling of safety is invaluable.  I also have incredibly supportive housemates Michael Mellas, Lauren Schiller, and Jonathan Sneed, who step up to take care of me when I’m incapacitated, and remind me to take my meds, and often notice before I do when I’m too weak and need to rest, and mean that I never have to push past my limits the way I would if I were alone. I have other friends who’ve helped in so many ways: Carl Engle-Laird, Lila Garrott, Irina Greenman, Jo Walton, and so many more. I have supportive communities:  my college science fiction clubs, Double Star at Bryn Mawr and HRSFA at Harvard, my childhood local convention Balticon, and the broader science fiction fan community and filk community. I have the numerous convention staff, liaisons, and friends who have known about my condition for years and been my “spotters” in case I had flare-ups at conventions, and who have kindly honored my request to keep it private. I have colleagues and administrators at my university who instantly rose to the occasion when I brought my condition to their attention, and let me know that if at any time I felt I could no longer handle my teaching duties, they could put things in place to relieve me within 24 hours. I have a team of the best doctors in the world at the University of Chicago Hospitals. (At the risk of making this even more political, I have the larger team who went to bat for America’s health care this year, and preserved the protections without which I could not afford the medications which are finally making my pain days less frequent, and my teaching and writing possible.)

As an author, I’ve had a world class team, too. My agents, Amy Boggs and Cameron McClure, put their all into both disseminating the books and protecting them. My editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, always does everything he can to give me the flexibility I need, and his indispensable assistant, Anita Okoye, makes the process run on time. My publicist, Diana Griffin, gets the word out that the book exists, without which it would never reach the readers who are the most important part of all this. My amazing cover artist Victor Mosquera whose covers keep stunning me every time I look at them again. Other friends at Tor and Tor.com help with advice and insights: Miriam Weinberg, Irene Gallo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. My UK publishing team at Head of Zeus is also fantastic and I can’t wait to do more projects with them.

Nothing means more to me than the opportunity to pay it forward, to build on the immense generosity of everyone who has helped and given me so much, and to give back, through my teaching, my books, my blogging, every conversation, every day. So above all, I want everyone to know that everything I’ve produced, and everything I will produce during my life, living with this condition, is the fruit of the gifts of kindness, large and small, that I have received from so many, many people. Thank you.

Jul 072017
 

I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.

I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one.  I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next.  And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult.  And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.

But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay.  I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award.  Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?”  So this is how I got to Someday.

 

The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.

by Ada Palmer, 2016

Some people say revenge is living well –
I’ve found it sometimes works to go away
And be more awesome. Let him sit alone,
To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.

-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.

The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.

It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016).  I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog.  It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies.  Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising).  During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family.  The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list.  In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo.  One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them.  In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal.  Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer.  “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails.  Jo looked at me very seriously.  “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”

I did make a blog.  (This blog.)

In three months, it was in the sidebar of Making Light.

In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.

In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.

My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office.  I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones.  I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague.  Then I should give up?  Then I was a failure?  Then I should curse the heavens?  It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was.  He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve.  It took real time.  Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning.  I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.

In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers.  I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets.  I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters.  I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going.  And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!”  Thank you.  After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent.  She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.

I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet.  Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three.  Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years.  Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot.  Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship.  The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite.  Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much.  But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.

Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D.  The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper.  Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful.  Lightning.  I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting.  I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College).  F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability.  I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.

I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school.  Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping.  I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard.  And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor.  The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble.  Plus, I had an ‘in’.  There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections.  (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)

After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile.  This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever.  That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier.  I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query.  (Roll for nepotism!  Did it achieve anything?  Not really!)  On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months!  Such professionalism!  Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing.  I sent it right away.  I waited.  I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck).  I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases.  I stayed up nights.  Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach.  In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it.  We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.

That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog.  Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.

There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch.  It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much.  But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?”  You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant.  And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much.  So much they lie awake at night.  There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate.  So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript.  Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten!  In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him.  But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.

And I waited.  And I lay awake at night.  On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up.  I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t.  Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2.  And Book 3.  So many heartfelt eggs in that basket.  Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago.  (Where I teach history of magic. Really.)  I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009.  Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out.  But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.

In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning.  One page down, 333 to go.  That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep.  As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then.  This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.

I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me.  (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house?  Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity!  Win-win!).  The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing.  I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came.  She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.”  I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.”  Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!”  A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”

Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia.  I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES!  I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant Tor.com, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs.  I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.”  Lila glowed.

After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have.  I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick.  But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either.  And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers.  That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish.  In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?”  We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth.  I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career.  Audition?  I would have begged!

Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend.  I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair.  Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him.  It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream.  No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream.  I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream.  I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!).  But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream.  Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query.  And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since).  It was that I set forth to be more awesome.  I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog.  I made my fire burn bright in the dark.  People do see.

From The Usual Path to Publication, ed. Shannon Page, Book View Café, 2016.
Jan 042017
 

shipmoonsmallIs progress inevitable? Is it natural?  Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?  Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.

There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self.  I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing.  I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.  That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.

Two threads, which I will later bring together.  Thread one: progress.  Thread two: historical agency.

Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It

“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion.  This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:

516xicub3rl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.

In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.

Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism.  But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.

Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition.  The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures.  But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.”  When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.

Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced  the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.”  In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).

519c24aawxl-_sx321_bo1204203200_To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies.  This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today.  Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.”  Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out.  Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.

Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people.  An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people.  Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420.  Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them.  I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.

These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.

Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby.  Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason.  (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative.  While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.

So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?

And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?

I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.

Part 2: A Brief History of Progress

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.

Let me unpack that.

francis-bacon-advancement-proficiencie-learning

Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated.  There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things.  In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.

Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation.  It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future.  Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same.  None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread.  Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.

Dante learning about the causes and effects of history... by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven.

Dante learning about the causes and effects of history… by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven about God’s plan. (Spot-the-Saint fans should recognize members of a certain monastic order.)

Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects.  Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression.  Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example.  According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory).  The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls.  Applause.

Did the Renaissance have progress?  No.  Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening.  But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too.  The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s.  Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age.  Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one.  The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level.  That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires.  Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.

Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.

9781617207990

Bacon visualized the scientific project as the launching of a ship.

If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed.  We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own.  There are — he said — three kinds of scholar.  There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing.  There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver.  And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world.  Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits.  Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.

Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.

“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”

It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.

Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies.  We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God.  There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs.  He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so.  He gave us Reason.  So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire.  God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.

They believed him.

And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…

An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) 18th-century electrostatic generator.

An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) early 19th-century electrostatic generator. It sure does… demonstrate electrostatics.

I’m going to tangent for a moment.  It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful.  There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles.  Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something.  I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.

…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes.  In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology.  Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology!  It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society?  Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!”  Except that sentence took three hundred years.

But!

We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones.  Like Thomas Hobbes.  And the Terror phase of the French Revolution.  And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread…  And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.

Part 3: Progresses

bigstock-back-view-image-of-businessman-45911515We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did.  There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.”  We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.

Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things.  It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?”  This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.

But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful?  Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?”  In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?

I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one.  The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense.  But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”).  This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.

First we have watched the last several centuries.  For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness.  Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better.  Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language.  Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.

main-qimg-d6897a0683ff024256df21c0489f9d30We have also broadened progress.  For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind.  It was good.  It was new.  And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept.  If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No.  We’re starting to have progress right now.”  And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new.  But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.”  Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this.  Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world.  So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.

As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?”  Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not.  In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history.  Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed.  Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”

Now I’m going to show you two maps.

gpw_count_2010d_psd

This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness.  The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green.  This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.

Now:

world-ooze-population-shown-pointing-down

This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.

Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation.  Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.

Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change.  Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.

In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries.  Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong.  But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change.  And there has been some honey.  We need ways to talk about that.

But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)

And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?

modern-times

Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?

Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016.  Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings.  They ask:  Am I powerless?  Can I personally do anything to change this?  Do individuals have any power to shape history?  Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces?  Are we just cogs in the machine?  What changes history?

Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.

Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history.  Let’s call that Great Forces history.  Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history.  When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the most infamous of the many bouts of urban violence which characterized the French Wars of Religion

Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable.  It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences.  In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes.  These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now.  That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)

But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?

hamilton-the-musical-official-broadway-posterHistory departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world.  Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much.  Histories of agents, of people who changed the world.  Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real.  I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.

This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous.  The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture.  Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance.  Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.

But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true.  Are hope.

So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.

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Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016

Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope.  And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe.  Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”

Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor

Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor

Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy.  Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now.  Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones.  And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.

There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes.  I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome.  I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions.  I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did.  I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.

I have now run the simulation four times.  Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces.  The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together.  And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close.  And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.

And the war is Always. Totally. Different.

The newly-elected pope holds a secret meeting with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy

The new pope meets in secret with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy

Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing.  Sometimes France invades Spain.  Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire.  Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy.  Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy.  Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.

So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no.  Because the Great Forces always push the same way.  The strong factions are strong.  Money is power.  Blood is thicker than promises.  Virtue is manipulable.  In the end, a bad man will be pope.  And he will do bad things.   The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn.  But the details are always different.  A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall.  And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B.  And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs.  That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade?  Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies?  Who gets to be King of Naples?  These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.

After the war, cardinals petition the pope for final favors

As war wracks Italy and Spain, Cardinals petition the pope to forgive their offenses and condemn their enemies.

Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most.  That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.”  And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed?  They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together.  They strike.  The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies.  The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions.  The armies clash.  One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.

We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation.  The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable.  The dam was about to break.  No one could stop it.  But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real.  The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage.  No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst.  Not all, but most.

And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.

This is how both kinds of history are true.  There are Great Forces.  Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace.  But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world.  We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.

So, can human beings control progress?  Yes and no.

Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century

My favorite fish, Orochimaru. He has long since, as we say in my household "gone the way of all fish."

My favorite fish, Orochimaru, a beautiful black veil tale angel.  He has long since, as we say in my household “gone the way of all fish.”

Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.

You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine.  You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others.  Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die.  Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick!  So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die.  Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.

What’s happening?  The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life.  The system is more complex than it seems.  A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it.  The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish.  The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna.  A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.

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The One Laptop Per Child program may be the single initiative in Earth’s history-so-far which will trigger the most cultural change. We have no idea what the real effects will be, only that they will be massive. Will they be good? Yes. Bad? Realistically also yes — a mixture, as with all great changes.

So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily.   No.  These movements have done wonders, achieved tons!  But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences.  They have added something to the fish tank.  Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote.  And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.

Medieval bloodletting. Something we genuinely have improved on!

Medieval bloodletting. Something we have genuinely, usefully improved on!

But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong?  No.  I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank.  Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement.  Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system.  And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own.  Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually.  Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.

Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Yes.
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Yes.
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Yes.
Is that still progress?
Yes.
Why?

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Map of the world by increases in life expectancy since 1972. One of many attempts to create new, better metrics for discussing progress.

Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history.  If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies.  Metrics like infant mortality.  Metrics like malnutrition.  Metrics like the frequency of massacres.  We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system.  One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?”  The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%.  But it’s also not 90%.  That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm.  That is progress.  That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things.  And they were right.  While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible.  They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline.  At least that’s our aim.  And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.

Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.

The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s.  That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel.  It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.

progress-003The phenomenon is also real.  My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history.  I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life.  But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:

Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us.  In fact, it is nothing but us.

Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.

We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.

Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. We are still using and improving on the Sisyphus image too, finding new ways it can help us understand our world.

Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. Still a very useful way of describing how progress often feels.

Zooming back in hurts.  It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.

The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders.  The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started.  But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?

Because society is a very complicated fish tank.  Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.

But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.

Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse.  That they are better now.  Progress is real.  That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance.  And a next.  And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness.  And that’s how I think progress really works.

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Map of the Earth showing online social interaction between cities, 2016.

And as promised, more citations on the demographics of religious violence in France, with thanks to Brian Sandberg:

  • Brian Sandberg, Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
  • Philip Benedict, “The Huguenot Population of France, 1600-85,” in The Faith and Fortunes of France’s Huguenots, 1600-85 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 39-42, 92-95.
  • Arlette Jouanna, La France du XVIe siècle, 1483-1598 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996), 325-340.
  • Jacques Dupâquier, ed., De la Renaissance à 1789, vol. 2 of Histoire de la population française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), 81-94.
  • Historical Perspectives – Brian Sandberg’s blog
  • Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog
May 062016
 

TooLikeLightning_coverHello, friends & readers.  This is a quick update to share links to a couple short essays I’ve written for other blogs.

My first science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning comes out very soon now, May 10th!  Initial reviews and reactions have been extremely enthusiastic, and these days Twitter sometimes feels like a surreal dream, with authors I’ve admired deeply for years gushing over… me?  (Karl Schroeder: “most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years.” Ken Liu: “reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.” Max Gladstone: “I’m kind of in love with this book.” Fran Wilde: “Too Like the Lightning = AMAZEBALLS! GET! READ!”)

In honor of the occasion (and to help pre-orders & first week sales which can do so much for a new author!) I’ve been asked to write a bunch of short guest blog pieces which I hope you’ll enjoy.  You can also read the first four chapters up on Tor.com.

On SF Signal I have talked “Middle Future Science Fiction” i.e.  SF set later than near future but while the majority of human culture is still on Earth, and why I think this is an exciting and new space for speculative fiction. Take-home quote: “We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.”

On the Tor/Forge publisher blog meanwhile I have a piece on “World Building like a Historian” about how my historical training helps me build a future which is rooted, not only in the present, but in the past.  Take-home quote: “All humanity’s presents have been full of the past, for as long as there has been a historical record. So if there’s one safe bet we can make about the future, it’s that it will be full of the past too.”

Ten or so more guest blog pieces will be going up over the next weeks, many of which I’m very proud of, and I’ll gather and post links here. Meanwhile reviews on Barnes & NobleFantasy Literature and Romantic Times (<=best ever plot summary!) do a much better job describing the book than I can manage.

Here on Ex Urbe, with readers who know me well through my essays and travels, I can describe it a different way.  I’ve poured myself into this book. This is the real thing, the centerpiece.  You’ve seen my essays here.  You’ve seen my love of craftsmanship, and rhetoric, of playful structures and framing twists, describing a stick in water as the “antagonist” or suddenly letting Descartes stray into a dialog with Socrates.  You’ve also seen the depth of my empathy, my Machiavelli series which so many readers have written in to say moved them to tears, and moved me to tears too as I wrote it.  I love essay writing, and history writing, but every bit of skill I have at it, every hour I’ve put in, I’ve put in for the novels.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship.”  That was the best and most important piece of advice I got from my favorite writing professor when I started college.  He was right, and I took him seriously, wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, did extra drafts beyond what class required, spent my summers and my breaks taking more writing classes.  Hours and hours and hours.  I love writing nonfiction, and I love writing essays, but it was these stories, the ones I wanted to tell in the novels which kept the fire burning through a long, long apprenticeship.  Too Like the Lightning isn’t an easy book and it’s not for everyone.  It takes a lot of concentration, reading with your brain at your best.   It takes skill at reading genre fiction, at picking out the puzzle pieces of world building and piecing them together, which can be difficult if you aren’t used to reading in the genre.  It takes patience as you watch very complicated things play out as fast as I could make them when you need to know so much to understand.  It takes trust as the narrator and narrative take twists or show idiosyncrasies whose true purpose may not be clear until the end (or until the next book, which comes in December).  I hate spoilers, and hate recommendations that give half the story away, and believe strongly that the very best recommendation is simply “You’ll like it, trust me” from a friend who knows me very well.  So I’m not going to talk about the plot and themes and characters, since Romantic Times does that much that better than I can.  I will just say that this book may be for you, if you like philosophy, and history, and challenging books that really stretch your mind, and new ideas about society and culture, and my essays here are a good sample.  But you have to enjoy and be able to handle challenging world building.  And above all you have to be willing to trust me, the author, that all the threads will come together, and that in the end the tapestry will be beautiful, the kind of tapestry I can only weave if you give me four books, 700,000 words, a lot more time and trust than I have with my essays here. I will absolutely keep writing essays for Ex Urbe (no worries there!), but if you have enjoyed them, then you may enjoy the real work they were practice for.  It comes out in five days; hard to believe it’s real.

Meanwhile, the primary reason it’s been so very long since I wrote a proper Ex Urbe entry is simple: a fire at the end of February drove me from my home. Happily no family members (or books!) were harmed, but the complications of temporary quarters, construction and insurance have eaten the few hours research that already consumed by research and preparing for the book launch.  I’m still struggling my way out from under the to-do mountain that has caused, but as I make my way out Ex Urbe is starting to get toward the top of the pile again, and I’m really, deeply looking forward to finishing the essay I did manage to start in February before fire became more than a metaphor.  Meanwhile I’ll post here when new guest blog pieces go up.  And I’ll try to write another little piece next week to share my feelings when the day comes.  May 10th.  Five days.  So many, many years… five days!

Too Like the Lightning is available through Powell’sBarnes & Noble (also on nook), Amazon, Kobo, Indiebound, Goodreads, and your own wonderful local bookstore which is always great to support!

Meanwhile, for general human edification, here are some photos of fascinating plants with cards explaining their interesting historic uses, which I got to see at the botanical gardens in Sydney Australia, where I was for a conference last month.  (Did I mention I’ve been overwhelmingly busy?)

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Feb 102016
 
The Page Proofs are Here!

The Page Proofs are Here!

Some announcements, and a small fun thing to share. First, I have written an essay on Plato, historicity and metaphysics, based on my experiences teaching the Republic to undergraduates and responding to Jo Walton’s The Just City. It is up on Crooked Timber as part of a set of responses to The Just City, and the essay has plenty of elements to enjoy even if you haven’t read the book.

Second, due to a recent policy change in Italy’s national museums I was able to finally take literally thousands of photos of artifacts and spaces in museums that have been forbidden to cameras for years. I’ve started sharing the photos on Twitter (#historypix) so follow me on Twitter if you would enjoy random photos of cool historical artifacts twice a day.

arcsMeanwhile I don’t yet have another full essay ready to post here, but I’m happy to say the reason is that I’m working away on the page proofs of Too Like the Lightningthe final editing step before the books go to press. I’ve even received a photo from my editor of the Advanced Release Copies for book reviewers sitting in a delicious little pile!  It’s fun seeing how many different baby steps the book is taking on its long path to becoming real: cover art, page count, typography, physicality in many stages, first the pre-copy-edit Advanced Bound Manuscripts, then the post-copy-edit but pre-page-proof Advanced Release Copies, evolving toward the final hardcover transformation by transformation.  My biggest point of suspense at this point is wondering how fat it will be, how heavy in the hand…

And now, a quick piece of history fun:

There is a dimly-lit hallway half way through the Vatican museum (after you’ve looked at 2,000 Roman marbles, 1,000 Etruscan vases and enough overwhelming architecture to make you start feeling slightly punchy) hung on the left-hand side with stunning tapestries of scenes from the life of Christ based on cartoons by Raphael. But on the right-hand side in the same hallway, largely ignored by the thousands of visitors who stumble through, is my favorite Renaissance tapestry cycle, a sequence of images of The Excessively Exciting Life of Pope Urban VIII.  My best summary of these images is that, when I showed them to my excellent friend Jonathan (author of our What Color is Pluto? guest post) he scratched his chin and said, “I think the patronage system may have introduced some bias.”  And it’s very true, these are an amazing example of Renaissance art whose sole purpose is excessive flattery of the patron, a genre common in all media: histories, biographies, dedications, sculptures, paintings, verses, and, in this case, thread.

These tapestries are fragile and quite faded, and the narrow hallway thronging with Raphael-admirers makes it awkward to get a good angle, but with much effort I think these capture the over-the-top absurdity which makes these tapestries such a delight. Urban VIII now is best known for engaging in unusually complicated military and political maneuvering, expanding and fortifying the papal territories, pushing fiercely against Hapsburg expansion into Italy, finishing the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola, persecuting Galileo, commissioning a lot of Bernini sculptures, and spending so much on military and artistic expenses that he got the papacy so head over heels in debt that the Roman people hated him, the Cardinals conspired to depose him (note: it usually takes a few high-profile murders and/or orgies to get them to do that, so this was a LOT of debt), and his successor was left spending 80% of the Vatican’s annual income on interest repayments alone.  But let’s see what scenes from his life he himself wanted us to remember:

My favorite is the first: Angels and Muses descend from Heaven to attend the college graduation of young Maffeo Barberini (not yet pope Urban VIII) and give him a laurel crown. If all graduation ceremonies were this exciting, we’d never miss them! Also someone there has a Caduceus, some weird female version of Hermes? Hard to say. And look at the amazing fabric on the robe of the man overseeing the ceremony.

UrbanVIIIGraduatesFromCollege

Second, Maffeo Barberini receives the Cardinal’s Hat, attended by an angel, while Pope Paul V who is giving him the hat points in a heavy-handed foreshadowing way to his own pope hat nearby. What could it mean?!

UrbanVIIICreatedCardinal

Next, the fateful election! Heavenly allegories of princely virtues come to watch as the wooden slips are counted and the vote counter is astonished by the dramatic result! Note how, propaganda aside, this is useful for showing us what the slips looked like.

UrbanVIIIIsElectedPope

In the one above I particularly like the guy who’s peering into the goblet to make absolutely sure no slips are stuck there:

Untitled-1

On the other side of the same scene, our modest Urban VIII is so surprised to be elected he practically swoons! And even demands a recount, while the nice acolyte kneels before him with the (excessively heavy) papal tiara on a silver platter.

UrbanVIIITotallySurprisedToBeElectedPopeSmall

Now Urban’s adventures as pope! He breaks ground for new construction projects in Rome, attended by some floating cupid creature holding a book for the flying allegorical heart of the city:

UrbanVIIIFoundsNewSaintPeters

He builds new fortresses to defend Rome:

UrbanVIIIBuildsANewFortress

He makes peace between allegorical ladies representing Rome and Etruria (the area right next to Rome: note, if there is strife between Rome and Etruria in the first place, things in Italy are VERY VERY BAD! But the tapestries aren’t going into that):

UrbanVIIIMakesPeaceBetweenRomeAndEtruria

And finally, Urban VIII defends Rome from Famine and Plague by getting help from St. Peter, St. Paul, Athena, and St. Sebastian. Well done, your Holiness!

UrbanVIIISavesRomeFromFamineAndPlague

How about that for the exciting life of a late Renaissance pope? You get to hang out with lots of allegorical figures, and vaguely pagan deities as well as saints,  and everyone around you is always gesturing gracefully! No matter they fought so hard for the papal tiara. Also, no bankers or moneylenders or interest repayment to be found!

Urban VIII also has a delightfully recognizable coat of arms, the Barberini Bees! Look for them all over Rome, especially Saint Peters'

Urban VIII also has a delightfully recognizable coat of arms, the Barberini Bees! Look for them all over Rome, especially Saint Peters’

More seriously, another century’s propaganda rarely makes it into our canon of what art is worth reproducing, teaching and discussing, but I often find this kind of artifact much more historically informative than most: we can learn details of clothing, spaces and items like how papers are folded, or what voting slips looked like. We can learn which acts a political figure wanted to be remembered for, what seemed important at the time, so different from what we remember. A tapestry of him canonizing St. Ignatius of Loyola would certainly be popular now, but in his day people cared more about immediate military matters, and he had no way to predict how important St. Ignatius would eventually become.  Pieces like this are also a good way to remind ourselves that the Renaissance art we usually see on calendars and cell phone cases isn’t representative, it’s our own curated selection of that tiny venn diagram intersection of art that fits the tastes of BOTH then AND now.  And a good reminder that we should always attend graduation ceremonies, since you never know when Angels and Muses might descend from Heaven to attend.

Now, back to the Page Proofs!

So Much Shakespeare!

 Posted by on January 25, 2016  Uncategorized  15 Responses »
Jan 252016
 

RIII-and-Queen-Anne-Neville-Cardiff-CastleI am posting mainly to announce that I have a new essay up on Tor.com, “How Pacing Turns History into Story: Shakespeare’s Henriad and the White Queen TV.”  I’ve been doing preliminary work for this new post for 2 years now (by preliminary work I mean watching masses of Shakespeare over and over), and it follows up on my earlier posts about historical TV series, “How History can be Used in Fiction: The Borgias vs. Borgia: Faith & Fear” and “The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare’s Histories in the Age of Netflix.

Separately, in case anyone missed it, I also had a shorter piece up on Tor.com on December 1st, an obituary honoring Japan’s Folklore Chronicler Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015), a great folktale collector, war historian and manga author. Even if you aren’t interested in manga/anime, I recommend glancing at it to learn about his powerful contributions to anthropology, folklore preservation, and post-WWII peace efforts.  Meanwhile…

shakecoll_dvd_300Too Much Shakespeare?

It’s been an odd experience, but I have been watching pretty-much no media that isn’t Shakespeare for 2 years.  I’ve made exceptions for the kinds of ubiquitous media (i.e. Star Wars) which are bare minimums for keeping current in nerd culture, but between my transition to Chicago and looming novel revisions there hasn’t been time for anything else. It’s fascinating observing what that’s done to my brain, shifting my entertainment expectations. I’ve joked a couple times that, “Now when I try other TV it just isn’t as good as Shakespeare,” but it’s more complex than that, and there are certainly sections of Shakespeare–a bad, un-funny production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, or the second half of Timon of Athens–which do not shine in contrast with today’s best TV. I discuss most of my observations in my Tor essay, but my main observations are these:

First, people don’t say very much in current TV, at least in drama. Lots of screen time is devoted to vistas, establishing shots, standing there looking cool, and to gazing dramatically at one another. A giant, long-awaited confrontation or confession scene will still often only involve ten or fifteen lines of dialog at most, leaving my Shakespeare-saturated brain demanding, “Tell him more! Tell her more! Tell me more! Ask questions! Explain your reasoning! Say what you really think!” It’s amazing to me how many conflicts in the few TV dramas I have watched recently are caused by Character A facing Character B and announcing “I want X” and Character B responding, “I oppose X so now we’re enemies,” and the viewer knows the real reasons both characters want these things and that if Character A would just tell Character B her/his thought process they would reach a compromise, but they don’t because they don’t explain, and don’t ask. I think such scenes are aiming at sympathetic tragedy, the viewer realizing that all the strife to come is the result of a misunderstanding, and making it easy for the viewer to sympathize with both sides. Over and over, five minutes’ more conversation would mean no one has to die. With the exception of Othello, Hamlet and some moments in the comedies, Shakespeare’s characters generally explain their why in addition to their what, but Shakespeare then makes the conflicts insoluble all the way down, so the tragedy feels grand and fated, not just a product of accident and misunderstanding. An interesting shift in storytelling technique, and possibly in how we think about conflict. In general, though, it means that I feel I know the characters a lot less well in modern TV than I do in Shakespeare, where they have unpacked their thoughts at length. The silence and dramatic gazes are partly in service of giving the audience a chance to gaze at CG backgrounds and beautiful TV stars–not generally a goal in Shakespeare productions–but I wonder whether it also facilitates the practices of fan culture and fan fiction, defining the characters less well and leaving more of a blank slate for the viewer to imagine the details of personality and motivation, to make the character their own.

My second observation is this: Shakespeare’s Histories are so good! So so good! Even the ones people say aren’t very good are good! My Tor essay explains more, and how to get a hold of them, but I cannot overstate how good the (frustratingly hard to find) Jane Howell productions of Henry VI and Richard III are!

And since they are hard to get a hold of, I want to discuss a few aspects of the Jane Howell productions here, not going on about the acting (absolutely stunning!) or the script and plot of the plays themselves (how can these be considered among his weaker plays?!?!) but about the powerful staging and production choices of this unique performance of the three parts of Henry VI plus Richard III, the four consecutive plays performed and filmed (as they should be!) as a single unit.

HenryVICoverHow Great is Jane Howell’s Henry!

I talked in my essay about the Borgias about how sometimes historical TV can have a conflict between communication and accuracy, in which showing things precisely as they were won’t necessarily communicate successfully to the audience. Another impediment to accuracy is budget, at least in earlier decades when TV did not have the opulent effects and costume budgets that recent historical dramas have enjoyed. Working on a BBC budget in 1982-3, Jane Howell and her team absolutely understood the choice between accuracy and communication, and chose communication.

The costumes are not accurate in materials and construction, but are incredibly accurate in what they get across.

For the costumes of court, the patterns are period but the fabrics, instead of being budget-breaking silks and velvets, are over the top, layering brightly patterned floral upholstery-type fabrics one upon another in an overwhelming way-too-much mass of opulence. The effect is more effective at communicating than accurate period costume would be, since with accurate stuff we would sit back gazing, “Ooooh, pretty… I wish I lived in an era when people wore beautiful clothes,” but instead these costumes communicate a sharper message, “Wow, those are way too much, too opulent… this court life is too lavish and corrupt, it needs to change.” We feel the right things, the foreshadowing of instability and radical transformation, even if these costumes don’t belong in any history textbook.

Images from the production are scarce online, but this is a pretty good example.

Images from the production are scarce online, but this is a pretty good example.

For the armor, the production uses padded armor, almost like one wears for combat sports, brightly painted with the coats of arms of the different sides.

Dauphin

Armor

It makes it easy to keep people straight, and see at a glance which nobles are related to which other nobles (like the many cousins of the French royal house above), while keeping everything within budget. And the armor evolves over time, more complex helmets and metal studded surfaces coming in only in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, invoking the real advances in armor technology that happened in those decades, more effectively than the real armor would since a modern eye is untrained in the subtleties of armor design.

Armor has advanced by Henry IV Part 3

Armor has advanced by the time we meet the Sons of York in Henry IV Part 3

The set too makes virtue of economy. The four films are shot on a single set, a large, colorful, wooden playground, like a kids’ play castle, with turrets, doorways, ladders, climbing nets and connecting bridges, all brightly painted, cheerful reds, yellows, blues. It makes the first battles feel intentionally light and playful, like children playing at knights and kings.

BBC_Henry_VI,_Part_1 Armor

This sets up the viewer’s expectations of a “battle” as light and playful, as the first few conflicts have nothing but wrestling, or a little bit of stage blood smeared across a heroic cheek. But the Wars of the Roses are all about things getting worse, the violence escalating, the destruction mounting. The fourth battle has more blood, more victims. We see bodies. The fifth battle, the sixth, more bodies, gore smeared across young flesh, screams, fire. The violence is still just twenty actors on a wooden set but it feels viscerally more horrible because it escalated from something so light, and is thus more upsetting than many realistic high-budget battle scenes. And the set changes, or rather doesn’t changes. It gets bloodsmeared, smashed by invaders, charred, stained. And they don’t clean it. Scene by scene we watch England ruined:

York and his sons before a charred and soot-smeared ruin of what came before.

York and prepares to make his attempt to conquer the soot-smeared ruin of what came before.

Mourning Henry VI late in his life surveys his blackened, ruined kingdom.

Grieving Henry VI late in his life surveys his blackened, ruined kingdom.

Like the battles, because the set was so stylized to begin with, its transformation–the ruins and desolation–fells far more absolute and thus far more compelling than if we saw realistic battle effects on real countryside. England has been ruined by these selfish wars, economically, culturally, populations wiped out, and all the unspoken suffering of peasants and townsfolk is present in those charred and blackened sets without adding a word. And then when the wars are finally over, and there is peace, and Richard starts the conflict up again… the horror of it, war coming back again, is so heartbreaking.

Economy also becomes a virtue in–believe it or not–casting, as Jane Howell reuses actors in multiple roles, but not just for efficiency’s sake. She cultivates intertextuality, reusing actors as characters who echo, or ironically reverse, or otherwise connect to their other parts. Here’s one concise example: Henry VI Part 1 begins with three messengers arriving with bad news from France. First Messenger reports that Henry V’s conquests in France have suffered heavy losses, many cities taken by rebelling French, all because the nobility of England are divided into many factions, arguing with each other, unable to unite to send support and direction to the English forces in France. And this herald of the dire consequences of weak rule and factionalism is the actor who (seven hours later) will be Edward IV, the weak and imprudent son of York who will be thrust to the throne by this same factionalism and cause the worst of the civil wars because of his rashness. Then Second Messenger enters with more bad news from France, of enemies uniting, the various French powers drawing together on the far shore–and this actor will be York’s second son, Clarence, who will eventually be a linchpin of that deadly alliance of the French King with Margaret and Warwick which will such a terrible force against war-scarred England. Enter Third Messenger, to tell of a fierce battle between the French and the valiant English Lord Talbot, a small and unhandsome knight but terrifying in battle, who makes a fierce last stand against the overwhelming force, “Hundreds he sent to Hell, and none durst stand him;/ Here, there, and every where, enraged he flew:/ The French exclaim’d, the devil was in arms!” This messenger will eventually be Richard III, and here is describing his own hellish ferocity, and foretelling his own death, which–eleven hours later–precisely matches the details of this first description.

One last detail about the production which is

Henry VI Part 1 begins with the funeral of Henry V, and the Jane Howell version begins with a song (not in Shakespeare’s text) which is a prayer to the ghost of King Henry. The text is period, pre-Shakespeare in fact, probably dating from the reign of Edward IV or Richard III (see a slightly useful reference), and an amazing example of what I have talked about when discussing the Medieval concept of “Grace” and the court of Heaven, how saints were thought of as residents of a royal court, full of “Grace” which (from Latin, gratias) can be translated as “political influence” i.e. having the ear of the King (God/Christ) or Queen (Mary) and the ability to persuade them to help a poor petitioner, just as nobles could persuade earthly monarchs. Look at this text, how it seeks to remind ghostly Henry

Oh Gracious king, so full of virtue
The flower of knighthood, ne’er defiled
Now pray for us to Christ Jesu
And to his mother Mary mild.
In all thy works wast never wild
But full of grace and charity,
Merciful ever to man and child.
Now, sweet King Henry, pray for me.

Oh crowned king, with scepter in hand,
Most mighty conqueror I thee call,
For thou hast conquered, I understand,
A heavenly kingdom imperial,
Where joy aboundeth and grace perpetual,
In presence of the One In Three.
Now of thy grace make me a part,
And, sweet King Henry, pray for me.

Powerful. But even more powerful is the context Jane Howell places it in. This text is not a prayer to Henry V. It is a prayer to Henry VI. Best guess (I haven’t worked in depth on the sources) it would have been written by a supporter after Henry’s death, used secretly under his Yorkish successors, a prayer to the spirit of the famously pious, mild and charitable king, whose conquests are spiritual not Earthly, to be sung or chanted by a former supporter still trapped on the imperfect Earth. Jane Howell places the song at the beginning of Henry VI, foretelling the end, and has it sung by the actor who plays King Henry himself, who is thus singing his own dirge, addressed as a plea of help to his lost, heroic father.  Of course, we who just watched the main Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V) know that our roguish Prince Hal cannot be described by “in all thy works wast never wild”. This dirge is young King Henry VI’s prayer to the imagined spirit of the father he never knew, a hope for heavenly aid from a pious ghostly king which will not exist until he himself dies and becomes it. Amazing.

AnneMourningRichard

Lady Anne mourning King Henry VI, his death prefigured so long before.

And ALL the acting is SO INCREDIBLY BRILLIANT. Especially Richard. And everyone else. And Richard.

Those are just my thoughts on the production, which I really cannot praise enough. For more general discussion of the Henriad itself (and ways to get to see it) see the Tor.com essay.

FYI sadly the easiest way (though it isn’t easy at all!) to get the Jane Howell productions is to buy the complete DVD boxset, hard to get anywhere but Amazon or from the BBC direct) but (if you’re in the US) it requires a Region Free DVD Player as well. Still, it’s a good price for 37 plays, and includes many other treasures including Jane Howell’s Titus Andronicus, and many other great productions and fantastic actors including Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Jonathan Pryce, Zoë Wanamaker, Robert Hardy and others, plus you get to see all the weird plays like Troilus & Cressida that no one puts on.  (And Jack Birkett as Thersides is amazing!)  Alternately, you can get the individual plays in a special educational-use region 1 DVD format for $39.99 each (alas) from Ambrose Video, an educational video supplier, but getting all four of the Jane Howell sequence costs practically as much as getting the full boxset and the region free DVD player, so you may as well get the box to enjoy the other 33 plays, unless your priority is to have a copy you can lend to friends who don’t have a special player.  Jane Howell’s brilliant Richard III also appears in the $70 Region 1 BBC Shakespeare Histories boxset, along with the BBC Histories’ excellent Richard II and okay Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, but the boxset contains only those five plays, skipping the three parts of Henry VI, clearly because the boxset was edited by Iago, who wants to keep us all from having nice things).  Thus the most affordable way to have a full region 1 set is to get the Histories box for your two Richards, and the three Ambrose Video discs of Henry VI, which gives you all eight, though I recommend topping it off with (my recommended productions) the magnificent Globe Henry IV Part 1, Part 2, and Henry Vmore lively and powerful than the ones in the Histories box.

Final note: Yes, I will give Descartes his day in the Skepticism series soon, I promise, just as soon as I’ve prepped my talk on “Renaissance Biographies of Classical Philosophers” and completed a few more work obligations. Happily the supply of hypothetical pastries is infinite.

Oct 312015
 
"My copy doesn't say whether it's Will or Intellect. Does yours?"

“My copy doesn’t say whether it’s Will or Intellect. Does yours?”

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of and Part 3 this series.)

Doubt in the Renaissance and Reformation

My own period I will treat the most briefly in this survey. This may seem like a strange choice, but I can either do a general overview, or get sidetracked discussing individual philosophers, theologians and commentators and their uses of skepticism for another five posts.  So, in brief:

In the later Middle Ages, within the philosophical world, the breadth of disagreement within scholarship, how different the far extreme theories were on any given topic, was rather circumscribed. A good example of a really fractious fight is the question of, within your generally Aristotelian tripartite rational immortal soul, which of the two decision-making principles is more powerful, the Intellect or the Will?  It’s a big and important question – without it we will starve to death like Buridan’s ass, and be unable to decide whether to send our second sons to Franciscan or a Dominican monasteries, plus we need it to understand how Original Sin, Grace and salvation work. But the breadth of answers is not that big, and the question itself presumes that everyone involved already believes 90% the same thing.

Enter Petrarch, “Let’s read the classics! They’ll make us great like the Romans!” Begin 250 years of working really hard to find, copy, correct, translate, edit, print and proliferate every syllable surviving from antiquity. Now we discover that Epicurus says there’s no afterlife and the universe is made of atoms; Stoics say the universe is one giant contiguous object without motion or individual existence; Plato says there’s reincarnation (What?  The Plato we used to have didn’t say that!); and Aristotle totally doesn’t say what we thought he said, it turns out the Organon was a terrible translation (Sorry, Boethius, you did your best, and we love you, but it was a terrible translation.)  Suddenly the palette of questions is much broader, and the degree to which people disagree has opened exponentially wider. If we were charting a solar system before, now we’re charting a galaxy.  But the humanists still tried hard to make them all agree, much as the scholastics and Peter Abelard had, since the ancients were ALL wonderful and ALL brilliant and ALL right, right?  Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff? Hence Renaissance Syncretism, attempts by philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to take all the authors of antiquity, and Aquinas and a few others in the mix, and show how they were all really saying the same thing, in a roundabout, hidden, glorious, elusive, poetic, we-can-make-like-Abelard-and-make-it-all-make-sense way.

Before you dismiss these syncretic experiments as silly, or as slavish toadying, there is a logic to it if you can zoom out from modern pluralistic thinking for a minute and look at what Renaissance intellectuals had to work with.

Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.

Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.

To follow their logic chain you must begin–as they did–by positing that Christianity is true, and there is a single monotheistic God who is the source of all goodness, virtue, and knowledge.  Wisdom, being wise and good at judgment, helps you tell true from false and right from wrong, and what is true and right will always agree with and point toward God.  Therefore all wise people in history have really been aiming toward the same thing–one truth, one source.  Plato and Aristotle and their Criteria of Truth are in the background of this, Plato’s description of the Good which is one divine thing that all reasoning minds tend toward, and Aristotle’s idea that reasoning people (philosophers, scientists) working without error will come to identical conclusions even if they’re on opposite sides of the world, because the knowable categories (fish, equilateral triangle, good) are universal.  Thus, as Plato and Aristotle say we use reason to gradually approach knowledge, all philosophers in history have been working toward the same thing, and differ only in the errors they make along the way.  This is the logic, but they also have evidence, and here you have to remember that Renaissance scholars did not have our modern tools for evaluating chronology and influence.  They looked at early Christian writings, and they looked at Plato and Aristotle, and they said, as we do, “Wow, Plato and Aristotle have a lot of ideas in common with these early Christians!” but while we conclude, “Early Christians sure were influenced by Plato and Aristotle,” they instead concluded, “This proves that Plato and Aristotle were aiming toward the same things as Christianity!”  And they had further evidence from how tangled their chronologies were.   There were certain key texts like the Chaldean Oracles which they thought were much much older than we now think they are, which made it look like ideas we attribute to Plato had independently existed well before Plato.  They looked at Plotinus and other late antique Neoplatonists who mixed Plato and Aristotle but claimed the Aristotelian bits were really hidden inside Plato the whole time, and they concluded, “See, Plato and Aristotle were basically saying the same thing!”  Similarly confusing were the works of the figure we now call Pseudo-Dionysius, who we think was a late antique Neoplatonist voicing a mature hybrid of Platonism and Aristotelianism with some Stoicism mixed in, but who Renaissance scholars believed was a disciple of Saint Paul, leading them to conclude that Saint Paul believed a lot of this stuff, and making it seem even more like Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, ancient mystics, and Christianity were all aiming at one thing.  So any small differences are errors along the way, or resolvable with “sic et non.”

The problem came when they translated more and more texts, and found more contradictions than they could really handle.  Ideas much wilder and more out there than they expected suddenly had authoritative possibly-sort-of-proto-Christian authors endorsing them.  Settled questions were unsettled again, sleeping dragons woken.  For example, it wasn’t until the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513 that the Church officially made belief in the immortality of the soul a required doctrine for all Christians, which does not mean that lots of Christians before 1513 didn’t believe in the afterlife, but that Christians in 1513 were anxious about belief in the afterlife, feeling that it and many other doctrines were suddenly in doubt which had stood un-threatened throughout the Middle Ages.  The intellectual landscape was suddenly bigger and stranger.

Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?

Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?

Remember how I said Cicero would be back? All these humanists read Cicero constantly, including the philosophical dialogs with his approach of presenting different classical sects in dialog, all equally plausible but incompatible, leading to… skepticism.  And as they explored those same sects more and more broadly, Cicero the skeptic became something of the wedge that started to expand the crack, not overtly stating “Hey, guys, these people don’t agree!” but certainly pressing the idea that they don’t agree, in ways which humanists had more and more trouble ignoring as more texts came back.

Aaaaaand the Reformation made this more extreme, a lot more extreme, by (A) generating an enormous new mass of theological claims made by contradictory parties, adding another arm to our galactic spiral, and (B) developing huge numbers of fierce and damning counter-arguments to all these claims, which in turn meant developing new tools for countering and eroding belief.  Thus, as we reach the 1570s, the world of philosophy is a lot bigger, a lot deadlier (as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation killed many more people for their ideas than the Middle Ages did), and a lot scarier, with vast swarms of arguments and counter-arguments, many of them powerful, persuasive, beautifully reasoned, and completely incompatible.  And when you make a beautiful yes-and-no attempt to make Plato and Epicurus agree, you don’t have the men themselves on hand to say “Excuse me, in fact, we don’t agree.”  But you did have real live Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians running around responding to each other in real time, that makes syncretic reconciliation the more impossible.

Wait, the other wall too?!

Wait, the other wall too?!

Remember how Abelard, who able to make St. Jerome and St. Augustine seem to agree, drew followers like Woodstock?  Well, now his successors–Scholastic and Humanist, since the Humanists were all ALSO reading Scholasticism all the time–have a thousand times as many authorities to reconcile.  You think Jerome and Augustine is hard?  Try Calvin and Epicurus!  St. Dominic and Zwingli!  Thomas Aquinas is a saint now, let’s see if you can Yes-and-No the entire Summa Theologica into agreeing with Epictetus, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Council of Trent at the same time! And remember, in the middle of all this, that most if not all of our Renaissance protagonists still believe in Hell and damnation (or at least something similar to it), and that if you’re wrong you burn in Hellfire forever and ever and ever and so do all your students and it’s your fault.  Result: FEAR.  And its companion, freethought.  Contrary to what we might assume, this is not a case where fear stifled inquiry, but where it stimulated more, firing Renaissance thinkers with the burning need to have a solution to all these contradictions, some way to sort out the safe path amid a thousand pits of Hellfire. New syntheses were proposed, new taxonomies of positions and heresies outlined, and old beliefs reexamined and refined or reaffirmed.  And this period of intellectual broadening and competition brought with it an increasing inability to believe that any one of these options is the only right way when there are so many, and they are so good at tearing each other down.

And in the middle of this, experimental and observational science is advancing rapidly, and causing more doubt. We discover new continents that don’t fit in a T-O map (Ptolemy is wrong), new plants that don’t fit existing plant taxonomy (Theophrastus is wrong), details about Animals which don’t match Aristotle (we’d better hope he’s not wrong!), the circulation of the blood which turns the four humors theory on its head (Not Galen! We really needed him!), and magnification lets us finally see the complexity of a flea, and realize there is a whole unexplored micro-universe of detail too small for the naked eye to experience, raising the question “If God made the Earth for humans, why did God bother to make things humans can’t even perceive?”

Youth: “But, Socrates, why did experimental and observational science advance in that period? Discovering new stuff that isn’t in the classics doesn’t have anything to do with reconstructing antiquity, or with the Reformation, does it?”

Good question.  A long answer would be a book, but I can make a quick stab at a short one. I would point at several factors.  First, after 1300, and increasingly as we approach 1600, European rulers began competing in new ways, many of them cultural. As more and more nobles were convinced by the humanist claim that true nobility and power came from the lost arts of the ancients, so scholarship and unique knowledge, including knowledge of ancient sciences, became mandatory ornaments of court, and politically valuable as ways of advertising a ruler’s wealth and power. Monarchs and newly-risen families who had seized power through war or bribery could add a veneer of nobility by surrounding themselves with libraries, scholars, poets, and scientists, who studied the ancient scientific sources of Greece and Rome but, in order to understand them more fully, also studied newer sources coming from the Middle East, and did new experiments of their own. A new astronomical model of the heavens proclaimed the power of the patron who had paid for it, just as much as a fur-lined cloak or a diamond-studded scepter.

Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.

Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add to this the increase of the scales of wars caused by increased wealth which could raise larger armies, generating a situation in which new tools for warfare, and especially fortress construction, were increasingly in demand (when you read Leonardo’s discussions of his abilities, more than 75% of the inventions he mentions are tools of war). Add to that the printing press which makes it possible for novelties–whether a rediscovered manuscript or a newly-discovered muscle–to spread exponentially faster, and which makes books much more affordable, so that if only one person in 50,000 could afford a library before now it is one in 5,000, and even merchants could afford a few texts. Education was easier, and educated men were in demand at courts eager to fill themselves with scholars, and advertise their greatness with discoveries.

So... many... books! Must... make them... agree!

So… many… books! Must… make them… agree!

These are the main facilitators, but I would also cite another fundamental shift. I have talked before about Petrarch, and the humanist project to improve the world by reconstructing a lost golden age.  This is the first philosophical movement since ancient stoicism that has had anything to do with the world, since medieval theology’s (perfectly rational in context!) desire to study the Eternal instead of the ephemeral meant that most scholars for many centuries had considered natural philosophy, the study of impermanent natural phenomena, as useless as studying the bathwater instead of the baby.  Humanism generated a lot of arguments about why Earth and earthly things were worth more than nothing, even if they agreed Heaven and eternal things were more important, and I think the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to translate Livy or write a treatise on good government contributed to the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to measure mountains or write a treatise on metallurgy.  Thought turned, just a little bit, toward Earth.

There, that’s the Renaissance and Reformation, oversimplified by necessity, but Descartes is chomping at the bit for what comes next.  For those who want more, I shall do the crass thing here and say: for more detail, see my book Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, or Popkin’s History of Skepticism, or wait.

montaigneAt last, Montaigne!

Like the world which basked in his writings, and shuddered in his “crisis,” I love Montaigne.  I love his sentences, his storytelling, his sincerity, his quips, his authorial voice.  Reading Montaigne is like like slowly enjoying a glass of whatever complex, rich and subtle beverage you most enjoy a glass of (wine for many, fresh goat milk for me!).  Especially because, at the end, your glass is empty.  (I see a contented Descartes nodding).  When I set about starting to write this series, getting to Montaigne was, in fact, my secret end goal, since, if there is a founder of modern skepticism, it is Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Montaigne was unique, an experiment, the natural experiment to follow at the maturation of the Renaissance classical project but still, a unique child, raised as an overt pedagogical experiment outlined by his father: Montaigne grew up speaking only Latin.  He was exposed to French in his first three years by country nurses, but from three on he was only allowed contact with people–his tutor, parents and servants–speaking Latin.  He was a literal attempt to raise a Cicero or Caesar, formed exclusively by classical ideas, the ideal man that the humanists had been hoping to create.  Greek was later added, not with textbooks and the rod as was usual in those days but with games and music, and studies were always made to seem pleasant and wonderful by surrounding him with music (even waking the child every morning with delightful live music).  He grew up to be about as perfect a Platonic Philosopher King as one could hope to imagine, studying law and entering politics, as his father wished, achieving the highest honors, but preferring life alone in his library, and frequently retiring to do just that, only to be dragged back into politics actually by popular demand of people who would come bang on his library door demanding that he come out to take up office and rule them.  I think often about what it must have been like to be Montaigne, to be so immersed, enjoy these things so much, and only later discover that he was alone in a world with literally no other native speaker of his language.  It must have been as difficult as it was wonderful to be Montaigne.  But I think I understand why, when he lost his best friend Étienne de la Boétie, Montaigne wrote of his grief, his loss, the pain of solitude, with an intensity rarely approached in the history of human literature.  He also wrote Essais, meandering writings, the source of the modern word “essay”, for which every schoolchild has the right to playfully curse him.

louvre-voltaire-1694-1778I will now go about explaining why Montaigne was so wonderful by describing Voltaire. Yes, it is an odd way to go about it, but the Voltaire example is clearer and more concise than any Montaigne example I have on hand, and, in this, Voltaire was a student of Montaigne, and Montaigne will only smile to see such a beautiful development of his art, as Bacon smiles on Newton, and Socrates on all of us.

At the beginning of this sequence, I outlined two potential sources of knowledge: either (A) Sense Perception i.e. Evidence, or (B) Logic/Reason.  The classical skeptics were born when the reliability these two sources of knowledge were drawn into doubt, Sense Perception by the stick in water, Logic by Xeno’s Paradoxes of Motion.  Responses included the skeptics’ conclusion “We can’t know anything if we can’t trust Reason or the Senses,” and the various other classical schools’ Criteria of Truth (Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s Categories, Epicurus’s weak empiricism, etc.)  All refutations we have seen along our long path have been based on undermining one of these types of knowledge sources: so when Duns Scotus fights with Aquinas, he picks on his logic, and when Ockham fights with him he, often, picks on his material sensory evidence. (“Where is the phantasm?  Huh? Huh?”)

LeibnitzEverybody, I’d like to introduce you to Leibniz.  Leibniz, this is everybody.  “Hello!” says Leibniz, “Very nice to meet you all.”  We are going to viciously murder Leibniz in about three minutes.  “It’s no trouble,” says Leibniz, “I’m quite used to it.”  Thank you, Leibniz, we appreciate it.

Leibniz here made many great contributions to philosophy and mathematics, but one particular one was extraordinarily popular, I would go so far as to say faddy, a fad argument which swept Europe in the first half of the 18th century.  You have almost certainly heard it before in mocking form, but I will do my best to be fair as we line up our target in our sites:

  1. God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnbenevolent.  (Given.)  “Grrrr,” quoth Socrates.
  2. Given that God is Omniscient, He knows what the best of all possible worlds is.
  3. Given that God is Omnipotent, He can create the best of all possible worlds.
  4. Given that God is Omnibenevolent, He wants to create the best of all possible worlds.
  5. Any world such a God would make must logically be the best of all possible worlds
  6. This is the best of all possible worlds.

Now, this was a proof written, just like Anselm’s and Aquinas’s, by a philosopher expecting a readership who all believe, both in God, and in Providence.  It is a comfortable proof of the logical certainty that there is Providence, that this universe is perfect (as the Stoics first theorized), and anything in it that seems to be bad or evil must, in fact, be part of a greater long-term good that we fail to see because of our limited human perspective.  The proof made a huge number of people delighted to have such an elegant and simple argument for something they enthusiastically believed.

But, the proof also the side-effect that arguments about Providence often do, of making people start to try to reason out what the good was behind hidden evils.  “Oh, that guy was struck with disease because he did X bad thing.”  “Wolves exist to make us live in villages.”  “That plague happened because those people were bad.”  It was (much like Medieval proofs of the existence of God) a way philosophers could show off their cleverness to an appreciative audience, make themselves known, and put forward theories about right and wrong and what God might want.

Lisbon

In 1755 an enormous earthquake struck the great port city of Lisbon (Portugal), wiping out tens of thousands of people (some estimate up to 100,000) and leveling one of the great gems of European civilization. It remains to this day one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, and many parts of Lisbon are still in ruins almost 300 years later.  The shock and horror, to a progressive, optimistic Europe, was stunning.  And immediately thereafter, fans of Leibniz started publishing essays about how it was GOOD that this had happened, because of XYZ reason.  For example, one argument was that they were persecuting people for their religion, and this was God saying he disapproved <= REAL argument.  (Note: Leibniz himself is innocent of all this, having died years before the earthquake – we are speaking of his followers.)  Others argued that it was a bad minor effect of God’s general laws, that the physical rules of the Earth which make everything wonderful for humankind also make earthquakes sometimes happen, but that the suffering they cause is negligible against the greater goods that Providence achieves.  And if one person in Europe could not stand these noxious, juvenile, pompous, inhumane, self-serving, condescending, boastful, heartless, self-congratulatory responses to unprecedented human suffering, that person was the one pen mightier than any sword, Voltaire.

Would words like these to peace of mind restore
The natives sad of that disastrous shore?
Grieve not, that others’ bliss may overflow,
Your sumptuous palaces are laid thus low;
Your toppled towers shall other hands rebuild;
With multitudes your walls one day be filled;
Your ruin on the North shall wealth bestow,
For general good from partial ills must flow;
You seem as abject to the sovereign power,
As worms which shall your carcasses devour.
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of the eternal chain,
’Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.
The God who holds the chain can’t be enchained;
By His blest Will are all events ordained:
He’s Just, nor easily to wrath gives way,
Why suffer we beneath so mild a sway:
This is the fatal knot you should untie,
Our evils do you cure when you deny?
Men ever strove into the source to pry,
Of evil, whose existence you deny.
If he whose hand the elements can wield,
To the winds’ force makes rocky mountains yield;
If thunder lays oaks level with the plain,
From the bolts’ strokes they never suffer pain.
But I can feel, my heart oppressed demands
Aid of that God who formed me with His hands.
Sons of the God supreme to suffer all
Fated alike; we on our Father call.
No vessel of the potter asks, we know,
Why it was made so brittle, vile, and low?
Vessels of speech as well as thought are void;
The urn this moment formed and that destroyed,
The potter never could with sense inspire,
Devoid of thought it nothing can desire.
The moralist still obstinate replies,
Others’ enjoyments from your woes arise,
To numerous insects shall my corpse give birth,
When once it mixes with its mother earth:
Small comfort ’tis that when Death’s ruthless power
Closes my life, worms shall my flesh devour.

This (in the William F. Fleming translation) is an excerpt from the middle of Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, which I heartily encourage you to read in its entirety. The poem summarizes the arguments of Camp Leibniz , and juxtaposes them with heart-wrenching descriptions of the sufferings of the victims, and with Voltaire’s own earnest and passionate expression of exactly why these kinds of arguments about Providence are so difficult to choke down when one is really on the ground suffering and feeling.  The human is not a senseless pottery vessel, it is a thinking thing, it feels pain, it asks questions, it feels the special kind of pain that unanswered questions cause, the same pain the skeptics have been trying to help us escape for 3,000 years.  But we don’t escape, and the poem captures it.  The poem swept across Europe like a firestorm.  People read it, people felt it, people recognized in Voltaire’s words the cries of anger in their own hearts.  And they agreed.  He won.  The Leibniz fad ended.  An entire continent-wide philosophical movement, slain.

CriterionOfTruthbAnd he used neither Logic nor Evidence.

Did you feel it?  The poem persuaded, attacked, undermined, eroded away the respectability of Leibniz, but it did it without using EITHER of the two pillars of argument.  There was no chain of reasoning.  And there was no empirical observation.  You could say there was some logic in the way he juxtaposed claims “God is a kind Maker” with counter-claims “I am not a potter’s jar, I am a thinking thing! I need more!”.  You could say there was some empiricism or evidence-based argument in his descriptions of things he saw, or things he felt, since feelings too are sense-perceptions in a way, so reporting how one feels is reporting a sensory fact.  But there was nothing in this so rigorous or so real that any of our ancient skeptics would recognize it as the empiricism they were attacking.  Those people Voltaire describes – he did not see them, he just imagines them, reaching across the breadth of Europe with the strength of empathy.  That potter’s wheel is a metaphor, not a syllogism.  Voltaire has used a third thing, neither Reason nor Evidence, as a tool of skepticism.

What do we name this Third Thing?  I have heard people propose “common sense” but that’s a terribly vexed term, going back to Cicero at least, which has been used by this point to mean 100 things that are not this thing, so even if you could also call this thing “common sense” it would just create confusion (we don’t need Aristotle looming with a lecture on the dangers of unclear vocabulary).  I have heard people propose “sentiment” and I like how galling it feels to try to suggest that “sentiment” should enjoy coequal respect and power with Reason and Evidence, but it isn’t quite that either.  I am not yet happy with any name for this Third Thing, and am playing around with many.  All I will say is that it is real, it is powerful, it is as effective at persuading one to believe or disbelieve as Reason and Evidence are.  And, even if there were shadows of this Third Thing earlier in human history, Montaigne was the smith who sharpened the blade and handed it to Voltaire, and to the rest of us.

The rafters of Montaigne's libary, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.

The rafters of Montaigne’s library, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.

Montaigne’s Essais are lovely, meandering, personal, structure-less, rambling musings in which topics flow one upon another, he summarizes an argument made for or against some heresy, then, rather than voicing an opinion, tells you a story about his grandmother that one time, or retells a bit of one of Virgil’s pastorals, or an anecdote about some now-obscure general, and then flows on to a different topic, never stating his opinion on the first but having shaped your thinking, through his meanders, until you feel an answer, a belief or, more often, disbelief, even if he never voiced one.  And then he keeps going, taking up another argument, making it feel silly with an allegory about two bakers, another and–have you heard the news from Spain?–another, and another, and oh, the loves of Alexander, another, and another.  And as it flows along you get to know him, feel you’re having a conversation with him, and somewhere toward the end you no longer believe any of the philosophical arguments he has just summarized are plausible at all, but he never once argued directly against any of them.  It is a little bit like our skeptical Cicero, juxtaposing opposing views and leaving us convinced by none, but it is one level less structured, not actually a dialog with arguments and refutations.  Skepticism, without Reason, without Evidence, just with the human honesty that is Montaigne, his doubts, his friendship, his communication to you, dear reader, across the barrier of page, and time, and language, this strange French-Roman, this only native Latin speaker born in a millennium, this alien, has made you realize all the philosophical convictions, everything in that broad spectrum that scholasticism plus the Renaissance plus the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ferocity have laid before you, none of it is what a person really feels deep down inside, not Montaigne, and not you. And so he leaves you a skeptic, in a completely different way from how the ancient skeptics did it, not with theses, or exercises, or lists, or counterarguments, just with… humanity?

Montaigne did it.  His contemporaries found it… odd at first, a bit self-centered, this autobiographical meandering, but it was so beautiful, so entrancing, so powerful.  It reared a new generation, armed with Reason and Evidence and This Third Thing, and deeply skeptical.  Students at universities started raising their hands in class to ask the teachers to prove the school existed.  Theologians advising princes started saying maybe it didn’t matter that much what the difference was between the different Christian faiths if they were close enough.  A new age of philosophy was born, not a new school, but a new tool for dogmatism’s ancient symbiotic antagonist: doubt.

And, where doubt grows stronger and richer, so does dogmatic philosophy, having that much more to test itself against.  Just as, in antiquity, so many amazing schools and ideas were born from trying to respond to Zeno and the Stick in Water, so Montaigne’s new tools of Skepticism, his revival and embellishment of skepticism, the birth, as we call it, of Modern Skepticism, was also the final ingredient necessary for an explosion of new ideas, new schools, new universes described by new philosophers trying to build systems which can stand up against a new skepticism armed, not just against Reason and Evidence, but with That Third Thing.

DescartesThus, as 1600 approaches, the breakneck proliferation of new ideas and factions make Montaigne’s skepticism so popular that students in scholastic and Jesuit schools are starting to raise their hands and demand that the professor prove the existence of the classroom before expecting them to attend class.  A “skeptical crisis” takes center stage in Europe’s great intellectual conversation, and multiplying doubt seems to have all the traditional Criteria of Truth in flight. It is onto this stage that Descartes will step, and craft, alongside his contemporaries, the first new systems which will have to cope, not with two avenues of attacking certainty, but, thanks to Montaigne, three.  And will fight back against them with Montaigne’s arts as well.  Next time.

For now, I will leave you with one more little snippet of the future: I lied to you, about a simple happy ending to Voltaire’s quarrel with Leibniz.  Oh, Leibniz was quite dead, not just because the man himself had died but because no philosopher could take his argument seriously after the poem. Ever. Again. In fact, a few years ago I went to a talk at at a philosophy department in which a young scholar was taking on Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds thesis, and picking it apart using beautiful logical argumentation, and at the end everyone applauded and congratulated him, but when the Q&A started the first Q was “Well, um, this was all quite fascinating, but, isn’t Leibniz, I mean, no one takes that argument seriously anymore…”  But the young philosopher was correct to point out that, in fact, no one had ever actually directly refuted it with logic.  No one saw the need.  But if Voltaire’s victory over logical Leibniz was complete, Leibniz was not the most dangerous of foes. Voltaire had contemporaries, after all, armed with Montaigne’s Third Thing just as Voltaire was. Rousseau will fire back, sweet, endearing, maddening Rousseau, not in defense of Leibnitz, but against the poem which he sees as an attack on God.  But this battle of two earnest and progressive deists must wait until we have brought about the brave new world that has such creatures in it.  For that we need Descartes, Francis Bacon, grim Hobbes, John Locke, and the ambidextrous Bayle.

Sep 242015
 

too like CoverAt long last, my forthcoming novel Too Like the Lightning has a cover!  You can see it, and the first teaser description of the book, on Tor.com. So I thought I would share a few author’s thoughts on what it feels like to have a cover.

It’s an amazing, numinous feeling seeing the world I created materialize into a visual, quasi-real in such a different way.  Of course, authors generally have no control over the cover art, which is something I have known for a long time, so I spent years preparing myself for a terrible cover. I even picked out the scene from the book which I thought would make the worst possible cover, making it look pulpy and the wrong genre, so that, if I imagined that cover, anything would be better. At one point my wonderful housemates even made a terrible CG mockup of the terrible cover, which I still treasure as a mouse pad, my long preparation bracing myself for the worst. (I will not post that image since it’s a spoiler, but it’s so bad!)  It has made me smile and wince for many years.

The real one, executed by Victor Mosquera, is wonderful.

When my editor said he thought the covers for the Terra Ignota series should be cityscapes, a different city on each of the four books, I was overjoyed. It was perfect. (And not only because if there are no characters pictured on the cover so they can’t look wrong.) Just as this blog is called “Ex Urbe” (From the City) because so much of what I look at is the culture and complexity of cities, and the identities, histories, peoples and events they shape, so this novel series focuses a lot on cities, especially the different global capitals which reflect the cultural and political developments which are the heart of this science-fictional world.

The Terra Ignota books take place in 2454, so some of its cities are present day capitals which I extrapolate forward, asking what Paris or Alexandria will be like in 400 years. Others are new cities founded as results of social, political and technological changes. This first cover shows the city where the action begins, Cielo de Pajaros, a “spectacle city” in Chile, built onto a mountainside overlooking the Pacific coast. The illustration has absolutely captured the idea of the city, built for people who want to enjoy the vista of sea and stone and sky, and the hundreds of thousands of wild birds which are encouraged to live around the city by “flower trenches” which run between each of the layered tiers of the city, and are seeded with native plants that encourage birds to feed and nest. The sheer, cliff-like surface shown here is even steeper than I had imagined, but I like it because it makes it instantly clear how intimately the city is bound to the flying cars we see coming in to land. These cars make it possible for cities like this to rise in areas that could never be reached by land, and for a teeming metropolis to leave the wilderness around it un-scarred, without roads, rail lines or shipyards, since the arteries which connect this city to the rest of civilization need nothing but air. Before I saw this illustration I had not visualized the cars and birds flocking together, but it’s perfect, a feeling of an exciting, technologically-sophisticated future with flying cars and high-tech cities, but also with birds and waves and sunrise, warm inviting colors, air and sea spray.  A healthy future, and an Earth which advanced but still familiar, and welcoming.  Positive.  I think that is what I like most about the cover, the fact that the mood is right, suggesting a science-fictional future which is beautiful and positive.

Everyone involved in publishing this book–editors, agent, publicists, author friends–constantly complains that the book is impossible to pitch.  Describing the skeleton of the plot doesn’t work because it leaves you with the wrong impression of what the style will be; describing the style leaves you with the wrong impression of what kind of story it will be.  “It’s not like anything” is a frequent refrain when people try to come up with books to compare it to.  My agent Amy Boggs told me that, when she was first reading the manuscript, she felt a little smug because all the other agents at her agency were complaining that they were drowning in dystopian submissions, and reading dystopia after dystopia after post-apocalyptic dystopia was a real downer, so she got to gloat saying “I’m reading this nice utopian book!”  And it is utopian in some sense.  I’ve also caught my editor on panels about the state of the genre, when he was asked about the super-popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff which is saturating the field, saying with some excitement that he’s going to publish this great series set in an exciting, good future with utopian things going on.  It made me smile.  However, I myself am very careful about how I apply the words “utopia” or “utopian” to this book, since it’s definitely not supposed to be a perfect future.  But it is a good future.  And, for me, “utopia” and “utopian” are not quite the same.

I should say that I love dystopia as a genre (my first term paper way back in middle school was on 1984, Brave New World and We), and when I discuss it in analysis I always try to distinguish between what I call “a dystopia” and what I call “a dystopian work”.  For me (these are my own idiosyncratic terms) a “dystopia” means a work that is about its terrifying future, more about the world than it is about the people in it, who serve as portals for us to see the world, and a dystopia–for me–generally also means a story in which the characters are living in the world but powerless to change it.  In contrast I call “dystopian” works which are using a dark future setting as a background for a story which really is focused on the characters and their actions, and where the characters end up leading a revolution, or an exodus, or a counter-strike, or escape to a different non-dystopian place, or all the other ways of using dystopian elements as a tool for a wide variety of stories in which the world itself is not the protagonist, the way it was for Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin.

So, similarly, when I talk about a “utopia”–a work intending to depict an ideal future–that is not quite the same as a work which is “utopian” i.e. addressing the idea of utopia, and using utopian positive elements in its future building, while still focusing on people, characters and events, and exploring or critiquing the positive future it depicts, rather than recommending it.  2454 as I imagine it is not a utopia.  There are many flaws and uncomfortable elements.  For example, as you can learn from the Tor.com reveal (and the first page of the book) there is censorship, a very uncomfortable (and traditionally dystopian) element for an Earth future to have. But there are flying cars, and robot trash-collectors, and low crime rates, and spectacular cities, and awesome jobs, and high-tech fashions, and cool new family structures, and all sorts of things which are, if not perfect, a bit better than 2015, just as 2015 is a bit better than 1915, and a lot better than 1515.  It is using utopia and commenting on utopia without being a utopia.  But in our tendency to slot futures into different familiar categories (dystopian, cyberpunk, golden age, post-apocalyptic, space opera, eco-catastrophic, post-scarcity decadence…) it can be difficult to articulate what this future is like.  It isn’t those.

That is why I think the cover is so excellent, the mood, the feel of it: warm with a bit of shadow, inviting, airy and numinous but also concrete, futuristic but integrated with the familiar realities of Earth.  A future where humanity has done pretty well, botched some things but solved some others, created a lot of exciting innovations worth exploring, and has lots more still to do.

So, thank you, Tor, and Victor Mosquera, and Irene Gallo, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, for creating a picture which finally pitches Terra Ignota in a way that makes it feel like the books actually feel, when all the rest of us have failed!

The book comes out May 10th 2016, and you can pre-order it from Powell’s, from Barnes & Noble (also on nook), from Amazon, through Kobo, or you can use Indiebound or Goodreads to find independent bookstores to order it for you.

Here is the cover at full size:

TooLikeLightning_cover

Sep 122015
 
Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

Different approximations of the Platonic Ideal eclair.

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth have, among them, consumed twelve thousand, six hundred and forty two hypothetical eclairs in the fourteen months since we left them contemplating skepticism on the banks of a cheerily babbling imaginary brook. Much has changed in the interval, not in the land of philosophical thought-experiments (which is ever peaceful unless someone scary like Ockham or Nietzsche gets inside), but in a world two layers of reality removed from theirs. The changes appear in the world of material circumstances which shape and foster this author, who in turn shapes and fosters our philosophical picnickers. Now, having recovered from my transplant shock of being moved to the new and fertile country of University of Chicago, and with my summer work done, and Too Like the Lightning fully revised and on its way toward its May 10th release date (YES!), it is time at last to return to our hypothetical heroes, and to my sketches of the history of philosophical skepticism.

When last we saw them, Socrates, Sartre, Descartes and our Youth had rescued themselves from the throes of absolute doubt by developing Criteria of Truth, which allowed them to differentiate arenas of knowledge where certainty is possible from arenas of knowledge where certainty is not possible. (See their previous dramatic adventures with in Sketches of a History of Skepticism Part 1 and Part 2).  To do this, they looked at three systems: Epicureanism, which suggests that we have certain knowledge of the world perceived by the senses, but no certain knowledge of the imperceptible atomic reality beneath; Platonism, which suggests that we have knowledge of the eternal structures that create the material world, i.e. Forms or Ideas, but not of the flawed, corruptible material objects which are the shadows of those eternal structures; and Aristotelianism, which suggests that we can have certain knowledge of logical principles and of categories within Nature, but not of individual objects.

Notably, neither Epicurus nor Aristotle was invited to our picnic, and, while you never know when any given Socrates will turn out to be a Plato in disguise, our particular Socrates seems to be staying safely in the camp of doubt: he knows that he knows nothing. Our object is not to determine which of these classical camps has the correct Criterion of Truth.  In fact, our distinguished guests, Descartes and Sartre, aren’t interested in rehashing these three classical systems all of whose criteria are not only familiar, but, to them, long defunct. They have not come through this great distance in time to watch Socrates open the doors of skepticism to our Youth to just meet antiquity’s familiar dogmatists; the twinkle in Descartes’ eye (and his infinite patience dolling out eclairs) tells me he’s waiting for something else.

cicero1Cicero Skepticus

Descartes and Sartre expect Cicero next — Cicero, whom many might mistake as a voice for the Stoic school (the intellectual party conspicuously missing from the assembly of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus) but who is actually more often read by modern scholars as a new and promising kind of Skeptic.  Unfortunately, Cicero is currently busy answering a flurry of letters from someone called Petrarch, so has declined to join our little gathering (or possibly he’s just miffed hearing that I’m doing an abbreviated finale to this series, so he’d only get a couple paragraphs, even if he came).  So we must do our concise best to cover his contribution on our own.   Pyrrho, Zeno and other early skeptical voices argued in favor of doubt by demonstrating the fallibility of the senses and of pure reason: the stick in water that looks bent, the paradoxes of motion which show how logic and reality don’t match. Cicero achieves unbelief (and aims at the eudaimonist tranquility beyond) by a different route, a luxurious one made possible by the fact that he is writing three centuries into the development of philosophy and has many different dogmatic schools to fall back on. In his philosophical dialogs, Cicero presents different interlocutors who put forth different dogmatic positions: Stoic, Platonist, Epicurean; all in dialog with each other, presenting evidence for their own positions and counter-arguments against the conclusions of others.  Each interlocutor works strictly by his own Criterion of Truth, and all argue intelligently and well.  But they all disagree.  When you read them all together, you are left uncertain.  No particular voice seems to overtop the others, and the fact that there are so many different equally plausible positions, defended with equally well-defined Criteria of Truth, leaves one with no confidence that any of them is reliable.  At no point does Cicero say “I am a skeptic, I think there is no certainty,” — but the effect of reading the dialog is to be left with uncertain feelings. Cicero himself does not seem to have been a Pyrrhonist skeptic, and certainly does seem to hold some philosophical positions, especially moral principles, quite strongly.  There is certainly a good case to be made that he has strong Stoic leanings, and there is validity to the Renaissance argument that he should be vaguely clustered in with Seneca and Cato, who subscribe to a mixed-together digest of Roman paganism, Stoicism, some Platonic and a few Aristotelian elements.  But especially on big questions of epistemology, ontology and physics, Cicero remains solidly, frustratingly, elusive.

There are many important aspects of Cicero’s work, but for our purposes the most important is this: he has achieved doubt without actually making any skeptical arguments, or counter-arguments.  He has not attacked the fundamentals of Stoicism, Platonism or Epicureanism.  Instead, he has used the strengths of the three schools to undermine each other.  All three schools are convincing.  All are plausible.  All have evidence and/or logic on their side. As a result, none of the three winds up feeling convincing, even though none of the three has been directly undermined. This is not a new achievement of Cicero’s.  Epicurus used a similar technique, and Lucretius, his follower, did so too; and we know Cicero read Lucretius.  But Cicero is the most important person to use this technique in antiquity, largely because 1,300 years later it will be Cicero who become the centerpiece of Renaissance education.  And Cicero will have no small Medieval legacy as well.

WIK_Meeting-of-doctors-at-the-University-of-ParisMedieval Certainty, and the Big Question

Stereotypically for a Renaissance historian, I will move quickly through the Middle Ages, though not for the stereotypical reasons. I don’t think that the Middle Ages were an intellectual stasis; I do think that Medieval philosophy is fully of many complex things that I’m just starting to seriously work through in my own studies. I’m not ready to provide a light, fun summary of something which is, for me, still a rich forest to explore.  Church Fathers, late Neoplatonists, Chroniclers, theological councils, monastic leaders, rich injections from the Middle East, Maimonides; all intersect with doubt, certainty and Criteria of Truth in rich and fascinating ways that I am not yet prepared to do justice to.  So instead I will present an abstraction of one important aspect of Medieval thinking which I hope will help elucidate some overall approaches to doubt, even if I don’t pause to look at individual minds.

When I was in my second year of grad school, I chatted over convenience store cookies in the grad student lounge with a new student entering our program that year, like myself, to study the Renaissance.  He poked fun at the philosophers of the Middle Ages. He asked me, “How could anybody possibly be interested in going on and on and on and on like that about God?”  And in that moment of politeness, and newness, and fun, I laughed, and nodded.  But, happily, we had a good teacher who made us look more at the Medieval, without which we can’t understand the Renaissance, and now I would never laugh at such a comment.

Set aside your modern mindset for a moment, and your modern religious concepts, and see if you can jump into the Medieval mind. To start with, there is a Being of infinite power, Whose existence is known with certainty.  (Take that as given — a big given, I know, but it’s a given in this context.) Such a Being created everything that ever has existed or will exist. Everything that happens: events, births, storms, falling objects, thoughts; all were conceived by this Being and exist according to this Being’s script. The Being possesses all knowledge, and all good things are good because they resemble this Being. Everything in the material world is fleeting and imperfect and will someday be destroyed and forgotten, including the entire Earth. But — this Being has access to another universe where all things are eternal and perfect, which will last beyond the end of the material universe, and with this Being’s help there might be some way for us to reach that universe as well. The Being created humans with particular care, and is trying to communicate with us, but direct communication is a difficult process, just as it is difficult for an entomologist to communicate directly with his ants, or for a computer programmer to communicate directly with the artificial intelligences that she has programmed.

Spot the Saint! This painting from Berlin tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Spot the Saint! This painting (in Berlin) tries to capture the intensity of the collective project of trying to understand the Most Important Thing Ever: God.

Now, the facetious question I laughed at in early grad school comes back, but turned on its head.  How could you ever want to study anything other than this Being?  It explains everything.  You want to know the cause of weather, astronomical events, diseases, time?  The answer is this Being.  You want to know where the world came from, how thought works, why there is pain?  The answer is this Being.  History is a script written by this Being, the stars are a diagram drawn by this Being, the suitability and adaptation of animals and plants to their environments is the ingenuity of this Being, and the laws that make rocks sink and wood float and fire burn and rain fall are all decisions made by this Being.  If you have any intellectual curiosity at all, wouldn’t it be an act of insanity to dedicate your life to anything other than understanding this Being?  And in a world in which there has been, for centuries, effective universal consensus on all these premises, what society would want to fund a school that didn’t study them?  Or pay tuition for a child to study something else?  Theology dominated other sciences in the Middle Ages, not because people were backward, or closed-minded, or lacked curiosity, but because they were ambitious, keenly intellectual and fixed on the a subject from which they had every reason to expect answers, not just to theological questions, but to all questions.  They didn’t have blinders, they had their eyes on the prize, and they felt that choosing to study Natural Philosophy (i.e. the world, nature, biology, plants, animals) instead of Theology was like trying to study toenail clippings instead of the being they were clipped from.

To put it another way: have you ever watched a fun, formulaic, episodic genre  show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the X-Files? There’ll be one particular episode where the baddie-of-the-day is Christianity-flavored, and at some point a manifest miracle happens, or an angel or a ghost shows up, and then we have to reset the formula and move onto the next episode, but you spend that whole next episode thinking, “You know, they just found proof of the existence of the afterlife and the immortality of the soul. You’d think they’d decide that’s more important than this conspiracy involving genetically-modified corn.”  That’s how people in the Middle Ages felt about people who wanted to study things that weren’t God.

Doubt comes into this in important ways, but not the ways that modern rhetoric about the Middle Ages leads most people to expect.

Benozzo_Gozzoli_004a

Spot the Saint! Who is this flanked by Aristotle and Plato who is triumphing over false philosophy? (Detail from a panel from the Louvre)

Why Scholasticism?

Wikipedia, at the time of writing, defines Scholasticism as “a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics (“scholastics,” or “schoolmen”) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. ” It was “a program of employing that [critical] method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context.” It “originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools at the earliest European universities.”  Philosophy students traditionally define Scholasticism as “that incredibly boring hard stuff about God that you have to read between the classics and Descartes”.  Both definitions are true.  Scholasticism is an incredibly tedious, exacting body of philosophy, intentionally impenetrable, obsessed with micro-detail, and happy to spend three thousand words proving to you that Good is good, or to set out a twenty step argument it is better to exist than not exist (this is presumably why Hamlet still hadn’t graduated at age 30).  Scholasticism was also so incredibly exciting that, apart from the ever-profitable medical and law schools, European higher education devoted itself to practically nothing else for the whole late Middle Ages, and, even though the intellectual firebrands of both the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries devoted themselves largely to fiercely attacking the scholastic system, it did not truly crumble until deep into the Enlightenment.

Why was Scholasticism so exciting?  Even if people who believed in an omnipotent God had good reason to devote their studies pretty-exclusively to Theology, why was this one particularly dense and intentionally difficult method the method for hundreds of years?  Why didn’t they write easy-to-read, penetrable treatises, or witty philosophical tales, or even a good old fashioned Platonic-type dialog?

The answer is that Christianity changes the stakes for being wrong.  In antiquity, if you’re wrong about philosophy, and the philosophical end of theology, you’ll make incorrect decisions, possibly lead a sadder or less successful life than you would otherwise, and it might mean your legacy isn’t what you wanted it to be, but that’s it.  If you’re really, really wrong you might offend Artemis or something and get zapped, but it’s pretty easy to cover your bases by going to the right festivals.  By the logic of antiquity, if you put a Platonist and an Epicurean in a room, one of of them will be wrong and living life the wrong way, at least in some ways, but they can both have a nice conversation, and in the end, either they’ll both reincarnate and the Epicurean will have another chance to be right later, or they’ll both disperse into atoms and it won’t matter.  OK.  In Medieval Christianity, if you’re wrong about theology, your immortal soul goes to Hell forever, where you’ll be tormented by unspeakable devils for the rest of eternity, and everyone else who believes your errors is also likely to lose the chance of eternal paradise and absolute knowledge, and will be plunged into a pit of absolute misery and despair, irrevocably, forever. Error is incredibly dangerous, to you and to everyone around you who might get pulled down with you.  If you’re really bad, you might even bring the wrath of God down upon your native city, or if you’re really bad then, while you’re still alive, your soul might depart your body and sink down to Hell, leaving your body to be a house for a devil who will use you to visit evil on the Earth (see Inferno Canto 27). But leaving aside those more extreme and superstition-tainted possibilities, error became more pernicious because of eternal damnation. If people who read your theologically incorrect works go to Hell, you’re infinitely culpable, morally, since every student misled to damnation is literally an infinite crime.

DuomoHel

The Hazards of Theological Error

So, if you are a Medieval person, Theology is incredibly valuable, the only kind of study worth doing, but also incredibly dangerous.  You want to tread very carefully.  You want a lot of safety nets and spotters. You want ways to avoid error. And you know error is easy! Errors of logic, errors of failing senses.  Enter Aristotle, or more specifically enter Aristotle’s Organon, a translation of the poetic works of Aristotle completed by dear Boethius, part of the latter’s efforts to preserve Greek learning when he realized Greek and other relics of antiquity were fading. The Organon explains in great detail, how you can go about constructing chains of logic in careful, methodical ways to avoid error.  Use only clearly defined unequivocal vocabulary, and strict syllogistic and geometric reasoning.  Here it is, foolproof logic in 50 steps, I’ll show you!  Sound familiar?  This is Aristotle’s old Criterion of Truth, but it’s also the Medieval Theologian’s #1 Christmas Wish List.  The Criterion of Truth which was, for Aristotle, a path through the dark woods and a solution to Zeno and the Stick in Water, is, to our theologian, a safety net over a pit of eternal Hellfire.  That is why it was so exciting.  That was why people who wanted to do theology were willing to train for five years just in logic before even looking at a theological question, just as Astronauts train in simulators for a long time before going out into the deadly vacuum of space!  That is even why scholastic texts are so hard to read and understand – they were intentionally written to be difficult to read, partly because they’re using an incredibly complicated method, but even more because they don’t want anyone to read them who hasn’t studied their method, because if you read them unprepared you might misunderstand, and then you’d go to Hell forever and ever and ever, and it would be Thomas Aquinas’s fault. And he would be very sad.  When Thomas Aquinas was presented for canonization, after his death, they made the argument that every chapter of the Summa Theologica was itself a miracle.  It’s easy to laugh, but if you think about how desperately they wanted perfect logic, and how good Aquinas was at offering it, it’s an argument I understand.  If you were dying of thirst in the desert, wouldn’t a glass of water feel like a miracle?

zcyLWEyNzTo give credit where credit is due, the mature application of Aristotle’s formal logic to theological questions was not pioneered by Aquinas but by a predecessor: Peter Abelard, the wild rockstar of Medieval Theology. People crowded in thousands and lived in fields to hear Peter Abelard preach, it was like Woodstock, only with more Aristotle.  Why were people so excited?  Did Abelard finally have the right answer to all things?  “Yes and No,” as Peter Abelard would say, “Sic et Non“, that being the the title of his famous book, a demonstration of his skill.  (Wait, yes AND no, isn’t that even scarier and worse and more damnable than everything else?  This is the most dangerous person ever!  Bernard of Clairvaux thought so, but the Woodstock crowd at the Paraclete, they don’t.) Abelard’s skill was taking two apparently contradictory statements and showing, by elaborate roundabout logic tricks, how they agree.  Why is this so exciting?  Any troll on the internet can do that!  No, but he did it seriously, and he did it with Authorities.  He would take a bit of Plato that seemed to contradict a bit of Aristotle, and show how they actually agree.  Even ballsier, he would take a bit of Plato that pretty manifestly DOES contradict another bit of Plato, and show how they both agree.  Then, even better, he would take a bit from St. Augustine that seems to contradict a bit from St. Jerome and show how the two actually agree.  “OH THANK GOD!” cries Medieval Europe, desperately perplexed by the following conundrum:

  1. The Church Fathers are saints, and divinely inspired; their words are direct messages from God.
  2. If you believe the Church Fathers and act in accordance with their teachings, they will show you the way to Heaven; if you oppose or doubt them, you are a heretic and damned for all eternity.
  3. The Church Fathers often disagree with each other.
  4. PANIC!

Abelard rescued Medieval Europe from this contradiction, not necessarily by his every answer, but by his technique by which seemingly-contradictory authorities could be reconciled.  Plato with Aristotle is handy.  Plato with Plato sure is helpful.  Jerome with Augustine is eternal salvation.  And if he does it with the bits of Scripture that seem to contract the other bits?  He is now the most exciting thing since the last time the Virgin Mary showed up in person.

Abelard had a lover–later, wife, but she preferred ‘lover’–the even more extraordinary Heloise, and I consider it immoral to mention him without mentioning her, but her life, her stunningly original philosophical contributions and her terrible treatment at the hands of history are subjects for another essay in its own right.  For today, the important part is this: Abelard was exciting for his method, more than his ideas, his way of using Reason to resolve doubts and fears when skepticism loomed.  Thus even Scholasticism, the most infamously dogmatic philosophical method in European history, was also in symbiosis with skepticism, responding to it, building from it, developing its vast towers of baby-step elaborate logic because it knew Zeno was waiting.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article.

Credit for this excellent diagram goes to a Huff Post article by Nathan Schneider.

Proofs of the Existence of God

We are all very familiar with the veins of Christianity which focus on faith without proof as an important part of the divine plan, that God wants to test people, and there is no proof of the existence of God because God wants to be unknowable and elusive in order to test people’s faith.  The most concise formula is the facetious one by Douglas Adams, where God says: “I refuse to prove that I exist, because proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing.”  It’s a type of argument associated with very traditional, conservative Christianity, and, often, with its more zealous, bigoted, or “medieval” side.  I play a game whenever I run into a new scholar who works on Medieval or early modern theological sources, any sources, any period, any place, from pre-Constantine Rome to Renaissance Poland.  I ask: “Hey, have you ever run into arguments that God’s existence can’t be proved, or God wants to be known by faith alone, before the Reformation?”  Answers: “No.” “Nope.” “Naah.”  “No, never.” “Uhhh, not really, no.”  “Nope.” “No.” “Nothing like that.” “Hmm… no.”  “Never.”  “Oh, yeah, one time I thought I found that in this fifth-century guy, but actually it was totally not that at all.”  Like biblical literalism, it’s one of these positions that feels old because it’s part of a conservative position now, but it’s actually a very recent development from the perspective of 2,000 years of Christianity plus centuries more of earlier theological conversations.  So, that isn’t what the Middle Ages generally does with doubt; it doesn’t rave about faith or God’s existence being elusive. Europe’s Medieval philosophers were so sure of God’s existence that it was considered manifestly obvious, and doubting it was considered a mental illness or a form of mental retardation (“The fool said in his heart ‘there is no God’,” => there must be some kind of brain deficiency which makes people doubt God; for details on this a see Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, vol. 1).  And when St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus work up technical proofs of the existence of God they’re doing it, not because they or anyone was doubting the existence of God, but to demonstrate the efficacy of logic.  If you invent a snazzy new metal detector you first aim it at a big hunk of metal to make sure it works.  If you design a sophisticated robot arm, you start the test by having it pick up something easy to grab.  If you want to demonstrate the power of a new tool of logic, you test it by trying to prove the biggest, simplest, most obvious thing possible: the existence of God.

(PARENTHESIS: Remember, I am skipping many Medieval things of great importance. *cough*Averroes*cough*  This is a snapshot, not a survey.)

Three blossoms on the thorny rose of this Medieval trend toward writing proofs of the existence of God are worth stopping to sniff.

William of Ockham

William of Ockham

The first blossom is the famous William of Ockham (of “razor” fame) and his “anti-proof” of the existence of God.  Ockham was a scholastic, writing in response to and in the same style and genre as Abelard, Aquinas, Scotus, and their ilk.  But, when one read along and got to the bit where one would expect him to demonstrate his mastery of logic by proving the existence of God, he included instead a plea (paraphrase): Please, guys, stop writing proofs of the existence of God! Everyone believes in Him already anyway. If you keep writing these proofs, and then somebody proves your proof wrong by pointing out an error in your logic, reading the disproof might make people who didn’t doubt the existence of God start to doubt Him because they would start to think the evidence for His Existence doesn’t hold up!  Some will read into this Anti-Proof hints of the beginning of “God will not offer proof, He requires faith…” arguments, and perhaps it does play a role in the birth of that vein of thinking. (I say this very provisionally, because it is not my area, and I would want to do a lot of reading before saying anything firm).  My gut says, though, that it is more that Ockham thought everyone by nature believed in God, that God’s existence was so incredibly obvious, that God was not trying to hide, rather that he didn’t want the weakness of fractious scholastic in-fighting to erode what he thought was already there in everyone: belief.

Aside: While we are on the subject of Ockham, a few words on his “razor”.  Ockham is credited with the principle that the simplest explanation for a thing is most likely to the correct one.  That was not, in fact, a formula he put forward in anything like modern scientific terms.  Rather, what we refer to as Ockham’s Razor is a distillation of his approach in a specific argument: Ockham hated the Aristotelian-Thomist model of cognition, i.e. the explanation of how sense perception and thoughts work.  Hating it was fair, and anyone who has ever studied Aristotle and labored through the agent intellect, and the active intellect, and the passive intellect, and the will, and the phantasm, and innate ideas, and eternal Ideas, and forms, and categories, and potentialities, shares William of Ockham’s desire to pick Thomas Aquinas up and shake him until all the terminology falls out like loose change, and then tell him he’s only allowed to have a sensible number of incredibly technical terms (like 10, 10 would be a HUGE reduction!). Ockham proposed a new model of cognition which he set out to make much simpler, without most of the components posited by Aristotle and Aquinas, and introduced formal Nominalism.  (Here Descartes cheers and sets off a little firecracker he’s been saving).  Nominalism is the idea that “concepts” are created by the mind based on sense experience, and exist ONLY in the mind (like furniture in a room, adds Sherlock Holmes) rather than in some immaterial external sense (like Platonic forms).  Having vastly simplified and revolutionized cognition, Ockham then proceeded to describe the types of concepts, vocabulary terms and linguistic categories we use to refer to concepts in infuriating detail, inventing fifty jillion more technical terms than Aquinas ever used, and driving everyone who read him crazy.  (If you are ever transported to a dungeon where you have to fight great philosophers personified as Dungeons & Dragons monsters, the best weapon against Ockham is to grab his razor of +10 against unnecessary terminology and use it on the man himself).  One takeaway note from this aside: while “Ockham’s Razor” is a popular rallying cry of modern (post-Darwin) atheism, and more broadly of modern rationalism, that is a modern usage entirely unrelated to the creator himself.  He thought that the existence of God was so incredibly obvious, and necessary to explain so many things, from the existence of the universe to the buoyancy of cork, that if you presented him with the principle that the simplest explanation is usually best, he would agree, and happily assume that you believed, along with him, that “God” (being infinitely simple, see Plotinus and Aquinas) is therefore a far simpler answer to 10,000 technical scientific questions than 10,000 separate technical scientific answers. Like Machiavelli, Aristotle and many more, Ockham would have been utterly stunned (and, I think, more than a little scared) if he could have seen how his principles would be used later.

Treasures of my bookshelf. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago's wonderful resources!) to write something on skepticism worthy to add to this particular pile.

Treasures of my bookshelf: Kors’ Atheism in France, Popkin’s History of Skepticism, Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea, and Hunter & Wootton’s edited volume Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. I aspire someday (Thanks to U Chicago’s wonderful resources!) to write something worthy to add to this particular pile.

The second blossom (or perhaps thorn?) of this Medieval fad of proving God’s existence was, well, that Ockham was 110% correct.  Here again I cite Alan Kors’ masterful Atheism in France; in short, his findings were that, when proving the existence of God became more and more popular, as the first field test to make sure your logical system worked, (a la metal detector…beep, beep, beep, yup it’s working!), it created an incentive for competing logicians to attack people’s proofs of the existence of God (i.e. if it can’t find a giant lump of iron the size of a house it’s not a very good metal detector, is it?) Thus believers spent centuries writing attacks on the existence of God, not because they doubted, but to prove their own mastery of Aristotelian logic superior to others.  This then generated thousands of pages of attacks on the existence of God, and, by a bizarre coincidence *cough*cough*, when, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we finally do start getting writings by actual overt “I really think there is no God!” atheists, they use many of the same arguments, which were waiting for them, readily available in volumes upon volumes of Church-generated books.  Dogmatism here fed and enriched skepticism, much as skepticism has always fed and enriched dogmatism, in their ongoing and fruitful symbiosis.

The third blossom is, of course, sitting with us dolling out eclairs.  Impatient Descartes has been itching, ever since I mentioned Anselm, to leap in with his own Proof of the Existence of God, one which uses a more mature form of Ockham’s Nominalism, coupled with the tools of skepticism, especially doubt of the senses.  But Descartes may not speak yet! (Don’t make that angry face at me, Monsieur, you’ll agree when you hear why.) It won’t be Descartes’ turn until we have reviewed a few more details, a little Renaissance and Reformation, and introduced you to Descartes’ great predecessor, the fertile plain on whom Descartes will erect his Cathedral.  Smiling now, realizing that we draw near the Illustrious Father of Skeptics whom he has been waiting for, Descartes sits back content, until next time.

But do not fear, the wait will be short this time.  Socrates is in more suspense than Descartes, and if I stop writing he’ll start demanding that I define “illustrious” or “next” or “man”, so I’d better plunge straight in.  Meanwhile, I hope you will leave this little snapshot with the following takeaways:

  1. Angels at a Last Judgment (in Berlin) sorting correct souls from souls guilty of ERROR!

    Medieval thought was not dominated by the idea that logic and inquiry are bad and Blind Faith should rule; much more often, Medieval thinkers argued that logic and inquiry were wonderful because they could reinforce and explain faith, and protect people from error and eternal damnation. Medieval society threw tons of energy into the pursuit of knowledge (scientia, science), it’s just that they thought theology was 1000x more important than any other topic, so concentrated the resources there.

  2. When you see theologians discussing whether certain areas of knowledge are “beyond human knowledge” or “unknowable”, before you automatically call this a backwards and closed-minded attitude, remember that it comes from Plato, Epicurus and Aristotle, who tried to differentiate knowledge into areas that could be known with certainty, and areas where our sources (senses/logic) are unreliable, so there will always be doubt. The act of dividing certain from uncertain only becomes close-minded when “that falls outside what can be known with certainty” becomes an excuse for telling the bright young questioner to shut up.  This happened, but not always.
  3. Even when there were not many philosophers we could call “skeptics” in the formal sense, and the great ancient skeptics were not being read much, skepticism continued to be a huge part of philosophy because the tools developed to combat it (Aristotle’s logical methods, for example) continued to be used, expanded and re-purposed in the ongoing search for certainty.
  4. Remember Cicero; he’ll be back.

Continue to Part 4: The Renaissance, Montaigne and a touch of Voltaire.

Jul 162015
 

ilpdzsC The great New Horizons Pluto fly-by has occurred.  We have our mottling, our iron colors, and large patches of light and dark which will keep astrogeologists like Jonathan active and excited for months and years to come. I wanted to make sure you all had a chance to see the NASA reports on the Pluto surface, and Pluto’s moon Charon, whose surface shows every sign of a very active interior.

I am also happy to announce that I have just launched a new Kickstarter campaign, to support the production of two new CDs of my music.  “Stories and Stone” is a companion album to “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok” containing variant arrangements of my Viking music, plus new recordings of my anthem for Space exploration and human progress “Somebody Will”.  “Trickster and King” will be the first album recorded by myself and my singing partner Lauren Schiller as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King”.  The whole first album and half of the second are finished and streaming online, so please listen and enjoy. And if you enjoy, please consider supporting the Kickstarter, and spread the word about it (NOW OVER – it was a great success, THANK YOU!  Hear the music here).  Much of the goal of this campaign is to raise money so I can afford to hire help, including my assistant Mack who works with me here on Ex Urbe and with other projects.  I am having more and more demands on my time as teaching and research at Chicago become more intense, and especially as the release of my novels approaches, and the more help I can hire the more time I can devote to Ex Urbe posts and other creative projects. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a “tip jar” or some other way you can support Ex Urbe, this is a great way, as is spreading the word about the campaign.

The finished album, to be released in August:

 And the second album still in progress:

Somebody Will with guitar:

It’s hard to pick a single favorite track, but if I had to it is probably Hearthfire in five parts, with guitar performed by my (wonderful and Space exploration-championing!) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

The first CD should ship in September, with an instant digital download when the Kickstarter finishes in August.

Meanwhile, to split the difference between Viking music and Pluto, I recently had the good luck of a daytime flight over Greenland in beautiful weather, so please enjoy this photo essay on the wild and icy geology of our own little planet, and the frosty habitat of our native Jotuns and trolls:

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