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…
Too 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.
How 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 V, more 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At 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.
I 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?”)
Everybody, 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:
God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnbenevolent. (Given.) “Grrrr,” quoth Socrates.
Given that God is Omniscient, He knows what the best of all possible worlds is.
Given that God is Omnipotent, He can create the best of all possible worlds.
Given that God is Omnibenevolent, He wants to create the best of all possible worlds.
Any world such a God would make must logically be the best of all possible worlds
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.
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.
And 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.
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.
Thus, 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.
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.
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!
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 Lightningfully 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.
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.
Medieval 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.
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.
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.
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?
To 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:
The Church Fathers are saints, and divinely inspired; their words are direct messages from God.
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.
The Church Fathers often disagree with each other.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Medieval thought was notdominated 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.
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.
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.
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:
A week from today, the NASA New Horizons Spacecraft will perform its close flyby of Pluto, beaming back the first color images of our solar system’s last uncharted world (and finally telling the makers of the Celestial Buddies line what color they should make their long-awaited cuddly Pluto). In celebration of the occasion, I have solicited a guest post from my good friend Jonathan Sneed, an astrogeologist/ paleobiologist, currently working as a research technician with the Solar System and Exoplanet Habitability Group here at the University of Chicago. Jonathan studies rocks, and what rocks tell us about how planets and other astronomical bodies form and develop, especially when life gets in the mix. These are the skills we need to predict which planets and other space rocks might have life, or the chemicals necessary to support us as we launch out into the vast and black frontier. Jonathan’s essay offers predictions about what New Horizons might find when it makes its flyby next week, gives a taste of how much photos alone can teach us about the history and potential of Pluto, and offers a glimpse of how astrogeology lets us learn about the celestial stepping stones scattered around us.
When she’s talking about the history of skepticism, our host likes to talk about Pluto, and in particular about the argument that scientists had about it. Shall it be a planet? A dwarf planet? A planetoid? Megarock? Especially large ice cube? In her classroom, Pluto is the enemy of eudaimonia, a didactic example of the stress we experience when our perceptions shift and the maps are all rewritten. She discusses the ways that we use doubt to insulate ourselves against collisions between truth and belief, how the ancient Pyrrhonists found a refuge in uncertainty. It’s all rather grim.
Obviously, I can’t let her be the one to talk about the imminent New Horizons flyby.
It is, after all, a unique moment in human history! For most of us, most of the time, discovery is a kind of communication. You turn to page 57 and look at a full-page spread of the Krebs Cycle, or stop by a street performer on your way to the grocery store and hear real jazz for the first time, or open your RSS feed and read a quote by Sartre, and your world shifts under your feet just a bit. But moments like this are a reminder: there are things that nobody knows, and you have the ability to know them. If you’re willing to admit a little uncertainty, that is.
Over the next few weeks, a great many things will become known about a whole new world. I thought this might be a good opportunity to sketch out some of what you might look for, so that you can participate a little bit more actively in that moment, if you have a mind to do so. The New Horizons craft is outfitted almost entirely with cameras, imagers, and spectrometers of one sort or another, so we’ll have basically one thing to go on: what color is it?
Granted, some of those photons will be well outside the range of the human eye, so I’m using ‘color’ with a certain amount of poetic license. But at the end of the day, it’s a remarkably straightforward little device. We were curious about Pluto, so we looked at it. The atmosphere should be quite visible, and it’s more than thin enough for us to peer through that atmosphere to the solid surface beneath. From there, we’ll see not just the elements that make up pluto, but also the chemical arrangements that they’ve made for themselves and the large shapes and geological formations that have emerged. Are there mountains and valleys? Volcanoes? Some kind of erosional process that cycles and recycles the surface?
And these things, in turn, will tell us more than you might expect. Because we don’t just know what Pluto looks like now; we have a pretty good guess about where it started, and two points make a line.
One of my favorite facts (up there with ‘birds are dinosaurs’) is that the number of mineral types in the universe is increasing at an exponential rate. For a geologist, every day is the most exciting day the universe has ever had! A while back, the first stars and the preposterous forces at work inside them, gave us the first heavy elements and the few mineral grains they can form drifting in interstellar space. Eventually, those first primitive grains clumped together to form rocks and then whole planets, with solid bits and fluid bits and change, and new minerals emerged from that dynamism. The kind of minerals that are only formed when water evaporates into an atmosphere and leaves a residue behind. The kind that are only formed when some kind of fancy-pants self-sustaining carbon-based chemical process decides to secrete a shell for itself. The kind that first come in to being when a state legislature settles on new safety standards for concrete. And so on, accelerating ever onwards.
(Actually, human-created objects don’t technically count as minerals, but this is an arbitrary semantic line. ‘Anthropocite’ is far too wonderful a word to not get used in a scientific journal eventually.)
What this means for Pluto is that, despite the huge variety of things that a (dwarf) planet(oid) might do, the starting ingredients have to be drawn from a set of things that can be cooked by a star and are willing to clump together in space. As to what it did with those things in the four and a half billion years since… well, that’s harder to guess. But here are some of the most important ingredients that might go into your Pluto recipe, drawn straight from the primordial dust itself:
Water ice. Ammonia. Silicates, with a variety of elements thrown in for flavor- potassium, phosphorous, a great many metals. Iron and sulfur compounds, usually bonded with oxygen or mixed in with the silicates. Carbon, doing its crazed carbon dance, probably already forming a few amino acids and alcohols as it falls into the gravity well. Carbon, being less creative, oxidized or in the form of methane. Hydrogen and helium, as much as you like, although those will run away from the world almost as soon as they arrive.
I’ve been careful to emphasize some of the ones that I think are going to be important, so this is isn’t comprehensive. But it’s a lot closer to comprehensive than you’d think. All in all, there are a little more than a hundred different molecules floating around between the stars, a shockingly finite list.
Even more conveniently, we have a category we can use. No, not ‘planet’, alas. The category I am thinking of is ‘Kuiper Object’. On Ex Urbe, categories are a deep and compelling subject in their own right, but for the time being I shall take a narrow and cowardly view. All I mean is that Pluto is quite similar to a lot of other things in the ways we have already measured, and so I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was also similar to those things when we measure new aspects of it.
Kuiper Objects are a fascinating bunch, named by the region just outside Neptune’s orbit. They’re quite icy (some would even float), and they come in a range of exciting colors for the discriminating consumer (gray is common, and red and black are, as always, favorites). There are many things we don’t know about Kuiper objects, but we’ve also had one tantalizing opportunity:
This is a picture of Triton, one of the moons of Neptune, given to us by interstellar traveler and Blind Willie Johnson fan Voyager II. Triton is quite icy, although it would not quite float in water. It comes in a range of exciting colors, primarily gray and red. And it’s going around Neptune in basically the wrong direction, which implies that it fell into Neptune’s gravity well a good deal after planetary formation. It also, for the record, has an atmosphere, surface composition, and density shockingly similar to that which we infer for Pluto. So, there’s that.
A while back, I shared an office with a guy who wrote a thesis about how confusing Kuiper Objects are. He had written an efficient and cutting-edge program that would transform reasonable assumptions into arcane squiggles and crying graduate students. I learned a lot from that guy, especially about the perils of trying to predict the behavior of (dwarf) planet(oid)s given even very simple starting conditions. What happens when you make a very, very large pile of ice and silicates, and then wait for four and a half billion years? What do we expect to see when we take our picture of Pluto? Potentially, a lot of things.
But for any big pile of rocks, there are basically four ways to get the thing to move: sunlight, radiation, gravity, and chemistry. Actually, gravity and radiation make a nice twofer.
The idea is this: shuffle silicate rocks and water ice into a big ball. A lot of the heavier metals mixed in with your silicates are a bit radioactive, so they warm the ice around them into a kind of slush (same reason the Earth is a fluid once you go a few miles down). That’s just enough lubrication to let the heavy stuff fall to the bottom, and the lighter stuff rise to the top- and now we have some density gradients to work with, and maybe even some liquid(ish) water. Even more excitingly, everything in that ball that isn’t easily trapped in mineral form (the nitrogen compounds, the methane, and all those wonderful mad organic molecules) will tend to get squeezed out to the exterior surface, or near it. We call those ‘volatiles’, which is one of those charmingly literal phrases that scientists sometimes use. They explode, is what I’m saying.
Almost certainly, this is the process that first set Pluto in motion. But what happens then, especially on the surface? Once you squirt out all the gasses and form an atmosphere, and expose your wiggly mad carbon to sunlight, what does it do next? Well, here’s where the graduate students start crying, but let’s give it a shot. We’ll start with the most sensible and least speculative feature, giant ice volcanoes.
Ice volcanoes are a good sign of an active world, for the same reason that molten rock volcanoes are on Earth- they have to be refreshed by ongoing tectonic activity. As far as we know, they’re exactly the same kind of structure. At temperatures this low, ice is just another kind of rock, and it takes geological forces to warm that rock up to its melting point and expel it as magma. Except, the magma is water (plus a complicated mix of other volatiles like nitrogen)- so we call it ‘cryomagma’, a truly fabulous word if ever I saw one.
If we’re exceptionally lucky, we’ll see an active volcano during the flyby- on Triton, our closest analogue to Pluto, these eruptions can last for (Earth-) years, so it’s not an unreasonable hope. But even if we don’t, we should be able to find strong evidence that they did happen; look for dark smears in the calderas as frozen nitrogen ‘ash’ falls back to the surface.
Another really important thing to watch out for is the craters. Specifically, there not being any.
Here’s a puzzle for you: how do we date rocks on Mars? If you’re lucky enough to have a rover right there, you can run any number of exciting tests, but it’s a big planet and there aren’t that many rovers. Yet, we have guesses about the age of Olympus Mons and Hellas Planitia. How?
The answer is that Mars is fairly inert- enough so that the craters are more or less permanent fixtures. So if you know how often a meteorite is going to blow a hole in a given area, all you have to do is count the craters and then you have a pretty good measure of how long that surface has been exposed. ‘Pretty good’ means plus or minus 600,000,000 years, granted. But I think it’s a pretty cool trick anyway.
So if we make it to Pluto and it’s covered in craters like Earth’s moon or Mars, then that means Pluto has slowed down a lot in the last few billion years. If, on the other hand, it’s fairly crater-free, then something is busy removing those craters. That smells quite a bit like active tectonics. So: ice volcanoes, or craters, but not both- those tools could give us a pretty good idea of whether there is an active mantle in the subsurface, pushing the outer (nitrogen, methane, ice) crust around and otherwise being interesting.
Only, that mantle would be a fluid made of, among other things, water.
As a species, we’ve gotten very good at looking, so even before New Horizons we knew a few things about the surface of Pluto. Broadly, it has the coloring we expect for a Kuiper Object: grey, black, and red, and is sharply mottled. But what, actually, do these colors mean?
I mentioned sunlight as one of the forces that must move Pluto. Granted, the sun lacks a certain degree of strength at that distance, but in combination with the rotation of the (dwarf) planet(oid), the sun is going to be the primary cause of temperature variations at the surface, far away from all that radioactive rock at the center. As the ice volcanoes have shown us, it’s not so much the absolute temperature that matters, as whether or not that temperature cycles around any interesting phase transitions. And as it happens, there are three (and only three, that I know of) materials in our original Pluto recipe that have an interesting phase transition at Pluto’s surface temperatures: carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrogen.
These can have seasonal rhythms, they can precipitate or frost, and are generally going to provide a lot of the bulk material for all the really interesting chemical reactions at the surface. If the ice of Pluto is as rock on Earth, then these are its water and air.
Nitrogen doesn’t help us with that coloration problem too much, but the other two? Those are interesting. Because the beating heart of both is a bit of carbon, and carbon is flexible enough to explain a great many things and a great many colors. This is the element that gives us black graphite and transparent diamonds, after all. When our carbon molecules are left outside for a few billion years of exposure, through years of those interesting phase transitions, something will change- the carbon will fry in the ultraviolet light. Very, very slowly, and it has to be peeled away from the hydrogen and oxygen first, but it will fry all the same. And as it happens, this can explain both the red and the black against a grey ice background.
These are not, of course, the only explanations for the colors that we see on the surface of Pluto. Red has a classic association with iron oxides (you and Mars are red for the same reason, as it happens), and there is a potential universe out there where the surface of Pluto is rusted. But the world is not very dense, and so this would require a great many odd things- not only that there be no mantle fluidity to pull dense minerals inward, but that some inverse process pulled it away, concentrating that metal on the outer circumference. I can’t think of what that might be. But nonetheless, it could be what reality gives us. The disadvantage of this theory is not that it is impossible, just that it requires a great many things to be true. And so I lean towards an explanation that doesn’t demand further concessions from reality, using only the processes that we already acknowledge on the parts that we started with.
Carbon and Water:
I have done a mean thing. I used cryovolcanics and an analogy to Triton as a way of suggesting that there might still be liquid (or at least slushy) water on Pluto. And then, I invoked a reasonably elegant explanation of Pluto’s mottled coloration to suggest that surface processes are driving chemistry of complex carbon molecules.
You are now thinking about aliens.
Or at least, I assume so. I would be. Not flying saucers or anything out of our drive-through horror shows. No, you’re considering the possibility of some simple microbe, maybe a Plutonian lichen of some sort, with subtle but radical implications for our role in the universe as living things. Then again, maybe not; I spend a lot of time thinking about aliens, so my calibration may be off. But if you were thinking about aliens, I apologize. There are not aliens on Pluto. Definitely not, certainly not. I am at least 95% sure, and even that is rounding down. Probably.
There’s a funny inverse to the eudaimonia of skepticism. If we remember that anything we believe might be false, then we can indeed let go of our beliefs with a certain grace. But if anything might be false, then just think of all the things that might be true! And there’s the danger. Before long, we look up and see the canals on Mars that we hope for, rather than the Vallis Marineris as it actually is.
Every planet and moon that we’ve investigated in this solar system has been utterly unique. These worlds are awesome, and frightening, and alien. Crystal cities on Venus would have been amazing, but they would have been amazing in a very human way- they would have been our fantasy, not an encounter with a genuinely new reality. And in the same way, whatever is really on Pluto, it’s going to be an experience that wasn’t bent to fit our expectations, a thing that nobody knows. It will be wonderful, even though it won’t be life.
Welcome to a new feature here on Ex Urbe — the promoted comment.
From time to time, Ada makes a long substantive chewy comment, which could almost be its own post. Making it into an actual post would take valuable time. The comment is already written and fascinating — but hidden down in a comment thread where many people may not notice it. From now on, when this happens, I will extract it and promote it. I may even go back and do this with some older especially awesome comments. You’ll be able to tell the difference between this and a real post, because it’ll say it’s posted by Bluejo, and not by Exurbe, because it will say “a promoted comment”, and also because it won’t be full of beautiful relevant carefully selected art but will have just one or two pieces of much more random art.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this new post. As I am reviewing macroeconomics, especially the different variations of Solow Model, I cannot help but link “intellectual technology” with the specific endogenous growth model, which attempts to led the model itself generate technological growth without an exogenous “manna from heaven”. In this model, technology growth is expressed endogenously by the factor capital as “productive externalities”, and individual workers, through “learning by doing,” obtain more “skills” as the capital grows. Of course, the “technology factor” in the model I learned is vaguely defined and does not cover the many definitions and various effects of “intellectual technology” not directly related to economic production.
Your conversation with Michael reminds of me the lectures and seminars I took with you at Texas A&M. By the time I took your Intellectual History from Middle Ages to 17th Century, I have already taken some classes on philosophy. Sadly, my fellow philosophy students and I usually fell into anachronism and criticized early thinkers a bit “unfairly” on many issues. That is why your courses were like a beam of light to me, for I was never aware of the fact that we have different logic, concepts, and definition of words from our predecessors and should hence put those thinkers back into their own historical context.
It seems to me that Prof. Peter E. Gordon’s essay “What is intellectual history’ captures the different angles from which you and Michael construe Machiavelli: Michael seems more like a philosophy/political science student who attempts to examine how and why early thinkers’ ideas work or not work for our society based on our modern definitions, concepts, and logic, thus raising more debates on political philosophy and pushing the progress of philosophical innovation; your role as an intellectual historian requires one to be unattached from our own understanding of ideas and concepts and to be aware of even logic that seems to be rooted in our subconsciousness so that to examine a past thinker fairly without rash judgement. Michael is like the one who attempts to keep building the existing tower upward, while you are examining carefully the foundation below. For me personally, it would be nice to have both of these two different ways of thinking.
I have a question: I have been attempting to read a bit of Karl Marx whenever time allows. He argues that our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions. If we accept his point of view, would it be useful to connect intellectual history with economic history?
Nahua, I think you have hit it spot on with your discussion of Peter Gordon’s essay. When I worked with him at Harvard (I had the privilege of having him on my committee, as well as being his teaching assistant for a course) I remember being struck by how, even when we were teaching thinkers far outside my usual scope like Heidegger, I found his presentation of them welcoming and approachable despite my lack of background, because he approached them in the same context-focused way that I did, evaluating, not their correctness or not or their applicability to the present, but their roots in their contemporary historical contexts and the reasons why they believed what they believed.
For Marx’s comment that “our thinking and ideology are a reflection of our material conditions” I think it is often very useful to connect intellectual history with economic history, not in a strictly deterministic way, but by considering economic changes as major environmental or enabling factors that facilitate or deter intellectual change and/or the dissemination of new ideas. I already discussed the example of how I think the dissemination of feminism in the 19th century was greatly facilitated by the economic liberation of female labor because of the development of industrial cloth production, more efficient ways of doing laundry, cleaning, cooking etc. Ideas about female equality existed in antiquity. They enjoyed a large surge in conversation and support from the intellectual firebrands of the Enlightenment, through figures like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft. But mass movements and substantial political changes, like female suffrage, came when the economic shift had occurred. To use the “intellectual technology” concept, the technology existed in antiquity and was revived and refined in the 18th century, but it required economic shifts as well to help reach a state when large portions of the population or whole nations/governments could embrace and employ it.
As I work on Renaissance history, I constantly feel the close relationship between economics and the intellectual world as well. Humanism as I understand it began when Petrarch called for a revival of antiquity. Economics comes into this in two ways. First, the reason he thought a revival of antiquity was so desperately necessary was because Italy had become so politically tumultuous and unstable, and was under such threat of cultural or literal invasion from France–these are the consequences, largely, of economic situations, since Italy’s development of banking and its central position as a trade hub for the Mediterranean had filled its small, vulnerable citystates with incomparable wealth, creating situations where powerful families could feud, small powers could hire large mercenary armies, and every king in Europe wanted to invade Italy for a piece of its plump pie. Then after Petrarch, humanism’s ability to spread and succeed was also economically linked. You can’t have a humanist without books, you just can’t, it’s about reading, studying, correcting and living the classics. But in an era when a book cost as much as a house, and more than a year’s salary for a young schoolmaster, a library required a staggering investment of capital. That required wealthy powers–families or governments–to value humanism and have the resources to spend on it. Powers like the Medici, and Florence’s Republican government, were convinced to spend their money on libraries and humanism because they believed it would bring them glory, strength, respect, legitimacy, the love of the people, that it would improve life, heal their souls, bring peace, and make their names ring in posterity, but they couldn’t have made the investment if they hadn’t had the money to invest, and they wouldn’t have believed humanism could yield so much if not for the particular (and particularly tumultuous) economic situation in which Renaissance Italy found itself.
Yesterday I found myself thinking about the history of the book in this light, and comparing it to some comments I heard a scientist make on a panel about space elevators. We all want a space elevator–then space exploration will become much, much less expensive, everyone can afford satellites, space-dependent technologies will become cheap, and we can have a Moon Base, and a Mars program, and all the space stations we want, and all our kids can have field trips to space (slight exaggeration). To have a space elevator, we need incredibly strong cables, probably produced using nanofibers. Developing nanofibers is expensive. What the engineer pointed out is that he has high hopes for nanofiber devlopment, because nanofibers have the ideal demand pattern for a new technology. A new technology like this has the problem that, even if there are giant economic benefits to it later on, the people who pay for its development need a short-term return on that, which is difficult in the new baby stages of a technology when it’s at its most expensive. (Some of you may remember the West Wing episode where they debate the price of a cancer medication, arguing that producing each pill costs 5 cents so it’s unfair to charge more, to which the rebuttal is that the second pill cost 5 cents, but the first pill cost $300 million in research.) Once nanofiber production becomes cheap, absolutely it will be profitable, but while it’s still in the stage of costing $300 million to produce a few yards of thread, that’s a problem, and can be enough to keep a technology from getting support. One of the ways we work around this as a society today is the university system, which (through a form of patronage) supports researchers and gives them liberty to direct research toward avenues expected to be valuable independent of profit. Another is grant funding, which gives money based on arguments for the merit of a project without expecting to be paid back. A third is NASA, which develops new technologies (like velcro, or pyrex) to achieve a particular project (Moon!), which are then used and reused in society for the benefit of all. But looking at just the private sector, at the odds of a technology getting funding from investors rather than non-profits, what the scientist said is that, for a technology to receive funding, you want it to have a big long-term application which will show that you’ll make a steady profit once you can make lots of the thing, but it needs to also to have a short-term application for which a small number of clients will be prepared to pay an enormous amount, so you can sell it while it still costs $300 million, as well as expecting to sell it when it costs 5 cents. Nanofibers, he said, hit this sweet spot because of two demands. The first is body armor, since it looks like nanofibers can create bullet-proof fabric as light as normal fabric, and if we can do that then governments will certainly pay an enormous amount to get bullet-proof clothing for a head of state and his/her bodyguards, and elite military applications. The second is super-high-end lightweight golf clubs, which may seem like a frivolous thing, but there are people who will pay thousands of dollars for an extremely high end golf club, and that is something nanofibers can profit from even while expensive (super lightweight bicycles for racing also qualify). So nanofibers can depend on the excitement of the specific investors who want the expensive version now, and through their patronage develop toward the ability to produce things cheaply.
In this sense the history of the book, especially in the Renaissance, was very similar to the situation with nanofibers. In the early, manuscript stage when each new book cost the equivalent of $50,000 (very rough estimate), libraries were built and humanism was funded because wealthy people like Niccolo Niccoli and Cosimo de Medici believed that humanist libraries would give them and their home city political power and spiritual benefits, helping them toward Heaven. That convinced them to invest their millions. Their investments then created the libraries which could be used later on by larger populations, and reproduced cheaply through printing once it developed, but printing would not have developed if patrons like them weren’t around to make there be demand for the volume of books printing could produce. It took Petrarch, Niccoli and Cosimo to fund a library which could raise a generation of people who could read the classics before there was enough demand to sell the 300-1500 copies of a classical book that a printing press could print. And, working within current capitalism, it may take governments who really want bullet-proof suit jackets to give us our space elevator, though universities, NASA, and private patronage of civilian space programs are certainly also big factors pushing us forward.
In sum, I would say that economics sometimes sparks the generation of new ideas–as the economically-driven strife Petrarch experienced enabled the birth of humanism–but it also strongly affects how easily or quickly a new idea can disseminate, whether it gets patronage and support, or whether its champions have to spread it without the support of elites, patrons or government. Thus, in any given era, an intellectual historian needs to have a sense of funding patterns and patronage systems, so we can understand how ideas travel, where, and why.
One more thought from last night, or rather a test comparison showing how the concept “intellectual technology” can work. I was thinking about comparing atomism and steel.
Steel is a precursor for building skyscrapers. Despite urban demand, we didn’t get a transition to huge, towering metropoles until the development of good steel which could raise our towers of glittering glass. Of course, steel is not the ONLY precursor of the skyscraper–it also requires tempered glass, etc. And it isn’t the only way to build skyscrapers, you can use titanium, or nanotech, but you are very unlikely to get either of those things without going through steel first. Having steel does not guarantee that your society will have skyscrapers. Ancient Rome had steel. In the Middle Ages Europe lost it (though pretty-much everywhere except Europe still had steel). When steel came back in the Renaissance it still didn’t lead immediately to skyscrapers, it required many other developments first, and steel had to combine with other things, including social changes (growth of big cities). But when we look at the history of city development, studying steel is extremely important because the advent of steel-frame construction is a very important phase, and a central enabling factor for the development of modern cities.
My Lucretius book looks at the relationship between atomism and atheism in the same way that this analysis looks at steel and skyscrapers. Atomism was around for a long time, went away, came back, etc. And you can have non-atomic atheism, we have lots of it now. But atomism, as the first fully-developed mechanical model of the working of Nature (the first not dependent on God/gods to make the world work) was, in my opinion, one of the factors that you needed to combine with other developments to reach a situation in which an intellectual could combine mechanical models of nature with skepticism with other factors to develop the first fully functional atheistic model of the world. It’s one of the big factors we have to trace to ask “Why did atheism become a major interlocutor in the history of thought when it did, and not before or after?” just as tracing steel helps us answer “Why did skyscrapers start being built when they did?” There had almost certainly been atheisms before and independent of atomism (just as you can make really tall things, like pyramids or cliff-face cities, without steel-frame construction) but it was rare, and didn’t have the infrastructural repeatability necessary to let it become widespread. Modern atheists don’t use Epicurus, they more frequently use Darwin, just as modern skyscrapers use titanium, but the history of skyscrapers becomes clear when we study the history of steel. Just so, the history of atheism becomes much clearer when we study atomism. Of course, we now use steel for lots of things that aren’t skyscrapers (satellite approaching Pluto!), and similarly atomism has lots of non-atheist applications, but we associate atomism a lot with atheism, just as we think a lot about “towers of glass and steel” and usually think less about the steel bolts in our chairs or the steel spoons we eat with. All applications of steel, or epicuranism, can be worth studying, but skyscrapers/ atheism will never stop being one of the biggest and most interesting, at least in terms of how they changed the face of our modern world. And finally, while minority of buildings are skyscrapers, and a minority of contemporary people are atheists, the study of both is broadly useful because the presence of both in the lives of everyone is a defining factor in our current world.
Hello, patient friends. The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts. But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:
The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects. So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos. CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:
At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here. I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to. These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):
In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”
A little conversation about Machiavelli:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way. But…….. I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked. The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelliby Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.
I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.
I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on Academia.edu now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.
Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago
More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response… I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
* On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings. I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:
I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.
A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:
I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study. Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time. The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do. They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration. They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:
The Bicycle and Atomism
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond. We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly. Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.
The Unity of All Life and Calculus
Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing. This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages. The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.
Feminism and the Aztec Wheel
For a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel. More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that. Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own. The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built). Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth. Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).
In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it. I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).
I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more. But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily. It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole. When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like. And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.” Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”
In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another. We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator. How do we feel about that contribution? Positive? Negative? Critical? Celebratory? I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.
Hello, all. I must thank you all for your patience during the long lag since my last post, but they were months well spent on my move to Chicago, settling into a rich new community, plus a lot of work on my Norse mythology album project which is now, at last, nearly complete.
In addition, my essay-writing time usually directed toward ExUrbe went, over the last few months, toward a new essay now live on Tor.com, which is very like my earlier double review of the Borgia TV series, but takes as its subject the new BBC series The Hollow Crown, a TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V), comparing it to several other film and stage versions of the same plays. If you’ve enjoyed my ExUrbe posts then I highly recommend the new essay, since it really in the ExUrbe spirit. (Some may also enjoy my earlier Tor.com post recapping a panel I was on at Worldcon about which comics of the last 15 years will be remembered in 50).
Meanwhile, since I’m not yet prepared for the next installment of my skepticism series, here’s a fresh Spot the Saint:
First, a Review of Saints’ Hats:
Hats are often one of the best clues for narrowing down who any given saint might be, so anyone who wants to become a Spot the Saint expert needs to get good at differentiating between different categories of hats. Some are easy to confuse with each other, but the critical basics are these:
Bishop Hat (mitre) vs. Pope Hat (tiara):
These can be easy to mix up because they’re both tall and pointy, but if you look closely the fundamental structures are different.
A bishop hat, properly called a “Mitre” is fundamentally diamond-shaped, usually with two subtle corners on the sides a little below half way up. When seen from the front, it is often decorated with a cross and/or a pair of symmetrically placed gems. In art, the distinctive decoration with an up-side-down T or partial cross is often an essential distinguishing feature since no other hat, even similar-looking pope hats, will have it:
The two images above are simply identified as “a bishop saint” since the hat and crosier let us spot a bishop but they have no other details so we can’t know more.
When seen from the side, the structure of a bishop hat becomes clearer: two flat semi-triangular pieces of fabric connected together at the top by a flap that goes across above the head. There are two flaps hanging down in the back, but the centerpiece is that it is not a cone but a flat structure:
In contrast, the pope hat, or “papal tiara” also called the “triple tiara” is a cone or beehive shape rather than a flat triangular structure. Whether viewed from the front or from the side the round shape remains identical. It is decorated with three crowns set above each other. If a bishop’s mitre is a soft hat made of fabric which becomes flat when in storage, a papal tiara is 100% stiff, often made of metal, and the same shape whether or not there is a head inside:
It is important to remember that a pope is also bishop of Rome so entitled to wear a bishop’s mitre in addition to wearing the papal tiara, and in real life it’s pretty common for live popes to wear a mitre since it’s much less heavy and much more practical, being made of fabric rather than metal as the tiara usually is. But in art, popes will usually have pope hats.
In the case below, you can see two decorated mitres on the outside and two papal tiaras on the inside (all from behind):
Any saint who was a pope is entitled to wear a papal tiara in art, and usually they will. The fun exception here is St. Peter who is usually differentiated just by holding the keys and being dressed like an apostle, but sometimes they will depict him with a pope hat just to be trixy. (In the image below the old bronze statue of Peter in the Vatican has been given a pope hat for a holiday):
Cardinals’ Hats vs. Cosmus and Damian:
Also essential is identifying a cardinal’s hat. In daily life a live-on-the-street cardinal may wear any of several different designs of hat, and will usually opt for one of the smaller hats:
But symbolically, and reliably in art, a cardinal’s hat is a very large wide-brimmed bright red hat:
This wide hat, with dangling tassels, is in fact a red version of the technical formal priest’s hat which also exists in black for ordinary priests and in green for bishops. Tassels hanging from it differentiate rank. This type of hat is pretty-much never worn, and those that exist in physical reality are pretty-much all in museums as the historic property of the famous cardinal so-and-so, but the hats serve a major purpose in heraldry, since when one becomes a priest, bishop or cardinal one is entitled (indeed expected) to add the hat above one’s coat of arms to distinguish rank, just as a king or duke adds a crown and a pope adds the papal tiara and crossed keys.
Here is a real life museum piece cardinal’s hat:
A cardinal’s hat and robes:
Here is a real life coat of arms of someone who is very excited to be a cardinal, and advertising that he has been “given the cardinal’s hat” which is a traditional way of referring to the promotion:
Here are the technical heraldic formula for arms of clerics different ranks, showing different numbers of tassels.
Note also how, rather than just red, the hat and tassels are sometimes a pinkish color:
Here are some examples of the arms of priests who are not cardinals. One does occasionally see the black priest’s hat (though mostly in movies) but I have never in my life found an image of one of the green bishop hats in real life since bishops are generally represented by the mitre, and use the green flat hat only in heraldry:
A bishop’s arms, with the hat green instead of red, sometimes decorated with silver in illuminated manuscripts:
And here are the specific arms of some highly-ranking clerics. Note the differentiation of cardinals of different ranks. The arms at the op left are the arms of the Patriarch of Lisbon. A few places (like Constantinople and Venice) had a special rank called “Patriarch” which is effectively above cardinal, and the quasi-peer of the pope. A patriarch’s arms could have the triple tiara, but could not combine them with the papal keys, which were reserved only for the pope.
In art, the tassels are generally too complicated to bother depicting, so the key is to look for the big flat red hat with its distinctive crisp brim. Sometimes it will be on the cardinal’s head, but often, especially in the case of Jerome, it will be sitting on the ground nearby, representing that this person is a cardinal but doesn’t care about the ostentation of rank:
On occasion, the same will be done for popes, as in this image of Gregory:
The one point at which cardinals’ hats get tricky are when Cosmus & Damian get involved, because they too usually have red hats. But cardinals’ hats always have a crisp, stiff brim, whereas Cosmus & Damian’s hats are soft and bag-like:
Similarly important is the ability to tell when hats are NOT any church rank hat but are simply a person wearing a random hat because all medieval and Renaissance people (except monks) wore hats pretty-much all the time. These two hats, for example, differentiate people who were simply merchants or ordinary members of their society and not monks or priests:
And with this review of hats under your belt, you are prepared to look at an image like this one and understanding who is bestowing what rank on whom:
You are also prepared to identify the Four Doctors of the Church.
The Four Doctors of the Church
I already discussed St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, recognizable by his cardinal’s hat, his gaunt, hermit-like appearance, his friendly lion, and often a skull, a crucifix, or a rock so he can beat himself when he catches himself wanting to read Cicero. Jerome is also one of the four original “Doctors of the Church” i.e. four early, learned theologians who wrote fundamental works explicating Christian metaphysics and theology, which were adopted as major authorities by the Catholic Church. Jerome’s companions in this set of four are St. Augustine (bishop), St. Ambrose (bishop) and St. Gregory the Great (pope). Jerome himself was, of course, a cardinal, so the four are easily recognized as a set when you see four saints, two with bishops’ hats, one with a papal tiara and one with a cardinal’s hat.
Because Renaissance art loved symmetry, the Four Doctors were particularly popular because they could be depicted alongside the Four Evangelists, for example painting four on the four panels of one vault and the other four on the panels of a matching vault. In the painting at the right, the four doctors, clearly differentiated by their hats, are accompanied by the four companion animals of the evangelists, making the comparison explicit even in the absence of depictions of the evangelists themselves.
Sometimes, as in the piece above, they make it very easy by all being in full, clear robes, but sometimes Jerome is tricky, leaving his hat behind and being mostly naked (hermit) with just a snatch of red fabric to remind you that he’s a cardinal:
The doctors often have books, and are frequently still writing in them, or pictured debating with each other, or with other theologians, as in this excellent group image where a now-familiar monk saint has gone over to see what Gregory and [Augustine] are doing. Note here how Jerome is trying to throw us by being in pink instead of red:
In the image above it’s not actualy possible to tell which is Augustine and which is Ambrose among the two bishops, beyond guessing that Thomas Aquinas is probably checking with Augustine since he used Augustine a lot more. Often the two bishops are impossible to tell apart, since artists are content so long as we realize it’s the four doctors, butall four do also have individual attributes that you sometimes see if artists are kind and thorough.
Saint (Pope) Gregory the Great (540-604):
Common attributes: Papal tiara, dove representing the holy spirit
Occasional attributes: beehive, book, pen
Patron saint of: Teachers, musicians, singers, masons, protection against gout
Patron of places: England
Feast day: Sept 3, March 12
Most often depicted: With the other three doctors, writing a book, writing music
Relics: St. Peter’s, in Rome
Gregory was a Roman born of Christian parents and was given an excellent education in math and science as well as rhetoric and eloquence. He became a Benedictine monk, then a deacon working for the pope (like St. Stephen and St. Lorenzo). He was the first monk to become pope. He was responsible for the creation of Gregorian chant, and for sending legates to evangelize in England. In addition to being dressed as a pope (and sometimes wearing a Benedictine white monk’s habit under his cloak) he is distinguished by the addition of a white dove representing the holy spirit whispering in his ear inspiring his writing.
Saint Ambrose (340-397)
Common attributes: Bishop robes, hat and crosier
Occasional attributes: Book, beehive, scourge, model church
Patron saint of: Bishops, beekeepers, chandlers, schoolchildren
Patron of places: Milan
Feast day: December 7
Most often depicted: With the other three doctors, writing a book,
Relics: Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
While Gregory had Christian parents, Ambrose was a convert, born of a Roman noble family with traditional power in Milan. He studied the classics and law, and became Governor of Milan during the middle of the controversy over Arianism. Shortly after his conversion to Christianity, the Archbishop of Milan died and there was a fierce squabble over who should succeed him. When Ambrose stepped in, as governor, to try to resolve the dispute, his words were so sweet, mild and wise that everyone decided to make Ambrose bishop, even though he had only been Christian a short time. Ambrose reluctantly accepted. He helped battle the Arians, and had an important influence on Augustine. His theological writings were so sweet and eloquent that he was called the “honey-tongued doctor” and is sometimes depicted with a beehive or another representation of honey. At one point when Gothic raiders kidnapped some of Milan’s citizens, he not only used all his own wealth but also melted down the treasures from the church to ransom them, saying that people were the true reasure. He is sometimes depicted with a scourge, possibly connected with his position battling the Arian heresy. Usually, though, he is depicted as just a bishop with a book, or with nothing, making him hard to definitively identify outside the context of the other three doctors.
Saint Augustine (354-430)
Common attributes: Bishop, book
Occasional attributes: Pen, flaming/glowing/pierced heart, dark skin, monk’s habit
Patron saint of: Brewers (because he drank a lot as a youth), printers, theologians
Patron of places: Bridgeport CT; Cagayan de Oro, Philippines; San Agustin, Isabela
Feast day: August 28 (June 15)
Most often depicted: With other doctors, writing books, debating theology
Relics: Church of San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro, Pavia
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote a jillion skillion books. He wrote books and then more books and then more books until he had a big pile of books and then wrote even more books. We have more surviving works by St. Augustine than the entire classical Latin corpus put together. In art, he is often depicted still writing yet another book.
We know much more about Augustine’s life than most saints because he left an autobiography, the Confessions, which is an enormously important text in the history of philosophy in general, and one I teach regularly. He was born to a well-educated and ambitious father who paid for him to have an expensive Greek education so he could have a career as a lawyer or sophist. Augustine’s poorly-educated mother Monica was a deeply pious new Christian convert, and his accounts of her tell us a lot about the conversion process. Monica tried to get young Augustine to embrace Christianity, but, thinking of the philosophy and metaphysical detail he had learned from his teachers, he kept demanding that she explain the technical details of Christianity (“Where is Heaven? What’s it made of? What is the soul made of? Does it have parts? How does it touch the body? How is God three things and one thing at the same time?” <= imagine all this in an obnoxious, scornful teenaged voice). When Monica couldn’t supply satisfactory answers, Augustine became contemptuous of Christianity as a religion for idiots. He had a wanton youth, drinking and sleeping around, smashing things with his drunken friends, and flirted with other religions, first Manicheeism, then Neoplatonism. Patient Monica continued to attempt to get him to convert, enduring ridiculous abuse from him (including one time they were traveling in Italy and he ditched her and jumped a boat for Africa without telling her, stranding her alone). In more mature years, however, with a full knowledge of Platonic metaphysics under his belt, he looked again at Christianity and suddenly everything clicked, and he could see, using Plato, where Heaven was, what it was made of, how many parts the soul had, etc. and he converted eagerly, and dedicated his remaining years to writing the detailed explanations of metaphysics and theology whose absence had let his thirteen-year-old self to turn his back on Christianity. Augustine remains in essence the most influential architect of Christianity outside scripture itself, especially because of his influence on Luther and other Protestant reformers, who rejected most later Catholic dogma but still largely embraced Augustine’s contributions, seeing him as a voice of the early, “pure” Church.
Because it is known that Augustine as born in northern Africa, he is sometimes depicted with dark skin and African features, both in medieval illuminations and in modern icons. While he is often assumed to have been of Greek ancestry, and often depicted as white, his African status has led to him being embraced by some as a role model for Christians of African descent. Monica too is a saint, often depicted in the habit of an Augustinian nun, while Augustine is sometimes depicted in the habit of an Augustinian monk, though inevitably with the trappings of a bishop (hat etc.) over the top.
In art, Augustine and Ambrose can be very difficult to tell apart, but my rule of thumb is that if only one of them has a book it’s Augustine, or if they both have books but one is writing and the other just holding it, Augustine will be the one writing.
Below, a rare image of the four doctors all with clear distinguishing attributes beyond just hats.
Note how Augustine, in addition to having the flaming heart, is actively working with a book:
The original four doctors, also called the “Latin Doctors” since they wrote in Latin, were extremely influential in the Middle Ages, and especially in the 1200s when scholasticism was taking off. Later on many new doctors were added, including scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury, “Greek doctors” who had been popular with the Eastern Church such as John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, and female doctors including the legendary St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was supposed to have confounded pagans in a debate, and the not-legendary St. Catherine of Sienna, the first great female Dominican nun saint and a powerful and articulate theologian.
And now, for the first time in a long time, it’s Spot the Saint Quiz Time!
In this set of six you should get five with certainty. Hint: this is tricky because it DOESN’T have all four Doctors of the Church. The artist expects you to verify who’s who by reading the text, but even without you can tell who they have to be.
The British Library often brings me here to London, to use the mass of early Italian books which were transported to the UK by the book collecting mania which was endemic in the wealthy classes in last two centuries, but this year the library has teamed up with Loncon (the London-hosted World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon) to bring many of my friends as well. So while I travel (and don’t have enough reference books or tranquility to do justice to another post on skepticism) this seems a good moment to share what is half a reflection on my enjoyment of London, with something of a guide recommending activities, and half a series of of some of the more distinctive plays I’ve seen here.
My approach to enjoying London is very much a hybrid of my approaches to Venice and Disneyland, and has never failed to work out delightfully.
The Venice half of the strategy is to do everything I can to avoid having a plan. I simply arrange cheap accommodations as close as possible to an exciting walkable center that’s easy to find again, and then wander at random. Unpredictable intersections of twisting streets reveal layers of exciting architecture, monuments, vistas, fun people with creative fashions speaking many languages, and in the case of London (though not Venice!) excellent food. When I stumble upon a museum I go in it; a church I have a look; concert I have a listen, and by avoiding having anything to do or anywhere to be I can just look and walk and look and walk until the long summer days stretch on into suppertime sunsets.
My usual Venice hotel is behind St. Mark’s Square because it’s the only thing in Venice one can reliably find, while my favorite London stop is the youth hostel directly across from the British Library. Being right by King’s Cross St. Pancras, the hosel is a short tube ride from everything, and a comfortable long walk southwest takes me past many of my favorite spots. First are the specialty bookshops that cluster around the British Library like offshoots of a cypress tree (Judd Books and Gay’s The Word). Next, the open park at Russell Square which is always packed with picnicers. Next I pass the British Museum, where I might pop in to visit some Mesopotamian or Greek treasures, or just visit the strip of shops out front, to gaze at the lovely but staggeringly overpriced replica antiquities in It’s All Greek, or the real antiquities in the windows of the less-coin-specific of the two Coincraft shops, where I occasionally buy something small (I got a remarkably affordable 400 BC Attic little jug there, and a 1,000 BC Persian spearhead; they also have a bin of 1st to 4th century Roman Empire oil lamps for 45 pounds a pop, less if you get two and haggle, which for the sparkle of awe they bring to someone who’s never touched an artifact over 1,000 years old is definitely worth the price).
A few blocks further south I enter the theater district, stop off at the nerd mecca Forbidden Planet, and enter the warren of zigzagging streets surrounding Leicester Square and Covent Garden where I can spend a whole afternoon just walking. The whole area is full of London’s signature layered architecture, crumbling stone and decorated brick and sparkling steel all in a pile together, with colorful woodwork and hidden alleys. I would swear that once I went down an alley and wound up in some kind of Chinatown, where I ate lotus buns and steamed bao, but I’ve never managed to find it again, and it’s just possible it might have been a dream. Unable to find that again this trip, I contented myself with falafel, tapas, a Jamaican curried goat pie, and a hearty Egyptian street food called Koshari, which is a mixture of pasta, rice and lentils with chickpeas, spicy tomato, caramelized onions and spices, vegetarian but with that mix of heavy complex carbs and partial proteins that make it as filling and long-term sustaining as any meat—the shop is called Koshari Street (and they deliver!). Oh, and gelato; two good gelato places in the area, La Gelateria (27 New Row) and a branch of the Italian chain Amorino. If my path takes me southward far enough, I might stumble by accident on Trafalgar Square, and visit the National Gallery or Portrait Gallery, or stray as far as the river if my evening plan wants me to cross. And if at any time I’m too tired to want to walk back, a saturation of underground stations will bring me back to King’s Cross. (One detail relevant to this strategy: I seem to have the magic power that whenever I come to London the weather is beautiful and sunny the whole time, but the ‘wander outside’ plan may not work so well for those who don’t share this inexplicable blessing).
The Disneyland half of my strategy involves tailoring this peaceful meander around maximizing the one unique activity which is so brilliant and unique that it’s worth tailoring everything else to get to do it as many times as possible. At Disneyland this is Space Mountain. In London it is going to the theater. I count it a successful London visit if I’ve been to the theater more times than I spent nights, making intelligent use of matinees and how the proximity of many theaters makes it possible to catch one show in the afternoon and another the same evening, most days at least (Sunday and Monday present challenges since most of the shows are closed). What makes this work so well is that all the plays are good in London, even the ones that aren’t. What I mean by this is that the acting, direction and general production standards are so high that even when it’s a show which I might be skeptical about elsewhere I can rely on it being so well done that I’ll enjoy them anyway. Over separate visits I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant writing and acting of The Tempest and The Importance of Being Earnest, the daring and precarious experiments of stage adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and 1984, the stagecraft spectacles of War Horse and The Lion King, even the formulaic nostalgia of Lady in Black and The Mousetrap. And I always go to the Globe, consistently, unquestioningly, sometimes without even checking to see what show is on, I just know there’s a magical spot on the Earth where you can show up at 7 pm, give them 5 pounds and they’ll let you see Shakespeare, and it’s always good. And it is always good. Even The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labors Lost were thoroughly enjoyable, even though their combinations of unpalatable period sexism and general vacuousness make them hard to take in anything but an extraordinary performance.
Theater contributes especially to my jetlag strategy. Going from West to East (US to Europe) I have found it most effective to take an overnight flight, get 2 or 3 hours’ sleep on the plane, and arrive in London early in the morning. The essential step is to make sure I don’t nap that first day, exhausted as I am; if I can force myself to stay up until a good solid bedtime, 10 or 11 pm, then I can go to bed, get up at a normal time, and my clock is solidly reset onto London time thereafter with no further trouble. But how to keep myself awake during that long draggy first day? All I want to do is nap, but even a quick nap will doom me to sleepless nights and draggy days for close to a week. Solution: theater. I walk around the West End all morning, acquiring tickets for a double dose—matinee and evening shows—of theater, and thus can rely on writing, acting, sound and spectacle to keep me thrilled and awake until well after dark. Depending on the day of the week the Globe can supply one or both, but this time I was saving the Globe shows (King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra) until friends joined me a couple days later, so I booked the stage blood double-whammy: 1984 followed by Richard III.
The first was a new stage adaptation of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in London for a short run, and excellent. Powerful. Vivid. When I close my eyes now I can still see Winston in the chair with OBrien looming over, against the stark glowing white walls of Room 101. And the agony on Winston’s face. I was sufficiently impressed that I bought tickets to see it again with friends, and returned the next day to deliver a letter to the cast expressing my enthusiasm, though the playwright deserves it too. The script and structure made great use of the fact that we in the audience all know the story already, know what’s coming, know that striking girl in the red sash has to be Julia before anyone speaks, and know where it has to end.
The adaptation blurs time, using repeated actions and phrases and glimpses of thing out of order. Winston hears O’Brien’s voice already interrogating him in his head long before he is taken to the Ministy of Love, a blur which creates a metatextual framing: is this the real, live Winston experiencing these events, or are we already in Room 101 and these are his memories breaking down under the pain? And the play also incorporates Orwell’s own framing story, the final section of the novel which is written as if by someone from a later period after the 1984 regime has fallen, who is examining Winston’s account as an historical document; by presenting this early in the play, the adaptation further blurs time: are we seeing live events, Winston’s decaying memory’s, a later period’s ideas of Winston’s account, or both being read by us, the real live reader? The mixture lets us experience all of these layers at once, while all of them are trapped in the same inevitable story. As we watch the events march inevitably forward we are all—Winston, Julia, O’Brien, Orwell, the actors, the viewer—equally aware what room we will soon enter, or in a sense have always already entered. Reuse of actors, most of whom play numerous characters over the course of the performance, highlights in a literal physical sense how the whole populace of Orwell’s dystopia is complicit in the horror that enslaves them, a dystopia made of its people, even Winston as he turns up to work each day to delete the records of people who have been erased, as he will be erased in turn. The play has no intermission, no break or escape, which I think was a wonderful choice, and gave it a powerful momentum. The live enactment of the Two Minutes’ Hate left one deeply terrified of human beings (it had rather the same effect as the room full of Otto Dix I once saw in a Dada exhibition), and Room 101 itself was… well, one of these rare cases where something has infinite buildup and then lives up to that buildup completely, by being precisely what it always had to be. And they have made such great advances with stage blood.
Ten times as much stage blood, sloshed in all directions and over all characters, gave the evening show of Richard III all the crowd-thrilling power Shakespeare intended. I hadn’t bought a ticket in advance and tickets were almost unachievable, because it was both very good by a very good director (Jamie Lloyd) and starred Martin Freeman (Watson in Sherlock; Bilbo in the Hobbit movies), which added to the general population of Shakespeare and Theater lovers a 40% additional attendance by bouncy Sherlock fangirls. Seats were scarce, but arriving two hours in advance made me first in line for the last-minute returned tickets, providing a fascinating opportunity for polyglot as I and a Sweedish actress and two French Sherlock fans cooperated to manage taking turns running off for sandwiches with our mixture of imperfect languages. Ten minutes before the show my patience was rewarded. I rarely enjoy Shakespeare re-set in modern costume, but this was a delightful exception, set almost in the round with a stage crammed with 1950s-ish office furniture—desks with huge brown typewriters and avocado green rolling chairs—recasting the historical setting so that the aftermath of war was not a distant civil war but the wake of WWII. This gave a visceral immediacy how terrible it is to see the hard-earned peace turned into war again by Richard’s selfish schemes. The violence too felt very modern and therefore real, and the production succeeded in something I have seen several attempt: using contemporary violence tropes from Hollywood to recreate the feeling a period play would have had of showing the audience violence that feels like the violence we see in real life instead of something gilded and distanced by antiquity (a production of Webster’s White Devil which I will shortly see in Stratford is trying the same). In some of the murders the audience could tell from the stage setup and general knowledge of Hollywood how the murder had to end, and I felt myself almost silently cheering for the murders to come as expectation’s tension ripened inside me. Martin Freeman proved an amazing Richard, perfectly balancing his endearing and repugnant facets to woo the crowd enough but not too much, playing with audience complicity. Also remarkable was the fact that, instead of cutting Margaret’s curse (as so many productions do when you haven’t just sat through Henry VI so don’t really care about her), this production expanded it into a centerpiece which dominated the story and balanced against Richard like a second real human power at work in the story instead of events being Richard vs. Fate, as it often feels, or Richard vs. the-trope-that-villains-aren’t-allowe- to- win. I didn’t have one of the seats where you actually got spattered with stage blood, but I was offered one, and I was tempted. Needless to stay, it kept me awake and delighted until a healthy bedtime, and I promptly bought tickets to see it again with friends as well.
Despite all this, I fully expect the best theater I see in London this trip to still be coming up: Shakespeare at the Globe. I always unquestioningly see everything that’s on at Shakespeare’s Globe, no matter what it is. Standing tickets are only five pounds (and have the best view by far). Recent productions have concentrated on the comedy, even in tragedies and historical plays, since there are always humorous scenes or scenes with clowns and comic characters. Modern directors tend to try to play these scenes for pathos, seriously or as social commentary, but the Globe is instead doing what my studies of period theater confirm is more likely to have been the original style: playing up the humor to the maximum, with the addition of lots of physical improvisation in the style of Commedia dell’Arte. The result turns what are often the boring (or excluded) scenes into refreshing and hilarious windows on period humor, lively and intense and incredibly entertaining. For those curious, I cannot recommend enough the DVD of their Henry IV, which has such a stunningly entertaining Falstaff that many sections which had never made much sense in any other production suddenly come together as rollicking and wonderful centerpiece scenes.
And since I’ve mentioned it, I should finish by sating your curiosity: Yes, there was is a The Lord of the Rings stage musical; no, it was not a particularly good plan. I recently learned it’s going to come back and have a world tour starting in 2015, but the version I saw in London previews in 2007 was—much like the achievements of Voldemort—terrible, but great. I saw it on a ten pound discounted last-minute ticket, and morbid curiosity has never been better rewarded. Some parts were brilliant. Hobbiton and Bilbo’s birthday party could never have a better setting than a lively, colorful stage full of cheerful, dancing hobbits and raucous music. The sets and costumes spared no expense. Gollum was magnificent, incredible physical acting and great writing too; every time Frodo had a song Gollum would repeat it in an eerie minor key, to great effect, and the actor received a well-deserved standing ovation. The stage itself was complicatedly segmented so they could raise and lower bits of turrain to create mountains and hills and towers, and the long march across the mountains looked every bit as exhausting as it should be. Shelob was also incredible: they blacked out the house completely except for a tiny spotlight on Frodo, and had an enormous puppet but all you could see were the vague shadows of the legs just moving in the edge of the light, with the body always invisible, far more terrifying than anything CG has produced. Orcs came out during intermission to terrorize the audience, which was fun, using weird stilts, which was… weird. And the horseback Nazgul were excellent, great horse frames and billowy black cloaks which were genuinely awesome… almost as awesome as the gazelles from The Lion King musical… but then again a Nazgul inherently is about fifty jillion times as interesting as a gazelle, so perhaps that isn’t saying much, or perhaps it says more about Julie Taymor’s skill than about the play.
You may have sensed that I’ve rather run out of the brilliant facets of the musical and am approaching the more… well… I applaud the decision not to have Gandalf sing at all. I do not applaud the decision to have Gimli sing, and speak, in a weird high squeaky voice all the time. Nor the decision to have Legolas make bizarre hyperstylized grand gestures every time he spoke, as if he was constantly doing sign language in an incomprehensible elven gesture code. Nor other things. For example, some people like the costume Galadriel wears in the films, or in this piece of art, or that piece of art, and some people hate them, but no matter what factions we usually fall into regarding Galadriel costuming I think we can all agree that Gold Sparkly Boustier is not really anywhere near anything one could ever possibly… I mean… how? Why? Help…? Galadriel was, in fact, a lot of the centerpiece of what made the show… odd. You see, the trilogy has a lot of great characters, but it doesn’t actually have a lot of female characters, and those it has don’t have a lot of page count. But musicals like to have lots of singing, and like to have a flashy female lead people care about to put on posters and promote. So they wanted lots of singing parts for a woman, one woman, consistently throughout the story, even during the long stretches where there aren’t any. So they picked Galadriel, and had her have songs. Lots of songs. Lots of songs all the time for no reason. Frodo and Sam would be trudging along through Mordor dum-de-dum-de-dum and Sam would say, “Hey, Frodo, remember that time we met Galadriel?” and Galadriel would pop up *BWOOSH* from behind a rock and suddenly have a song, and then vanish again, leaving the audience (and the hobbits) in a state of bewildered shock, at least until Gollum came along to reassure us that we were back to our regularly scheduled one-ring-mindgames.
In case you were wondering, they couldn’t use Eowyn because there was no Rohan. They cut Rohan. They went straight from elves & co. to Minas Tirith and spidertime with nothing in between. I understand why: you may have noticed that the Lord of the Rings is very long, and difficult to reduce to the length of a two-ish-hour stage musical. But if you cut Rohan the whole thing becomes remarkably more efficiant, and you can turn the audience out on time while still having arguably done at least the beginning and end of the whole epic. It was rather surreal but fascinating from a perspective of how it made me re-analyze the structure of the whole thing. That is, when sudden, inexplicable Galadriel wasn’t there to give me mental whiplash. Or Legolas making incomprehensible hand gestures. In fact, the elves in general were problematic. There were some we saw strolling around in long dignified robes, while others in the same place (Lothlorian I think) were dressed like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell hanging from vines swinging around like tarzan, which is, in the abstract outside of Tolkien, acceptable elf presentation, and I could even see someone thinking it was a good idea to make the musical’s elves like that, but not to have BOTH those AND dignified long-robed Tolkein elves together, it was like having an anime character walk into a Pixar film. In the end I was very glad I saw it becuase it was an undeniably entertaining evening, and it’s certainly been fun describing it to people for the last seven years, but if someone asked me “Was it good?” I would definitely answer: “No. But it was great!” (And a great remedy for jetlag).
(A final note: thank you all for being patient this summer. I know my posts have been infrequent, but in addition to extensive travels and preparation to move from Texas to Chicago, this patch of silence has resulted from my intensive work finishing up 50 pages of carefully researched liner notes about Viking culture and mythology which will be printed in the libretto of my Norse myth a cappella song cycle (which you can pre-order here if you want to read them), and I’ve also been working hard finishing up the CD and DVD, preparing for my book launch next month (Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance), and doing many other sorts of work and writing. So the silence has served the greater good, but I will do my best to pick up the pace in fall after my move. And if you want to read something else right now, I have a new post up on Tor.com about whether or not female Thor should count as a Disney Princess. Enjoy! And, for all those who will be at Worldcon, do drop me a line – I’d love to see you.)