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.)
On the one hand, I have been looking forward for ages to reading and then writing something about “The Litany of Earth,” an amazing novelette by Ruthanna Emrys, acquired for Tor.com by editor Carl Engle-Laird. But on the other hand I personally usually dislike reading reviews, at least traditional reviews of things I have already decided to read. When a reviewer tells me about what I’m going to experience and what excellent things the author is going to do, it disrupts the reading process for me, makes the things mentioned in the review stand out too boldly, interfering with the craftsmanship of a good story in which the author has taken great pains to give each beat just the right amount of emphasis, no more, no less. The memory of the review in my mind makes it like a used book which someone has gone through with highlighter, which can be fascinating as a window on a fellow reader, and delightful for a reread, but it isn’t what I want on first meeting a new text, which in my ideal world consists of me, the reader, placing myself wholly and directly in the hands of the author, with the editor’s touch there too to help spot us along the way. I do not need a co-pilot. And it is more of a problem, for me at least, with short fiction than with long fiction since the review could be half as long as the story and weigh me down with nearly as much weight as the whole thing carries. So, today I have set myself the challenge of writing a review, or non-review, of “The Litany of Earth” that isn’t a co-pilot, or a highlighter, and does as much as possible to get across the story’s strengths and the power of the reading experience while doing my best not to change the relative weight of anything in the story, make anything jump out too boldly, leaving the craftsmanship as untouched as it can be.
I have a seven step plan. (Personal rule: anything with three or more steps counts as a plan. Also, “Profit” is not a step, it’s an outcome, and does not count toward your total of three.)
Recommend you go read “The Litany of Earth” now before I can spoil anything.
Talk amorphously about things the story is doing with structure and world-canon, talking more concretely about a few other pieces of fiction that have done somewhat similar things.
Ramble about Petrarch.
Ramble about Diderot. Dear, dear Diderot…
Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.
Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
Step One: I strongly recommend that you go read “The Litany of Earth” right now. It’s free online, and if you read it now you won’t be stuck with an intrusive co-pilot even if I do fail in today’s challenge of writing a non-review.
Step Two: Talk amorphously, and compare the story to other works of fiction.
One of the unique literary assets of current fiction is the proliferation of familiar but elaborate and thoroughly developed fictional worlds which authors can step into and use for new purposes. There have always been such worlds as long as there has been literature. Arthuriana is my favorite pre-modern example, a complex and well-populated world rich with explorable relationships and flexible metaphysics ready to be elaborated upon and repurposed. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory and Petrarch and Ariosto and the traditional artists in Naples who decorated (and still decorate) street vendor wagons with Arthur’s knights each repurposed Arthuriana just like Marion Zimmer Bradley and and Monty Python and Gargoyles and Heather Dale and Babylon 5 and the endlessly hilarious antics of the BBC’s Merlin. Each of the later authors in the genealogy has taken advantage not only of the plot, setting and characters but knowing that readers have genre expectations.
In the early 1500s when Ariosto began his chivalric and slightly-Arthurian verse epic Orlando Furioso he took advantage of the fact that readers already associated the topic with epic works and grand tourneys and knights and ladies and courtly-love adultery, baggage which let him write a massive and endless rambling snarl of disjointed and fantastic adventurousness so unwieldy that traditional epic structure is to Orlando Furioso as a sturdy rope is to the unassailable rat’s nest of broken headphones and cables for forgotten electronics that I just fished out of this bottom drawer. No reader, not even in 1516, would put up with it without the promise of Arthurian grandeur to make its massive scale feel appropriate. (I will also argue that the BBC Merlin, for all its tomatoes and giant scorpions, has not actually done anything quite so unreasonable as the point when Ariosto has “Saint Merlin” rise from his tomb to deliver an endless rambling prophecy about how awesome Ariosto’s boss Ipollito D’Este is going to be. Fan service long predates the printing press.) In a more recent continuation of this tradition, modern Arthurian adaptations have given us the previously-silenced P.O.V.s of women, of villains, of third-tier characters, and in some sense it’s quite modern to think about P.O.V. at all. But even very old adaptations take advantage of how not just setting but genre is an asset usable to get the reader to follow the author to places a reader might not normally be willing to go. And, of course, in more recent versions authors have taken advantage of exploring silenced P.O.V.s to critique earlier Arthurian works and their blind spots, as a way of reaching the broader blindnesses and silencings of the past stages of our own society that birthed these worlds.
“Is ‘The Litany of Earth’ Arthuriana?” you may wonder. No. It uses a different mythos. I bring up Arthuriana in order to remind you of the many great things you’ve seen humans create by using and reusing a familiar collective fiction, and in order to reinforce my earlier claim that one of the great assets of current fiction is that we have many, many such worlds. If pre-modern Earth had several dozen rich, lively, reusable mythoi and epic settings, the 20th century has added many, many more in which good (and campy) things have and can be done. Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Gundam, the massive united comics universes of Marvel and DC, these each provide as much complexity and material for reuse and reframing as the richest ancient epics, more if, for example, you compare the countless thousands of pages of surviving X-Men to the fragile little Penguin Classics collections of Eddas and fragmentary sagas which preserve what little we still have of the Norse mythic cosmos. Marvel’s universe, and DC’s too, have a fuller population and a more elaborate and eventful history than any mythos we have inherited from antiquity, and my own facetious in-character reviews of the Marvel movies are but the shallowest tip of what can be done with it.
The specific case of this kind of rich reuse whose parallels to “The Litany of Earth” are what brought me down this line analysis comes from the Marvel comics megaverse, the unique and skinny stand-alone Marvels, by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Alex Ross. What it does with the narrative possibilities of the Marvel universe is very much worth looking at even if one doesn’t care a jot about comics.
Described from the outside and ignoring, for a moment, that these are comic books, the Marvel universe presents us with an Earth-like alternate history in which disasters–supernatural, alien, primordial, divine–have repeatedly threatened Earth, the universe, and, most often, New York City with certain destruction. These have been repeatedly repelled by superheroes, somewhat human somewhat not, and the P.O.V. from which we the reader have always viewed these events has been as one of the superpeople at the heart of the battle, deeply enmeshed in the passionate immediacy of the short-term drama, nemeses, kidnappings, personal backstory, and who’s dead lately. Only rarely have we had works that gave us a longer perspective over time, reflecting personal change, evolving perspectives, how being constantly enmeshed in superbusiness makes a person develop and self-reflect, though notably the works that have done so have been among superhero comics’ shining stars (Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, Watchmen.)
Marvels instead offers a long-term and distanced P.O.V., that of a photographer who lives in New York City and, during his path from rookie to retirement, experiences in order the great, visible cataclysms that have repeatedly shaken Marvel’s Earth. His perspective gives historicity, sentiment, reflection and above all realism to Marvel, using it as alternate history rather than an action setting. The effect is powerful, beautiful and highly recommended for the way it weaves the richness of Marvel’s setting together with good writing to create a truly valuable work of literature. But it also reverses an interesting silencing which has been present in the back of Marvel, and superhero comics, since their inception: the silencing of the Public.
Very much like the women in early versions of Arthuriana, the Public in Marvel (and DC) has not been an agent in itself, but an object to motivate the hero. The Public exists to be rescued, protected, placated, evaded, sometimes feared. The Public has cheered P.O.V. heroes, hounded them, betrayed them, threatened them with pitchforks and torches, somehow being tricked over and over again into doubting the heros even after the last seventeen times they were exonerated. The Marvel Public specifically also persistently hates and fears the X-Men and other mutants despite being saved by them sixteen jillion times, and somehow hates and fears the other heros less even though many of them are aliens or science freaks or robots or other things just as weird as mutants. It is a tool of the author, manipulated by villains, oppressing misfits, causing tension, but virtually never is the reader asked to empathize with the Public. The object of empathy is the hero, or occasionally the villain, but the reader is never supposed to identify with or even think about the emotions of the screaming and yet simultaneously silenced mob. Marvels gives us, at last, the point of view of that mob, or at least one member of it, directing our self-identification and above all our empathy for the first time to something which has been hitherto faceless.
The effect is rather like a stroll through the Uffizi enjoying endless scenes of exciting saints surrounded by choruses of beautiful angels and then hitting the Botticelli room where each angel has a distinctive face and personality and you find yourself wondering what that angel is thinking when it watches Mary come to heaven to be crowned its queen, or sings music for young John the Baptist whose grisly end and subsequent heavenly ascension the angel already knows. Only when Botticelli invites you to see the angels as individuals do you realize that no earlier painting ever did. They had a failure of empathy. They were still beautiful, but here is a rich new direction for empathy which no earlier work has asked us to consider, and which opens up a huge arena we had ignored. Women in Arthuriana; the Public in Marvel; the angels that stand around in paintings of saints.
In just the same way, “The Litany of Earth” uses empathy and P.O.V. to open rich new arenas in one of our other well-known modern fictional settings. And the setting it uses has a fundamental and very problematic failure of empathy rooted deep in its foundations, so addressing that head-on opens a very potent door.
And since I can feel the urge to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto becoming harder to resist, I believe it is now time to nip that in the bud by moving on to the next stage of my plan.
Step Three: Ramble about Petrarch.
Picture Petrarch in his library, holding his Homer. He has just received it, and turns the stiff vellum pages slowly, his fingertips brushing the precious verses that he has dreamed of since his boyhood. The Iliad in his hands. His friends have always whispered to him of the genius that was Homer, his real friends, not the shortsighted fools he grew up with in Avignon, arrogant Frenchman and slavish Italians like his parents who followed the papacy and its trail of gold even when France snatched it away from Rome. His real friends are long-dead Romans: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, men like him who love learning, love virtue, love literature, love Rome and Italy enough to fight and give their lives for it, love truth and excellence enough to write of it with passion and powerful words that sting the reader into wanting to become a better person.
Petrarch was born in exile. Not just the geographic exile of his family from their Florentine homeland, no, something deeper. An exile in time. This world has no one he can relate to, no one whose thoughts are shaped like his, who walks the Roman roads and feels the flowing currents of the Empire, whose understanding of the world connects from Egypt up to Britain without being blinded by ephemeral borders, who can name the Muses and knows how truly rich it is to taste the arts of all nine, and how truly poor one is without. Antiquity was his native time, he knows it, but antiquity was cut off too early–he was born too late. His friends are dead, but their voices live, a few, in chunks, in the books in distant libraries which he has spent his life and fortune gathering. His library. Each volume a new shard of a missing friend, those few, battered whispers of ancient voices which survived the Medieval cataclysm that consumed so much. And now, after hearing so many of his friends speak of Homer, call him the Prince of Poets, the climax of all art and literature, divine epic, the centerpiece of all the ancient world, he has it in his hands. It survived. Homer. In Greek. And he can’t read it. Not a word of it. Greek is gone. No one can read it anymore, no one. Homer. He has it in his hand, but he can’t read it, and for all he knows no one ever will again.
This historical moment, Petrarch with his Homer, is one of the most poignant I have ever met in my scholarship. A portrait of discontinuity. The pain when the chain of cultural transmission, of old hands grasping young, that should connect past, present and future is cut off. The cataclysm doesn’t have to be complete to be enough to disrupt, to silence, to jumble, to leave too little, Greek without Homer, Homer without Greek. Petrarch is a Roman. They all are, he and his Renaissance Italians, they have the blood of the Romans, the lands of the Romans, the ruins of the Romans, but not enough for Petrarch to ever really have the life he might have had if he’d been born in the generation after Cicero, and with his Homer in his hands he knows it.
Petrarch did his best. He spent his life collecting the books of the ancients, trying to reassemble the Library of Alexandria, the pinnacle, he knew, of the culture and education which had made the Romans who had made his world. He found many shards, eventually enough that it took more than ten mules to carry his library when he journeyed from city to city. He journeyed much, working everywhere with voice and pen to convince others to share his passion for antiquity, to read the ancients that could be read, Cicero, Seneca, to learn to think as they did and to try to push this world to be Roman again, which for him meant peaceful, broad-reaching, stable, cultured and strong. People listened, and we have the libraries and cathedrals and Michelangelos they made in answer. And Petrarch never gave up on Homer either, but searched the far corners of the Earth for someone with a hint of Greek and eventually, late in life, did find someone to make a jumbled, fragmentary translation, nothing close to what a second-year-Greek student could produce today let alone a fluid translation, but a taste. By late in life he had his New Library of Alexandria, and real hope that it might rear new Romans.
Petrarch wanted to give the library to Florence, to help his homeland make itself the new Rome, but Florence was too caught up with its own faction fighting for anyone to stably take it. Venice was the taker in the end, and he hoped his library would make the great port city like the Alexandria of old, the hub where all books came, and multiplied, and spread. Venice put Petrarch’s library in a humid warehouse and let it rot. We lost it. We lost it again. We lost it the first time because of Vandals and corrupt emperors and economic transformation and plague and all the other factors that conspired to make the Roman Empire decline and fall, but we lost it the second time because Venice is humid and no one cared enough to devote space and expense to a library, even the famous collection of the famous Petrarch. Such a tiny cataclysm, but enough to make discontinuity again. We have learned better since. Petrarch had followers who formed new libraries, Poggio, Niccolo, they repeated Petrarch’s effort, finding books. Eventually princes and governments realized there was power in knowledge. Venice built the Marciana library right at the main landing, so when foreigners arrive in St. Mark’s square they are surrounded by the three facets of power, State in the Doge’s Palace, Church in the Basilica, and Knowledge in the Library. And now we have our Penguin Classics. But we don’t have Petrarch’s library, and we know he had things that were rare, originals, transcriptions of things later lost. There are ancients who made it as far as Petrarch, all the way to the late 1300s, through Vandals, Mongols and the Black Death, before we lost them to one short-sighted disaster. Discontinuity. We have Homer. We don’t know what Petrarch had that we don’t.
This was one of two historical vignettes that came vividly before my mind while I was reading “The Litany of Earth.” The second is…
Step Four: Ramble about Diderot. Dear, dear Diderot…
I must be very careful here. Even though my focus is Renaissance and my native habitat F&SF, Denis Diderot remains my favorite author. Period. My favorite in the history of words. So it is very easy for me to linger too long . But I invoke him today for a very specific reason and shall confine myself strictly to one circumscribed subtopic, however hard the copy of Rameau’s Nephew on my desk stares back.
Three quarters of the way through my survey course on the history of Western thought, I start a lecture by declaring that the Enlightenment Encyclopedia project was the single noblest undertaking in the history of human civilization. I say it because of the defiant, “bring it on!” glances I instantly get from the students, who switch at once from passive listening to critical judgment as they arm themselves with the noblest human undertakings they can think of, and gear up to see if I can follow through on my bold boast. I want that. I want their minds to be full of the Moon Landing, and the Spartans at Thermopylae, and Gandhi, and the US Declaration of Independence, and Mother Teresa, and the Polynesians who braved the infinite Pacific in their tiny log boats; I want it all in their minds’ eyes as I begin.
The Encyclopédie was the life’s work of a century on fire. The newborn concept Progress had taken flight, convincing France and Europe that the human species have the power to change the world instead of just enduring it, that we can fight back against disease, and cold, and mountain crags, and famine cycles, and time, and make each generation’s experience on this Earth a little better. The lion has its claws and strength, the serpent fangs and stealth, the great whales the force of the leviathan, but humans have Reason, and empiricism, and language to let us collaborate, discuss, examine, challenge, and form communities of scientists and thinkers who, like the honeybee, will gather the best fruits of nature and, processing them with our own inborn gifts, produce something good and sweet and useful for the world. The tone here is Francis Bacon’s, but Voltaire popularized it, and by now the fresh passion for collaboration and improvement of the human world had already birthed Descartes’ mathematics, Newton’s optics, Locke’s inalienable rights, calculus, and the Latitudinarian movements toward rational religion which seemed they might finally soothe away the wars that lingered from the Reformation. Everything could be improved if keen minds applied reason to it, from treatments for smallpox which could be preventative instead of palliative, to Europe’s law codes which were not rational constructions but mongrel accumulations of tradition and centuries-old legislation passed during half-forgotten crises and old power struggles whose purpose died with the clans and dynasties that made them but which still had the power to condemn a feeling, thinking person to torture and death.
The Encyclopédie had many purposes. Perhaps the least ambitious was to turn every citizen of Earth into a honeybee. Plato had said that only a tiny sliver of human souls were truly guided by reason–able to become Philosopher Kings–while the vast majority were inexorably dominated by base appetites, the daily dose of food and rest and lust, or by the wild but selfish passions of ambition and pride. For two millennia all had agreed, and even when the Renaissance boasted that human souls could rival angels in dignity and glory through the light of learning and the power of Reason, they meant the souls of a tiny, literate elite. But in 1689 John Locke had argued that humans are born blank slates, and nurture rather than an innate disposition of the soul separated young Newton from his father’s stable boy. The Encyclopédie set out to enable universal education, to collect basic knowledge of all subjects in a form accessible to every literate person, and to their illiterate friends who crowded around to hear new chapters read aloud in the heady excitement of its first release. With such an education, everyone could be a honeybee of Progress, and exponential acceleration in discovery and social improvement would birth a better world. So overwhelming was public demand that Europe ran out of paper, of printer’s ink, even ran out of the types of metal needed to make printing presses, so many new print shops appeared to plagiarize and print and sell more and more copies of the book which promised such a future (See F. A. Kafker, “The Recruitment of the Encyclopedists”).
Yet Diderot and his compatriots had another goal which shows itself in the structure of the Encyclopédie as well as in its bold opening essay. The second half of the 17 volume series is devoted to visual material, a series of beautiful and immensely complicated technical plates which illustrate technology and science. How to fire china dishes, smelt ore, weave rope, irrigate fields, construct ships, calculate distance, catalog fossils and decorate carriages, all are illustrated in loving detail, with diagrams of every tool and its use, every factory and its layout, every human body at work in some complex motion necessary to turn cotton into cloth or rag into precious paper. With this half of the Encyclopédie it is possible to teach one’s self every technological achievement of the age. The first half was intended to provide the same for thought. With its essays it should be possible to understand from their roots the philosophies, ethical systems, law codes, customs, religions, great thinkers of the past and present, all aspects of life and the history of humankind’s evolving mental world. It is a snapshot. A time capsule. With this–Diderot smiles thinking it–with this, if a new Dark Age fell upon humanity and but a single copy of the Encyclopédie survived, it would be possible to reconstruct all human progress. With this, the great steps forward, the hard-earned produce of so many lives, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Polynesian log boats, will be safe forever. We can’t fall back into the dark again. With this, human achievement is immortal. Yes, Petrarch, it even details how to read, and print, and translate Greek.
Let’s linger on that thought a moment. A beautiful, unifying, optimistic, safe, human moment, warm, like when I first heard that, yes, eventually Petrarch did get to read a sliver of his Homer. Because I’m not going to keep talking about dear Diderot today, much as I would like to.
In 2012/13 we lost 170,000 volumes from the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to the revolution, 20,000 unique manuscripts in Timbuktu library to a militia fire, and we have barely begun to count the masses of original scientific material burned during a corrupt botched cost-saving effort to reduce the size of the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada. More than half of the entries on Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries were destroyed after the printing of the Encyclopédie, and the libraries on the list are only a miniscule fraction of the texts lost to disasters, natural and manmade. It doesn’t even list Petrarch’s library, let alone the unique contents of the personal libraries and works that accumulate in every house now that we’re all honeybees. Diderot tried so hard to make it all immortal. He tried so hard he used up all the ink and paper in the world. Yet if my numbers for printing history are right, in the past half century we have destroyed more written material than had been produced in the cumulative history of the Earth up until Diderot’s day. And that does not count World Wars. We’re getting better. On February 14th 2014 a fire at the British National Archives threatening thousands of documents, many centuries old, was successfully quenched with no damage to the collection, thanks substantially to advances in our understandings of fluids and pressure made in the 17th and 18th centuries and neatly explained by the Encyclopédie. That much is indeed immortal (thank you, Diderot!) but much is so very far from everything. It’s still so easy to make mistakes.
One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is this cenotaph monument of Diderot, in the Pantheon in Paris, celebrating his contributions and how the Encyclopedia and enlightenment enabled so much of the liberty and rights and change that defines our era. Voltaire’s tomb was moved to the Pantheon, Rousseau’s too, but for Diderot there is only this empty cenotaph. I went on a little pilgrimage once to visit Diderot in the out-of-the-way Church of Saint-Roch, where he was buried. There is no tomb to visit. During the French Revolution, Saint-Roch was attacked and mostly destroyed by revolutionaries (carrying banners with Encyclopedist slogans on them!) who, in their zeal to torch the old regime, forgot that their own Diderot was among the Catholic trappings they could only see as symbols of oppression. Once rage and zeal had died down Paris and all France much lamented the mistake, and many others, too late.
Did I mention we very nearly lost Diderot’s work too? A far more frightening loss than just his body. Diderot didn’t include himself, his own precious original intellectual contributions, in his Encyclopédie. He knew he couldn’t. He was an atheist, you see. A real one, not one of these people we suspect like Hobbes and Machiavelli, but an overt atheist who wrote powerful, deeply speculative books trying to hash out the first moral system without divinity in it, fledgling works of an intellectual tradition which was just then being born, since even a few decades earlier no one had dared set pen to paper, for fear of social exile and ready fire and steel of Church and law. But Diderot didn’t publish his own works, not even anonymously. He self-censored. He was the figurehead of the Encyclopédie. An atheist was too frightening back then, too strange, too other. If people had known an atheist was part of it, the project would have been dead in the water. Diderot left instructions for future generations to print his works someday, if the manuscripts survived, but gambling with his own legacy was a price he was willing to pay to immortalize everyone else’s. The surviving manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot’s own hand turned up by chance at a used bookshop 1823, one chance street fire away from silence.
Here you get points if you read it before getting this far. It’s free on Tor.com, but you really liked it you can also buy the ebook for a dollar, and give money to Ruthanna and to Tor, and tell them you like excellent original fiction that does brave things with race and historicity.
Step Six: Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
This is a Cthulhu Mythos story which is in no way horror. The richly-designed populated metaphysics and macrohistorical narrative of Lovecraft’s universe is here, but as a tool for reflection on society and self, with a narrative that bears no resemblance in to the classic tense and chilling horror short stories I (for some reason) enjoy as bedtime reading. Ruthanna Emrys uses Lovecraft’s world to comment on Lovecraft’s writing and the deeply ingrained sexism and especially racism that saturates it, repurposing that into a tool to make us think more about the effects of silencing and othering which Lovecraft used his skill and craftsmanship to lure us into participating in. But the message and questions are universal enough that the target audience is not Lovecraft readers or horror readers but any reader who has even a vague distant awareness that the Lovecraft Mythos is a thing, as one has a vague distant awareness of Celtic or Navajo mythology even if one doesn’t study them. If there is any horror in this story, it is the familiar reality that the things we make and do and are are perishable, that human action often worsens that, and that at the end of all our aeons and equations we face entropy. But rather than presuming (as Lovecraft and much horror does) that facing that will lead to mad cackling and gibberish, the story presents the real things we do to try to face that: spirituality, cultural identity, and the effort to preserve the past and transmit it to the future. It turns a setting which was created a vehicle for horror into a vehicle for social commentary and historical reflection.
I suppose I should directly address Lovecraft’s failures of empathy, for those less familiar with his work, or who have met it mainly through its fun, recent iterations in board games and reuses which strive to leave behind the baggage. Racism, sexism, classism and other uncomfortable attitudes are not unexpected in an author who lived from 1890 to 1937. We encounter unpalatable depictions of people of color, and equally unpalatable valorizations of entrenched elites, in most literature of the period, from M. R. James to the original Sherlock Holmes. In Lovecraft’s case, the challenge for those who want to continue to work with his universe is that many of the racist and classist elements are worked deeply into the fabric of his worldbuilding. Many of his frightening inhuman races are clearly used to explore his fear of racial minorities, while the keys to battling evil are reserved for elites, like the affluent, white, male scholars who control his libraries, and the Great Race which controls the greatest library.
While many attempts to rehabilitate and use Lovecraft’s world do so by excising these elements, or minimizing them, or balancing them out by letting you play ethnically diverse characters in a Lovecraft game, this story instead uses those very elements as weapons against the kinds of attitudes which birthed them. If the scary fish-people represent a demonized racial “other” then let them remain exactly that, and show them suffering what targeted minorities have suffered in historical reality. By reversing the point of view and placing the reader within the perspective of the “other”, the original failure of empathy is transformed into a triumph of empathy. Now we are in the place of a woman for whom Lovecraft’s spooky cult rituals are her Passover or Easter, the mysterious symbols her alphabet, “Iä, Cthulhu . . . ” is the comforting prayer she thinks to herself when terrified, and a Necronomicon on Charlie’s shelf is Petrarch’s Homer.
And we aren’t asked to empathize with only one group. We empathize with those deprived of education, in the form of Aphra’s brother Caleb, taking on the classist negative depictions of “degenerate” white rural families common in Lovecraft’s work. With the plight of the Jews and other groups targeted in Germany, invoked by Specter’s discussion of his aunt. With those facing physical and medical challenges, invoked in the powerful opening lines where Aphra describes the pleasure she finds in facing the daily difficulty of walking uphill while she slowly heals. And with women, rarely granted any remotely coequal agency in literature of Lovecraft’s era. Not only is this story a powerful triumph of empathy, but after reading it, whenever we reread original Lovecraft, or anything set in his world, the memory of Aphra Marsh and her tender prayer will forever change the meaning of “Iä, iä, Cthulhu thtagn…” The triumph of empathy diffuses past the boundaries of this story, to enrich our future reading.
Another striking facet is that this is a story about legacy, continuity and deep history that manages to address those questions using only very recent history. Usually stories that want to talk about the deep past use material from periods we associate with the deep past: medieval, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Inuits, Minoans, anything we associate with dusty manuscripts and archaeology and anthropology and old culture. Even I in this entry, when trying to evoke the themes and feelings of this story, went back centuries and consequently had to spend a lot of time explaining to the reader the history I’m talking about (what’s Petrarch’s Homer, what’s up with Diderot, etc.) before I could get to what I wanted to do with it. This story instead uses contemporary history, events so recent and familiar that we all know it already, and have seen its direct effects in those around us and ourselves, or have tried to not see said effects. As a result, the story doesn’t have the baggage of having to explain its history. Instead of needing footnotes and exposition, it touches us directly and personally with our own history and makes us directly face the fact that we too are part of the link of transmission attempting to connect past to future, and our failures can still heal or harm that just as much as Visigoths, the Black Death or the Encyclopédie. The use of modern history makes it impossible for us to distance ourselves, greatly enhancing its power.
I have already discussed, in my own roundabout way using Diderot and Petrarch and Marvel comics, many of the key themes which make this story so powerful: othering, empathy, reversal of point of view, legacy, silencing, translation and transmission, and discontinuity, how easy it is for the powerful engine of society to make mistakes that cut the precious thread. The power with which this story is able to present that theme demonstrates perfectly, for me, the potency of genre fiction as a tool, not for escapism or entertainment, but for depicting reality and history. The tragic discontinuities created by World War II, the destruction of life, education and cultural inheritance generated not only by the most gruesome facets of the war but also by great mistakes like the treatment of Japanese Americans, are difficult to communicate in full with such accurate but emotionless descriptive phrases as, “people were rounded up and held in prison camps.” Attempts to communicate the genuine human impact of such an event easily fall so short. We try hard, but often fail. As a teacher, I remember well the flurry of discussion which surrounded some High School history textbooks which, in their efforts to do justice to the often-silenced story of interned Japanese Americans, had a longer section about that than it did about the rest of the war. Opponents of political correctness used it as a talking point to rail against liberalism gone too far, while apologists focused on the harm done by silencing the events. Yet for me, the centerpiece was the fact that textbooks had to devote that much space to attempting to get the issue across and still largely failed to communicate the event in a way that touched students. “The Litany of Earth” communicates the same event very potently, using the tool of genre to make something most readers might see as only affecting “others” feel universal. The large-scale horror of Lovecraft’s universe revolves around the inevitability that human achievement, and in the end all life, will fading into nothing. The Yith and their library are the only hope for a legacy, one bought at the terrible price of what they do to those whose bodies they commandeer. By creating a parallel between the fragility of all human achievement, preserved only by the Yith, and Aphra’s barely-literate brother Caleb writing of his doomed search for the family library which contained the history and legacy he and Aphra so desperately miss, the fantasy setting puts all readers in Aphra’s place, and the place of those interned, creating universal empathy which no textbook chapter could achieve; neither, in my opinion, could a non-fantasy short story, at least not with such deeply-cutting efficiency. After reading this story, not only the events of Japanese American internment but many parallel situations feel more personally important, and one feels a new sense of personal investment in such issues as the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This stoking of emotion and investment is a powerful and lingering achievement.
Structurally, the story interweaves experiences from different points in Aphra’s present–where she encounters Specter–with her past arriving in the city and encountering Charlie and his interest in her lost culture and languages. The choice to depict the present scenes in past tense and the flashbacks in present tense might seem counterintuitive, but I found it a powerful and effective choice. Past tense reads as “normal” in prose, so much so that we accept it as an uncomplicated way to depict the main moment of a narrative. In contrast, especially when we have just come from a past tense section, the present tense feels extra-vivid, raw, invasive. It feels like a very certain type of memory, the kind so vivid that, when something reminds us of them, they jump to the forefront of our minds and blot out the here and now with the tense, unquenchable emotions of a very potent then. Trauma makes memories do this, but it is not the traumatic memories of camp life that we experience this way. Instead it is the vividness of tender moments of cultural experience: seeing precious books in Charlie’s study, sharing his drying river, warm things. The transitions to vivid present tense make the reader think about memory and trauma without having to show traumatic events, while simultaneously highlighting how, in such a situation of discontinuity and cultural deprivation, the experiences which are most alive, which blaze in the memory, are these tiny, rare moments of connection, even tragically imperfect connection, with the ghostly echo of Aphra’s lost people.
For me, the triumphant surprise of the story comes in the end, when Aphra approaches the cultists, and chooses to act. Specter’s descriptions of bodies hanging from trees, combined with our familiarity with the copes of creepy cults in Lovecraft and outside, prepare us mid-story to expect that when Aphra approaches the cult they’ll be evil and insane, and she’ll overcome her resentment of the government and do what has to be done. Or possibly the reversal will be stronger with that, and the cult will be good and nice, like Aphra, and the take-home message will be that Specter is wrong and Aphra and the cultists are all just misunderstood and oppressed. It feels like the latter is where the story will take us when we see Wilder and Bergman, and Aphra finds comfort and companionship in participating in a badly-pronounced imitation of her native religion. Even when we hear about the immortality ritual and Bergman refuses to listen to Aphra’s attempts to make her see that her ambition is an illusion, it still feels like we are in the narrative where the cultists are good but misunderstood, and the tragedy is just that there is such deep racial misunderstanding that even Cthulhu-worshipping Bergman cannot believe Aphra’s attempts to help her are sincere. It is a real shock, then, when Aphra called in Specter to shut the group down, because the genre setting raises such a firm expectation that “bad cultist” = “blood and gore” that even when we read about Bergman’s two drowned predecessors it doesn’t register as “human sacrifice” or “bad cult.” Aphra, unlike the reader, is unclouded by genre expectations, and shows us that, precious as this echo of her lost culture is to her, life is more precious still and requires action. The ghostly echo of Aphra’s people that she shares with Charlie is precious enough to blaze in her memory, but she is willing to sacrifice the far more welcome possibility of being an actual priestess for people who sincerely want to share her religion, when she realizes that their cultural misunderstanding will cost human lives. And she cares this deeply despite being an immortal among mortals. The triumph of empathy is complete.
Unlike the numerous vampire stories and other tales which so often present immortals seeing themselves as different, special, unapproachable, and usually superior to mortals, here Aphra’s potential immortality enhances the uniqueness of her perspective and the depth of her loss, but without in any way diminishing her respect for and valuation of the short-lived humans that surround her. The grotesque folder of experimental records which is her mother’s cenotaph does make her reflect on how the loss is greater than the human murderers understood, but does not make her present it as fundamentally different from the deaths of humans, or make her (or us) see her suffering in any way more important or special than that of the Japanese family with whom she lives. The history of Earth that her people have learned from the Yith make her recognize that living until the sun dies is not forever, nor is even the lifespan of the planet-hopping Yith who will persist until the universe has run out of stars and ages to colonize. The Litany of Earth that she shares with Charlie is an equalizer, enabling empathy across even boundaries of mortality by placing finite and indefinite life coequally face-to-face with the ultimate challenges of entropy, extinction and the desire to find something valuable to cling to. “At least the effort is real.” This is something Charlie has despite his failing body, that Aphra’s brother has despite his deprived education, that Aphra has despite her painful solitude, a continuity that overcomes the tragic discontinuity and connects Aphra even with her lost parents, with ancestors, descendants, with forgotten races, races that have not yet evolved, races on distant worlds, races in distant aeons, and with the reader.
One last facet I want to comment on is how the story portrays magic which is at the same time viscerally bodily and also beautiful and positive. This is very unusual, and the more you know about the history of magic the clearer that becomes. Magic, at least positive magic, is much more frequently depicted with connections to the immaterial and spiritual than the bodily: bolts of light, glowing auras, floating illusions, the spirits of great wizards powerfully transcending their age-worn mortal husks. Magical effects that are bodily, using blood, distorting flesh, are usually bad, evil cultism, witchcraft. This trope far predates modern fantasy writing. I have documents from the Renaissance based on ones from Greece discussing magic and differentiating between the good kind which is based on study, scholarship, texts, words of power, perfection of the mind, the soul transcending the body, angelic flight, spiritual messengers, rays and auras of divine power, an intellectual, disembodied and male-dominated “good” magic contrasted, in the same types of texts, with the bad evil magic of ritual sacrifice, sexuality, animal forms, distortion of the body, contagion, blood and associated with witchcraft and with women. Cultural baggage from the Middle Ages is hard to break from even now, and we see this in the palette of special effects Hollywood reserves for good wizards and bad wizards. The tender, intimate, visceral but beautiful magic which Ruthanna Emrys has presented is authentic to Lovecraft and to the rituals we associate with “dark arts” and yet positive, a rehabilitation which works in powerful symbiosis with the story’s treatments of discrimination. Since race and religion are so much in the center of the story, its treatment of gender rarely takes center stage, but in these depictions of magic especially it is potent nonetheless.
I’ll stop discussing the story here, since I resolved to make this review shorter than the story itself, and I’m running close to breaking that resolution.
Step Seven: Sing.
One of the most conspicuous effects when I first read “The Litany of Earth” was that it made me get one of my own songs firmly stuck in my head for many, many hours. The piece is “Longer in Stories than Stone” and it is the big finale chorus to my Viking song cycle, a piece about the fragility of memory and the importance of historical transmission. It is a different treatment but with similar themes, and I found that listening to it a few times live and over and over in my head helped me extend the feelings reading the story awoke in me, and let me continue to enjoy and contemplate its messages for several happy hours. So to celebrate the release of the story (taking advantage of the fact that this blog is no longer anonymous) here is the song, and I hope it will do for you what it did for me and help me extend my period of pleasurable mulling. I hope you enjoy:
I have news to share, though not yet a new post in my Skepticism series, so thank you for your patience on that. I will have a post up tomorrow, though, on a different topic. But for now, news:
First, I’m leaving Texas and starting this fall in a new position as an Assistant Professor in the History Department of the University of Chicago! I’m positively giddy. The university and department are so excellent, and when I visited campus the student conversations I overheard were about Marx and Hegel instead of football, and Chicago is a grand metropolis filled with libraries and museums and architecture and food, and I’ll have grad students! Real grad students! So, in the academic sense, as my dissertation advisor said when he heard the news, “now there will be grandchildren.” Anyone with thoughts or advice on moving to Chicago, please share them!
Second, my academic book is now up for pre-order on Amazon. And it has a gorgeous cover! (And relevant, since the diagram is from one of my manuscripts.) It’s also on Harvard University Press’s page, where the money goes to the press, but they (A) don’t have a pre-order option and make you wait until September, and (B) charge $9 more than Amazon, so I understand many of those who want the book will prefer the easy, instant purchase to the inconvenient, expensive one even if the latter helps the press.
Here’s the write-up from the publisher:
After its rediscovery in 1417, Lucretius’s Epicurean didactic poem De Rerum Natura threatened to supply radicals and atheists with the one weapon unbelief had lacked in the Middle Ages: good answers. Scholars could now challenge Christian patterns of thought by employing the theory of atomistic physics, a sophisticated system that explained natural phenomena without appeal to divine participation, and argued powerfully against the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, and a creator God.
Ada Palmer explores how Renaissance readers, such as Machiavelli, Pomponio Leto, and Montaigne, actually ingested and disseminated Lucretius, and the ways in which this process of reading transformed modern thought. She uncovers humanist methods for reconciling Christian and pagan philosophy, and shows how ideas of emergent order and natural selection, so critical to our current thinking, became embedded in Europe’s intellectual landscape before the seventeenth century. This heterodoxy circulated in the premodern world, not on the conspicuous stage of heresy trials and public debates, but in the classrooms, libraries, studies, and bookshops where quiet scholars met the ideas that would soon transform the world. Renaissance readers—poets and philologists rather than scientists—were moved by their love of classical literature to rescue Lucretius and his atomism, thereby injecting his theories back into scientific discourse.
Palmer employs a new quantitative method for analyzing marginalia in manuscripts and printed books, exposing how changes in scholarly reading practices over the course of the sixteenth century gradually expanded Europe’s receptivity to radical science, setting the stage for the scientific revolution.
“This is a brilliant scholarly work that is deeply relevant to today. In exploring the influence of Lucretius on the Renaissance, Ada Palmer shows how the modern world became open to the ramifications of mechanical science. More broadly, her book is a fascinating look at how ideas ripple and spread.” —Walter Isaacson
I promised to be direct and honest when I talked about this book here. This is not a lite, lively fun history like the essays I post on Ex Urbe. It’s a formal academic history. Ex Urbe readers will find that the beginning and the end are in the familiar, strong-strokes voice you’re used to (I moved myself to tears last night doing the page proofs of the Conclusion, a good sign at a stage when one is usually so sick of the manuscript as to be exhausted by the sight of it!) but the middle is meticulous and detailed, and unavoidably a bit dry. It has to be. It’s new data, and new data has to be presented in full, with charts and lists and all that opposite-of-jazz. I’m taking on a big question: how we got from the alien mindscape of the Medieval world to the familiar modern one, specifically looking at how we evaluate true and false, and how we use science and religion in our daily lives. I can’t say something new about that without justifying it with facts and endnotes. This is the fruit of my years of research on manuscripts and marginalia, and I use my results to build up a portrait of how exactly thinking, scholarship and above all reading changed between 1400 and 1600 and how that transformed the way people thought about science and religion leading to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. There are many facets to how we got from Dante and Aquinas to Newton and Voltaire, and many people have addressed the question, but usually they look at the leaders and firebrands rather than looking, as I have, at the anonymous reading public where the deeper mass transformation had to happen for ideas which were once radical heresies to become comfortable parts of daily life. To put it another way, if you read or heard about Stephen Greenblatt’s bookThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern (which won the Pulitzer in 2012 and which I am proud to say I helped with a little bit) it treats the same topic, the rediscovery of Lucretius which suddenly gave Europe access to radical materialism, but The Swerve is about the thrill of the discovery, not its context, cause or mechanism. As I say in my own introduction: “Previous studies have described the epicenter or the ripples–I shall endeavor to describe the medium that carried the ripples so far.”
So, that’s my first academic book. If it sounds exciting to you, it’ll be out in September-ish 2014 through Amazon or HUP, or your preferred library or other book source. And if you’re a bookstore person here’s the flier with the special bookstore info. If it sounds like it’s not your thing, no worries: 2015 will bring the novels, and the fun stuff on Ex Urbe will continue to flow.
My third piece of news is that, at the end of this May, I’m embarking on a train tour of major cities of the USA, accompanying my good friend and fellow Tor novelist Jo Walton as she tours with her new novel My Real Children (a 20th century alternate history story about life, small choices, and gelato, that makes everybody cry.) Starting at Balticon and culminating with Readercon and then Worldcon in London, it’ll be an exciting hop through many cities as I meet librarians and bookstore owners, plus Jo and I have a quest to eat great food with awesome people as many times as possible. And on June 22nd, when Jo does her reading in the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe (an excellent independent venue owned by George R. R. Martin), I will do a concert of my music (some Viking some not) joined by my duet partner Lauren Schiller, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King.”
If any Ex Urbe reader (or Sassafrass friend) would like to come to one of the readings and say hello, please let me know in the comments here.
21st June, 3pm, Page One Books, Albuquerque, followed by dinner with local SF group
22nd June, 7pm Jean Cocteau Cinema, Santa Fe, with Sassafrass: Trickster and King <= me & Lauren
28th June, ALA, Las Vegas, panel, signing, banquet
10-13 July Readercon, Burlington MA (Just Ada, no Jo)
August 14-19 Worldcon, id est Loncon3, London, England
That’s it for today. Tomorrow I will have a full post up, discussing an exciting new novelette, and in a few weeks we’ll have more Skeptics, once I’ve escaped the stack of deadlines that are looming on my desk all saying “May!”
Hello, all. I am happy to announce that some recent, positive life changes mean that I’m now sufficiently comfortable in my career that I don’t feel I need to keep this blog anonymous anymore.
So, here I am: Ada Palmer, historian, a writer, composer. I am an Assistant Professor in the History Department of Texas A&M University, where I teach mostly the Italian Renaissance, and long-term intellectual history. My first academic book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which talks about the rediscovery of classical science in the Renaissance and its impact on science and religion, is coming out in Summer 2014 from Harvard University Press. I also write science fiction and fantasy, and I am delighted to announce that my first science fiction novel is coming out from Tor Books in 2015.
I also compose and perform a cappella music for the a cappella folk group Sassafrass. Our big Viking mythology project, Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, should be released on CD and DVD this summer (thanks to Kickstarter, hooray!). And on the side I write Ex Urbe, and sometimes write articles or book introductions about anime and manga (another area I research). I sometimes work as an historical consultant for various manga and anime companies. It’s an eclectic mix, but that’s what generates the eclectic mix of topics, and approaches to topics, that I explore here. For me, writing Ex Urbe is fun because it lets me share and explore the exciting things I run across and think about during my history research and teaching, but in a more freeform and open way, without the constraints of academic publishing, not to mention its infinite delays.
In other fun news, I am now blogging for Tor.com. I have two posts up now, one on Ragnarok and one on horror manga. From now on, I will add links here whenever I have a new Tor.com post, and I will also make little announcements as my various publications approach, so you can see whether you think you’d enjoy the historical monograph, or the music, or the novels. And I hope that seeing how much I’m doing will help you understand why I update Ex Urbe fairly rarely. If there’s a long gap between entries, you can assume it’s because there’s either a research trip or a deadline for some exciting project on my plate, and henceforth I’ll post from time to time to tell you what those projects are. You can also follow me on Twitter (Ada_Palmer); I use it rarely, either for announcements or to share fun history things.
And this seems like a good moment to thank you all for reading, and for the many enthusiastic comments and e-mails I have received over the past years. Ex Urbe is a substantial amount of work, and when deadlines press it sometimes gets hard for me to convince myself that it’s worthwhile to take time away from grading and copy edits to write blog entries. But the enthusiastic feedback here, combined with the genuinely stimulating responses and discussions that get going in the comments, continually re-convince me that this too is a very valuable way I can contribute to the Great Conversation. I think Socrates agrees.
And now I shall leave you to enjoy the second installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series, which I posted a few seconds ago.
Come to rescue us from the dark and gloomy wood of Doubt in which we have been wandering since my first post in this series (did you say hello to Dante?) comes the Criterion of Truth! The idea that, while the skeptics are correct that logic and the senses sometimes fail, they do not always fail, and if we carefully study when they fail, and why, if we identify the source of error, we can differentiate reliable knowledge from unreliable knowledge. For example, our eyes may deceive us when we judge a stick half-submerged in water to be bent, but if we add the testimony of other senses (touch), and of repeated experience (last time we saw an object half-way into water) we can identify the error, and henceforth say that we will not trust sense data based on visual information about objects half-submerged in transparent liquids, but that other sense data may be reliable. Once the causes of error have been defined, once we have a criterion for judging when knowledge is uncertain and when it is reliable, if we thereafter base our conclusions only on what we know is certain, then our conclusions will be reliable, eternal and divine, a steady foundation upon which we may proceed in safety toward that godlike happiness we seek. The Criterion of Truth is the clean and steady light of compromise, which does not banish all shadow, but, like a lantern in the dark, allows a philosophical system to have dogmatic elements while still conceding that much remains in shadow.
“Quite wrong!” cries our Pyrrhonist. “You have it all backwards! Doubt is the steady path toward eudaimonia. The absence of the possibility of certainty is our liberation, not our bane! It is when we embrace the fact that we cannot have certainty that we are finally free from the risk of having our beliefs overturned and our Plutos and Brontosaurs snatched away. It is when truth is firmly beyond human reach that we can finally relax and stop being plagued by curiosity and the endless, restless quest for information. The Criterion of Truth is not a light in darkness, it is a battering ram which has pierced our clean and serene sanctum and smeared it with all the muddled and confusing chaos that we worked so hard to banish! Don’t build a path on this foundation! However steady it may seem, the ground could still give way at any moment and shatter all. And even if it doesn’t, the path will never end. You will exhaust yourself on its construction, your age-gnarled hands still struggling to lay stones when you breathe your last, with never a glimpse of the end in sight, just infinity of toil and darkness. And the you will inflict the same curse upon your children, and your children’s children, and your children’s, children’s, children’s children!”
Whether one sees it as a blessing or a curse, developing a Criterion of Truth is what has allowed, and still allows, dogmatic philosophical systems to exist and progress in a fertile and symbiotic relationship with skepticism, instead of ending with the blank serenity where Pyrrho and other absolute skeptics wanted to dwell forever. Every philosopher with any dogmatic ideas has a criterion of truth (“Yes, even you, Sartre,” says Descartes, “Don’t give me that look!”), and an explanation for the source of error, and frequently I find that, when I am feeling awash in the ideas of a new thinker, one of the best ways to start to get a grip on things is to find the criterion of truth, which gives me an anchor point from which to explore, and to compare that thinker to others I am more familiar with.
Today I shall attempt something a bit compressed but hopefully the compression itself will be fruitful. I intend to briefly examine three of the major classical schools (Platonism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism) and explain just enough of each system to make clear its criterion of truth and its explanation for the source of error. By laying these out in a compressed form, side-by-side, I hope to show clearly how skepticism is at play in each of the dogmatic systems, and to show what the early approaches to it were, so that when I move forward to major turning points in skepticism it will be clearer just how new and different the new, different things are. Tradition dictates that I start with Platonism, but Socrates is looking a little too aggressively eager now that I mention Plato, and furthermore he was being mean to Sartre while we were away (Don’t pretend you didn’t know that dialog trying to define “being” would make him cry!), so I shall instead start with Epicurus:
The Epicurean Criterion of Truth: Weak Empiricism
Take the stick out of the water. Epicureanism faces up to the skeptical challenge to the reliability of sense data and still chooses to promote the senses as our primary source of information, simply proposing that we should not rely upon first impressions, but should consider sense data reliable only after careful investigation, ideally using multiple senses and instances of observation. But there is more to it than that.
Epicureanism is a mature form of classical atomism, positing that on the micro-level matter is composed of a mixture of vacuum and invisibly tiny, individual components or seeds known as “atoms” which exist in infinite supply but finite varieties (see the modern Periodic Table), and that the substances and patterns we see in nature are caused by different recurring combinations of these atoms. If the same kind of sand appears on two unrelated beaches, it is composed by chance of the same combination of atoms. If a piece of wood is burned and goes from being brown, firm and porous to being white and powdery, some atoms have left it (in the smoke, for example), and the remaining ones look different.
Atoms too are responsible for the apparently changeable properties of objects (remember the seventh mode of Pyrrhonism, that we cannot have certainty because objects take multiple forms). The properties of substances do not derive from atoms themselves but from their combinations. Colors, smells and flavors are all effects of the shapes of atoms, so it is not true that sweet substances contain sweet atoms and red substances red atoms, rather sweet substances contain smooth atoms which are pleasant to the tongue rather than rough, and red objects contain atoms whose combinations create redness. If bronze is red and then turns green, or wood is brown but burns and turns gray, then atoms have entered or left and the new combinations create a different color. And it is on this atomic basis that the Epicureans argue that (a) natural interactions of atoms and vacuum are enough by themselves to explain all observed phenomena, so there is no need to posit fearsome interfering gods, and (b) the soul is just a collection of very fine atoms, distributed in the body and breath, which disperse at death, so there is no need to fear a punitive afterlife.
Atoms are, believe it or not, largely a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and also have much to say about our stick in water. As we all recall, Zeno’s arrow can never reach its target because the space in between can be infinitely subdivided into smaller distances which it must cross before it can finish its path, therefore motion is impossible. Epicurus answers: yes. Motion is indeed impossible. Motion is an illusion. The key is that space is not infinitely divisible, as Zeno proposed. Atoms, according to the Epicurean system, are not only the smallest objects but the smallest subdivision of space; it is literally impossible to subdivide either atoms or space further. (Note that if he were around now Epicurus would deny that our modern “atoms” are atoms – he would confer that title upon the smallest known sub-atomic particle, or reserve it for the piece smaller than that which all the king’s horses and all the king’s cyclotrons still can’t detect.) The smallest distance any object can move is one atom-width – any more nuanced motion is impossible. In other words, fluid motion is an illusion, and on the micro-level objects do not slide from one place to another. Rather their atoms pop in an instant from one position to the next atom-width over. One might call it microscopic teleportation. It is by this means that the arrow moves: every component atom in the arrow teleports one space to the left each moment, and thus the arrow proceeds from right to left sequentially.
Positing micro-teleportation as a substitute for motion may seem alien, but it is something we make use of every day in the modern world, and it is in fact much easier to explain Epicurean theories of motion to modern computer-users than it was to people in the past. As you scroll down this page, the cursor of your mouse and the text on the screen seem to move, but in fact nothing is moving. Instead tiny pixels, the atom-widths of your screen, are changing color, or you could say that the black pixels that form the text are teleporting one pixel-width per moment as you scroll. The eye, unable to see such fine distinctions, blurs that micro-teleportation into the illusion of motion. Why couldn’t all motion be a similar illusion? Zeno is defeated, and Reason is once again reliable.
Which is good because Reason is the heart of the system of knowledge Epicurus wants to build. The Epicurean atomic theory, after all, is based on a combination of observations of the sensible world and then logical deductions. We observe that objects change their form when burned, that sea-soaked cloth hung up to dry becomes dry but remains salty, and that the same types of substances recur in many independent locations. From this we deduce the existence of atoms of different types in different combinations without ever directly seeing them. Zeno’s paradox of motion does not, in this interpretation, demonstrate that we can’t trust reason, but that we can’t trust rash, unexamined observations. There seemed to be motion, but with time, patience, observation and reason the Epicurean has determined that that was a mistake, and found a better model.
But this does an interesting thing to sense data, which Epicurus still wants to be more our guide than naked logic. Atomism, which predates Epicurus, seems to have itself arisen from observations of motes in a sunbeam, tiny particles which are invisible normally but visible only in special circumstances, and which all classical atomists cite as sensory evidence for the reality of atoms. From motes in a sunbeam and raw logic, they derive the atomic theory. As Epicureans strive to free themselves from fear of the unknown by observing and explaining natural phenomena through the interaction of atoms, they rely on what they can see, feel, hear and touch to derive their theories. This is empiricism but it is (as Richard Popkin aptly named it) weak empiricism. Why? Because the reality beneath what we observe is invisible. (“Exactly!” cries Sartre, leaping up with sufficient force to knock over Descartes’ thermas.) If atoms are undetectably tiny, and everything we see, taste and smell is a consequence of their combinations rather than the atoms themselves, then we can never have real knowledge of the fundamental substructure of being. There is an insoluble barrier between us and knowledge of true things, the barrier of minuteness. Thus Epicurean empiricism involves surrendering forever any certain knowledge of the truth of things, but in return we can have fairly reliable knowledge based on careful, repeated observation using multiple senses, especially now that logic has been rescued from Zeno’s grasp and is once again our ally.
Source of Error: Twofold. Limitations of the senses, which cannot see atomic reality; unquestioned acceptance of sense data and commonplace cultural assumptions (like superstitions about the gods) which are unreliable because they are not based on careful observation and analysis.
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on a combination of careful observation of the sensible world with multiple senses, and careful logical analysis.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the observable world, and we can make rational deductions about the insensible world which are reliable enough to act upon (since we cannot ever prove or disprove them), but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of the invisible atomic world which is Nature’s true reality.
At this point some readers are not particularly disturbed by Epicurus’ surrender of true knowledge of microscopic things. After all, have advanced since 300 BC. We played with microscopes in grade school, we named the proton and the quark and preon, we made molecules out of toothpicks and gummy candies, and the electric blood of splitting atoms blazes in our lightbulbs. We fixed that weakness. “Delusion!” Sartre says, and he is right that, on a fundamental level, this technological advancement has not let us reclaim what Epicurus surrendered. However advanced our science, we still have no cause to believe we have yet perceived or even hypothesized the literally smallest increment of matter. And, separately, even if we had a machine capable of perceiving the smallest part of matter, we would still be limited by our senses since the machine would have to use our senses to transmit its findings to us, transmitting only an approximation, rather than reality. And in addition, the vast majority of our daily decisions would still be based on what we perceive at the macroscopic level. Thus, even with technological aid, the Epicurean surrender of knowledge of the fundamental seeds of things is a considerable one, and divides all knowledge firmly into two camps, the perceivable world about which it is possible to have certainty, and the reality beneath about which it is not. We have a path and shadows, dogmatism and skepticism coextant within one system.
The Platonic Criterion of Truth: the Forms
My approach to Platonism will be rather sideways, but I want to get us to its criterion of truth by a route that is as parallel as possible to Epicurus’. So, for the vast majority of my readers who know basic Platonism already, please read along thinking about Zeno’s paradoxes and the stick in water how this way of outlining Platonism follows the same logical structure Epicurus did.
Plato, like the skeptics, acknowledges that the senses fail and deceive, and, like the atomists, observed that there are recognizable, recurring objects in nature that come into existence in independent parallel to one another: similar rocks, mountains, trees and animals in distant corners of the Earth, which must, he reasoned, have some common source. He also noticed that humans are able to recognize and identify these objects as being the same, even humans who have never met each other, or speak different languages, and even when the objects may have radically different colors and shapes disguising a shared structure – a disguise we see through. Finally he noticed (something Epicurus did not discuss) the fact that humans not only naturally identify objects, but naturally judge them to be better or worse based on unspoken but nonetheless universal criteria. Anyone can tell that a crisp, fresh apple is “better” and a withered, dry one “worse” without having to discuss or debate that fact, or even to be taught it. I could show you a healthy and a diseased version of some deep-sea fish you’ve never heard of and you would nonetheless successfully identify them as “better” and “worse” exemplars of a completely new and unknown thing.
To explain these patterns, and this universal capacity to identify and judge “better” and “worse” examples of things, Plato posited that these objects must have a shared source, but instead of positing a combination of atoms, he posited a source independent of matter that supplied the object’s structure. All quartz crystals, all trees, and all apples take their structures from a separate structure-supplying object, which exists independent of matter and time. It has to, since the objects it generates can come into existence and be destroyed, but the pattern, the archetype, the source remains. Plato named this structural archetype the “Form” and posited that these Forms exist in a separate level of reality. They create the many material manifestations of their structure as a flag pole might cast many shadows on different objects at different times. As some shadows are crisp, straight images of what casts them and others are vague, twisted or distorted, so objects are sometimes fairly straight and sometimes quite twisted manifestations of their Forms. When we judge an object, we judge it based on how good an image it is, how closely it resembles the Form which is the source of its structure. Hence why anyone of any age, in any culture, without the necessity of communication, can judge the superior of two apples, and tell that twisty trees are weird.
But objects are never truly like their Forms because Forms exist on a completely different level of reality, just as the flag pole exists on a different level of reality from its shadows. We know this the same way we know that the godlike eudaimonia we seek cannot be based on fleeting things like lust and truffles. Forms are indestructible – no matter how many trees or apples burn, the Form remains. With that attribute, in the Greek mind, go the others: Forms are eternal, unchanging, perfect, and divine. They cannot be part of this changing and destructible reality, but must exist on some other layer of reality where change and destruction do not exist. Note how this is in many ways exactly symmetrical to Epicurus’s atomic theory, in which atoms are indestructible, unchanging and perfect, and exist on an imperceptible micro-level accessible to us only by deduction, just as real-but-invisible as the Platonic realm of Forms. Both posit a materially inaccessible world which is the source of the structures of the perceivable world.
What about Zeno and the stick in water? Simple: the motions of a flagpole’s shadow across the earth and ground aren’t rational but bizarre, bending and distorting, split in half at times by passing objects, changing and imperfect. Just so the material world. The stick in water looks bent, and motion is rationally impossible, because the entire layer of reality perceived by the senses is itself bent, distorted, an imperfect effect of a perfect reality elsewhere. When we see the stick look bent, or realize that motion makes no sense, it is at that point that we are beginning to perceive the fundamental flaws in sensible reality, and realize that the true, rational, knowable structure lies elsewhere.
True knowledge, reliable, certain knowledge upon which we may build our path toward reliable, certain eudaimonia must therefore be knowledge of Forms, not of passing things. We can have True knowledge of the Form of Apples, the Form of Trees, the Form of Justice, the Form of Humans, but we cannot have true knowledge of a particular apple, tree, case of justice v. injustice, or human, because such things are changing, imperfect, and perishable, so even if we could know them perfectly at one instant, that knowledge would not be lasting, not enough to be a real foundation for happiness. The only permanent, certain knowledge is knowledge of eternal things, since all other knowledge is, like its objects, destructible. Thus the Forms are the path to Happiness.
And now, without any need to address the soul, or Platonic love, or Truth, or the other great Platonic signatures, we can describe the Platonic Criterion of Truth:
Source of Error: The material world perceived by the senses is imperfect and illusory, and conclusions based on observation of it are full of error, and incomplete.
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based on knowledge of the eternal Forms, which can be perceived by Reason. So long as we rely only upon knowledge of abstract, eternal Forms and not on knowledge of specific material things, we will make no errors.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of the Forms, i.e. of the eternal structures that create the sensible world, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.
Now, our friend Socrates has been waiting all this time to rant about how Plato put all this in his mouth, by using him as an interlocutor in his philosophical dialogs, when all Socrates stood for was the principle that we know nothing, and wisdom begins when we recognize that we know nothing. But explicated like this, in a way which highlights how substantial a portion of human experience Plato has yielded to the shadows of skeptical unknowability, Socrates has far less cause to object. Plato has taken “I know nothing” as his starting point, as, in fact, did Epicurus, both of them beginning by scrapping the received commonplaces of things people thought they knew about the material world, and instead trying to find a space for certainty far removed from the evidently-unknown world of daily experience. We all know that Plato tried to appropriate Socrates to his system, painting Socrates as a Platonist and implying that Socrates agreed with all Plato’s dogmatic ideas as well as his skeptical ones.
But Plato was far from the only one to do this. In the ancient world, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Aristotelians and Neoplatonists all make claims about Socrates really believing what they believed, that Socrates was really a skeptic, or a stoic sage, etc. This is easy because Socrates left us nothing in his own voice, but also because all of them really did begin as he demanded, by doubting everything, declaring that “I know nothing” and then trying to work from that toward a system which carves out one zone for the knowable and surrenders another to the unknowable. Attempts by later sects to appropriate Socrates reflect his fame, but also their universal gratitude for the way his refinement of skepticism created a starting point from which they could approach their Criteria of Truth, and start from there to lay their foundations. And now that I’ve put it that way, Socrates seems much less set on picking a bone with Plato, and much more interested in the bones of the chicken drumsticks Sartre brought, which are much larger than those Descartes brought, which are larger than the ones Socrates is used to, a mystery which definitely bears investigation. We can in part blame one “Aristotle”, though when I mention him our more modern thinkers smile knowingly, thinking of the many stages that had to pass between the ancient empiricist and the alien concept “progress.”
The Aristotelian Criteria of Truth: Categories and Definitions
Aristotle studied with Plato for decades, and his framework has a similar beginning. Yes, we instantly recognize that apple is apple and cat is cat, even if we are on the other side of the world and recognize apple as ringo and cat as neko. And we instantly judge the withered apple as being farther from what an apple ought to be than the crisp one.
What Aristotle doesn’t like is how Plato has the Forms exist in a hypothetical immaterial reality removed from the sensible reality. Instead, he uses the term “form” to refer to structures within natural objects, which are not material but not immaterial either. They are non-material. This may sound like gibberish, but I recently demonstrated it very effectively to my class by taking two apples to the front of the classroom, setting them down while I had a drink of water, then violently smashing one of the apples with repeated blows from the butt end of the water glass, reducing it to a sticky green pulp and producing an extremely startled and, in the front rows, apple-bespattered classroom. “What did I just destroy?” I asked. It took only a few moments of recovery for one to supply: “The form of the apple.” Aristotle even goes so far as to say that forms, rather than matter, are what senses sense. When we see an apple our minds do not register the raw, chaotic matter, they register the structure: apple. When we see smashed apple pulp even then we do not see matter, we see pulp, which has its own structure. We never perceive matter, or rather never recognize matter, never understand matter. All cognition takes place on the level of form, which is why we can identify “apple” at a glance and not have to spend a minute assembling the millions of points of perceived light and color together to deduce that it’s an apple.
But if the form, for Aristotle, is a structure within individual objects, and is destructible, it can’t be a source of eternal certainty, nor can it explain how my colleague in Japan can recognize and judge apple identically to the way I do. For this Aristotle posits Categories. Universal categories exist in nature, non-material structures just like forms, into which the forms of objects fit. Human Reason is capable of identifying these categories, by looking at objects, understanding their forms, and identifying their commonalities, functions etc. We all see the apple and recognize that it fits in the category apple. We further recognize that the category apple fits in the category fruit, that in the category “part of a plant” etc. And that Stamen Apple is a sub-category within the category apple. This allows us to identify and judge even objects which we have never seen before and have no names for. You probably do not know at a glance what the creature pictured to the left here is, but you can identify that it belongs in the category mammal, possibly in the rodent category or maybe more like a tiny deer judging by those skinny legs, but certainly in the medium-sized, ground-dwelling, non-carnivore, probably scavenger eating fruit and bugs and things, not-dangerous-to-humans category. (It is, in fact, a Kanchil or “mouse-deer”). Similarly we can all categorize trees, rocks, fish, and other things. Aristotelian categories are part of Nature itself, eternal and unchanging, and indestructible, since the category apple and the category Kanchil will be unchanged regardless of the creation or destruction of any individual. A withered apple doesn’t harm the category apple, nor does a limping three-legged Kanchil, and the extinction of the T-Rex didn’t erase the category T-Rex.
The extinction of the Brontosaur didn’t erase the category Brontosaur either – it was our discovery that the category was wrong that did so, and here we get toward Aristotle’s ideas of certainty and error. We had not defined our terms carefully enough, had accidentally separated two things that shouldn’t be, and thus were led to error. Error caused by insufficiently clear definitions of our terms. The categories are sources of true, certain and reliable knowledge. Like with Plato’s forms, we cannot Know-with-a-capital-K individual things with certainty, since they are destructible and changing, and the apple which is fresh today will be withered next week. But we can know the categories, and that it always has been and will be the nature of the apple to grow on trees and try to be sweet and colorful to attract animals to eat it and spread seeds, and that it always and will always be the nature of the T-Rex to be a humungous terrifying predator the sight of which inspires fear in all mammals and other smaller creatures. One source of error is when we make mistakes about categorization. We may mistake the Kanchil for a rodent, or a Vaquita for a dolphin, but with more careful observation we realize it is more closely related to a deer. We may mistake the Brontosaur for its own species before we realize it is a juvenile version of another thing, as easy a mistake to make as thinking that a caterpillar and butterfly are different creatures until we examine more closely. We also want to do this with things we may not, in modern parlance, think of as part of Nature, but just as there is the category “cetacean” within which exists the category “porpoise” so too there exist the category “integer” within which exists the category “prime number,” also the category “system of government” within which lies the category “democracy,” and the category “virtue” within which exists the category “justice.” Aristotle, and the rest of Greece with him, does not draw our modern post-Rousseau line between “Natural” and “artificial” placing human works in the latter. Birds are part of Nature, as are humans; birds’ nests are part of Nature, with a category, as are all the things humans create. The category “web page” which contains the category “blog” is as natural as the category “tree”.
Thus Aristotelian certainty comes with careful, systematic investigation of the categories within nature, and if we want to reduce error we can do so best by studying and measuring and comparing objects we see until we can fit them into categories. The more we study, and the more carefully we define our terms, the clearer our conversations will become, less given to assumptions, misunderstandings and error. One source of error, therefore, is equivocal language, words that are sloppily defined and don’t refer to real categories in nature. Brontosaur, planet, motion, Justice, good, are all sloppily-defined terms. Any term which does not point to a real category in Nature is sloppy and may lead us to error. If we use only vocabulary that is carefully worked through and points only at real categories, then our language will be clear, our communication perfect, and the possibility of error greatly reduced. After all, we only want to be talking about categories, not anything that isn’t one. Since, as with Plato’s forms, categories are eternal, unchanging and reliable. On their foundation we can build our path. As with Plato and Epicurus we have surrendered knowledge of individuals, in favor of knowledge of something structural which underlies them.
Excuse me: to proceed farther with Aristotle, I need to go get my fork. Here it is. (Or rather an image of it, one level less real, its Platonic shadow.)
This fork has been part of my life since I was a tiny girl, and it taught me about the Aristotelian sources of error. When I was little, I would help put the silverware away. This fork puzzled me. Why? Because I couldn’t figure out how to categorize it.
Here you see my dilemma. We had one slot for forks, which had tines and metal handles. And one slot for knives, which had blades and wooden handles. Where then goes this fork, which has tines but a wooden handle? Let’s offer the dilemma to our Youth.
Youth: “I think it should go with the metal-handled fork.
Youth: “Because it’s a fork. It’s used for fork things, that’s more important than what it’s made of.”
*Ding!*Ding!*Ding!* Correct! The Youth, like my child self, has correctly identified the Aristotelian distinction between an “essential property” and an “accidental property”. An essential property is a quality of something essential to it being itself, and filling the function it has in Nature; an accidental property is something that could change and it wouldn’t matter. A cat can be black or tabby (accidental) but must be slinky, carnivorous, and endearing to its owner in order to fulfill the functions of a cat. A tree must grow a woody trunk and produce leaves in order to fulfill the functions of a tree. A fork must fit comfortably in my hand and lift chunks of food to my mouth for it to be a fork. If the cat is orange, the tree is forked, and the fork is a futuristic rod that lifts food using a miniature tractor-beam instead of tines, those are accidents. If these things fulfill these functions badly–if a cat is ugly, a tree is all bent and twisted and produces few leaves, or a plastic fork snaps when I try to skewer food with it–we judge them bad examples of what they are. If these things don’t fill these functions at all–a quadrupedal mammal eats grass, a plant produces a soft viny stalk, and a piece of silverware cuts food in half instead of lifting it–we judge they do not belong in the categories cat, tree and fork respectively because they lack their essential properties. If I had mistakenly stored my wooden-handled fork with knives, that would have produced error, the same source of error as when we mistake a Kamchil for a rodent, or when Descartes, living in the 17th century, reads an article about how people from Africa are not the same as people from Europe because their skin is a different color. Mistaking accidental properties for essential ones has introduced error. And to call a robot toy a “cat”, or a metaphor for understanding genealogy a “tree”, or a fifteen-foot fork-shaped sculpture a “fork” is to employ ambiguous language, not referring to its categories, introducing error.
But what about Zeno, and our stick in water? For our stick in water Aristotle, much like the Epicureans, wants us to examine the stick more carefully, multiple times with multiple senses, to correct the mistake. And, like the Epicureans and Plato too, he surrenders true knowledge of individual objects, saying we can know Categories with certainty, after careful examination, but not specific things.
As for Zeno, there he comes from a different angle, attempting to refute Zeno with pure logic. Aristotle is big on observing Nature, but also on logical principles, especially a priori principles. By these he means logical principles which are self-evidently true and require no knowledge or experience to be proved. For example: The same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time. Think about it for a while, take your time. It’s the case, and not only is it the case but it’s the case for lampreys, and thumbtacks, and hypothetical frictionless spheres, and ideas, and systems of government, and people. Even if you were a brain in a jar that had never had any experience of the world outside the mind, you could identify that a concept cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. Here’s another: “One” and “many” are different. It is nonsense to imagine that a thing could be both singular and plural at the same time. That too you can conclude without any basis in anything.
Now, it is possible to use clever syntax to come up with what seem like counter-examples. What about a doughnut hole: surely it exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, for this doughnut has a non-existence which is its hole, and yet here I am eating this doughnut hole. No, says Aristotle. That apparent contradiction is merely a function of unclear vocabulary giving two things the same label when they are utterly different. Similarly this pomegranate is one and many at the same time. Again, no: it is many seeds, but one pomegranate. Use strict vocabulary, unambiguous terms, and discuss only categories, and you will find that Aristotle’s a priori principles are sound.
Reasoning from such starts, and using raw logic without recourse to any knowledge of the material world, he then takes on Zeno. You cannot, says Aristotle, have infinite regression. It may seem you can, but an infinite chain is a logical impossibility because it would never end and never start. When you try to think about it, the mind rebels, just as it does when it tries to think of the one and the many being the same, or a thing both being and not being at the same time. Thus, says Aristotle, Zeno’s paradox is proved false because infinite regression is logically false. We can, now, rely on logic, so long as it is careful and methodical, and based on first principles and on comparison of the categories rather than leaping to conclusions directly from sense impressions of individual objects, which are flawed.
Sources of Error: (1) People using vague vocabulary that is unclearly defined and does not refer to anything Real, (2) Fallibility of individual material objects and rushed conclusions based on observations of such objects (note how similar this latter is to Plato).
Criterion of Truth: Knowledge is certain when it is based exclusively on either or a combination of a priori logical principles which are not dependent on anything other than logic to be certain, and on the eternal Categories which exist universally in Nature, and can be known through observation and discussed using a carefully-defined lexicon of philosophical vocabulary.
Zones of the Knowable and Unknowable: We can have true and certain knowledge of logical principles, and of the Categories, i.e. of the eternal structures within Nature that the forms of objects fall into, but we cannot ever have true and certain knowledge of individual objects within the material world.
Thus we have a third path, clearly delineating the arena of certain, eternal knowledge (on the basis of which we may seek eudaimonia) and separating it from the unknowable, which we surrender forever to skepticism. And once again the unknowable is the realm of matter, individual things, the essence which is given structure and comprehensibility by form. Aristotle, like Epicurus, has given up any chance of understanding matter itself, confining the cognizable world to that of form and structure, the macro-level. And he has surrendered knowledge of individuals, of this apple and this lamprey, granting us only the categories. We can still know an enormous amount in Aristotle’s system, enough to build a vast system of knowledge, a library of definitions, a vast network of genus and species names, and an empirical basis for an entire scientific system. Infinite knowledge lies before us on our Aristotelian path, infinite logic chains to follow, infinite categories to investigate, name, compare and discuss. The surrender, like Epicurus’s surrender of the ability to see atoms, feels minor.
“It’s still delusion!” Sartre says. “The surrender is vast! Infinite! Infinitely more vast and fundamental than your daily world imagines!” This outburst has been building up in poor Sartre for some time, which we can tell because since he’s been holding his knees and rocking back-and-forth and flushing, and only barely sociable enough to thank Descartes for that eclair (which is not, in fact, a lightning bolt but is a delicious pastry named “lightning bolt” in French, much to Aristotle’s chagrin). And, at some risk of frightening our innocent interlocutor the Youth (whom I shall advise to have Socrates hold his hand through the next bit) I will let Sartre continue in his own words, an excerpt from his Nausea(note that this particular translation uses existence rather than being):
“So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”
By this point our Youth is very glad to have his hand held, and Descartes is having second thoughts about sharing his eclair with what has evidently turned out to be a lunatic Lovecraftean cultist. But I let Sartre speak here to demonstrate the fact that these surrenders, made in the earliest days of philosophy by system-weavers seeking to escape the web of Zeno and the Stick, are still substantial. Even the most recent modern philosophy returns, from time to time, to these ancient surrenders to unknowability, and some try, like Sartre, to make new inroads toward knowing what the majority of thinkers have given up on. New and, in Sartre’s case, scary inroads. Every system-weaver since Plato may have a Criterion of Truth to be our light in the darkness, our path, our foundation, the circle line for the new philosophical subway system, but the fertile symbiosis between skepticism and dogmatism–the symbiosis which has borne such fruit: Platonic forms, genus and species, atoms, eventually the scientific method itself!–is also still sometimes a hostile symbiosis, and the wild, strong skepticism of Pyrrho still sometimes rears its head to plague Sartre and us, even as we make daily use of soft forms of skepticism like Epicurus’ weak empiricism, and Aristotle’s categories.
Of course, many are the centuries between Epicurus and Sartre, and many the new relationships between doubt and dogma, the new Criteria of Truth and new forms of shadowy un-knowledge which will press upon our fragile paths, before we reach the modern world. So we still have much more to explore in further chapters. Good thing Descartes brought plenty of lightning bolts.
It is easy for us to forget how the Scientific Method, at work behind all this research, is a uniquely flexible and dynamic belief system, one which enables our uniquely flexible and dyamic world. Some will feel uncomfortable with me calling science a “belief system” but in this context I use the phrase “belief system” as a reminder of what the Scientific Method and its associated aparatus have displaced. Science has not replaced religion–they coexist happily, productively, even symbiotically within many arenas, places and individuals, even as they chafe and vie in others. But in the modern West, the Scientific Method has largely displaced older systems for guiding daily micro-decision-making which were more closely tied to religion. We now use science-based reasoning a hundred times a day when we are called upon to make decisions. Whether making a sandwich, buying a new teapot or evaluating an argument, we think about data from past experiences, bring in what facts and hypotheses we have accumulated from educated and informed living, consider the credibility of sources, ask ourselves questions about plausability, probability, evidence and counterargument, speculate about the range of possible errors and outcomes. We go through many steps, often fleeting but still present, before we assemble our sandwich (which recent nutrition advice seems plausible in the ever-changing range?) or buy our teapot (plastic so housemates won’t break it, or ceramic for environmental/health/aesthetic/flavor reasons?) or decide whether to grant a politician’s argument our provisional belief or disbelief. Even for those members of modern Western society whose lives are powerfully informed by faith or institutional religion, who do seriously factor “What would Jesus/Apollo/Whatever do?” into the calculation, evaluatory criteria based on science and its method remain a substantial, if not exclusive, part of our aparatus for daily decision-making.
For my purposes today, the most important part of what I just described is that the belief or disbelief we extend to the politician (or to our teapot) is provisional. We decide that a thing is plausible or implausible, and extend to it a kind of belief which is prepared for the possibility that we will be proven wrong. That thing the politician said might turn out later to be false (or true) when new information arises. A teapot, let’s say I pick one which claims to be safe and eco-sound because of XYZ carbon something something, it may seem that I have given its claims my complete belief if I buy the teapot, but that too is provisional since my long-term purchasing decisions for other objects will be informed by further information, changes in industry, and, of course, my empirical experience of whether or not this teapot serves me (and survives my housemates) well.
What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn. We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche. When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great! Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement. Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm. Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.
All this is a way of previewing the endpoint of the present series, in order to show how important the often-invisible role of doubt is in current human thought. Without skepticism, and important developments in the history of skepticism, we could not have the Scientific Method occupy the position it does in modern daily lives. So I want to sketch out here some of my favorite moments in the history of skepticism, not a complete history (for that see Popkin’s History of Skepticism or Allen’s Doubt’s Boundless Sea), but the spicy highlights that I’ve most enjoyed.
Dogma and Doubt
There are many ways to subdivide philosophy, but one of the most useful is, in my view, the subdivision into dogmatic and skeptical. I’m using these terms in their technical philosophical senses, so I do not intend to invoke any of the contemporary, negative cultural associations of “dogma” or “skeptic.” (Philosophy and history are constantly plagued with the disconnect between formal uses and modern casual uses of terms like these, Epicurean, Hedonist, Realist, Idealist… and it’s worse when I learn the technical term before I meet the popular one. I can’t tell you how confusing it was the first time I was in a conversation where someone used “libertarian” in its contemporary political sense, which I had never met, having learned it from Spinoza class. Them: “FDR is a big foe of Libertarianism.” Me: “Really? I didn’t know FDR denied the existence of freewill. Was he a materialist? A stoic?” And when I tell my students that, for the purposes of Plato class, “Realist” and “Idealist” are synonyms they sometimes look like they’re about to cry…) For today’s purposes by “dogmatic” I mean any philosophical moment or system which argues that something can be known, or that there can be certainty. By “skeptical” I mean a philospohical moment or system arguing that something cannot be known, or that there cannot be certainty. In this sense, Aristotle’s argument that the existence of a Prime Mover can be logically proved from the principle that any chain of events must have a First Cause is dogmatic, as is the conviction that we know with certainty that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides. Pierre Bayle’s argument that God’s existence can be known through faith alone is skeptical, as is the argument that quantum uncertainties like Heisenberg’s mean that material reality can never be fully understood because the act of perceiving it alters it. Thus neither skepticism nor dogmatism is more or less tied to theism than the other – both are broad and diverse categories, and most great intellectual traditions have both in there somewhere.
Dogmatic philosophy is what most people usually think of when we think about philosophy: systems that propose particular things. The Platonic Good, Aristotle’s Categories, Descartes’ vortices and and Heidegger’s Being are all founded in claims that we know or can know some thing or set of things with certainty. Yet skeptical arguments, about what cannot be known, have coexisted with dogmatic claims throughout philosophy’s existence, and the two act as foils to one another, arguing, cross-polinating, hybridizing, and spurring each other on, and their interactions have been among the most exciting and fruitful in philosophy’s long history.
I will begin as close to the beginning as I can:
Happiness in Ancient Greece:
While post-17th-century philosophy often puts its primary focus on the quest to explain and describe things and create a system of knowledge, one key unifying attribute common to just about all classical Greek philosophical schools, though different in each, is the goal of attaining eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), from “eu” = good, happy, fortunate, and “daimon” = spirit, soul. It’s usually translated as happiness, but it’s both more specific and stronger. Other renderings that help get the idea across include wellbeing, self-contentment, self-fulfillment, spiritual joy, and personal wellfare. It is the kind of happiness which is deep, lasting, tranquil, reliable, complete, and, in the Greek sense, godlike or divine. By “divine” I mean a list of attributes that most Greek philosophers associated with the gods, who were supposed to be immortal, unchanging, indestructable, eternally happy and satisfied, living in a bliss surrounded by beauties and free from pain. These are not Homeric Greek gods who feud and lust and rage, but more abstract philosophical gods personifying unchanging eternal principles, the sort of gods Plato believed in and for which reason he wanted to censor Homer’s depictions of the more fallible and anthropomorphic ones. The word daimon thus occupies a complex space, much debated, but can be rendered as a spirit, soul or thinking thing, referring to a category vaguely encompassing human souls, gods and intermediary spirits. Thus, eudaimonia is the state of having a happy or fortunate spirit, so my favorite way of rendering eudaimonia is “the kind of happiness Platonic gods experience” i.e. long-term, untroubled, indestructable happiness.
Become a philosopher, lead a philosophical life as I do, and you will achieve, or at least approach, happiness–this is the promise made by every sect, from Epicurus and Seneca to Diogenes and Plato. In the classical world, being a philosopher was much more about life, living well and demonstrating one’s philosophical prowess through one’s personal excellence and successes than it was about writing comprehensive masterworks expounding systems (See Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life). Each classical philosophical school had its own path to happiness, and each entwined it with different parallel goals, such as the pursuit of personal excellence, or understanding of nature, or civic virtue, or piety, or worldly pleasure, or friendship, any number of things, but we find no classical school for which approaching eudaimonia through leading a philosophical life was not a core promise.
I should note in passing that, in later classical writings, it becomes clear that they take the divine aspect of eudaimonia very seriously, and Neoplatonists especially refer to past philosophical sages as “divine,” arguing that Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Diogenes of Athens, Seneca and so on, had achieved states of philosophical happiness that made their souls identical with those of gods, even while they were contained within mortal flesh. The daimon or soul which is happy in eudaimonia is, after all, categorically the same type of thing as a god, and one of the leading differences between a human soul and a divine one is that the divine one experiences indestructable happy serenity. If a philosopher’s soul achieves the same state, is it not a god? Particularly in a culture which already practiced deification and ancestor worshop? Platonic claims about a philosophical soul growing wings, leaving the body and dwelling among the gods helped further cultivate this impulse. The practice of Theurgy, philosophical magic, developed from the idea that such a divine soul, even while resident in human flesh, could work miraculous effects, such as levitation or generating light.
Now, eudaimonia is a high bar to achieve. Indestructable, god-like happiness must be able to stand unchanged in the face of all changes, a great challenge in a human existence beset by a thousand evils including wolves, tyrants, malaria, civil war, famine, injustice, accidental dismemberment, urequited love, and human mortality. All our surviving ancients agreed that real eudaimonia could not be dependent upon external sources, like fame, wealth, property, physical fitness, romantic love, even liberty of person, because such things could be taken away from you by fickle fate, making them unreliable, and your happiness destructable. I say surviving ancients because we do not have the writings of the Hedonist school, which we know focused on positive, experiential pleasures including, probably, food, drink and sex, and who may have been an exception, but their exceptionality doomed them to be silenced by the dissenting majority. Those who did agree agreed that eudaimonia had to be a state of the thinking thing, the mind or soul, independent of experience, body or social position. It was most frequently connected with things like tranquility, self-mastery, acceptance, and taking enjoyment from things that cannot be destroyed, like Truth. It was also connected with freeing the soul from cares, such as fear, anxiety, envy, ambition, possessiveness, and general attachment to Earthly, perishable things.
These classical philosophical schools developed guides for living and decision-making intended to facilitate a happy life, and those with systems of physics and ontology often tied those closely to their paths to happiness. For example, the atomic explanations for the natural non-divine mechanisms behind thunder and lightning were promoted by Epicureanism as something which could make people happy by freeing them from fear of being zapped by a wrathful Zeus. Thus philosophical disciplines like physics, biology and even basic ontology were in their way tools of eudaimonia as much as they were attempts to explain things. Modern scholars even debate whether, in such cases, the physics was the source of the moral philosophy, or a tool developed afterward to support it when eudaimonia seemed to need it as an ally.
One of the sources of pain and unhappiness from which such systems set out to free people was curiosity, i.e. the unhappiness that derives from hungering for answers. This too needed to be satisfied to achieve the stability of eternal, godlike happiness. The quest to end the pain caused by curiosity meant supplying answers, to questions big and small, but especially big. And they needed to be certain answers, which would be reliable and eternal, and stand up to the assails of fortune, or else eternal, reliable eudaimonia could not rest upon them. This added extra energy to the quest for certainty. One wanted to be really, really sure an answer was right, so one could rest comfortably with it, and be happy, and know it would never change. And one wanted the facts which served as foundations for philosophers’ broader advice on how to achieve happiness to also be certain and unchanging. If Plato says the key to happiness is Truth, Excellence and the Good, or Aristotle proposes his Golden Mean, you want their claims to be based in certainty.
Two tools were employed in pursuit of certainty: Logic and Evidence. All dogmatic claims (i.e. claims of certainty) made by any of our classical thinkers were based on one, the other, or both.
Evidence includes any claims based on observation, sensation, lived experience, or, more technically, empiricism. If Aristotle says bony fish and cartelagenous fish are different because he has dissected a hundred of them and can describe how their insides are different, that is empiricism. If Thales or Heraclitus draw conclusions based on seeing how fire emerges from wood, that is empiricism. If Plato asks us to think about when we’ve seen someone beat a dog and say whether it makes the dog better or worse, that too is a kind of empiricism.
Logic includes any argument based on reasoning instead of sense experience. If Aristotle says that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time, that is an argument based on logic. If Plato asks us if beating a dog makes it worse with respect to the properties of horses or worse with respect to the properties of dogs, that is also an argument asking us to apply logic.
Meanwhile, in a nearby lake…
…a stick fell in a pond, and skepticism was born, like Venus, from the waters. Or rather, from someone who saw the water, and saw a stick sticking half-way out of it, and noticed that the stick looks bent or broken at the point where it goes into the water. And yet, the stick is not bent. The person bends over and touches it, just to be sure, and the fingers confirm the wood is whole and strong. My eyes are lying to me! My eyes can’t be trusted! If this stick isn’t bent, what else that my eyes have told me may be false that I haven’t yet realized? What if the sky isn’t blue? Or milk isn’t white? What if trees have faces, chalk is actually as beautiful as gold, and the sky is swarming with exquisite creatures I have no way to detect? And if I can’t trust my eyes, what about my ears? My hands? Sense perception is unreliable! But in that case, how do I know anything I’ve experienced is as I thought it was? Or even that anything is real?! Panic! Panic more! (Quietly in the background Descartes and Sartre are still carrying out the “Panic more!” instruction nearly two millennia later).
The stick in water is a genuine, ancient example, much discused by pre-Socratic philosophers. We don’t know if it’s actually the first example, since the earliest conversations are lost to time, but it may be, and certainly if it isn’t it was something similar, one of the other optical distortions discussed by ancients, like how a square tower can be mistaken for a round tower when seen from a great distance. What does survive is what later philosophers made of these early discussions of the mystery of the stick in water: epistemology, the study of knowledge, how we know things, and when we can or can’t have certainty. The stick in water challenges any claim that the senses can be relied upon as a source of certainty. Forever after, therefore, any philosopher who wanted to make any claim based on sense perception first had to have a way to explain how we could trust the senses despite this, and other, failings.
And the stick in water has a brother: Zeno’s paradoxes. If the stick in water undermines the credibility of sense-perception, its partner, Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, are what undermine the credibility of the other traditional source of information: logic. You have all heard Zeno’s paradoxes before, but rarely in companionship with the stick in water, which is what gives them their oomph, so it’s worth revisiting one here:
An archer looses an arrow at a target. Before the arrow reaches the target, it must go half way. Next it must go half the remaining distance. Then half that distance. Then half that distance. Half, half, half, half but we can do this forever, so the arrow can never actually reach the target, because it must cross an infinite number of micro-distances first, and nothing can travel infinite distance. Therefore, logically, motion is impossible. Cue polite applause for the logical trick, as at the successful completion of an elegant and challenging ice skating routine. (Cue also Descartes and Sartre glaring at anyone who’s still smiling.)
Why is this more than a cute trick?
Youth: “But we know motion is possible, Socrates.”
Socrates: “How?” (All philosophical dialogs are with Socrates, even when they aren’t.)
Youth: “Because I can hit you. See?” Hits Socrates.
Socrates: “Yes, very good. So you know it is possible because you did it?”
Youth: “Exactly, Socrates. I can do it again if you aren’t convinced.”
Socrates: “If you want to exercise your will in that way (if there’s such a thing as will) then that’s your choice (if there’s such a thing as choice), but first, perhaps you could explain to me, using logic, how you are able to hit me, if your arm has to cross infinite distance first?”
Youth: “I… um… I don’t think I can, Socrates. I just know that I hit you, and could do it again.”
Socrates: “But you can’t explain logically why.”
Socrates: “So wouldn’t you say, then, that logic is incapable of explaining motion?”
Youth: “I guess so, Socrates.”
Socrates: “Doesn’t that bother you? That logic fails to be able to explain something so seemingly simple? Doesn’t that make you distrust logic itself as a tool? It would seem that logic itself is unreliable and can’t lead to certainty.”
Descartes (quietly in the background): “Panic more!”
Youth: “I guess that’s so, Socrates, but it just doesn’t bother me the way it bothers those weirdly dressed men over there.”
Socrates: “And why doesn’t it bother you?”
Youth: “Well, because I know that motion is possible because I can do it and see it. I don’t need logic to explain it.”
Socrates: “So even without logic, you’re sure there is motion… because?”
Youth: “Well, because when I move my arm to hit you, I can see it. When I touch you with my hand, I can feel the impact, the texture of your skin. I can still feel it a little on my own skin, the spot where it struck yours.”
Socrates: “So you know there is motion because your senses tell you so?”
Socrates: “So, since logic is unreliable, you choose to rely on the senses instead?”
Youth: “Yes. I trust things I can see and touch.”
Socrates: “Then tell me, my young friend, have you ever happened to notice what happens when a stick falls so it’s sticking half-way into a pool of water?”
Our youth, whom we shall now leave panicking on the riverbank along with Socrates, Descartes, Sartre and, hopefully, a comfortable picnic, has now received the full impact of why Zeno’s paradoxes of motion matter. They aren’t supposed to convince you there’s no motion, they’re supposed to convince you that logic says there is no motion, therefore we cannot trust logic. Their intended target is any philosopher *cough*Plato*cough*Aristotle*cough* who wants to make the claim that we one can achieve certainty by weaving logic chains together. Anyone whose tool is Logic. Meanwhile, the stick in water attacks any philosopher who wants to rely on sense perception *cough*Aristotle*cough*Epicurus*cough* and say that we know things with certainty through Evidence. When you put both side-by-side, and demand that Zeno shoot an arrow at the stick in water that looks bent, then it seems that both Logic and Evidence are unreliable, and therefore that… there can be no certainty!
Don’t panic, be happy…
The double challenge of the stick in water and Zeno’s paradoxes had many effects.
One was to make all classical thinkers who wanted to maintain dogmatic principles work a lot harder to nuance their claims of certainty, to justify why and in what specific circumstances logic and evidence could be trusted, to explain why they sometimes failed or seemed to fail, and how one could reason or observe more carefully in order to achieve greater levels of certainty. Thus these challenges to reason and evidence let dogmatic philosophers adopt skeptical tools and create systems which had space for both dogma and skepticism in the same system, hybridizing the two to achieve greater levels of clarity, complexity, dynamism and subtlety and jumpstarting countless great philospohcial leaps. To give two quick examples, Aristotle attempted to create a system for achieving infallible logical information by saying that logic is 100% reliable if it is based on a combination of (A) unequivocal carefully defined terms, (B) self-evident first-principles, and (C) geometrically-strict syllogistic reasoning by baby-steps. Stick to these and exclude logical leaps and unclear vocabulary and you can carve out an arena for reliable logic, even if that arena is necessarily finite and cannot touch everything. Similarly Epicurus and Aristotle both proposed a kind of empiricism of repeated observation, where we do not trust just one glance at the stick in water but examine it carefully with all our senses, look at many sticks, and eventually draw conclusions we consider more reliable. And at the same time, these same thinkers gave ground and mixed their dogmatism with skepticism by saying that logic or empiricism worked in some arenas but not others. Epicurus, for example, says we can learn a lot from sense data but we can never learn true details of atomic level since we can’t see anything that small. Aristotle similarly says we can learn about the level of the universe that we can experience and think about, the level of the objects we see and contemplate, but not about the chaotic base substructure which underlies the visible and comprehensible world.
(Sartre, who has just been handed a sandwich by Socrates and is now unconsciously applying the Scientific Method as he considers whether or not to accept Descartes’ offer of mayonaise, looks up here to say that he agrees with Aristotle that there are vast and terrifying unknown depths of being which lie beneath perceived reality. He thinks we should address our long-term attentions to that mystery, and that Aristotle is foolish to cling to pursuing the finite certainties offered by his logic chains and fish observations when no finite knowledge is helpful in the face of the raw unknown infinity beneath. But Sartre is not interested in pursuing eudaimonia, even if he is interested in the short-term, destructable pleasure offered by Descartes’ excellent fresh mayonaise.)
But our ancient Greeks are interested in eudaimonia, and another product of these challenges to reason and evidence, apart from letting dogmatic philosophers hybridize with it, was the birth of Skepticism (big S) as a philosophical school, in addition to skepticism (small S) as an approach. As an approach, skepticism is used by all sorts of thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle in their way, but it was also a school, a rival of Platonists and Stoics. And, like all other ancient schools, Skeptics pursued eudaimonia.
How does doubt lead to happiness? By allowing one to relax and resign one’s self to ignorance, says Pyrrho, the greatest name in pure classical skepticism. We cannot know things with certainty, he says, and this is a release (much as Epicurus thought it was a release to believe there is no afterlife). If we cannot know things with certainty, we don’t have to try. We don’t need to go with Aristotle to the docks and dissect infinite fish. We don’t need to sit with Plato and let him pretend to be Socrates through interminable dialogs. We don’t need to follow Pythagoras and fast ourselves into a trance while contemplating the number ten. We can stop. We can say I don’t know, I can’t know, I’ll never know, no one else knows either, no one is right, no one is wrong (not even people on the internet!), so we can just return to our work and rest. This too, say the skeptics, frees us from pain, from several pains that no dogmatic system can ever free us from. It frees us from the exhaustion of the quest to know. It also frees us from the stress we experience when we turn out to be wrong. If you think you know something, and it’s overturned, that’s stressful and unpleasant. It makes you feel angry, foolish, violated, shaken, abandoned. If you never think you know anything about things, you will never experience the pain of being proved wrong.
You know what the skeptics mean here. You know because you are alive in 2014, and that means you remember when there were nine planets. Weren’t you upset? Wasn’t it distressing and upleasant, shaking your worldview? We learned there were nine planets in kindergarden! Of course Pluto is a planet! Mike Brown, the scientist responsible for getting Pluto’s status stripped away receives hate mail, for precisely this reason: it hurts to be told you’re wrong. And this is far from the only time you, reader, have experienced this. There used to be such a thing as a Brontosaurus. And a Triceratops. (Youth: What! We lost the Triceratops too!”) There used to be four food groups, remember that? And coral reefs used to exist only in the tropics, and moths used to have nothing to do with tree sloths, and you used to have a volume of the complete works of Sappho. And the destruction of all these “truths” have unsettled us to different degrees, because we learned them at different times and they were integral to our worldviews to different degrees. And some we are okay with and with others we smile at the angry t-shirts that say: I remember when there were Nine Planets!
Now, Aristotle would tell us the strife has been caused by the fact that we had not defined “Planet” carefully enough before, so it wasn’t an unequivocal term, and thus led us to confusion and misunderstandings. “But!” says Pyrrho, “if you had never studied these things, if you had not been taught as a child to memorize dinosaurs, or rest your worldview on the label attached to a hunk of rock far off in the darkness where you never have cause to perceive it, then you would not experience this unhappiness! Your belief that you knew something has made you unhappy, destroying eudaimonia. Just admit that you do not know anything with certainty and then you need never experience such pain again!” And in the case of things we were prepared for–the treesloth and the Sappho and Arthur having a knight of African descent–the Scientific Method told us to do just that, to be prepared for truth to be replaced when it was time, because it was never Truth, it was always provisional truth.
Ten Modes of Skepticism
Many exciting things will happen to skepticism as it leaves Greek hands before reaches ours. It will be transformed by Bacon and Montaigne, by Averroes and Ockham, Descartes will finish his potato salad and have his day, and it has more refinement yet to undergo among the Greeks as well, and from their sunny riverbank Socrates and company will watch skepticism surge over the marble walls of Plato’s Academy like ants into their picnic basket. But for today I want to leave you with a taste of raw classical skepticism, so you can taste it for a little while and have a taste of this oddest of philosophies which proposes un-knowledge, rather than knowledge, as its happy goal. To that end, here, to finish, are examples of the Ten Modes of Pyrrhonism (i.e. the kind of raw skepticism practiced by Pyrrho) based on the handbook of Sextus Empiricus (one of our few surviving ancient skeptical authors). It is a list of categories of sources of error, things that can make you be wrong. Many are ones that we are very well prepared for in the modern world and remain on constant or at least near-constant guard against (though rather than guarding against the errors, what Pyrrho and Sextus want us to do is be on guard against imagining we aren’t making errros, i.e. to be on guard against thinking we know something. I see Socrates is nodding in approval, and that the others are too polite to point out the crumbs on his chin).
The Ten Pyrrhonist Proofs that Nothing can be Known with Certainty:
We cannot have certainty because different animals have different senses. When do we encounter this? When walking a dog, sometimes the dog stops to sniff in rapt fascination at a spot on the sidewalk where we see nothing interesting. But evidently there is something very interesting there if a creature as intelligent as a dog is fascinated, and willing to disobey its friend and choke itself by pulling on its collar in order to study this fascinating thing. What an error we commit being unable to see this fascination! Or is the dog in error?
We cannot have certainty because different human beings experience things differently. When do we encounter this? I encounter it when friends drink alcohol. I do not enjoy alcohol. Not only am I not supposed to have it (because of a specific medical condition), but it tastes like nasty poisonous motor oil to me, and yet I see my friends go into paroxysms of delight over the subtleties and complexities of drinks, and my civilization build entire buildings, institutions, customs and industries around this thing which my senses tell me is terrible. My senses and those of my friends differ. Clearly someone must be wrong, unless there is no right here? I also have a color blind housemate who cannot tell that Hello Kitty Hot Chocolate is bright pink, and struggles to play the game Set in mediocre lighting.
We cannot have certainty because our senses disagree with each other. If I want to know if something is good, I ask my senses. Yet sometimes they disagree with each other. My eyes tell me this artichoke is just made of smooth leaves, yet my touch tells me it is prickly. My eyes tell me a lobster is scary and dangerous, and yet my tongue says is delicious. My eyes tell me the molten glass in this glassblowing demo looks goopy and exciting and like a fascinating texture like putty which would be awesome to touch, and yet my touch tells me owwwwwwwwwww hot hot hot hot hot! My touch tells me this cat is delightful and fuzzy and yet my nose tells me I should not be near it because achooo!
We cannot have certainty because sometimes the same things seem different and lead us to different judgments in different circumstances. I might enjoy a food for a long time but then get food poisoning from it and, after that, always be revolted when I smell it. I might feel warm at 70 degrees but then be sick and feel cold at 70 degrees. I might think Gatorade is nasty but then be dehydrated and think it tastes great because my body craves elecrolytes.
We cannot have certainty because the same objects seem different from different perspectives. A mountain that looks like a face from one angle looks like a random jumble from another. A square tower seen from a distance seems round. A stick in water looks bent. The moon above a skyline looks much bigger than the buildings but we have no real sense from that of how enormously big it really is, and can only realize the latter using a lot of math, or a space shuttle.
We cannot have certainty because we never see objects alone. Have you ever had one of those articles of clothing that looks purple in some light and blue in other light, so people argue over which it is? Because it looks one way next to one thing and another way next to another. Well, what does it look like really? We can never see anything alone, we always see it surrouneded by other objects including air. If the stick is distorted by water, is it not also distorted by air? By vacuum? By light? We do not see objects, only groups of objects.
We cannot have certainty because things take multiple forms. Bronze is red, except when it turns green. Water is clear, unless it’s blue, or fluffy snow white. Squid ink is black, unless it’s diluted to form purple, or sepia. That molten glass is enticingly orange and squidgy. What do any of these things really look like?
We cannot have certainty because we experience everything relative to other things. We cannot see a thing without making some judgment about things that are relative: this clementine is small, this stick is long, this lake is large. Small, long and large compared to what? Other objects of comparison intrude themselves into our analysis. The clementine is small compared to oranges, the stick long compared to other sticks, the lake large compared to my back yard. But we cannot judge things without judging them relative to others. To feed his fish for a while my father was growing Giant Amoebas. Giant Amoebas! Amoebas so big you could almost see them with the naked eye! They were huge! They were smaller than grains of sand and yet I thought they were huge!
We cannot have certainty because we are biased by scarcity. I love this one, and I love its classic example. This is about how we judge things to be… well, frankly, how we judge them to be awesome or not. For example, comets are awesome. A little bright speck appears in the night that wasn’t there before, and flies across the heavens, really fast, so fast you can almost see it move! When there is a comet we get very excited. We discuss it, announce it, get out telescopes to look at it. In past ages people might pray to it, or read omens from it; now we photograph it and shoot probes at it. It’s super exciting: little bright speck in sky. Okay. So, every morning an enormous blinding ball of fire rises from the horizon, blotting out the night and transforming the entire sky to a wall of brilliant blue brightness streaked with rippling swaths of other beautiful colors, and it radiates down heat enough to transform our weather, burn our skin and feed countless life forms. It is, from any sense-perception objective sense, ten skillion times more exciting than a comet. But it’s just the sun, so, shrug. We are biased by scarcity. Two poems by Sappho and we all hear, but we find thousands of pages of unknown Renaissance poetry every year.
We cannot have certainty because different peoples have different customs, habits, laws, beliefs and ethics, and are biased by them. I think you all know this one. Though it will take over a millennium for it to get to be so common, since cultural relitivism isn’t a broadly-discussed or accepted thing until the enlightenment when Montesquieu and Voltaire made themselves its champions. Skepticism has a long road ahead of it, from Pyrrho to the present. But for now, let’s sit back with Socrates and picnic on this raw form of classical, eudaimonist skepticism, challenging our science-loving, learning-loving, exploration-loving, post-enlightenment selves to test ourselves with the quesiton of whether it might be a safe and happy thing sometimes, in its own strange way, to not know. And we should also comfort Sartre a bit–he hadn’t heard, before today, about poor Pluto. (Descartes: “What’s Pluto?” Socrates: “Are you sure you want to know?”)
This is not a full post yet, but an update, and a recommendation.
The process of transitioning to new hosting is well underway, bugs are vanishing and new features will be online soon. The site is already loading faster, and other new things will follow. UPDATE: the photo album is now fixed. Links will be a little slower to regenerate, but they will in time. Bug reports remain welcome.
Meanwhile, I have an enthusiastic recommendation to make for everyone who has been enjoying the historical and philosophical side of this blog. My work on figures like Machiavelli and topics like the history of atheism grew out of my training in intellectual history. The turning point that set me solidly on this path was a pair of classes on European intellectual development in the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Prof. Alan Kors at Penn. The lectures are truly amazing, clear and moving, chronicling the development of the scientific method, the crisis sparked by Thomas Hobbes, the new models of mind and nature advanced by Locke and Newton, the extraordinary and oft-neglected Pierre Bayle. The second half covered advent of the Enlightenment, which gave me my first real taste of the great firebrands Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot, and the revolution-of the-mind which so shaped our present day. The very same lectures by Alan Kors are now available on CD/DVD/download through The Teaching Company, and usually cost more than $100, but they are temporarily on sale for about $30, a little more if you want the video version. So if you enjoyed my Machiavelli series, and if you like audiobooks, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. You can order them here. (There is not, alas, a printed book equivalent of the same content by the same author, but his book Atheism in France, 1650-1729 is, while out of print and rare, independently excellent.)
Update: that sale is over but new ones come up sometimes and this page has coupons for The Great Courses.
Hopefully that will tide you over until my start-of-semester to-do list eases enough to let me write another essay. Soon!
Visitors to the site today, and over the next few days, will notice that our beautiful e-porphyry facade has been stripped away, revealing the bare gray e-plaster beneath. ExUrbe.com is undergoing rennovations, switching to new hosting, which will enable faster loading loading times, patch various cracks in the e-structure, and get us away from some old e-construction materials which would definitely have caused structural instability over the next years. You will already notice the faster loading times, though the short-term cost of the present bare bones appearance, and the temporary absence of the Picture of the Day and most of the navigation menu. I and my web-architect are on the job, so thank you for your patience.
UPDATE: Progress has restored much of our porphyry, but the photo album and other features are still under reconstruction. We’ll keep at it, but meanwhile bug reports are welcome in the comments. Thank you.
After the long silence since my last post, I wanted to put up something quick to reassure friends and readers who might find the silence worrisome. I am currently in Italy, with my academic conference duties done, my laptop broken and my camera battery fried, so, with no means of being practically productive and a holiday before me, I have no choice but to tromp about museums and enjoy myself. Accompanied by two good friends, I have carried on a lot of valuable debate with fellow historians, as well as philosophers and classicists. I have also researched many manuscripts, books, paintings, sculptures and other artifacts, along with many varieties of cheese, pasta, cold cuts, gnocchi, meatballs, roasts, fruits, pizzas, and, of course, gelatos. Sometimes fate is kind.
I am brimming with ideas for new posts, which I will start on as soon as I’m not on a borrowed machine and unstable hotel internet. I appreciate your patience. Meanwhile I will share a piece of Italian art fun:
This is an illuminated image from a Renaissance manuscript in the Laurenziana library in Florence. From a page of the French translation of a 14th century Latin History of Rome, the Romuleon compiled by Benvenuto da Imola, this image shows the illustrator’s imagined version of the Carthaginian army camp. In addition to armor and siege preparation, you can see a tent on the right-hand side where a doctor is performing surgery on a wounded officer’s leg. This kind of image is extremely valuable for historians, in learning about what the Renaissance imagined the ancient world was like, which was very much not what we imagine it was like. Hannibal’s lovely gold slit-sleeved coat and colorful hat are particularly choice touches. This type of illustration is also useful as a snapshot for historians attempting to reconstruct information about fleeting artifacts of Renaissance culture, like tents, plumes, the little bottles you used for a meal, or for medical treatment, things which rarely survive in physical form but are casually depicted here by an artist imagining a camp scene, complete with a doctor’s equipment. The illustration itself takes up a whole manuscript page, so pretty close in size to what you probably see on your computer screen:
(This is a tongue-in-cheek in-character “review” of the “plot” of Marvell’s film Thor 2: The Dark World. You are hereby warned that it is filled with spoilers, and that it is absolutely not a straight, serious review. For earlier installments in the series, see my reviews of Thor, Avengers, Iron Man III, and my Recap.)
It was a bit much, I admit. There is something to be said for the elegance of a simple plan, something with just three steps, something like, say…
Get back into Asgard by allowing myself to be captured.
Escape during the next convenient (chance or pre-arranged) chaos.
Steal all the awesome stuff! (Cosmic Cube, Infinity Gauntlet, etc.)
But that little period of imprisonment between steps 1 and 2 required patience, and patience breeds… Well, you must have had the experience of that anxious period when you’re waiting for the fruits of something you were working on, and you just can’t help adding to it? Yes I’m dressed for the dance, but surely I could shine my shoes and sew fresh trim onto this jacket. Yes this dinner menu is sufficient, but surely there’s time to also make an apple pie, and cookies, and some quiche. You think, “I’ll add just another couple brush strokes to this landscape,” and next thing you know you’ve painted an entire town, with a train pulling into the station, and a tickertape parade.
They say a truly great artist knows when not to add to what is already perfect, but months in a box, months in a box surrounded by idiots, idiots who only give you a book a week because that’s how long it would take him to finish it, idiots who don’t even recognize a predator’s gaze when you snarl through the force field at them, idiots who… ahem, well, even the most supreme intellect succumbs to boredom’s urge to… overcomplicate. Just a little bit.
Because you know what’s more fun than chilling in a dungeon? Chilling on a throne.
First off, don’t you just love the Svartálfar? (That’s Dark Elves, for those not so good at pronouncing Icelandic.) Setting aside how hilariously confused Snorri Sturlson and the other saga writers are about them (Are they elves? Are they dwarves? Were they invented purely to irritate anthropologists?), they’re so adorably simple! “We hate light!” Well, yes, all sensible people do, and the Aesir are jerks for having littered their tacky light-balls from Musfelheim all over the freaking cosmos, but instead of adopting a reasonable plan like, say, destroying the Sun, or tricking the Aesir into selling you the Sun and the Moon, or feeding them to wolves, the sort of plan a sensible*ahem*Jotun*ahem* individual might come up with, they come up with Operation: Destroy Everything. Including, you know, meat, and mead, and gold, and books, and conquerable peoples, and my most excellent boots (gotta looove my boots). But the Svartálfar have this absoluteness and simplicity to their motives that makes recruiting them for a plan so effortless it’s almost zen.
“Would you like to help me d–”
“OK, well, the plan is–”
“We will sacrifice ourselves to do it! RAAAH!”
“Right, then. Anyone want to stop on the way for pancakes and–”
“Destroy! Accursed! RAAAH!”
Needless to say Svartálfheim is not where one goes for a rich Socratic dialog. I confess, the only times I usually trek out there are just to show off that I know where Svartálfheim actually is. All nine worlds are accounted for, so is it part of Alfheim? Nifflheim? Vanaheim? In the dwarven tunnels under Midgard? (Keep on stacking up those bribes, Snorri, and maybe someday I’ll tell you…) But Svartálfheim is totally where you send your illusory projection when you suddenly realize you can’t stand sitting in this damned box another day playing endless rounds of “Guilt Trip: the Confrontation” the with the Yawnfather. Get. Me. Out. Now.
By the way, it’s getting harder to maintain the weakening third person pretense of these reviews, so shall we drop it? I still maintain they’re “unbiased” because it’s only from the one being in the cosmos who knows what actually happened that you’ll get an accurate version. But it is so much easier to explain when I can say “I” and “me” and “my” and not couch things in roundabout phrasing.
I once taught myself how to stack a deck of cards. For about twenty minutes it made playing cards brilliant, but after that it made it intolerably dull. Until I realized I could stack the deck agianst myself, and then have to play extra-brilliantly to make up for it, and try to keep my opponent from noticing that I was double-cheating against myself. That was perfect. That was, and stayed, deliciously perfect. So this became precisely that. Awakening the Svartálfar was the deck I stacked against myself, a little handicap to make me have something else to occupy part of my attention so that returning to Asgard in secret, defeating Odin and replacing him on the throne won’t be laughably effortless. It’s like keeping one hand behind your back, only with a bit more alien invasion of Midgard. I told the Svartálfar they had to release the Great Red Macguffin on Midgard. They didn’t ask me why Midgard. I wonder whether “Midgard is the most fun!” would’ve meant anything to them…
So, the ham-handed Svartálfar naturally wanted to just break in and actually free me. (And smash all their own ships while doing so: Smash! RAAAH!) It took quite a bit of talking to convince them to attack, free everyone except a certain someone, and count on a certain well-advertised transit monopoly to get my “captors” to release me themselves. This was easily the scariest part of the plan. No matter how great the efforts to advertise the transit monopoly, the whole thing hinged on the Thunderer thinking of something. For a while, waiting in the cell, it was an almost piercing paranoia: Will he not get it? Should I have hung neon lights in the sky reading “Only Loki Can Leave Asgard Without Bifrost!”? But in the end he was precisely as stupid as I predicted, no more no less, and off we shot! With the nice perk of getting to undermine the honor and trust everyone had in the Thundrer, and Sif, and all his friends, and, most deliciously, Heimdall. Heimdall commiting treachery… you know that’ll grate on his stony, laughter-killing heart a good, long time. Until the day I pierce it through. Most satisfactory.
Oh, and Frigg had to go. I even had to direct the idiot Svartálf to her myself. But it was time. I can’t play Odin that convincingly, not well enough to fool her. Pity. I enjoyed Frigg.
Aaaaaand, we’re off! Quick hop to Svartálfheim. (Note: it didn’t occur to Thunderer to ask me why my tunnel was set to go straight to Svartálfheim without passing go or collecting two hundred fallen enemies.) And now I get to savor the delicious triple-bluff pantomime of pretending to betray the Thunderer and side with the Svartálfar, only to suddenly reveal that I’m faking and help the Thunderer against the Svartálfar, who know the whole time I’m still with them, and then I get to pretend to get killed! And then there’s the Thundrer all sad, wid’ his widdle guilt in his widdle cudly heart, awwww.
If course, I could’ve stuck with the Svartálfar a while longer, but they’re the types where if you say, “Can I have a lift home now, please?” they say “RIDE WITH US TO DEATH AND DESTRUCTION! RAAAH!” and you say, “On second thought I’ll walk.” Easier to go it solo. But here’s where the ornamentation born of my impatience gets a little tangled. I have business in Asgard but there are now Svartálfar running around, and Svartálfar are such short-term thinkers, not a tool one really wants to keep in hand during the long haul, and certainly not a group one wants to let succeed. They must be dealt with.
Meanwhile, Ian the Intern.
Projecting myself in the persona of Ian the intern is, I confess, another of these ornaments that the plan probably could’ve done without. But I was so bored, and it was so fun wriggling my way in so close to the Thunderer’s girlfriend-pet-thing whatever he thinks she is.
Sure, I coudl’ve just used good old Dr. Erik “Pants-less” Selvig to do everything I needed, but it was so much more entertaining to let him think he was free of my control, but then taunt him, from the inside, and from the outside as “Ian” and see how long it would take his non-negligable human intellect to snap like a mundane chain trying to hold a certain puppy. I may have overdone it a bit with Erik. No. No, it was perfect. Stonehenge was hilarious, and Tony did a great job having his Jarvis collect all the Youtube footage for me which I’ve been basking in between bouts of having to pretend being the Un-fun-father. But the real fun was seeing how unscientific a conclusion I could lead Erik to without him realizing we weren’t in scienceland anymore. I just had to lead him to the random spot I’d told the Svartálfar was the right place to set off the Great Red Macguffin. I could’ve, you know, concentrated gravitational waves there, or made an illusory portal appear, or put weird lights moving across the photos taken by Hubble to make it look like a space thing was aimed there, but it was so much more fun scattering the clues around Stonehenge and other randomly selected ancient rocks. Yes, Erik, draw an X between the henges, that’s totally science. Ian the intern totally agrees.
Of course, one must get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, but one must not seem to get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, or people may start to talk. So first one sends in the person least likely to be helping with a sinister plan: Thundergirlfriend! Spacial instabilities are easy enough to arrange, enough to attract Team Thunderscience, and then it’s easy enough to whip up a portal to the hiding place of the ancient all powerful weapon which no one bothered to actually set a guard on (Is Asgard ready for a regime change or what?). Of course, as soon as she got to the place where the distortions were she got so distracted by the kids and cute, I thought she’d never wander in the damned portal… had to have “Ian” accidentally lose the keys to keep her there.
That was the beauty of “Ian” you see. In that form, I could do anything. No one would suspect. And it was so plausible to have any technology I might need (“Oh, I don’t know what it does, I didn’t make it, I don’t know anything, I’m just an intern, dum-de-dum”) and no one would even ask! And I could be on the internet doing anything science-looking or math-looking, or even beyond, and they’d just assume it was either work or some kind of videogame. Even if someone looked over my shoulder and asked “What are those equasions?” or “How come that looks so much like the S.H.I.E.L.D. Mainframe?” or “Why are you text chatting with someone called SexyStark4evR and why do they keep calling you ‘master’?” I could just say “It’s a World of Warcraft thing,” and they’d never ask again.
I had to take down S.H.I.E.L.D., of course. I would only have a narrow window of the Svartálfar releasing the full-blown Power Stone, and we needed unrestricted access to get the technology I had Tony build for me in place. I wanted to not only gain a sample and the ability to reproduce the effect, but I also wanted to route my imprint onto the Stone, so I could gain control of it, and make sure I could track, activate and recall it from anywhere in the cosmos. To do that I needed something beyond just Midgard tech, and while I could teach Tony to build the stuff, I couldn’t teach him to camouflage their non-Midgard origins well enough to hide it from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inevitable curiosity if they inspected our innocent detector rods that golly-gee coincidentally were also capable of defeating the big bad. Also, S.H.I.E.L.D. might’ve brought Hulk – things get less fun around Hulk. So, when perky-Thundergirlfriend-assistant-girl picked up her phone, it was vital that S.H.I.E.L.D. be fully occupied. (A multi-billion-dollar international super organization not picking up a phone call from the team of human scientists with closest contact with the Asgardians? And she doesn’t find that fishy?)
I gave Tony carte blanche to divert S.H.I.E.L.D. as he liked, with no command beyond “Entertain me.” He took that one to heart, and has a mind which knows how to make the best of fleeting opportunities. There was this Great Conjunction bringing Nine Worlds into alignment: just the sort of circumstance to make S.H.I.E.L.D. perfectly distracted, if it’s brought to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s enemies. It was clearly established that Asgardian troops had just restored a fragile peace in vulnerable-little-village-infested Vanaheim. A little push of HYDRA attention that way and Captain Flagpants couldn’t unpack his star-spangled space suit fast enough.
That left the Thunderer. As ever, the Thunderer.
Using “Ian” to push Thundergirlfriend to push Thunderer made it easy enough to make him pull his weight in eliminating the last Svartálfar before they could actually (shudder) destroy all the meat and mead and gold and books and conquerable peoples. Self-stacked deck defeated. And as a bonus, since it’s been a while since my New York invasion, Midgard got a fresh reminder reminder that the universe is teeming with monsters, Midgard is not prepared, and its Human defenders are useless, but we grand, divine Asgardians can protect them, we alone. Must get these humans ready to embrace my rule.
As for the Thunderer, I couldn’t have him wandering Asgard with me on the throne, any more than I could have Frigg around. It’s not that I thought I couldn’t deceive him, it’s that there are those idiot friends of his who’re pushing for him to take charge away from daddy, and a rival power base is… an inconvenient complexity. And he’s irritating, and it would be so tempting to… tease. Mustn’t let myself get distracted. But he’s too valuable a blunt instrument to just destroy. Banishment might make him, or others, try to reverse it, so the ideal was to get him to banish himself. The treason of freeing me got him thinking he deserved it, then a few choice reminders of his own incompetency compared with the Mirror of Princes that is yours truly, was the starting wedge. I didn’t even have to drive it home, though. Thundergirlfriend did that, plus the pathetic plight of the defenseless humans flattering the Thunderego into thinking he could do something valuable by living among them as some condescending protector. Cute. He really is too cowardly to be a sovereign. Realizing it may be the first slightly smart thing he’s ever done.
So now the prelude is complete, Midgard is freshly cowed, the Thunderer is gone, his friends are discredited, two Power stones are nicely under my control, and I’ve finally got reasonable quarters as I wait for the real first stage of my plan to get going. Most satisfactory.
Only one thing went genuinely wrong: stupid Svartálfar smashed Odin’s throne! I’d been waiting to sit in that damned throne again for so long, and you go and smash it! I was so pissed when I got back to find a pile of rubble. Oh, well. At least the new one I designed has a more comfortable seat, and swivels, and has wi-fi, and a little screen in the arm rest so I can text with Tony during these endless valkyrie status reports.
SexyStark4evR: “Master! Cap just made a Facebook account!” *TheOdinChat: “srsly? Whats he doing with it?” SexyStark4evR: “Posting pictures of SHIELD 4th of july party” TheOdinChat: “R they rlly bobbing 4 apples? lol look@Fury’s face!” SexyStark4evR: “Im gonna send a friend request pretending to be Miss America. No, Miss Canada! Think he’ll agree to a date?” TheOdinChat: “Im gonna invite him to Farmville. And Cookie Clicker.” SexyStark4evR: “Master, you’re evil!”
*When the Lord of Asgard sleeps he sleeps The Odinsleep; when the Lord of Asgard chats he chats TheOdinChat. Must keep up the pretense.
And that is the story of how I walked effortlessly out of prison, saved Asgard and the universe from a danger I created, awoke and then defeated one of the great ancient rivals of Jotunkind, seized two Power Stones, crippled S.H.I.E.L.D., put my newest servant through his paces, further opened humanity’s eyes to the truth about aliens and gods that their leaders have been conspiring to hide, shattered Heimdall’s honor, tricked the Thunderer into banishing himself, seized my rightful throne, and finally faced my first truly worthy opponent: myself. Not bad for a plan I came up with in one night in a fit of boredom. I shall now accept applause.