The lingering fear

On February 26, 1993 a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower of the complex commonly known as the Twin Towers. The people who made this bomb hoped that 250,000 people would die but a misplacement of the bomb meant only 6 people would die (although about 1000 were injured). Although the people who made the bomb had some passing associations with al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that al-Qaeda was responsible and the US government has never claimed that it was.

On September 11 2001, al-Qaeda did manage to destroy the Twin Towers. They only managed to kill around 3000 people and injure about 25000. They set off a global conflict that saw America taking military action in almost every Muslim country around the globe.

At the time, there was a lot of chatter about terrorist using weapons of mass destruction. It was one of the major justifications for the massive blood and money poured into the “War on Terror.” The idea was that if we let terrorist organizations continue to get better and to keep trying, eventually they will pull off an attacked that is truly damaging to the US. It was easy to feel that the third time very well could be a 6 or 7 figure causality attack on American soil.

And so America killed a lot goat herders. Americans dropped a lot of space age weapons on people who could not read or write. Al-Qaeda was reduced to a shadow of its former self. All of its top leadership on that time of the Twin Towers attacks were killed or died of naturally causes. No major attacks every happened on US soil. And America got tired of the endless war all over the world.

Now the Taliban control more of Afghanistan then they did in 2001 and American is back to being more worried about Russia and China then they are about some random non-state actor hoping to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. But I am still worried about New York City’s fate. I still expect to see it go up in flames. I expect there to be a third and final attack with a weapon of mass destruction that ends it as a functioning city.

To be clear, this is an emotional expectation on my part and not a rational one. I don’t think there is any non-state group that can do this right now. And I don’t think any state group (not even Iran) is crazy enough to do it at the current time. So if rationally, I don’t think it is possible at this time, why do I have this feeling that it is going to happen?

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The Crisis of Authority


The Crisis of Authority


“Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn’t the will to do what is right”— Alexander Solzhenitsyn


People are talking about a new Great Depression. People are talking about the unraveling of the current economic order. People are scared. And they are sacred of all the wrong things.

People are self centered, so it is natural that the prospect of losing their job excites people’s imagination. Suddenly, they no longer feel in control of their puny little world. This feeling of helplessness is intensified by the rapid increase in the prices of things that most people have long taken for granted. So, people being people, they naturally conclude that the world is ending.

This fear is both rational and absurd at the same time. It is rational to fear that the world is ending, but it is absurd to think that this is going to happen because of economic problems. America has been through a great many economic crises and they have all left the country stronger in the end.

Nowadays people mentioned the Great Depression in the same breath as Armageddon, but this is silly. What harm did the Great Depression really do? How many people starved? At the Great Depression’s very worst, only 26.6 percent of the work forces could not find a job. There are many countries in the world (South Africa being one of them) that would love to have an unemployment rate that low.

Of course, the Great Depression was an unpleasant time to live through. I don’t deny that. But the generation that came out of that era was one of the most fiscally responsible and level headed generations in American history. Character building is never any fun, but that doesn’t mean it is a disaster.

To be sure, an old fashioned Conservative would bemoan the expansion of government power that happened during the Great Depression, but they are barking up the wrong tree. Franklin Roosevelt was no libertarian, to say the least, but the pendulum would probably have swung the other way without the intervention of World War II. War or the threat of war has historically been the thing that accustoms Americans to greater federal power on a permanent basis.

I would go so far as to say that one should look at the current economic crisis affecting American as a fundamentally beneficial thing in and of itself. If it does nothing else, it will put an end to the building of those hideous McMansions that have blotted the rural landscape. High gas prices are already causing people to drive more sensibly and in smaller cars. And the economic problems have already tightened up consumer credit to levels that come closer to being sane.

Of course, politicians will do stupid things in response to the economic crises. They always do. But for all those conservatives that are already moaning and groaning about the great economic damage that Obama is going to inflict on us all, I have only two words: “Richard Nixon.” When Obama manages to top the boneheaded stupidity of Nixon’s prices controls, I might start to worry. But since Nixon’s price controls did not bring about the end of the world, I doubt that anything Obama can do will have any worse effects—at least, not in the economic sphere.

I don’t mean to go overboard in downplaying the very real pain that will come about as a result of today’s economic problems. But Americans tend to worry excessively about things that affect their economic status and not enough about things that could get them killed (or otherwise change the state of their existence in ways that can never be compensated for with money). Simply put, Americans are not very good at recognizing existential threats to their nation.

In part, this could be because they don’t get much practice. After all, there have only been two events in all of American’s history that have truly threatened America’s existence as a nation.

The first such event was the importation of slaves from Africa to America. From that point on slavery was an existential threat to America. As such, its influence was heavily felt in every decision that America made from how it dealt with Native Americans to how it constructed its political structure. Even the southern slave owners recognized the seriousness of the threat at some level. That is why they lay awake at night worrying about slave rebellions.

The legacy of this threat is still with us, although it is common to assume that it no longer threatens the existence of the US because we took care of it during the civil war, or the civil rights movement, or whenever. I would not be so confident, myself. If the failed state of Afghanistan can produce 9/11, what can the failed ghetto cultures that slavery has left behind produce?

But that is a subject for another time. The primary point of bringing up slavery is to highlight what a real threat to national existence looks like. It is not just a ten year period of rough economic times. A true threat always has an element of moral crisis and it always involves the near certainty of massive bloodshed. It is not much of a crisis if there is a little moral doubt about the best way forward. And it is not much of a threat if no one is going to die.

That brings us to the second great threat to the existence of United States of America: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Most people with a modicum of historical knowledge would find that statement odd. People normally think of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as marking the start of World War I, and nobody really believes that particular war threatened the existence of the US. In fact, a lot of people go so far as to argue that US’s participation in the First World War was a great mistake.

But a World War I was only a small part of the great crisis that the assassination of the Archduke unleashed. That crisis did not end with World War I, World War II, or the Cold War. The last twenty years that we have gone through have been but the eye of the storm. The crisis that the Archduke’s assassination sparked is still raging.

The fact that the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marked the start of a World War I has obscured the fact that it also marked the marked the start of a worldwide crisis of authority. Before Mr. Ferdinand was killed, there had been a few revolutions, but in each case there was revision back to a traditional conception of authority. For example, the French violently overthrew every form of traditional authority in their revolution. But it did not take many years before Napoleon appropriated the old royal symbols to lend his régime an air of authority. From there, France regressed (or progressed depending on your point of view) back towards their old social order. In fact, it could be argue that the French revolution strengthened the existing frame work of authority in Europe as it gave the emerging European middle class a good look at the disadvantages of revolution.

In other words, in spite of the violence of the French revolution, France’s social order managed to maintain a type of continuity. Similar observations could be made about Cromwell or any other pre-World War I revolutionary. They may have tried to overthrow the social order, but their lasting effects were small.

Nowadays, the death of the Archduke seems like ancient history, and we forget what a dramatic change came over the world. But almost no social order managed to survive the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. To get a superficial idea of the scale of the change, consider the age of some of the empires that disappeared for good. The Habsburgs had been ruling in Austria for 640 years. The Ottoman Empire had been around for over 600 years. Even a relative new kid on the block such as Romanov dynasty had been ruling Russia for about 300 years when the crisis hit. That is longer than the United States has been a nation. I can only think of eight countries whose form of government survived from before the time of the Archduke to the present. Most of them came from Anglo-Saxon cultures.

The widespread destruction of the existing social orders naturally led to the question “what is the proper authority that shall govern men?” This question transcended the merely political. With the collapse of the social order, the very basis of right and wrong was up for dispute. What was moral was as much in question as how men should be governed.

Such questions seem like the domain of philosophers, but people fought and died in large numbers over those very questions. Adolf Hitler explicitly taught that ethnic cleansing was required from a moral nation. The Communists explicitly taught that private property was theft. Such ideas turn previously accepted conceptions of morality on their heads. Yet these were the types of ideologies that rose out of the ashes of the dead social orders. And without any agreed upon source of authority, who was to say they were wrong?

The debates were not settled with calm discourse. Millions upon millions of people died. In addition, thousands of ballistic missiles were put on a hair trigger that, if tripped, would have brought about the closest thing to Armageddon that mankind could produce. At the heart of all this trouble was the simple question of what was the proper source for authority, and, by extension, what types of behavior were moral or immoral.

As we all know, the other side of this deadly debate on the proper source of authority was a primarily Anglo-Saxon alliance. The nations that formed the core of this alliance had not suffered the same level of damage to their social order that other nations had (although Great Britain lost its empire). At least on the superficial level, they kept their preexisting (meaning pre-Ferdinand) forms of government. Drawing on their own traditions, they put forth a conception of authority that was different from both the old imperial orders and the new ideologies that sprang up offering a new source of authority and morality.

The conventional narrative has it that the good guys won and the bad guys lost. After all, both the Communists and the Nazis have been confined to the dustbin of history. Some take this narrative so far that they argue that the end of history is at hand and that everyone will soon adopt the Anglo-Saxon conception of authority. Admittedly, the more paranoid types like to talk about a new conflict with those dang Islamic fundamentalists. Others fear that anyone with strongly held religious beliefs poses a threat to the good guys. But most everyone seems to assume that crisis of authority is only a problem because of backward types.

The problems that tore right through highly educated and “advanced” societies in the last hundred years are presumed to be solved. It is taken as a given that all intelligent and educated people acknowledge that democracy with a recognition of basic human rights is the proper authority for all men. In other words, everyone takes it for granted that the end of history is here, if only you are smart enough to see it.

But before you accept the conventional narrative you need to think a little harder about what type of authority the “good guys” fought for and how it differed from the “bad guys”. At first glance the conventional narrative seems straight forward and uncontroversial. The Anglo-Saxon dominated alliance fought for an authority based on democracy and human rights where as their opponents had no use for the rights of individuals.

As far as this narrative goes, it is obviously correct. All the Anglo-Saxon members of the alliance had functioning democracies that went back before the time of Ferdinand. And all of them had a widespread belief that every individual has a set of rights that no government should take away from them. Nor can it be denied that the Communists and Fascists explicitly denied the importance of the individual.

The problem with this narrative is that it presents the Anglo-Saxon countries as having a unified understanding of the proper basis for authority. This ignores the tensions that the crisis of authority has injected into the Anglo-Saxon political debates.

As an example of this tension, consider some of the political questions that are commonly debated in western countries. Should the right to free speech really rank higher then public safety? Should the right to freely practice one’s religion really trump the right to a good public education?

These questions pit so called “negative rights” against “positive rights.” This tension within Anglo-Saxon political thought started with death the Archduke (granted, it can traced back further than that, but it flowered with the start of the crisis). Prior to the assassination of the Archduke, the justification of Anglo-Saxon political ideals was carried out on moral grounds. That is to say, defenders of Anglo-Saxon ideals argued their superiority on the grounds of justice and freedom of consciences. The boast of the Anglo-Saxon patriot was that he was a free man.

After the assassination of the Archduke, the tendency was to argue for the superiority of Anglo-Saxon ideals on materialistic grounds. That is to say, the defense became couched in terms of who had the best living standards on average and who had the best GDP growth. The boast of the Anglo-Saxon world gradually switched from their freedom to their toys.

This change was reflected in the political debates of the time. The political debates in the Anglo-Saxon world pre- Ferdinand centered on the demands of freedom and justices vs. fears of anarchy. After Ferdinand’s death, the political debates shifted to arguing over what polices lead to the best materialistic outcomes.

Part of this shift in debate had its origins in the events happing in the rest of the world. When the competitors to the Anglo-Saxon model were the old imperial models, it was natural that the argument would center on moral questions and fears of anarchy. After all, old imperial orders justified themselves on the grounds of moral issues and fears of anarchy.

For example, the Hapsburgs held themselves out to be the defenders of the Catholic faith and the preventers of intracommunal warfare. The Romanovs held themselves out to be the defenders the Orthodox faith and the glue necessary to hold such a vast country together in the face of foreign attacks. The Ottomans held themselves out to be defenders of the Islamic faith in the face of increasing Western power. In such a context it is only natural that defenders of the Anglo-Saxon political orders strove to define their own moral justifications and their own defenses against anarchy.

But when the old imperial orders destroyed themselves, the questions confronting the Anglo-Saxon political ideals changed. The Fascists attacked the Anglo-Saxon ideals on the grounds that their ill-disciplined nature prevented true national greatness. The Communists argued that Anglo-Saxon ideals stood in the way of an earthly paradise.

Against such attacks, many defenders of the Anglo-Saxon order felt that they had no choice but defend Anglo-Saxon ideals on materialistic grounds. When millions of Fascist went on the march to prove on the battlefield their theories of national power, the Anglo-Saxon nations felt compelled to respond with their own demonstrations of national power. When millions of poor people started swarming to the Communist cause because they believed that it would provide them with relief from their misery, defenders of Anglo-Saxon ideals felt compelled to point out that such a hope was false.

Thus many people who believed that basic morality was the primary justification of the Anglo-Saxon ideals found themselves arguing for the materialistic superiority of their ideals—on both the battlefield and in the war of ideas.

But events in the outside world were not the sole cause of the shift in the debate in the Anglo-Saxon world. Anglo-Saxon countries did not entirely escape the crisis of authority that destroyed the old social orders all across the world. There were many who thought that the old conceptions of moral authority upon which the Anglo-Saxon ideals were founded no longer had any relevance. To these people, the only possible justification for the Anglo-Saxon ideals lay in their materialistic benefits.

Thus, there is a deep divide in the Anglo-Saxon world between those who hold to the Anglo-Saxon ideals because they believe them to be a moral imperative, and those who hold to them because they believe them to be the best route to a materialistic paradise. This divide is not strictly ideological in the traditional sense. There are many conservatives and libertarians who base the legitimacy of their ideals on what they think will produced greatest human happiness. And there are some liberals who seem committed to the moral imperative of Anglo-Saxon ideals even as they seek to use government force to improve materialistic outcomes.

Does this really matter? Doesn’t everyone agree on the right political model even if they don’t have the same reasons for accepting it? Is not a practical unity good enough for everyone except the philosophers? The answer is yes and no. A practical unity is sufficient to produce power for as long as it lasts. But it cannot produce a durable form of authority.

Most people don’t understand why this matters because they don’t understand the distinction between power and authority. In most people’s mind, power produces authority. Therefore, authority and power must be the same.

But the premise behind this idea is false. Power does not create authority. If anything, authority creates power. Authority is derived from people’s willingness to die for ideas and institutions. Power is derived from people’s willingness and ability to kill for ideals and institutions. Power is what impresses people, but without authority no political system will last for long.

Authority is necessary because pressure will always afflict different parts of an organization at different rates. Somebody will always be first in line for the problems that life invariably produces. If nobody is willing to die for the organization’s ideals, the organization will fall apart as soon as serious danger affects the organization. This is why criminal gangs can never stay unified for long no matter how powerful they become. They typically lack the willingness to sacrifice their needs to that of the organization. This is the problem that afflicts all organizations that have power but not authority.

By contrast, religious organizations demonstrate the durability of authority. Even when (or especially when) they don’t directly have any power of their own, they can often inspire people to die for their ideals. As such they often have tremendous authority and because of that authority they can often survive all kinds of disasters and setbacks.

It used to be that the relationship between willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a cause (that is, authority) and the durability of social systems was well understood in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Lectures on the necessity of sacrifice were a normal part of the Anglo-Saxon political discourse. A good example of such a lecture would be John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural address.

Kennedy’s first inaugural address is best known for the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” By itself, this line indicates a recognition of the need for self sacrifice to maintain the country’s ideals. But taken in its entirety, the speech provides a comprehensive over view of the Anglo-Saxon conception of authority and its corresponding ideals in the early days of the struggle against Communism.

Kennedy’s speech starts off by expounding the traditional Anglo Saxon view of their ideals by saying….

We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

As Kennedy himself obliquely admits, his speech represents both a continuation of the traditional Anglo-Saxon political ideals and a change. The speech is a continuation because Kennedy portrays the Anglo-Saxon ideals of freedom as moral imperatives to be upheld regardless of their materialistic costs. But Kennedy departs from the traditional Anglo Saxon conception of authority when he places poverty on the same level as tyranny and argues that Americans have a moral imperative to struggle against both. As he says…

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

And later….

Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

If Kennedy had lived before the time of Archduke Franz Ferdinand he might have made a speech on the necessity to sacrifice to preserve liberty. Such talk was common throughout America’s history. But he never would have argued that America had the moral imperative to battle poverty around the world. Such talk would have made a laughing stock out of any American politician before the assassination of the Archduke. But as we have already noted, the foundation of Anglo-Saxon ideals was shifting and Kennedy speech was an expression of that change.

Yet for all that Kennedy’s speech represented a shift from an old Anglo-Saxon idea of what was moral imperative, a modern Anglo-Saxon politician would not dare to duplicate the thrust of Kennedy’s speech. It is not so much that sentiments that Kennedy expressed would be out place in a modern political speech (although some of Kennedy’s religious terminology would make even George W. Bush blush) as it is his call for self-sacrifice in pursuit of national ideals. Politicians no longer do this.

It is fairly common to observe that Conservatives portray the War on Terror as being threat to the nation and yet they ask for no sacrifices from the nation at large. Even as they portray the War on Terror in terms reminiscent of World War II, they push for tax cuts and raise government spending on agricultural subsidies and other discretionary domestic spending. Conservatives seem to think that all that is required is for government’s power to increase, and then the problem of terror can be contained.

It could also be observed that Liberals typically view global warming as a grave threat, and yet they ask for no real sacrifices from the nation to combat global warming. In fact, they argue that action should be taken to keep oil prices low. They seem to think that the problem of global warming can be solved by increasing governmental power.

There seems to be a lack of recognition across the political spectrum that you cannot deal with difficult long term problems with power alone. Without authority you are doomed to fail as self interests and fickle opinions will shatter the unity necessary to sustain power. That fact that political authorities don’t even dare call for self-sacrifice indicates that they no longer have much authority left.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. Historically speaking, the lack of authority is not tolerated for long. Social orders that have no compelling authority are swept away by those social orders that do. And we should not take it for granted that such authority will spring from ethics that we recognize.

If it is mistake confuse power with authority, it is also a mistake to imagine that the authority equates to morality. Or to put it in less partisan terms; the willingness to die can support forms of authority that are completely opposed to each other. In other words, the willingness to die has been found amongst the enemies of the Anglo-Saxon ideals as well as amongst the defenders.

For example, Adolf Hitler had a good understanding of the necessity of authority and he worked hard to cultivate it. If you watch his speech to the Nazi youth group in the Triumph of the Will you can get a good idea of how he went about it. In that speech he captured the foundation for his authority when he said “Regardless of whatever we create and do, we shall pass away, but in you, Germany will live on.” Hitler always sought to remind people of the mortality and then would turn and appeal to them to join something bigger and greater then themselves. He expounded on the need to be willing to sacrifice and suffer in order to create something worth living for. And it worked.

We don’t like to talk about it much in these days, but the reason that Nazism and Communism were such big threats was because people were willing to die for those ideologies. If they had ruled exclusively through fear, they would have posed little threat. But the SS troopers and other true believers in the Nazi faith fought and died like the pagan heroes they aspired to be. And history is full of Communists who willingly gave up their lives for their cause. Similar observations can be made about Islamic radicals.

The Nazi empire did not come to an end until just about everyone who was willing to die for the Nazi ideals died. Communism did not cease to be a threat until almost no one was willing to die for Marxist ideals. (Proof of that can be found in the attempted coup against Gorbachev by supposedly hard-line communists. As soon they saw they might have to die for their cause they gave up. If all communists would have given up that easy, no communist revolution in any country would have ever succeeded.) In other words, those ideologies were not defeated until they had lost all authority.

But it was not at all clear at the time that the authority of the Anglo-Saxon world would outlast that of its enemies. Nazi success was greatly helped by the fact that almost no country in Europe had a population that was willing to die for its ideals. Contrary to post-war mythology, there was almost no underground resistance in Europe until it was clear that the Nazis were losing. What little effective resistance there was in conquered Europe was mostly inspired by Communism (Norway being a notable exception).

It is common to make excuses for people in occupied Europe. What could they have done against the might of the German Army? But this is a demonstration of how little authority is attributed Anglo-Saxon ideals, even in retrospect. The primary thing keeping people from fighting the Nazi empire was fear of the horrific reprisals that everyone knew that the Nazis would unleash. But this fear of suffering did not stop the Communists in Yugoslavia. In fact, if every country in occupied Europe had had the willingness to fight and die on par with the Communists in Yugoslavia, the Nazi empire would have imploded from within.

The fact that Communism was one of the few forces that could inspire people in continental Europe to fight and die had lot to do with Communism’s popularity in France, Greece, Italy, and other western European countries. Communism was the party of résistance in Europe and they were not shy about advertising that fact.

In fact, most Communists viewed World War II as proof that the Anglo-Saxon ideals were on their last legs. They expected that an ideology that could not inspire people in continental Europe to be willing to risk their lives would not have authority for long.

Such beliefs were strengthened by those Anglo-Saxon protesters who assaulted the authority of Anglo-Saxon ideals by shouting “better red then dead.” It is not that protester who chanted such things had anything against free speech or the right to vote. It was just that they did not think that those things were worth dying for. But in denying that those principles were worth dying for, they denied them any authority. Ideals you are not willing to die for are mere whims.

Notwithstanding such open displays of contempt from within the Anglo-Saxon camp, we now know that the Anglo-Saxon ideals were not as weak as the Communists thought they were. Today, Communism has lost power and authority while Anglo-Saxon ideals are popular all around the globe. Almost all of the countries of the world at least pay lip service to the idea of free markets, free elections, and basic human rights. Even Communist China has embraced the free market with a vengeance and it has been experimenting with allowing free elections.

But we should not look at this success and think that the crisis of authority is over. By way of analogy, an imperialist in the British or French empires would have been a fool to think that their empires were safe simply because they survived World War I where as the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman empires did not. If they had truly understood the crisis that the Archduke’s death had unleashed, they would have understood the grave danger that their empires were in. In the same way, anyone who looks around at the current triumph of Anglo-Saxon ideals and thinks the crisis of authority is over has some serious blinders on.

It is true that Communism has failed. But Anglo-Saxon ideals have not met with success around the world because people have become convinced that they are moral imperatives worth defending at any price. Rather, the appeal of Anglo-Saxon ideals is that many people think that they are the best path materialistic happiness. This wide spread belief has set up Anglo-Saxon ideals for the same disappointment that robbed Communism of its authority.

We know from our own historical record that Anglo-Saxon political ideals don’t always mean unalloyed prosperity. We know from our own history that the defense of the rights that Anglo-Saxons nations hold dear has never been a painless exercise. In short, we all know that people whose god is prosperity are the first to leave when times get tough. It is precisely when times get tough that the Anglo-Saxon political ideals cease to have any value to them.

It is well known that people are willing give up a lot in the way of material goods to save their skins. It follows, then, that people who support the Anglo-Saxon political ideals solely on the grounds that it leads to greater material happiness are an iffy support for the authority of the Anglo-Saxon political ideals. It is not rational to give up your life for toys.

Of course, people have been willing to die for materialistic ideals in the past (most notably Communism and Fascism). But when people are willing to die for materialistic ideals, it is because they feel that those ideals will lead to a better future. The problem with such a hope is that it only tends to work when you start from ground zero. When a regression occurs, it is hard to keep the faith.

In other words, if you start off with a dirt poor and corrupt society, it is easy to believe that sacrifices are necessary to redeem it. But if you start off prosperous and optimistic and regress, it is a lot harder to remain faithful to the cause. Since life is filled with setbacks, materialistic hopes are a very unstable foundation for authority.

This is why the Communists only managed to rule Russia for 80 some years compared to the 300 or so years that the Romanovs ruled. Once the power in Soviet Russia switched from those people who had started out with nothing to those people who had never gone anywhere, Communism lost its moral authority. By contrast, the Romanovs never based their authority strictly on materialistic ideals. That enabled them to survive a number of serious setbacks over their 300 year rule. And in the end, it took the deaths of millions of people to unseat the Romanov’s where as it only took hard economic times to bring down the Communists.

Since Anglo-Saxon political ideals increasingly derive their authority from the belief that they are the path to riches, the celebrations of their success over Communism are premature. As we have observed before, the same disappointment that robbed Communism of its authority could very well rob the Anglo-Saxon political ideals of their authority.

Indeed, many people from other cultures feel that Anglo-Saxon world is already lacking in authority. It is common for radical Muslims to claim that people who hold to Anglo-Saxon ideals are unwilling to die for their beliefs. A Serb of my acquaintance expressed similar observations. And I have read accusations of a similar nature from many other cultures.

Some might take issue with the idea that Anglo-Saxon ideals have little real authority left. Have not America soldiers shown they are willing to suffer and die for their ideals? Are there not American policemen who strongly defend traditional Anglo-Saxon ideals even at the expense of their own power? Can we not say that there are still people left in America who will die for Anglo-Saxon ideals?

I am not so sanguine. Surveys show that the only institution in which Americans have much faith in is their armed forces. Other such institutions such as churches or the press rank far behind. I believe that this is because Americans feel that the only institution full of people who are willing to die for their ideals is the armed forces.

It seems to me that any society that trusts its military above all other institutions has deep social problems no matter how justified that trust might be. Surly we need other institutions besides the military to be filled with people who are willing to die for their ideals? The fact that armed forces are the only institution is believed to be governed by a set of un-materialistic ideals hardly inspires confidence in the strength of authority in the Anglo-Saxon world.

But when it comes right down to it, I am not inclined to argue with those that think that Anglo-Saxon ideals still have lot of authority in Anglo-Saxon world. Granting that those people are right does not change the scale of the crisis that is facing us all that much.

Much of the peace and security that the Anglo-Saxon world had enjoyed over the last 20 years stems from the widespread acceptance that Anglo-Saxon ideals are the best way to get rich. To be sure, the various countries like to pick and choose which part of the Anglo-Saxon ideals they think are responsible for wealth creation. But that does not change the fact that over the last twenty years, the vast majority of the world has strove to become more like the Anglo-Saxon world. And this desire to emulate the Anglo-Saxon world has naturally led to a period of relative peace.

The reason for this wide spread adoptance of Anglo-Saxon ideals has to do with dearth of real authority in most of the world. With no real authority, the only way most governments of the world can hope to keep their countries from falling into anarchy is by continually improving living conditions. They have latched on to elements of the Anglo-Saxon political and economic model as the guarantee of the continuously rising living standards. When the inevitable disappointment occurs, the results are going to be catastrophic.

If you want to understand why the disappointment is going to be so catastrophic, you should consider Russia. It is in danger of collapsing because of a lack of authority. Russia’s collapse alone would be catastrophic to the rest the world without even taking into account the other countries of the world that are in danger of collapsing.

I remember when Russia was going through its transition from communism. I remember hearing and reading countless interviews with ordinary Russians during this period and they all seem to have a common thread. They were all fascinated by American wealth and desirous to know how they might obtain the same. The sense of anger they expressed towards their former communist masters stemmed from the humiliation they felt at finding out they were the poor hicks of the world. By and large, they expressed little anger at their previous lack of civil rights unless they were professional dissidents.

The Western do-gooders who flew in to advise Russian on how to change its laws and institutions fed right into this mind set. The selling point for all their grand nation building plans was “do this and you will become rich like us.” The failure of these promises to pan out in the way that the Russians envisioned had a lot to do with their disillusionment with the West.

Nowadays it is common to say that Western advisers made an error when they pushed economic shock therapy on a confused Russian people. But all of this controversy has obscured the more fundamental question. Is it really possible to found an Anglo-Saxon style democracy on the foundation of people’s desire to get rich?

Of course, picking on Russia is an easy target. It is hardly controversial to suggest that Russia’s attachment to democracy and human rights is not very deep. At this point, many people seem to have more or less given up on Russia accepting Western style democracy.

For the most part, this is a false sense of realism. It causes people to think that the future of Russia is that of a strong autocratic country whose interests sometimes run counter to the US. People are under the illusion that threat posed by Russia comes from its increasing strength and its hostility to Western ideals.

But the truth of the matter is that the Russia people have not given up trying ape what they understand the Anglo-Saxon model to be. Vladimir Putin’s decision to step down as President and become Prime Minister is a tribute of sorts to the Anglo-Saxon political model. It may seem farcical to Western eyes, but if Russia had truly given up on the Anglo-Saxon political model, such games would not be necessary.

The fact is that Russia still hopes to become a modern and wealthy country along Western lines. And as poorly as they execute it, they still strive to observe the appearances of respecting human rights and having a functioning democracy. Even though they have a deeply rooted paranoia of the West, they still cling to appearance of having a Western-style government. To abandon such games would be to give up all pretense of being a modern state.

Putin’s great popularity rests on the fact that he has delivered what most Russians thought that Anglo-Saxon model should deliver. Under his watch, wages have increased 150%, GDP has increased 6 fold, and the number of people living in poverty has been cut in half. And he has done all that with a pretty light hand compared to Communists of old. From a Russian historical perspective, Putin’s governing methods seem positively Western.

It is natural, then, for Russians to bristle at any Western criticism of their leader. Such prissiness in the face of such great success seems like proof that the West will never accept Russia as an equal. The unfairness of it all seems especially apparent when Russians consider the fact that disastrous leaders such as such as Yeltsin and Gorbachev received less criticism than Putin. It seems to Russians that the West will only accept weak leaders so as to insure a weak Russia.

The real problem in Russia is not its increasingly authoritarian political governance. Rather, the real problem in Russia is the lack of authority. Putin may be wildly popular and he may control every organ of the state, but not many people would die for him. More importantly, there is no set of unifying ideals or institutions that Russians would die for. This lack of authority practically necessitates an authoritarian form of governance. If there are no ideals behind which people will rally, how else can you govern a country except by force?

To understand how little authority Putin possesses you need only to compare him to Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas is best known as the last of the Russian Tsars. He was the one who lead Russia to its ruin. It was he who was killed along with all his family by the Communists. And yet Nicholas had more authority then Putin can ever hope to possess.

Consider the scale of Nicholas’s incompetence. He started and lost a disastrous war with the Japanese. He presided over a number of half baked reforms that only served to anger both conservative forces and liberal forces in Russia. He allowed his own supporters to be slaughtered by his own troops. He allowed himself and his family to fall under the influence of the sexually promiscuous and corrupt Rasputin. This brought his whole family into disrepute. He fired Pyotr Stolypin and halted his reforms even though Stolypin could have saved his empire. And worst of all, he rashly entered Russia into World War I. The result of that disaster alone was over 3 million dead Russians and almost 5 million wounded. On top of that, Russian was consumed by hyperinflation and experienced widespread shortages of basic goods. The result of this last disaster was too much even for a Tsar’s authority and he was forced to step down when the resulting revolution overthrew his government.

And yet, the Communists later felt compelled to execute him and his entire family. By their own confession, they did not do this because of Tsar’s alleged crimes. Instead, they feared that the Tsar would become a rallying symbol in the civil war they were fighting. They acknowledged that even after all his mistakes the Tsar represented ideals that many Russians had a deep attachment to. In other words, he still had some authority left even after he was stripped of his power.

By contrast, Putin has been far more effective as ruler. But he could never get away with making mistakes on the scale of some of Nicholas’s smaller errors. His support is based entirely on prosperity that he has brought to Russia and should Russia’s economic performance begin to lag the political vultures will soon begin to circle. He represents no ideals save the desire to be rich and powerful. The day he loses power is the day he will be irrelevant.

Putin realizes this, even if people in the West do not understand it. This is why he spends so much time trying to build up the Russian Orthodox Church. This is why he tries so hard to instill a deep love of country in the Russian youth. He is desperately looking for ways of building up the authority of the Russian state.

I do not think that Putin is trying to do this exclusively for his own sake, even though it is common to view Putin as one who has been corrupted by power. His public pronouncements make it clear that he realizes the scope of the crisis that Russia faces. I think he realizes that power alone will not be enough to enable Russia to overcome the disaster that awaits it.

As with many countries in the modern world, the core of Russia’s problems can be found its demographics. But Russia’s demographic problems are far worse than the type of problems that cause people to worry about the future of Social Security here in the US. They are even worse than the demographics of countries such as Japan and Germany whose low birth rates are a cause for grave concern.

In most countries with demographic concerns, the focus is on the total fertility rate. In Russia this stands at 1.4 total births/per woman. This is far below replacement rate. But in this respect, Russia is far from being unique. After all, both Germany and Japan have similar fertility rates (though that should not be any kind of comfort).

But where Russia is unique (at least compared to developed world, some other Slavic countries have similar problems) is in the scale of the other problems that are exacerbating its demographic crisis. For starters, it has the third highest suicide rate in the world. Russia also has a serious drinking problem. It has been estimated that half of all the deaths of working age males stems from alcohol abuse. As if that was not enough, Russia also has a serious and growing AIDs problem. In fact, parallels can be draw between aids problem in Russia now and the aids problem in South African in the early 90’s.

What all this means is that Russia does well in terms of infant mortality and its old age mortality rate is comparable to its peer group (Countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey). But according to Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action (a peer reviewed study sponsored by the UN) the mortality rate among working age males is 3 to 5 times that of its peer group (for woman the mortality rate is more than twice Russia’s peer group). In other words, the problems brought about by the lack of children are being accelerated by the fact that working age people are dropping dead from preventable causes. It also means that Russia leads the world in orphans per 100,000 children.

To make matters worse, Russia cannot rely on immigrants to make up for the population shortfall like other countries in similar positions hope to do. For one thing, Russia’s extreme xenophobia means that really nasty things happen to foreigners who have the wrong skin color on a regular basis. This discourages immigration. Another problem is that many of the Slavic countries that might provide immigrants acceptable to Russia’s xenophobic culture have extreme demographic problems of their own. And even if all these problems went away, Russia’s relative poverty compared to other countries with demographic problems means that it is unlikely to get the immigrants that it needs.

The combination of all these problems means that Russia’s population has been dropping for some time. According to Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action, Russia has lost 12 million people since 1992. This loss was partially offset by Russian nationals who moved backed to Russian during this time period. This means that the total Russian population only dropped from 148.5 million in 1992 to 142 million in 2007. But now that flow of Russians who used to live in the Soviet Republics has dropped off, Russia will start to experience a sharp drop in population.

In fact, the authors of Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action predict that Russia will lose about twenty million people from now until 2025. More crucially for Russian economic prospects, Russia is expected to lose one million working age people per year from now until 2025. As bad as those numbers sound, both of those forecasts are highly optimistic. They assume that the AIDs crisis in Russia will not get worse, and it assumes that economic growth in Russia will continue its upward trend. Both assumptions are dubious, to say the least.

It is highly unlikely that Russia can continue its current rate of economic growth while it is losing a million people out of its work force per year. Already Russia is suffering labor shortages in many key areas. And it is highly unlikely that Russia can come up with an effective AIDs policy when corruption and incompetence have hindered every other social policy that Russia has tried to implement to date.

The fact that Russia is even facing problems of this scale demonstrates what happens to a society that lacks authority. You can’t stop people from committing suicide with power. You can’t fix a widespread addiction to alcohol with power (the Communists found this out when they tried to stamp out the problem in the 80’s). You can’t make people value children with power.

Since the Russian government lacks the authority to stop the demographic slide, it stands to reason that it lacks the authority to survive the crisis that slide will bring on. This is especially true in view of the fact that the population of Islamic minorities in Russia is increasing in numbers. They do not suffer from the same demographic problems that the ethnic Russians do and they dislike the Russian state. It is likely that as soon as economic problems weaken the Russian State sufficiently they will make their feelings known in force.

What we are looking at is a complete implosion of the Russian nation. During the economic crisis that followed the end of the Soviet Empire, Russia almost fell apart. It was rescued by rising oil prices, but given the scale of the crisis facing Russia it is hard to imagine miracle big enough to prevent Russia from falling into a serious and prolonged economic crisis. Given that, we may safely say that Russia will fall apart.

Since the Russian state is still has over 14,000 nuclear arms in its possession, this is a crisis that threatens the whole world. If you are worried about the scale of problems that threatens America’s banking system, you should be hysterical with fear over Russia’s problems. Every day that you pay $4 a gallon for gasoline you should be getting down on your knees and thanking God for the high oil prices that sustain the Russian state. You should be hoping that at economic slowdown in the Western world does not significantly affect the income of oil producers.

The fact that people are not inclined to do any of those things demonstrates that people are not very good a rationally judging the severity of various threats. The results of the implosion of Russia would be far worse than the implosion of America’s banking system, and yet people tend to be more worried about the latter then the former.

This sanguine attitude is in part supported by the usual lies that people tell when they don’t want to face the truth. For example, there are a lot of stories out there pointing to the uptick in Russian births and the down tick in Russian deaths as proof that Russian demographics are turning the corner. But as anyone who has looked into the matter could tell you, this does not represent good news.

The reasons for this seeming positive trend are simple and are explained by Demographic Policy in Russia: From Reflection to Action. The old people who will be dying off in Russia over the next couple of years were born during World War II. For reasons anyone should be able to understand, this was a smaller than normal generation. That means that they will produce a smaller number of deaths over the next couple of years. You also have a small increase in the number of woman of child bearing age because of a temporary uptick in the number of births back in the 80’s. Put these trends together, and you have a small decrease in the rate of Russian population loss.

These trends are going to reverse in a couple of years. After the temporary uptick in births back in the 80’s there was a sharp drop off that will lead to corresponding sharp drop in births starting 2012. Moreover, as the post World War II generation will start to die off around the same time. This will lead to a sharp increase in the number of deaths. Thus, the rate of Russian population decline is going to accelerate sharply around that time, and continue on for the foreseeable future.

All that the seemingly good news proves is that the number of births and deaths that are happening now are heavily dependent on what happened 25 and 70 years ago, respectively. Anyone who accepts this fact is bound to be frightened by what it implies for Russia’s future. The women who will be capable of bearing children in 2025 have already been born. And there simply won’t be enough of them to prevent an implosion.

To many people, this seems like an excessively mechanistic view future. It fails to take in account people’s ability to recognize and overcome problems. It is often argued that if Russia made it more economically attractive to be a mother, then Russia’s population free fall would eventually stop. To put it crudely, the idea is that if you pay people to breed, they will.

The problem with this idea is that it presupposes a wealthy and efficiently run Russia that is able to pay enough to make up for the economic costs of having a child. Because of a lag in demographic effects, a sharp fall in the Russian working age population is irreversible till at least 2025. If this has the economic effects that reasonable people expect, the Russian government will have hard time coming up with the money to pay any money to working mothers. It is even less likely that Russia will be able to come up with the money needed to make motherhood economically attractive seeing as it is unable to do this at the present time.

The problem with Russia is not that its problems are insurmountable. The problem is that Russia’s problems are not surmountable with power. If the Russian population was idealistic and willing to sacrifice their own well being towards a higher goal, one could imagine ways out of the Russian predicament. But it is unrealistic to hope that Russia can solve its problems by throwing money at them. If this worked, all the aid money thrown at Africa would have turned it into a paradise by now.

But if the Russian population were idealistic they would not be in the predicament that they are in now. Such things as widespread drunkenness and high rates of suicide are merely a reflection of that fact that the Russia population has no widespread set of ideals. Instead, they are ruled by what Solzhenitsyn called the Thieves Law.

The Thieves Law refers to a common saying of criminal eliminates in the old Soviet concentration camps. According to Solzhenitsyn, these people openly proclaimed the motto “You today, me tomorrow.” In other words, I am going to make it so that you die today, so I don’t have die until tomorrow. This corrupting motto spread throughout all of Russian society under Communist rule.

A society with a criminal ethos is no more stable than a criminal organization. Without a source of authority, a society will have just as much trouble hanging together as a criminal organization. Thus, the crisis in Russia is ultimately a crisis of authority. But this crisis is hardly limited to Russia. Most of the countries in the world are ruled by governments who have power, but little authority.

Historically, this is an oddity. Most of the governments throughout history were deeply rooted in the religious and ethical ideals of the cultures they governed. But today, most governments are accidental creations that were formed out of the dead empires. Other governments were created by ideologies that had authority once, but now those governments hardly even pretend to believe in the ideologies that created them anymore. The failure of many of these nations would be catastrophic even if Russia stood forever.

There is Ukraine, a nation in search of a reason to exist, besides its language. It does not have a well developed sense of national identity because it has not existed as an independent state since the eleventh century. At the time of the death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand it was divided between Austria and Russia. Not surprisingly, the parts that used to be controlled by Austria want to be close to Europe and the parts that were controlled by Russia want to be close to Russia. This sharp division has created serious tensions in Ukraine.

In addition to the political problems created by these sharp divisions, the Ukraine has demographic problems that are even worse than Russia’s. It has already lost roughly 6 million people (or 6.23% percent of its population in 1989) and its fertility rate is the lowest in Europe. Without oil to cushion the blow of its demographic problems, the Ukraine is currently dealing with serious economic problems. Since Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, its collapse will seriously destabilize much of Eastern Europe.

Then there is Serbia. Unlike Ukraine, many people in Serbia have fairly clear idea of why they want to be a nation. Unfortunately, the realization of their national ideals is likely to destabilize the whole of the Balkans. A pro-Western government has barely won a recent election on the promises of prosperity. Any serious economic problems would likely put the nationalist back in charge.

Never discount the possibility that big problems could come from small countries. If America was distracted by serious economic problems, the fun could start all over again. If Russia was imploding it is quite conceivable that Serbia could acquire nuclear weapons so as to prevent Western interference. Of course, none of those things could happen, but one should never be sanguine where the Balkans are concerned.

Pakistan needs no commentary except to note that what stability it currently has depends largely on American financial aid. Removal of this aid and/or the continual worsening of the global economic situation will likely remove what little power the secular authorities’ posses.

The leaders of China have all but admitted that they depend on economic growth to stay in power. They have no other authority besides the belief that their fall will bring about economic chaos. Since they have tightly tied their economic fate to that of US, it is likely that China will experience an economic crisis in the near future. Especially since they face demographic problems that are in some ways worse than Russia’s, albeit the full effects of their problems are little further down the road.

So will China take a cue from the former leaders of Argentine, who invade the Falkland Islands to distract their unhappy subjects from their economic problems? They have never renounced the use of force to retake Taiwan. Or will the historical fate of Chinese’s governments that lose authority come about? Will China brake up and descend into warlordism?

Mexico is even now struggling to hold itself together in the face of powerful criminal gangs. At the same time the oil production is falling off. This seriously threatens the revenue upon which the government depends on for funding. If the world wide economic situation worsens, it will make it that much harder for the government to hold Mexico together. The implosion of the Mexican state is not only possible, it is probable.

In Europe, far right parties are on the rise. They are feeding on wide spread disillusionment with the existing social order. And this growth has come even without any serious economic problems to feed the discontent. How will the people of Europe react when the full weight of their demographic problems makes itself felt? At best they will have to change their retirement dates and work more hours. Current events suggest that the people of Europe will not be pleased with such changes no matter how necessary.

The whole the Middle East is ruled by governments that have no authority, except Israel and possibly Jordan (because of the loyalty of the Bedouin tribes to throne). The governments of Egypt and Syria sprang from an ideology that no longer has any authority. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the last remaining sons of a dead man. When the sons are all gone, it remains to be seen if succession can be arranged in an orderly matter. Many Gulf states have Sunni rulers and populations that are largely Shiite. It remains to be seen if Iraq can hold together once the Americans leave. And on and on we could go about the lack of authority in the Middle East.

In almost every country in the Middle East there is an Islamic opposition that has more authority then the governments that are currently in power. In other words, more people are willing to die for Islamic ideals then are willing to die for the corrupt governments currently in power. History indicates that it is only a matter of time before the people with the authority become the people with the power. Worldwide economic problems will likely accelerate this process. And the likely consequences of instability in the Middle East do not need to be spelled out.

This is only a brief and incomplete survey of those countries that lack authority. The more in depth you study the problem, the worse it looks. Optimism is in as short a supply as wealthy countries with replacement rate birth rates. The educated elites who run most countries act as if being willing to die for something was proof of mental instability. Meanwhile, discontent with the existing social order in the lower classes is growing all over the world. They want something to believe in as they see their culture being swept away.

The only thing that keeps most of the world’s social orders from collapsing in chaos is the fact that living standards have been increasing the world over. As long as people lives are getting better, it is unlikely that they will want to destabilize the status quoi.

But it is not possible for the economic good times to go on forever. There will economic setbacks. In the past most nations states had ideals that they could fall back to in hard times. Continual prosperity was not necessary in order to insure the loyalty of the Russian patriots who supported old tsars or the committed Catholics who supported the Hapsburgs. But today, hard economic times will lead to the collapse of the social order in many countries around the globe.

It is impossible to predict what this collapse of social order will bring. But if history is any guide, the collapse of the social order is worse then disease, famine, or wars between nation states. It leads to civil wars that are without mercy. It leads to rise of ideologies that would be considered insane in normal times. It leads to a bleak despair. And into this historical mix we have now added weapons of mass destruction.

Even presuming that Anglo-Saxon ideals retain their authority in the nations that they were born in, the people of those nations will still feel the effects of the wide spread collapse of the social order. They will face tough moral choices with the lives of millions of people at stake. Maybe they will be called on to decided what burden they will bear and what price they will to pay to preserve the independence of Taiwan. Or perhaps they will have to decide what freedoms to retain and what actions to take in the face of nuclear weapons that have fallen into the hands of terror groups. Regardless of how it turns out, I have little doubt that that the Anglo-Saxon cultures will be facing one of the most serious crisis of their collective history in next 20 years.

As a result, the question that will weigh most heavily on the Anglo-Saxon mind over the next twenty years will not be “Will I have a job tomorrow?” Rather the question will be “What, if anything, should I die for?” And that is a much harder question to deal with.

On Holy Fear

This is a little out my regular style. An explanation/apology can be found here.


On Holy Fear


Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.”

So Aaron held his peace.

Well folks, the wind has really picked up these last couple of days and it’s bringing about humdinger of change in the weather. Now I am curious; what does this wind bring to mind for you folks?

Judging by how you all came in bundled up in winter clothes, I’ll bet that you all think that was a stupid question. To most of you I imagine that this wind just means that winter is here with all the annoyances that it can bring.

But this wind means something different to me. It reminds me of a man who died. He was installing metal roofing when a powerful gust of wind came up and blew him off the roof. It was a forty foot fall down onto rocks. And the rocks he fell on were big rocks, the kind that landscapers use for erosion control. As I said, he died.

Well, the jokers at OSHA got involved and they shut down the company that was doing the work. The man who got blown off the roof was not wearing the proper safety harness after all. But it was all very unjust. The only other company in the area that could do the same kind of work that they did was not very good about wearing their safety harnesses either.

I know this to be a fact, because at the time I worked for that other company. We were not very happy about the situation. I mean, how would you feel if you made more money because somebody died? More to the point, how would feel if you were to make more money because somebody died doing something you did all the time?

But in the abstract, it was a pretty good deal for us. We were just a couple of weeks work away from being laid off for the winter and suddenly we got a bonus job. It was big job, too. But we were all conscious that it was unmerited good fortune that came at other people’s expense through no fault of their own.

Now I can see that a lot of you are taking issue with the “no fault of their own” statement. You think that they should have been wearing the proper safety equipment, don’t you? If you think that way, it just goes to show that you are a civilized person.

After all, civilization is all about eliminating risk, right? Civilization is all about making the roads wide and smooth so that there will be no danger when you are out walking. It is all about making big barns to store food so that you will never go hungry. It is all about making walls to keep dangerous things out. Anyone who does not take every possible precaution against risk is violating one of the core values of civilization.

So I understand why it is natural reaction for all you people to think that the man should have been wearing his safety harness. But you have to understand, if everyone were civilized, there would be no ironworkers. There would be no one who was willing to work 40, 100, or 240 feet in the air to construct new buildings. No rules, no safety equipment, no training, can ever make ironwork safe enough for a civilized person.

Lets face it, people, when you become an ironworker you are dramatically increasing the chance that you are going to die on the job. Ironworkers are 18 times more likely to die on the job than the average American. And that is only if you compare them to all Americans. If you compared iron workers to people with desk jobs the disparity in risk would be even greater.

Now tell me, if you are willing to see men greatly increase the risk to their lives so that you can have malls to shop in and factories to work in, how can you be so quick to condemn a man for marginally increasing the risk he takes so that he can be more productive?

I know, I know, you would say that you are just condemning the man for taking an unnecessary risk. But what is an unnecessary risk? No one has to be an ironworker. If they chose to take the job because of the money or the thrill, who is to say that they should not assume marginally more risk for a greater thrill or greater money? Moreover, what if eliminating one risk increases another risk for the people doing the ironwork?

That last problem is the big one. Most of us are going to eliminate or reduce risk as much as possible. But some types of risks can’t be avoided and they can’t be done away with. In fact, any attempt to avoid certain types of risk will only increase the risk. So there are some types of risk you just have to face. But how shall you face them?

I doubt you civilized people think much about the question of how to deal with danger. The whole force of civilization is spent towards eliminating danger so that people don’t have to deal with it. And for the most part civilization has been pretty successful at making people’s lives risk free over the last hundred years or so. But one of the drawbacks of civilization’s general success is that it tends to rob people of their ability to deal with danger that has to be faced. It robs people of their ability to deal with risk that can’t be eliminated.

I can see that some of you don’t care much for my assertion that civilization tends to lessen people’s ability to deal with risk. But if you look at history you will see that the more civilized a people became, the less those people were willing to do risky and dangerous jobs. I don’t want to bore you all with a long historical digression, but I think you all know enough about history to know how this worked with the Romans. The more civilized they got, the more they needed uncivilized type dudes to do their fighting for them.

I guess “uncivilized dudes” is a kind of silly way of saying barbarians, huh? But what makes a barbarian “uncivilized?”

It goes right back to the whole risk thing. The barbarians are considered uncivilized because they embrace risk. They were uncivilized because they thought that armor was for sissies. They were uncivilized because the barbarians glorified death in battle. And most of all, the barbarians were uncivilized because they looked down on people who played it safe.

If you understand that one’s attitude towards risk and danger is what separates the civilized from the uncivilized, you start to realize that there are still barbarians around today. In fact, you will find that most soldiers, ironworkers, tree men, and any other group of people involved in dangerous work are of the barbaric type.

I can see a lot of you starting to get restless. I have gone from talking about a poor sap that got blown off a roof to talking about the difference between the civilized and the barbarians without making any particular point. But I am not just rambling on for the fun of it. I do have a place I’m a’headin to.

You see, I am afraid of a particular type of danger and I want to talk to you people about it. But you people live such civilized lives that I am not sure that I can really talk to you about my fear. I don’t think you people understand fear because I don’t think you people understand anything about danger except for the fact that it is something that smart people avoid. So I want you people to think about what the barbarians have to teach you before I get to my main point.

I would guess that you all think that the barbarian’s tendency to seek out danger is stupid. And I will grant you that it does not exactly lead to a long life, on average. But there are some benefits to seeking out danger. You see, by seeking out danger the uncivilized learn some things about dealing with danger (if they live long enough, at least) that the civilized don’t normally learn.

Now I want to be clear, I am not trying to get you people to become barbarians. You all seem pretty happy the way you are. Besides, barbarians tend to have short lives and I don’t want that for you folk. But I think we can all agree that even in the midst of the most advance civilization in history, we all still have to face some risks that cannot be eliminated. And let me tell you, risk is risk and danger is danger no matter if you go looking for it like the barbarians do or it is just something that you can’t avoid. So it follows that civilized people ought to learn what they can about dealing with danger from the more experienced barbarians.

As many of you already know, I have been taught by barbaric men to do a wide variety of dangerous things. I have been taught to do rather mundane dangerous things, like how to handle a chainsaw. And I have been part of more exotic dangers such as when I was helping a crew of guys who were working with high voltage equipment while it was still hot.

But you know what? The same commandment was always taught to me no matter whether the dangers I was dealing with were exotic or mundane. “Stay Scared” they would tell me, as they taught me the finer points of using a chainsaw. “Stay Scared” was the command implicit in the reverent silence that would form when the men with the high voltage gloves and the hot sticks started working.

Now I can see that some of you guys are kind of disappointed that the great lesson to be learned from barbarians is “stay scared.” You think you could have heard that from any old civilized person, don’t you? You were hoping for some advice on conquering your fear or overcoming adversity, weren’t you?

Well, I will admit that you can find plenty of macho lessons on toughness among the barbarians. But learning to conquer your fear is a pretty simple task when you have to face your fear on a regular basis. Same thing goes for overcoming pain and discomfort. A little bit of practice can make any fool tough.

But though a lot of you people won’t believe me, staying afraid is extremely hard. Most civilized people have no idea how hard it is and hence civilized people do not value the ability to stay afraid like they ought. To be sure, when civilized people have any choice in the matter they will go out of their way to avoid even the possibility of danger. And sure, they might panic when faced with a sudden danger and blindly do all they can to make it go away.

But that is not what is meant by the command to “stay scared”. If you were just going to avoid danger there would be no need to “stay scared.” In the absence of danger, fear has no purpose. And nobody, especially amongst the barbarians, would ever recommend that you let fear rule your mind. Panic never did anyone any good.

Hopefully you all realize that the kind of fear that I am talking about is a kind of respect. Fact is, the more macho barbarians don’t even like using the word fear. They will say things like “you got to respect it” instead of “stay afraid.” But I think that is all very silly.

You don’t respect danger because you admire its intellect or its accomplishments, you respect it because it can hurt you; you respect it because it can destroy you. And that, my friends, is what fear is all about.

Now I am always amazed when I am among civilized people by how they handle danger that they can’t make go away. You have people who won’t let their kids do anything the least bit dangerous and who will go far out of their way to avoid the tiniest of risks. But when faced with a danger that they can’t avoid or eliminate, those same people will just pretend that the danger does not exist. They won’t talk about it; they won’t think about it; they will just act like it does not exist.

People, that is not fear. That is not respect. When you have respect for something you are always mindful of it. When you are afraid of something you are always on the look out for it. Trying to forget about a danger or pretend that it does not exist is the exact opposite of the command to “stay afraid.”

But while civilized people tend to be the most egregious violators of the command to “stay afraid,” I don’t want you people to think that barbarians follow this command like they ought to. Fact is, people are fundamentally disrespectful creatures. They are especially disrespectful of things they are familiar with.

That is why guys with experience in doing dangerous work are always stressing the command “stay afraid.” They know better than anyone else that it is easy to lose your fear of dangerous things if you are around them enough. And they usually have the scars to prove that losing your fear can make any danger more hazardous than it has to be.

You know, I think that it was a failure to stay afraid that killed that poor guy I started off talking about. I don’t say this because he was not wearing his safety harness. The roof he was working on had very little slope and I happen to think that a safety harness on a low slop roof just increases your total risk. No, I think the crew that he was working with forgot to stay afraid of the wind.

I doubt that you people have ever thought about it, but the wind is a perfect example of something you need to stay afraid of when you work at any kind of height. You see, the wind gets stronger the higher up you go. Even just going thirty or forty feet up is enough to get you past the trees and other wind breaks so as to make a dramatic difference in how strong the wind is. So the wind is an ever-present danger when you are working at any kind of height.

Now there is no way you can make the danger posed by the wind go away. You can wear all the safety harnesses you want but it is not going to help you. I know a guy who was on job where a man was decapitated by a sheet of roofing tin that the wind got a hold of. No safety equipment would have stopped that. I have heard of guys losing control of I beams in high wind. And you all know that if you get hit with an I-beam you are going to be hurting puppy no matter what safety equipment you happen to be wearing.

Of course, you can always come down when the wind gets too strong. But that is not as easy as it sounds. First off, you often have a lot of material on the roof that you have to take down with you. A lot of times it can take you an hour or more to get off the roof after the decision to do so has been made. A lot of nasty things can happen in that time. After all, it can be quite dangerous to try to get stuff off the roof under high wind conditions.

But really dangerous thing about the wind is not what it can do, but its unpredictable nature. It is incredibly difficult to make the determination on when the job should be shut down because of the wind. You can have a weather pattern that seems to call for the wind to last all day and you can have weather patterns that seem to call for the wind to pass by in a matter of hours. Making matters worse is the fact that you can have all kinds of wind. You can have a strong steady wind that doesn’t seem to change much. You can have a wind that goes from gentle to gusty and back again within the same minute.

What I am getting at here is that wind is a constant danger that you can’t eliminate when you work at any kind of height. Even if it is a dead calm you can’t be sure from one minute to the next that it will stay that way. You always have to be making judgment calls based on instinct and experience. And there are no rules and no safety equipment that can insure you will always make the right call. Nothing will make it so that you will always be safe from the wind.

But if you remember to stay afraid, if you always stay respectful of the wind, you will have a pretty good chance of making the right calls. If you lose all fear, though, you will surely die.

I have been blathering on for so long about how tricky the wind can be because I don’t want you people to be too harsh on the guy I started out talking about. Nonetheless, I also want to impress on you people how important it is to stay afraid when you are doing dangerous things. So let me be clear: as hard as it is to make the right judgment call in regards to the wind, there can be little doubt that the boy died because he and his crew failed to stay afraid.

You see, that boy was over 20 feet away from the edge of the roof and he was on top of the piece of roofing tin getting ready to fasten it down when the wind took him off the roof. To be more precise, the wind came through the unfinished side of roof and up under his piece of roofing tin. The wind was so strong that it blew the roofing tin with him on top of it off of the roof.

In fact, it did more than blow him the 20 feet it took to get him off of the roof; it also carried him about 30 feet away from the edge of the building. If the wind had not carried him so far he would not have landed on those big landscaping type rocks that were 30 feet away.

Now let me tell you, a wind that strong does not normally come out of nowhere even at forty feet up. I was not there so I can’t say for sure, but I will be willing to bet anything that the wind had been getting steadily stronger the whole time they were on the roof. I would bet that they were keeping the edge of the tin towards the wind until they got into position. I would bet that they were making sure to keep their body weight on the tin when they got it into position so that the wind would not move it. I would bet that they felt so clever for defeating the wind and keeping the job going. Then the wind demonstrated that it could move a piece of tin even with a person’s body weight on it.

But I will not cast any stones at that crew. And I don’t think that anyone else who has done dangerous work for long periods of time will either. We all know in our heart that we have forgotten to be afraid at some time or other. And we all know that we could have died just as easily as the poor boy who was blown off the roof. We all know how incredibly hard it is to stay afraid.

You know, I never thought that I would have a hard time staying afraid when I first started working in construction. If anything, I thought that I would have trouble controlling my fear long enough to do anything. The fact that I would be struggling to hold onto my fear never even crossed my mind.

I thought I had good reasons for thinking that I would always be fearful. After all, no one would ever mistake me for daring person. In fact, I have it on pretty good authority that I that I have been risk adverse ever since I was born. My mother likes to tell the story of how I took forever to learn to walk because the first time I tried it I fell down. For a long time after I fell I refused to even attempt standing or anything like that. The old ways were good enough for me.

But once I started working in the trades it did not take me long to start doing totally stupid things just because I had lost all fear. Even now that I have some experience under my belt, I continue to have problems remembering to be afraid. You would think that all the close calls that I have had would have driven home to me the reality of danger.

After all, I have fallen off a roof. I have been zapped by electricity a number of times. I have lost control of heavy pieces of machinery on steep slopes more times than I would like to confess to. Some times these things happened as a result of what I would consider running necessary risks. But most of the time they came about because I was not afraid.

You would think that as a reasonably intelligent individual I would be able to stay conscious of danger, wouldn’t you? But I can’t always manage it. Nor can a lot of other people who work in the trades. We all have to struggle to stay conscious of the danger that we know is there and that we know can kill us if we let our guard down.

It occurs to me as I am talking to you all that maybe conscious is not the right word. After all, I can be completely conscious of the danger and still not be afraid. A close call that I had a while back is a good example of that.

As most of you know, my current job requires me to work alone a lot. Not only do I work alone, but I go to a lot of out of the way places where there is nobody else around. One of the most out of the way and isolated places that I have to go to are the smoke towers. On the particular day that I am thinking of, I had a job to fix a light fixture in one of the smoke towers.

Now a smoke tower is a kind of fire escape that is designed to let people get past a number of burning floors and make it to the ground. To get to one these towers you have to go through a big thick fire door. That door leads you into a kind of airlock that you get out of by going through another nice thick fire door. That lets you out onto a screened causeway that brings you to the actual smoke tower. But to get in the fire tower you have to go through another nice thick fire door.

The fire tower itself has thick masonry walls. The ones I was working in were six stories high with nice long runs of metal stairs that end every so often at a landing. Nobody ever goes into these fire towers because all of the doors leading into the tower are alarmed. You have to get a special key to get into these things without setting off the alarms.

All I am getting at here is that nobody can possibly hear you scream once you are in one of these things. Nobody is likely to find you if you get hurt in smoke tower either. Especially if you have a job like mine and nobody really knows where you are or what you are likely to be doing at any given time.

Anyway, I had to fix a light fixture in one of the towers. In fact, I pretty much had to rebuild the whole light fixture. That means I had to get a bunch of stuff together and make sure I had all the tools that I needed. It is at this point that I stop and think, “Hey, the fixtures in the smoke tower are pretty high up, I should grab a different ladder.” But I don’t.

The funny thing is that I had the properly sized stepladder right there where I kept my tools. But I took my six foot step ladder instead. Don’t ask me why. I clearly remember thinking that it would be smarter to grab the proper ladder.

So I get to where I am going to work with a ladder that I know is going to be too short. Now I should mention that light fixture that I needed to fix was right next to a flight of stairs. That means that I had to set up my ladder right next to a flight of metal stairs with nicely defined edges. And I think to myself as I am doing so, “it is really dumb to be using a six foot stepladder here.” But I don’t pay any attention to myself.

Now as I start climbing the stepladder I notice that it is not sitting perfectly flat on the ground. One corner was about half an inch off of the ground. That is enough cause the ladder to shift if your weight shifts. I remember thinking to myself that it would not be good if the ladder shifted while I was standing on the very top of the stepladder. But I ignore myself, even though I know that I am going be standing on very top of the stepladder because the stepladder I brought is too short.

So here I am, standing on the very top of my stepladder right next to a flight of stairs. Not only am I standing on the very top of my stepladder, but I have my arms above my head trying work on the “stupid” light fixture. I was calling the light fixture stupid because at the time I was having a hard time getting the cover to come off.

But suddenly the cover does come off. Of course it catches me by surprise. And of course it causes my weight to suddenly shift. Naturally my weight shifts towards the stair case, and my screwed up ladder naturally shifts when my weight does. The net effect is to shift my center of gravity from a stable position to one that was dynamically inclined to fall.

In the abstract, six feet does not seem that high off of the ground. But let me tell you, falling six feet off of the top of a stepladder down a flight of metal stairs is no joke. Especially when no one is around to hear you whimper. (I was too scared to scream.)

But thanks to an unjust God who keeps people from getting what they deserve, I never did fall. I don’t have the foggiest idea of how I kept my balance. Frankly, I don’t want to think about it, even now. All I know is that for a few seconds there, I was doing some serious acrobatics in an effort to keep my balance. I could have been as dead as the guy who was blown off of the roof.

The sad part of this story is that I was conscious of the danger I was running the whole time. It is just that without the fear I was unwilling to grab the right ladder even though doing so would have been almost costless. On the other hand, once I got scared, I was willing to go out of my way to acquire the right ladder. Fear can make a world of difference on how you behave.

I can see that you are all getting pretty bored. You all thought you understood the importance of being afraid after the first paragraph didn’t you? You did not need all these long pointless stories to drive the point home. Or at least, you don’t think you need them.

It is easy to understand the importance of being afraid in the abstract, but the abstract does not count for much in this life. It is hard to really believe how important it is to stay scared until you have almost gotten killed a few times. My little stories are just an attempt to give you people some of the benefits of almost getting killed without you having to go through the actual experiences.

The reason it was so important to me to make the importance of staying afraid real to you has nothing to do with my concern that you might fall off a ladder. Nor do I want to start thinking more about the dangers that are posed by the wind at forty feet up. The purpose of all this rambling is to remind myself, and to remind those you who are still with me, to be scared of the truth.

I can see by your confused looks that this is going to take some explaining. You have always heard that the truth is something you shouldn’t be afraid of, right? You were brought up hearing that the truth will set you free and all that kind of stuff, right? You were taught that only bad people are afraid of the truth, right? But such talk only comes about because civilized people have no idea of how to handle a danger that you cannot avoid.

Of course, civilizations do try to handle the dangers posed by Truth. Look at the foundations of all the worlds’ great civilizations and you will find a hierarchy of priests. These are bulwarks that civilizations throw up against the dangers posed by truth.

But these bulwarks are not very successful. Look at the foundations of the major problems that have plagued and destroyed the world’s great civilizations and you will find the hierarchy of priests. We all like to blame the priests, but in reality, mankind just can’t safely handle the truth. Blaming the priests won’t change this.

I can see that a lot of you people think I am getting carried away. But it you look around you I think you will see that civilization has a paradoxical relationship with the truth. After all, the same people who tell you that the truth will set you free will also tell you that you that you are not suppose to talk about politics or religion in civilized social gatherings.

I guess they are not in hurry to see anyone set free are they?

Sure, that was a cheap shot. But I hope I don’t have to remind you people that trying to pretend that something is not dangerous is not the way to handle danger. Nor should you try to avoid thinking about something that is dangerous. Yet it is precisely those methods that civilized people use to try to deal with truth.

I can see that I am losing you people. You are still confused as to why the truth is dangerous. You think that only lies are dangerous, don’t you? You think the only reason that truth is dangerous is because some people hate the truth or don’t want to face the truth right? You think that if everyone loved the truth there would be no danger.

But I think that this is looking at things the wrong way. The truth is powerful, and anything that is powerful is dangerous. It does not matter whither you are talking about power in a jet engine, a loaded gun, or the power that comes from a truth. Lies would be nothing without the truth.

Nor can we keep ourselves safe from the dangers posed by the truth by doing away with truth. If you choose to live as if the truth did not matter you will die. If you don’t look both ways before you cross the street you are going get run over by a truck. Failure to learn all you can about the world can mean that you are going to die of disease that could have been cured or that your enemies will come up with more powerful weapons than you. Truth is a matter of life and death and you cannot live without seeking it out to some degree or other.

Yet truth is even more important than life or death issues. For we are all going to die in the end in any case. There is no way around it. The universe is already dead; it just has not finished disintegrating yet. No technology is going to provided us with a way around that. So why should we bother trying to live? How should we live? What should we stoop to in order to stay alive if we all going to die? The questions of how and why we should live are more important than the question of how we might extend our brief lives by few more seconds.

Thus the answer to the question “what is meaning of life?” is more important than the answer to the question “why does the earth go around the sun?”

I can see that lot of you are uncomfortable with the way that I put”what is the meaning of life?” on the same level as “why does the earth go around the sun? You think that there is no real way to prove an answer to existential questions but you think you can prove that earth goes around the sun, don’t you?

But you are falling into the modern trap of confusing proving with knowing. How do you know that the sun exists? You feel the warmth of it on your cheek and you can see it with your eyes (if you can see, that is). How do you know that murder is wrong? You feel that is wrong. What is the great difference between the two?

And how do you prove something? You can’;t unless you are willing to grant that some of the things that you know are true. What you know governs what you can prove. And what you know is governed by what you see, hear, and feel. So how come reasoning about right and wrong is less valid reasoning about why the earth goes around the sun?

As you all know, I have already dealt with this matter at considerable length elsewhere. I am trying to avoid getting overly philosophical. For the purpose of this discussion I just want to point out that the statement that “murder is wrong” is true because you know it. And that truth is more important to how you live your life and the survival of civilization in general than the science behind the atomic bomb.

You could live your whole life without understanding the science behind the atomic bomb and be perfectly happy and productive. But live life without knowing that murder is wrong and you are going to have problems. People around you are going to have problems.

The fact that some people out there might not know that murder is wrong and might argue that you cannot prove that murder is wrong is as irrelevant as the fact that color blind people cannot see the color blue. It does not make murder right.

Look, I know the more sophisticated of you are shaking your head at how overly simple I am making everything out to be. But I am not trying making a rigorous philosophic argument at the moment. All I want us to do is use a common everyday definition of what we think of as being truth. And as a practical matter, we don’t doubt that murder is wrong any more then we doubt that the earth goes around the sun. Some of you more sophisticated types might want to make a distinction between scientific facts that we can “prove” and “moral truths.” But as a practical matter I don’t think that you can live that way when your daughter gets killed.

In any case, we can save that argument for later. For now, I just want to remind you all about how powerful the truth is. And I want to remind you that truth has the same power no matter whether you are talking about “scientific truth” or “moral truth”. As far as the dangers go, I don’t think there is any difference.

Now I know that most of you think that it is obvious that the truth is powerful. And I agree, really. The only reason I brought the whole “moral truth” vs & “scientific truth” argument up is that I wanted you all to think about the types of danger you can find in this life. Let me ask you this: is it a more horrible fate to die a murderer or to die young? Hopefully most of you will agree with me that to die as a murderer is a worse fate than dying young. But we spend a lot more time worrying about dying young or dying in general than we do dying as murderer, don’t we?

That is because we don’t think there is any real danger of us dying as a murderer. Whether we die or not is not entirely in our hands. But pre-meditated cold-blooded murder is. So we assume that it will never happen.

But it is precisely that kind of thing that we should be scared of when we are dealing with the truth. We should be scared at all times of the truth that we know. For although we think it justifies us, it can also damn us. It has the power to turn us into a parody of all the values that we possess.

I can see that I am losing you people, so let me ask you something: How many of you people think that the communists became a powerful and widely followed ideology through the careful study of economics and history?

The very idea brings smiles to your faces.

So what was the source of the communists’ great power? Look at wherever they came to power and you will find the same constant. People were drawn to them because they criticized the unjust and cruel nature of the society that the people were living in. And in any country where communists gained a significant following they did so because their accusations were true.

It was truth that gave communists their power.

We all know what the communists did with the power that truth gave them. We all know the people that they killed. We all know how they oppressed people. We all know the lies that they told. The communists are a stark example of how the truth can destroy whole societies.

I can see that you people are still not with me. You think that if the communists had only had more truth, if they had only been better people, they would not have done the things that they did?

Well, let me tell you something. The communists had two main sources of support: the poor and oppressed, and the highly educated. Now tell me, if having more truth than other people helps protect you from the dangers of truth, than how come the highly educated were often all for communism?

The sad fact is that the more truth we have, or if you prefer, the more education we have, makes no difference in our ability to correctly handle the power that truth gives us. The more the truth creates in us a feeling of power, the more self-confident we start feeling. We look around at the silly mistakes of reasoning that other people are making and we feel confident that we won’t make those mistakes. We shake our heads at all the facts that the ignorant don’t know. But what good does this really do us?

Did it stop a lot of educated people from mocking the religious beliefs of their forefathers while at the same time they were worshiping Stalin? Did it stop them from disdaining the middle class as being too materialistic while at the same time they strove to create a materialistic paradise here on earth? History says no.

But we all think we are better people than those who made those mistakes, don’t we? Oh, in some part of our brain we know better. But it is so hard for us to believe that we could make the same mistakes. We tell ourselves that we can learn from the mistakes of our forefathers. We tell ourselves that now we have enough truth to keep us safe. We just cannot make ourselves believe that our truth is not sufficient to keep us safe.

By “safe” I don’t mean safe from death. We are all going to die. That is why the power that the truth gives is so dangerous. For if we are going to die, what fate can be worse then living our short lives as a twisted parody of all that we value? The most dangerous power that the truth gives us is the power to damn ourselves.

Again the communists serve as a prime example. Who can doubt that they turned in to a self parody of their own values? Who can doubt that the communists damned themselves by their own values?

But we do not need to single out the communists. In any religion and in any ideology we can find people who are parodies of their own professed values. We don’t need to dig up examples from history either, for we all know such people in our everyday lives.

Those people are the ones we love to hate. They are the ones that we pour scorn upon. But they should rather move us to fear. After all, those people truly believe that they are living up to their values. How can we be sure that we are not as self-blind as they are?

The dangerous power the truth gives us is the power to justify ourselves. We can always find a finite number of truths that will justify ourselves. Why should we look any further? Yet in failing to look further we sometimes ignore the truths that damn us.

It is problems like these that make it fashionable in some circles to disdain the very idea of truth. If we can never be sure that we are not also amongst the damned, why bother to seek truth?

You know what is funny about these people? They profess that we are not gods. They profess that the concept of “truth” is ridiculous in the context of our frail humanity. And they use that as an excuse for acting as if they were gods. Because they profess that such things as universal truth are beyond us they give themselves free license to believe whatever they want to believe. The only things they disdain are those who profess to believe in some universal truth.

Now we can all laugh at them sophisticated post-modern types. We can see clearly that they are just as arrogant and self-justifying as any man who proclaimed that there was a universal truth and he knew it. But while we are laughing, let us not to forget to be afraid.

How are we really any different than the post-modern types? They take a true idea of man’s limitations and use it to justify a worldview that at its core is a perfect parody of the very mindset they claim to abhor. Are we really any different than them?

I have said it before, but I will say it again, the dangerous thing about the truth is that it justifies us in our own mind. When we see people doing things that are wrong or we see people who hold absurd opinions, we tend to feel superior. We imagine ourselves demi-gods in a field of mortals.

The fact of the matter is that we can get so caught up in the power and beauty of our truth that it can blind us to the fact that it is not sufficient. We can become satisfied with what little of the truth we see that we have no appetite for more. And that is what causes us to become self-justifying parodies of our own values.

In a way this is all very trite. Arguing that we should stay scared is like arguing that we need love. It is a difficult proposition to argue against. Who is going to come out against a little fear and humility?

But as I tried to demonstrate with all my stories about the trades, knowing something is dangerous does us no good. We need the actual fear.

I know that we cannot manufacture that feeling any more then we can manufacture love. But if it is worth pursuing the love of truth it is also worth pursuing the fear of it.

Considering the Invasion of the South

Editors Note: Reader feedback has indicated that I should make it clear that this essay was written in response to this post by the Grump Old Man. In particular, it is a response to this..

My sin in the pongid world is to have asked whether, if the North had let the South go without war, slavery would have long persisted in the South. I can also ask whether, given the blood spilled in the War and the rapid turn away from Reconstruction, Lincoln was far-sighted, bloody-minded, or a bit of both.


Considering the Invasion of the South


It is shocking to human Nature, that any Race of Mankind and their Posterity should be sentanc’d to perpetual Slavery; nor in Justice can we think otherwise of it, that they are thrown amongst us to be our Scourge one Day or other for our Sins: And as Freedom must be as dear to them as it is to us, what a Scene of Horror must it bring about! And the longer it is unexecuted, the bloody Scene must be the greater.—–Petition of the Inhabitants of New Inverness to His Excellency General Oglethorpe in 1739.


To quote Sherman, “War is hell”. And like all things of hell, war does not improve this world. Nonetheless, the fruits of hell are not entirely without their benefits. Just as death can cut short the days of wicked, war can sometimes put a brake on the scope of evil. But we should not pretend that the brake on mankind that we call war improves this world. Keeping things from getting worse is not the same thing as making things better.

To take but one example, it would be foolish to argue that World War II made the world a better place. After all, the war was instrumental in spreading the slavery of communism. But most people would argue that to have failed to opposed Hitler would have been even worse.

It is on this ground that I think the Civil War should be judged. We should not look at the Civil War thinking that we are going to find some signs that it made the world a better place. That would be expecting the fruits of heaven from the spawn of hell. But we should instead consider whether the world would have been worse if the Civil War had not been fought.

This question is rarely considered, however. The history of the Civil War as it is commonly presented is nothing more than war porn. It is the careful study of the violent deaths of men and glorification of those who presided over the carnage. The moral issues that lead to the war are ignored or are deliberately distorted.

If we wanted to deal with the moral issues behind the war we would be as familiar with the names John C. Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, William Lowndes Yancey, Robert Toombs, and Edmund Ruffin as we are with names of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston, and Early. After all, the former were the men who laid out the case for secession where as the latter were merely those that had to deal with the results.

But few of us have ever heard of the men whose arguments lead the South out of the union. Even fewer have read the actual words of those men. This lack of knowledge affects more than just our understanding of the South; it also gives us a distorted view of the North.

How can we truly judge Lincoln’s words and actions if we know nothing of his opponents’? How can we judge the course of action that the North took if we don’t understand the South?

If we truly want to consider the moral issues involved in Civil War we must understand why the South left the union. And the only way we can ever do that is to read the words of those who lead the South out of Union. So I must beg of you all to be patient with me, for I am going to quote at length from those men.

I must start with the first Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. He was one of the most moderate men in the Confederacy. He long argued for the South to stay in the union. In fact, he voted against the secession at Georgia’s convention on the issue. As if this were not enough to differentiate Stephens from men like Yancey and Ruffin, there was also the fact that held friendly feelings for Abraham Lincoln. That was an almost unheard-of emotion in a Southern man.

But Stephens came around to the view that secession was the proper course of action and he was instrumental in drawing up the constitution for his new nation. He was also chosen to be the first Vice President of the Confederacy because it was felt that his reputation as a moderate would help attract the Border States.

In this office he gave a widely reported speech in which he explained the new confederate constitution to the new nation. This speech was latter called “the cornerstone speech” for in it he spelled out the cornerstone for his new nation. This speech ought to be well known by every educated American, but since it is not I must quote at length from Mr. Stephens’s explanation of what the cornerstone of the Confederacy was…

“But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other — though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo-it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?

It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.”

The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to his laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” — the real “corner-stone” — in our new edifice. [Applause.]

I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph. [Immense applause.]

Thousands of people who begin to understand these truths are not yet completely out of the shell; they do not see them in their length and breadth. We hear much of the civilization and christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa. In my judgment, those ends will never be attained, but by first teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that “in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,” [applause,] and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.”

The process of disintegration in the old Union may be expected to go on with almost absolute certainty if we pursue the right course. We are now the nucleus of a growing power which, if we are true to ourselves, our destiny, and high mission, will become the controlling power on this continent. To what extent accessions will go on in the process of time, or where it will end, the future will determine. So far as it concerns States of the old Union, this process will be upon no such principles of reconstruction as now spoken of, but upon reorganization and new assimilation. [Loud applause.] Such are some of the glimpses of the future as I catch them.

I wish that this quote were sufficient. I wish that no more needed to be said to prove that the South left the union so that it might preserve slavery. But not withstanding the fact that a man who was instrumental in drawing up the Southern Constitution openly proclaimed that slavery was the cornerstone of the southern cause, there are many who would argue that my lengthy quote is misleading. So please bear with me while I flog this horse a little more.

Read this section from the South Carolina declaration of the cause of Secession where it says…

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States…..

Or read the Texas Declaration of the Causes of Secession where it says…

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable…..

Do I really need to belabor this point more? Shall I quote from Mississippi’s declaration on the causes of Secession? Shall I quote from Georgia’s Ordinance of Secession? Shall I quote from the Botetourt Resolution Calling for a Virginia Convention on Secession? Shall I quote from numerous Southern congressmen? Shall I quote from Jefferson Davis?

I wish that I did not have to belabor this point so much. But many libertarians and conservatives will tell you that the South left the union because of Tariffs. In their view, the idea that the Civil War was all about slavery was a northern invention to justify their aggression.

Frankly, I do not know how to debate with such people. Every Southern political leader in the Confederacy openly proclaimed that it was slavery that caused South’s rupture with North. If we are to ignore what the Southern leaders of the time actually said, why don’t we just pretend that South left the union to protect a rare species of butterfly?

Of course, most people do not deny that slavery was one of the factors that lead the South to break with the Union. But most people would also argue that there were many other factors involved. After all, most white men in the south were too poor to own slaves. And didn’t South Carolina almost leave the union in a dispute about tariffs under the Jackson administration?

The problem with this seemingly sophisticated view of the South is that it treats slavery as if it was just one aspect of the South. In reality, slavery is what came to define the South. You don’t come to the position where you have four million people in slavery without structuring your whole society around those things that are necessary to keep those people in slavery. By the time of the Civil War, the support for slavery had become an economic ideology akin to Marxism. The values necessary to sustain slavery were the values that governed the entire South.

If you think that it is unfair of me to compare the ideology that ruled the south to Marxism, just read this portion from John C. Calhoun’s speech entitled “Slavery a Positive Good”

But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact. There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North. . . .

The belief that there must always be a conflict between labor and capital was the foundation of the South’s justfaction for slavery. Crudely put, they argued that it was necessary for every society to have people in positions analogous to slavery. Since this was so, was it not better to have black men in that position than white men?

In reality, most Southern apologists went further than this. Just as a Marxist would argue that capitalism is really inefficient compared to socialism, the South argued that free labor was less efficient than slave labor. Thus, they claimed that the South had a far superior economic system to rest of the western world.

This was the view spelled out in great detail by Edmund Ruffin in his pamphlet SLAVERY AND FREE LABOR DESCRIBED AND COMPARED and his book THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF SLAVERY. This was the view put forward by William Lowndes Yancey in his speech on Texas. This was the view of Robert Barnwell Rhett in The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States. Do I really need to continue? Must I quote every Southern man of note?

The Southern belief that some people must always be slaves had logical consequences. If someone must always be a slave, then arguing for the liberation of the black man was tantamount to arguing for the enslavement of the white man. For in order to justify slavery, the Southern men convinced themselves that liberty for all was an unworkable economic situation. This belief was general throughout the South, and not limited to those who held slaves.

Once you understand that the values necessary for sustaining slavery were the ruling ideology in the South you come to understand that all of the South’s disputes with the North can be traced right back to the institution of slavery. In other words, even though many poor whites did not own slaves, they were quite enamored of the ideology that sustained slavery. And even though it is possible to argue against tariffs on many grounds, the South was against them because they hindered slavery. Worst of all, the belief in the rightness of slavery necessitated a belief in an imperative to grab all the territory that you could get. So you can rightly say that there were many factors that lead the South to break with the North, but they all lead right back to the institution of slavery.

Unfortunately, those points are controversial even though I think they stem from the plain reading of what the southern men said. So let us consider these points in more detail.

It would seem of all the points that I have made, the idea that the poor whites were enamored of the ideology that supported slavery would be the least controversial. Even today, I know of a couple of working class Anglo-Saxons who have no problem with the justification for slavery put forth by the fire-eaters. But I think the extent to which the ideology that lay behind slavery motivated the poor whites to fight has been often obscured.

For example, it is held as a common truth that the poor Southern whites thought that they were fighting in defense of their homeland. But this statement obscures more than it reveals. When President Andrew Jackson threatened to use force against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis the poor Southern whites could hardly have cared less. This was true even when Jackson moved gun boats and marshaled federal troops in preparation for action.

Why could Jackson threaten South Carolina without causing the poor Southern whites to rally against him? Conversely, why did they all rally against Lincoln when he threatened to do the same? There was no difference between Lincoln and Jackson on the subject of federal authority. There was no difference between Lincoln and Jackson on the subject of tariffs.

The answer is obvious. Poor whites thought that Lincoln was a threat to the Southern way of life, whereas they thought that Jackson’s dispute with a few rich cotton planters did not concern them.

And why did the poor Southern whites think that Lincoln was a threat but Jackson was not? It was because they were told things like this…

Besides, in Republican minds, the freedom of the negro is inseparably connected with the idea of his right to be clothed with the privileges and immunities of the white man; and hence, wherever Republicanism is firmly established, we see the effort is made to place the two races upon terms of equality. In Massachusetts, which is the embodiment of Republican ideas, negroes may intermarry with whites, may hold office, may send their children to the free schools in common with the whites, may sit on juries in the trial of white persons, and may not only vote at all elections, but are allowed to do so on more favorable terms than the naturalized white man. The same equality exists, I believe, in several other Republican States, and the effort would undoubtedly be made to extend it to all, in the event that party succeeded in establishing itself in power.

Regardless of what the truth of the matter was, poor white Southerners were told over and over again that Republican Party favored the complete equality of the black man. This was simply unacceptable to the average Southerner regardless of whether they had slaves or not. The idea that black men should be equal to white men was a threat to the social fabric of the South. It would have required the complete destruction of their culture as they understood it. It would have done away with their psychological safety net that told them that no matter how low they fell, they still were not as low as the black man. With the Southern obsession with who was on top, this was no small thing.

The hard truth is that Federal aggression by itself was not enough to motivate poor Southern men to fight. They wouldn’t have lifted a finger if Andrew Jackson (who was in any case their hero) had hung every rich man in South Carolina. But they would fight like tigers to maintain their racial position. That is why the arguments for secession that were directed towards poor whites were made on racial grounds.

But what shall we say about tariffs? How does the ideology necessary to sustain slavery come into the South’s objections to tariffs? For surely many men in the South complained about tariffs, right?

Well, not as many men in the South objected to tariffs as some conservative and libertarian historians would have you believe. The tariffs that were inflicted on the South (pre-Lincoln) were signed into law by Presidents who came from the South. And many representatives and senators from the South voted for those tariffs.

Nonetheless, it is true that many men in the South had problems with the tariffs. A good example of the types of arguments that these men used can be found in Robert Toombs’s speech to the Georgia Legislature. You should read the whole speech but this snippet will give you a good taste of what his argument was like…

It is true that this policy has been largely sustained by the South; it is true that the present tariff was sustained by an almost unanimous vote of the South; but it was a reduction – a reduction necessary from the plethora of the revenue; but the policy of the North soon made it inadequate to meet the public expenditure, by an enormous and profligate increase of the public expenditure; and at the last session of Congress they brought in and passed through the House the most atrocious tariff bill that ever was enacted, raising the present duties from twenty to two hundred and fifty per cent above the existing rates of duty. That bill now lies on the table of the Senate. It was a master stroke of abolition policy; it united cupidity to fanaticism, and thereby made a combination which has swept the country. There were thousands of protectionists in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New-York, and in New-England, who were not abolitionists. There were thousands of abolitionists who were free traders. The mongers brought them together upon a mutual surrender of their principles. The free-trade abolitionists became protectionists; the non-abolition protectionists became abolitionists. The result of this coalition was the infamous Morrill bill – the robber and the incendiary struck hands, and united in joint raid against the South.

Toombs’s whole speech was devoted to proving that the South had been oppressed and was in danger of being further oppressed by the North. In the part that I am quoting he was expressing his fear that tariff policy was being used with the express purposes of going after slavery. Indeed, the point to Toomb’s whole speech was threat posed by the North to slavery.

But before he got to talking about this, he argued that all previous tariffs had only served to enrich the North at the expense of the South. His thesis was hampered by the fact that he admitted that many of the policies that he objected to were put in place by Southern politicians. But even though he admitted this fact, albeit indirectly, Toombs’s still argued that all tariffs were an evil plot by the North to enrich themselves.

Why did Toomb’s tie himself up in knots likes this? Why did he insist that tariffs were all an evil plot by the North when he admitted that that Southern politicians had a hand in bringing them about? Why didn’t he just stick to arguing that slavery was in danger?

I believe that the answer to this question can be found in another paradox. Most of those who were at the forefront of arguing against tariffs in the South (Calhoun, Rhett, Yancey, etc) were also at the forefront of arguing that slave labor was superior to free labor. How could these men argue for free trade and then turn around and argue that free labor was superior to slave labor?

From my reading of the writings of Southern men, I believe the answer to this paradox lies in the Southern need to defend its belief in the superiority of slavery to free labor. It was widely known that the South was far inferior to the North in terms of economic development. Many opponents of slavery argued that slavery itself was the cause of this backwardness. In response, those in the South who believed in the superiority of the slavery as an economic system over the Northern system felt the need to provide some other explanation for the greater wealth of the North.

Thus, most Southern anti-tariff arguments were not so much about the wonders of free trade as they were arguments designed to prove that the North was only rich because of tariffs that the South paid. If we left the Union, went the common argument, we would be freed from this oppression and we would soon be richer than the North. That is why the North wants to keep us under their thumb.

To rigorously prove that most Southern opponents of tariffs were against them because they wished to demonstrate that slavery was an economically superior system would require separate essay. But if you read Southern anti-tariff essays and speeches, I think that you will be struck by how often they are also defenses of slavery as an economic system.

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the entire South was against tariffs. As Toombs himself admitted, politicians from the South supported most of the tariffs in America’s history up to the Civil War.

And why did politicians from the South support those tariffs if they had no manufacturing in their own states?

Because tariffs were the only way under the Constitution for the federal government to raise money.

And why did politicians from the South want the federal government to raise money?

Because only a strong federal government could acquire more territory.

And why did politicians from the South want the federal government to acquire more territory?

Because at its heart, the ideology that governed the South was imperialistic.

Of all the things that I believe to be plainly true about the South, this is one that I think most people will have the hardest time believing. But I need not argue this point myself; I will let Toombs do it for me. Here is another quote from his speech to the Georgia Legislature…

In 1790 we had less than eight hundred thousand slaves. Under our mild and humane administration of the system they have increased above four millions. The country has expanded to meet this growing want, and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, have received this increasing tide of African labor; before the end of this century, at precisely the same rate of increase, the Africans among us in a subordinate condition will amount to eleven millions of persons. What shall be done with them? We must expand or perish. We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy.

The ironic thing is that for years many Southern politicians used just this point to argue for staying in the Union. They thought that the union was the best means to get more territory for slavery. It was for this reason that they were willing to support tariffs and other measures to support the federal government. Before he became a convert to the confederate cause Alexander Stephens himself argued this way saying….

Again, gentlemen, look at another act: when we have asked that more territory should be added, that we might spread the institution of slavery, have they not yielded to our demands in giving us Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, out of which four States have been carved, and ample territory for four more to be added in due time, if you by this unwise and impolitic act do not destroy this hope, and, perhaps, by it lose all, and have your last slave wrenched from you by stern military rule, as South America and Mexico were; or by the vindictive decree of a universal emancipation, which may reasonably be expected to follow?

But this line of argument was killed by the Republican insistence that no more slave states would be added. As Toombs said…

The North understand it better – they have told us for twenty years that their object was to pen up slavery within its present limits – surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded with fire, they will make it sting itself to death. One thing at least is certain, that whatever may be the effect of your exclusion from the Territories, there is no dispute but that the North mean it, and adopt it as a measure hostile to slavery upon this point. They all agree, they are all unanimous in Congress, in the States, on the rostrum, in the sanctuary – everywhere they declare that slavery shall not go into the Territories. They took up arms to drive it out of Kansas; and Sharpe’s rifles were put into the hands of assassins by Abolition preachers to do their work. Are they mistaken? No; they are not. The party put it into their platform at Philadelphia – they have it in the corner-stone of their Chicago platform; Lincoln is on it – pledged to it. Hamlin is on it, and pledged to it; every Abolitionist in the Union, in or out of place, is openly pledged, in some manner, to drive us from the common Territories.

It was this matter, above all others, that broke the union. Many moderate Southerners would have tolerated many things from the North that injured slavery. Indeed, the South did tolerate many things from North that injured slavery in spite of the hot heads who argued otherwise. But the one thing that South could not agree to was the idea that slavery should be penned up in the South. Agreeing to that would mean the destruction of the cornerstone of Southern society.

We should remember that Lincoln was only elected because the Democratic Party split. And what split the Democratic Party? It was the Alabama platform. If you read the Alabama platform, you will see that it exclusively deals with the issue of the expansion of slavery. The South’s insistence on this platform broke the Democratic Party and enabled the Republican Party to come to power.

Even at the expense of empowering their enemies the South would not compromise. Slavery had to spread.

Why did the South feel that slavery had to spread? I think that Toombs did a pretty good job of explaining this point already, but I will reiterate. If you have an economic system based on the buying and selling of people, the only way you have to make sure that your children’s standard of living is equal to your own is to acquire more land. Otherwise, your children will be trying to work their slaves on smaller and smaller parcels of land. This would eventually destroy slavery.

If you believe that slavery is good thing; if you believe that slavery is the best possible economic system, you must believe that it is right and proper to seize land from those who are not quite as white as yourself. It is the only way that you can maintain the system. This is why up till the Civil War, politicians from the South were the driving force behind America’s expansion.

We have forgotten the extent of Southern imperial ambitions in the pre-Civil War South. Not only did the South support such things as the expulsion of the Cherokee tribes and the war with Mexico, but many were also quite open about their desire to take territory in the Caribbean and Brazil. Some even wanted more of Mexico. These desires were behind such things as William Walker’s adventures and the Ostend Manifesto. These incidents were reflections of a very real desire on the part of South to expand the territory ruled by their peculiar ideology.

But it is not within the scope of this essay to fully document how widespread the imperial desire to expand was in the South (you can find a book on that subject here). For my purposes I just want to note that such desires were a necessary part of the Southern ideology that supported slavery.

Many people who have followed my argument so far would argue that I am being very unfair to the South. They would say that people in the North were racists, too. They would argue that many people in the North had imperial ambitions as well. They would say that you should not judge people by modern standards.

But my purpose in this essay is not to demonize the South. If I wanted to do that I could have talked about the reality of what slavery was like. I could have talked about how the South used violence and the suppression of free speech to support their ideology and drive out native-born Southern men who did not approve of slavery. There are plenty of better ways of demonizing the South than quoting Southern politicians who were making speeches that they knew would be spread far and wide. On such occasions, they were on their best behavior.

That suited my purposes just fine. I wanted to quote Southern leaders on their best behavior in a public setting, because I wanted to demonstrate that the South as whole made a conscious decision to do whatever it took to preserve slavery. This was not some secret plan that they were hiding. It was the ruling ideology of their culture.

We don’t want to face this fact because we think that man has a natural tendency to get better as time passes. Even conservatives who should know better often act as if man has no where to go but up. But when you look at the pre-Civil War South you see a nation that was becoming more and more committed to the values and actions that slavery required.

When this country was founded, many leading men in the South believed that slavery was wrong. This was the belief of such men as Washington and Jefferson. They felt that in the course of time slavery would be gradually done away with. To speed this process, Washington even went so far as to free all of his slaves in his will.

But when we come to the years leading up to the Civil War, I cannot think of even one Southern politician who had such a view (expect maybe Sam Houston, but he does not count, as he sided with the Union). In fact, many Southern politicians went so far as to publicly repudiate the views of Washington and Jefferson. If I might remind you, the “moderate” Mr. Stephens said…

Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.

This idea the South rejected. As Mr. Stephens said…

This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” — the real “corner-stone” — in our new edifice.

And what of the hope that the founders of this country had that slavery would gradually go away? That did not happen either. In fact, the opposite happened. Slavery grew dramatically in strength. As Jefferson Davis said…

In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000.

Nor did the South shrink from the implications of this increase in the numbers of slaves. As Toombs said…

We are constrained by an inexorable necessity to accept expansion or extermination. Those who tell you that the territorial question is an abstraction, that you can never colonize another territory without the African slavetrade, are both deaf and blind to the history of the last sixty years. All just reasoning, all past history, condemn the fallacy.

The whole history of the South up to Civil War is the story of slavery’s expansion. It is the story of how slavery grew in economic importance to the world through the cotton trade. It is the story of how the South developed an ideology dedicated to justifying and promoting slavery. They came to love it as an integral part of their culture and they were willing to do anything to defend it.

What would have brought this trend to an end if the Civil War had not intervened?

I have seen it argued that the South would have followed the example of Brazil and peacefully overturned slavery in their own in good time. But this seems to me to be ignoring some critical differences between the South and Latin America.

You see, Latin America depended on the slave trade for a fresh re-supply of slaves, where as the South could breed their own. As this website says…

Unlike in the United States, the slave population in Latin America had never sustained itself through natural reproduction, so the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade struck a telling blow.

Why should we think that the South would have followed the course of Latin America when main reason for the end of slavery in Latin America was the British clamp down on the slave trade?

If the Civil War had not intervened, who would have stopped the South from breeding new slaves? Who would have stopped the South from seizing new territory on which to practice slavery?

I don’t doubt that slavery would have ended in the South eventually. But I do doubt that slavery would have ended without bloodshed given the road that the South elected to go down. If it didn’t lead to a war between white men like the Civil War, then it would have led to a bloody and genocidal race war.

In their nightmares, the men of the South thought the same thing. They were always haunted by the fear that they would be the victims of a bloody slave revolt. But for the intervention of the North, that might have been their fate.

But it must be admitted that none of us are privy to what could have been. Who knows, maybe if the North had only let the South go it would have turned out for the best. Maybe the South would have decided that they did not want to expand their territory after all. Maybe they would have been happy to let their slaves go free and compete with poor whites for jobs. Maybe a religious revival would have swept the South and they all would have become Quakers.

But we should not kid ourselves. We should not think that there was something intrinsic to Southern culture that would have brought slavery to an end. Something would have had to change the South. Something would have had to happen that would have changed the trend that was working in the South from the time of the American Revolution till it was interrupted by Civil War. Something would have had to stop slavery’s expansion.

As for me, I cannot help but believe that Abraham Lincoln was speaking the truth when he said…

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Pondering the Battle of Bicocca

The Chief’s essay “Pondering the battle of Bicocca” is bizarre. Who else would compare the United State’s Air Force to the Swiss Pike Formations? But we think that it makes a nice change from the typical talk about the US Military.

This was the first essay that the Chief ever wrote for his web site, so the writing is not his best. But nobody reads the Chief for good writing. Rather, they read him for interesting ideas.
Click Here to read the essay.

A Tragic Tale of Irreconcilable Perceptions

A Tragic Tale of Irreconcilable Perceptions

“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic”– Edward de Bono

It is a commonly known fact that the root of many people’s disagreements is the result of a difference in perception. Even if people have the same facts, the same amount of Click Here to continue reading.

Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason

Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason
What is Truth? — Pontius Pilate

Every age has its heretics. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that every age has its core beliefs that are not to be questioned. To question those core beliefs is to be cut off from society. This is harsh, but sadly necessary, for you cannot have a society without core beliefs. It is a shared set of core beliefs that enables a society to exist in the first place. Should those core beliefs fracture and cease to be a common denominator, then society itself will fracture and chaos will reign. Hence, society must always strive to crush the heretics before the heretics destroy society.

Modern society has its core beliefs just like any other society though we rarely talk about the foundations of modern society in such terms. A modern man does not have beliefs that he clings to. He always holds to reasonable beliefs and is willing to listen to any reasonable argument that would challenge those beliefs. The modern man recognizes no absolute wrong except to be unreasonable, and no absolute virtue except the practice of reason itself. But in describing modern man this way, we have hit upon the core belief of the modern era. It is reason that is the one true religion of the modern age. Belief in reason is the unifying force of modern society.

To be sure, modern society is full of squabbles. But those squabbles are like fights between medieval princes. They are contests for prestige and power, not arguments over the core beliefs of society. The intellectual fights between the liberal academic in his ivory tower, the libertarian writer, the neo-conservative in his think tank, and the Christian apologist all revolve around appeals to reason. The competing ideologies want people to acknowledge them as the most reasonable, for to be the most reasonable means that you deserve the greatest prestige and greatest power. If you are the most reasonable person than you are the one who is speaking with the voice of god (or reality if you prefer to use non-religious terms).

It is because modern society has this faith in reason that modern society is able to tolerate such diverse ideologies. A faith in reason means that a member of modern society believes that the truth is out there and it is perceivable to everyone who is willing to look for it. It means that they believe that the truth requires no faith, no revelation, and no authority other than a faith in reason and a submission to what reason reveals. A faith in reason means that one believes that reason can justify itself and needs no other justification. A faith in reason means that in a contest of ideas the most reasonable idea will win out. For if reason is the voice of god (or reality) than it must triumph in the end.

Such a faith is necessary for modern society to exist. How else could democracy function if society did not believe that everyone has access to the truth? How else could we tolerate hearing people who advocate beliefs and actions that we consider harmful if we did not believe that through reason the truth would prevail in the end?

But a society founded on the basis of faith in reason is a recent phenomenon. By comparison with societies that have been founded on the biases of various perceived revelations, modern society is but a blip on the time line. The older societies thought that truth came only from revelation. And in many cases it was thought that this revelation could only be properly interpreted by the proper authorities. Hence the one true religions with their attendant priesthoods and certified teachers.

As a kind of corollary, those beliefs in the necessity of authority also lead to the articulation of the divine right of kings and other authoritative systems of political power. If truth is not accessible to everyone, then it is natural to think that power should only go to those who have the truth. It took a long time for it to become a commonly accepted belief that disputes should be resolved by reason, or for people to even believe that that disputes could be resolved by reason.

Modern man likes to believe that such beliefs in the necessity of authority are on their way to the dustbin of history. Naturally enough, modern man will point to the miracles that reason has wrought for the justification of his faith in the eventual triumph of modern society. Who could stand in the way of the vast increase in prosperity and human knowledge that the advent of reason has brought? What revealed “truth” can stand before reason’s devastating criticism?

It is the way of all faithful to refer to miracles to justify their faith. It is also the way of all faithful to use their values to criticize the faith of others. But recent events have shaken this faith in the predestined triumph of modern society. It is now common to hear people who profess a faith in reason questioning whether the truth is really accessible to everyone. There are now some who advocate forcing people to be reasonable. But how far can you go down that road without having a revealed truth and an authoritative priesthood?

Faith in reason is being put to the test. It could even be said that faith in reason is beginning to fail.

Why is the faith in reason beginning to fail? After all, the modern age came about in spite of opposition from the proponents of revealed “truth”. Like all other gods, reason had its prophets. And like all prophets, they started out as heretics that society did its best to destroy. Yet in spite of the opposition from society at large, the prophets of reason managed to destroy the old faith in revelation that used to rule Europe and replaced it with a faith in reason. They made good progress towards accomplishing the same in America. All this was accomplished from a starting point where they were weak and persecuted. Today the proponents of faith in reason are powerful and generally respected. Why then is there all this self-doubt in the triumph of reason?

Many people would try to answer this question by pointing to demographic data. Others would try to minimize the scale of the problem that the faith in reason now faces. But both of those approaches have flaws. Demographics have always been against the founding of a secular society and so they do not explain why the march of modern society is slowing now. As for minimizing the scale of the problem, only time will tell whether that is the correct. But the trend over the last decade does not look good for those who would defend a faith in reason and there does not seem to be any prospect of that trend improving any time soon.

I am not trying to dismiss the idea that there are sociological and historical reasons for both the rise of the faith in reason and the problems that faith is now facing. But I don’t think that you can intelligently analyze the sociological and historical problems that the faith of reason is encountering without understanding that the faith in reason has always had certain weaknesses. It remains to be seen how devastating the weaknesses inherent in the faith in reason will really be. But there can be no doubt that those weaknesses are contributing to modern society’s current travails.

So what are these mysterious weaknesses in the faith in reason? To answer this question we must turn to Benedict de Spinoza’s little book Ethics; Demonstrated in Geometric Order. Unfortunately, it is not immediately obvious to most people why this is so. Most educated people have heard of David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Immanuel Kant. But mention Spinoza’s name and you will draw a blank unless you are talking to students of philosophy. This is a shame.

It is a shame because modern society’s understanding of reality finds its clearest expression in Spinoza’s Ethics. It is a shame because all of the modern sciences operate on the assumption that Spinoza is right about reality. It is a shame because no other philosopher so clearly spelled out the beliefs that were necessary for a faith in reason and thus the foundations of modern society. From socialism to libertarianism, all modern ideologies are based off of Spinoza’s strengths and they all suffer from his weaknesses. Thus, by turning to Spinoza’s Ethics we may lay bare the pillars of modern society and examine them for weakness.

This is quite a claim to make for an apostate Jewish lens grinder who lived in Seventeenth century Holland. The natural question arises: if he is so great why is he not better known? We could answer that in a number of ways.

We could talk about how society did its best to quell Spinoza’s heretical beliefs. We could describe in great detail how Spinoza’s family disowned him, the Jews excommunicated him, and his name was made so infamous that even after his death David Hume felt compelled to denounce him in his first major work.

If we did not feel like spinning sob stories to explain our hero’s obscurity we could name drop to prove that he was indeed influential. We could talk about how Thomas Jefferson had Spinoza’s books in his library or how that famous Spinozan acolyte Albert Einstein read Spinoza’s Ethics over and over again throughout is his life. We could explain how most of the people who have done the most to advance modern society have either read Spinoza’s books or have been directly influenced by others who had read him.

But the truth is that it does not matter why Spinoza is unknown or how much he might have influenced the development of modern society. We do not turn to Spinoza because he did so much to help form modern society (although he undoubtedly did). Rather we turn to him because he provides the clearest expression of the core beliefs of the modern world.

So what is it about Spinoza that enables him to be the clearest expresser of modern ideas about reality and ethics? To understand the answer to that question you must understand what separates Spinoza from almost all other philosophers. To understand that, you must understand what unites all philosophers.

All philosophers assume a priori that reason is only way to truly know something. That assumption is part of the job description. You cannot be a philosopher if you are not going to apply yourself to using reason in an attempt to find truth. Even philosophers who assert that we can know nothing arrive at that conclusion because of reason and they expect others to accept it because of reason. If people don’t use reason as a guide to the truth they are not philosophers; rather they are mystics.

As a philosopher, Spinoza makes the same a priori assumption about reason being the guide to knowledge and truth as all other philosophers. But Spinoza did not try to use reason to discover the truth behind what our senses tell us as so many philosophers do. Rather, Spinoza sought to spell out how reality had to be in order for reason to be the valid guide to the truth. In other words, instead of trying to figure out what we puny humans can know by reason, Spinoza lays out what type of reality, what type of truth, what type of “god”, had to exist in order for reason to be a valid method of divining truth.

Thus, Spinoza starts out Ethics in a manner that seems ass-backwards to most philosophers. He starts out by talking about the nature of reality before he establishes how it is that we can perceive reality. Spinoza was aware that this method would seem strange to some. But Spinoza thought that people who started out their philosophy by reasoning about human sensations were bound to tie themselves in knots. Spinoza thought that if you are going to start out a priori that reason will lead to truth you might as well start out by pondering what that a priori assumption implies about reality. As Spinoza says in his note on Proposition X in chapter two of Ethic’s; >

I think the cause for such confusion is mainly, that they do not keep to the proper order of philosophic thinking. The nature of God, which should be reflected on first, inasmuch as it is prior both in the order of knowledge and the order of nature, they have taken to be last in the order of knowledge, and have put into the first place what they call the objects of sensation; hence, while they are considering natural phenomena, they give no attention at all to the divine nature, and, when afterwards they apply their mind to the study of the divine nature, they are quite unable to bear in mind the first hypotheses, with which they have overlaid the knowledge of natural phenomena, inasmuch as such hypotheses are no help towards understanding the Divine nature. So that it is hardly to be wondered at, that these persons contradict themselves freely.

Since I am quoting Spinoza out of context, I should be clear that when Spinoza uses the word God, he does not have what most people would think of as God in mind. Spinoza’s only “god” was reason. In Spinoza’s view, it is reason that is above all orders of knowledge and all orders of nature. In other words, Spinoza is arguing that you need to think about what reason requires before you can start talking about what your senses tell you. For it only by making sure that your senses are governed by the requirements of reason that you can ever hope to possess the truth.

If you think about it, you will begin to see that if you start with an a priori assumption that reason is the sure proof of what is true and what is false than you are putting certain constraints on what reality can be like. That is not to say that Spinoza denies a reality that has infinite possibilities. But Spinoza claims that just as a line is always 180 degrees though it is infinite, in a like manner the infinite reality is always governed by reason. In other words, reason puts certain constraints on what is possible even though the possibilities are infinite. By spelling out what reason required, Spinoza was able to make some bold statements about reality that anticipated some of the more startling finds of modern sciences.

This really should not be that surprising. After all, by their very nature the sciences are reasonable exercises. If reality was not reasonable, the sciences would never be able to function. Thus, it should be no surprise that the sciences often find that reality is consistent with reason.

So what kind of reality does reason demand? It is tempting to say: “Go read Spinoza’s little book on Ethics.” But for those who are too lazy to do so we shall endeavor to explore the main requirements of reason in a simpler and less rigorous manner than Spinoza did.

For starters, it should be obvious that reason requires that everything in reality be relational, for if things are not relational then reason can tell us nothing. When we say that people are being unreasonable or illogical we are saying that their thought process or their arguments are not properly relational. As an example of what I am talking about, consider what we are assuming when we make the argument that if something is green then it cannot also be red. We can make this argument only because we perceive there to be a relationship between the colors. In the same manner, reality as a whole can not be reasonable unless everything is relational at some level to everything else. This is not to say that everything in reality is the same any more than the color red and the color blue are the same. Yet it is to say that every thing in reality must operate on the same principles.

To restate this in another way, reason requires that reality be mathematical. After all, math is nothing more than the study of relationships between defined things. Therefore, if reality is relational it must be mathematical. Since reason depends on there being a relationship between things, we can say that math is the purest form of reason. As a corollary, we can also say that anything that is truly reasonable must therefore be mathematical.

If we understand that in order for reality to be reasonable it must ultimately be mathematical we are forced to acknowledge that in order for reality to be reasonable it must be composed of one substance. Now when we phrase it that way our mind can come up with a whole host of objections to that statement. But that is only because we are use to thinking of substances in the material sense.

It would be better to say that in order for reality to be reasonable the entirety of reality must be governed by the same set of axioms or laws in its entirety. For it is obvious even to those who have only a passing understanding of mathematics that math can only describe the relationships between things that are subject to the same axioms. But even if we were to rephrase Spinoza’s statement that everything was composed of one substance by saying that everything was governed by the same axioms we would not be saying anything different than what Spinoza said. For how we do we define one substance? By laying down the axioms or laws by which that substance is defined. It stands to reason than, that if everything is ultimately governed by the same axioms then everything is ultimately one substance.

So how do all the differences that we see around us come about if everything is composed of one substance? Well, Spinoza believed that anything that was possible according to the dictates of reason must actually happen. Spinoza felt that to argue otherwise was to argue reason would not be a reliable guide to the truth. But since there are an infinite number of things that are reasonably possible, Spinoza argued that any question of “why” would necessarily be an infinite question requiring an infinite answer. However, since it is Spinoza’s a priori assumption that reality is reasonable, he argued that every step of that infinite answer would reasonable.

Since every step of that answer must be reasonable, we still need to know what could reasonably differentiate the one substance. Since Spinoza felt that reality had to be composed of one substance in order to be reasonable, the answer could not be another substance. So Spinoza thought that the answer had to be that the one substance to be differentiated through relative speeds. Thus Spinoza argued that reason required that the basic building blocks of reality be parts (or forms) of the one substance going at various speeds relative to each other. Those forms combined to give us the reality that we see today.

We should note that when Spinoza says that reality is composed of one substance he means thoughts, emotions, and time as well as all the material things that we traditionally think of as having substance. In fact, Spinoza’s biggest complaint against Descartes was that Descartes made a distinction between thoughts and material things. Spinoza sought to prove that in order for reality to be reasonable nothing could be that was not composed out of the same underlying substances. Spinoza realized, though, that this would be difficult for the average person to accept. As Spinoza says in a note on <i>Proposition VII in the first chapter of Ethic’s; Demonstrated in Geometric Order

No doubt it will be difficult for those who think about things loosely, and have not been accustomed to know them by their primary causes, to comprehend the demonstrations of Prop. vii.: for such persons make no distinction between the modifications of substances and the substances themselves, and are ignorant of the manner in which things are produced; hence they attribute to substances the beginning which they observe in natural objects. Those who are ignorant of true causes, make complete confusion–think that trees might talk just as well as men–that men might be formed from stones as well as from seed; and imagine that any form might be changed into any other. So, also, those who confuse the two natures, divine and human, readily attribute human passions to the deity, especially so long as they do not know how passions originate in the mind. But, if people would consider the nature of substance, they would have no doubt about the truth of Prop. vii. In fact, this proposition would be a universal axiom, and accounted a truism. For, by substance, would be understood that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself–that is, something of which the conception requires not the conception of anything else; whereas modifications exist in something external to themselves, and a conception of them is formed by means of a conception of the thing in which they exist. Therefore, we may have true ideas of non-existent modifications; for, although they may have no actual existence apart from the conceiving intellect, yet their essence is so involved in something external to themselves that they may through it be conceived. Whereas the only truth substances can have, external to the intellect, must consist in their existence, because they are conceived through themselves. Therefore, for a person to say that he has a clear and distinct–that is, a true–idea of a substance, but that he is not sure whether such substance exists, would be the same as if he said that he had a true idea, but was not sure whether or not it was false (a little consideration will make this plain); or if any one affirmed that substance is created, it would be the same as saying that a false idea was true–in short, the height of absurdity. It must, then, necessarily be admitted that the existence of substance as its essence is an eternal truth. And we can hence conclude by another process of reasoning–that there is but one such substance.

As always when one quotes from Spinoza out of context one risks seriously misleading people as to what Spinoza actually believed. The above passage is particularly tricky that way. If you will pay attention you will notice that Spinoza starts off the paragraph talking as if there is more than one substance and ends up by saying that there is only one. That is simply the most obvious way in which the above passage could be misleading. Nonetheless, as misleading as the paragraph is, it is necessary to quote it in order to give you an idea of the scope of Spinoza’s argument. This is because in the quoted paragraph Spinoza touches on a number of key points that he developed more fully throughout his book.

Obviously one of the key points Spinoza was building up to in the paragraph above was the already mentioned fact that Spinoza felt that reality had to be composed of one substance in order to be rational. But in the process of building up to that idea Spinoza also wanted people to realize the importance of understanding the underlying substance of things before one can hope to understand the things themselves.

To restate Spinoza’s argument; A man is different from a tree and they are both different than a rock. But a tree and a man will both eventually turn to dirt. What Spinoza argued from that process was that you could never understand the nature of man and trees unless you understood what they came from. Only when you truly understand dirt can you ever hope to truly understand men and trees.

But Spinoza argued that you cannot do the reverse. You cannot look at the form of a man and hope to arrive at an accurate idea of what he is composed from. According to Spinoza, the only way to arrive at true knowledge was to start at the foundation and work your way up. You cannot hope to do the reverse anymore than you can build a house by starting with the roof.

But how can we know what the foundation of reality is when all we can see are the forms of reality? Well, since reality must be reasonable (it is Spinoza’s a priori assumption after all) the study of reason must give us insight into the nature of reality. This is to say, the study of mathematics must give us insight into the truth.

A mathematical insight to truth is what Spinoza was after when he wrote Ethics. We can see how he thought this would work in his argument for the one substance. If reality is to be reasonable it must be relational. If it is to be relational it all must be composed of the same substance (or ruled by the same axioms as we have said earlier). Thus, everything has to be composed of one substance even though we perceive various different forms of that substance. So by the study of reason, we can assert that we know that at the foundation of everything that is there is one and only one substance without ever having to engage our untrustworthy senses.

But there is more to it than that. In order for reality to be reasonable the one substance has to be uncreatable and undestroyable.

Why is this so? Imagine if you will that a rock was created out of nothing right in front of a bunch of scientists. What would the scientist be able to tell their colleagues about the rock? Nothing that was scientific. Nothing that was reasonable.

As we have said before, the sciences are reasonable exercises that depend on a relationship existing between all things. If a rock was created out of nothing, scientists would not be able to repeat that fact. They would not be able to relate that event to anything else. They would not be able to use the creation of that rock to help them understand how other rocks came into being, for they could never know if the other rocks had appeared out of thin air or if they had been created by other processes.

If you understand this then you will realize why there is no way that reality could be reasonable if the substance that reality was composed of could appear or disappear at various times. The forms may change, but the substance of reality must be eternal in order for reality to be reasonable. This idea has scientific echoes in the principle of conservation of energy.

But this idea has consequences far outside the realm of what is thought of as science. If you understand the reason why the one substance must be eternal in nature you will see that on the same principle you must do away with God and the human sprit. If all things need to be relational in order for the world to be rational, then you cannot have a human spirit that is composed of a fundamentally different substance than the human body. If the substance of reality has to be eternal in order for the world to relational, then you cannot have a God who can create or destroy that reality and still have a rational reality.

In fact, the very idea of a God who can create or destroy makes reason meaningless for the same reason that a rock created out of thin air would stump the sciences. If God could create or destroy the truth of what reason tells you, you would always be dependent on the good graces of God to discover the truth. To be sure, you can say that reason leads me to truth because God has made it so that it will serve that function. But under that formulation, it is God that makes reason meaningful, not reason that makes God meaningful. Even a deist, who pulls his god out of the cupboard to jumpstart his clockwork world and then shoves him back into the cupboard again, is claiming that reason is meaningless without a god who is above reason (at least long enough to get things started.

Spinoza thought that it was insane to think of subordinating reason to anything. If the idea of “god” conflicted with the idea of a reasonable reality, than the idea of god was false. Spinoza felt that if you wanted to have a god that was eternal and all encompassing you could call the one substance that reality is composed of by the name of god.

But if you wish to call the one substance god, you must be careful as to what you say about it. You must not imagine that the one substance that you are calling god has any choice in what it does or that it cares for anything. Furthermore, you must realize that since everything is composed of this one substance everything is a part of what you are calling god. Nor can it be said that this god has created reality for reality must always exist in order to be completely rational. In fact, if you want to call the one substance god, then you must acknowledge that all of reality is god.

Spinoza was very careful to make the above points over and over again. For he felt that if you failed to keep these critical points in mind you would wind up with a reality that is unreasonable. In other words, it is important to remember that when Spinoza uses the word “god” he is not talking about anything other than reality itself, and what he is saying about “god” is nothing that an atheist would find objectionable. Spinoza makes this quite clear in the Appendix to chapter one in Ethics

As they look upon things as means, they cannot believe them to be self-created; but, judging from the means which they are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use. They are bound to estimate the nature of such rulers (having no information on the subject) in accordance with their own nature, and therefore they assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honors. Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice. Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind; and for this reason everyone strove most zealously to understand and explain the final causes of things; but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e., nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, etc.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship. Experience day by day protested and showed by infinite examples, that good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike; still they would not abandon their inveterate prejudice, for it was more easy for them to class such contradictions among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and thus to retain their actual and innate condition of ignorance, than to destroy the whole fabric of their reasoning and start afresh. They therefore laid down as an axiom, that God’s judgments far transcend human understanding. Such a doctrine might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human race for all eternity, if mathematics had not furnished another standard of verity in considering solely the essence and properties of figures without regard to their final causes. There are other reasons (which I need not mention here) besides mathematics, which might have caused men’s minds to be directed to these general prejudices, and have led them to the knowledge of the truth.

The above paragraph is not remarkable except for the fact that it was written in the Seventeenth century. It was for writing things such as the above that made the name Spinoza synonymous with the word atheist. But such tales are not really to the point of this essay.

What is to the point of this essay is that the above paragraph could have been written by almost any modern day philosopher and represents the opinion of the vast majority of highly educated people in the modern era. What we see here is Spinoza anticipating the modern explanation of how religion came about and expressing the modern view that reality is self created.

But this all raise’s the question; why then did Spinoza use the word “god” at all if his conception of god was nothing different than what an atheist might say about reality?

In the first place, everyone who is making an argument must establish some kind of common ground with the people he is trying to convince. Since Spinoza was surrounded by Jewish and Christian theologians and their followers he had to deal with the religious ideas that were prevalent amongst them. Therefore he took great care to show that the common principles that both the Jews and John Calvin asserted about nature of God (such as his eternal nature and how nothing could be conceived of apart from God) could only be true of the one substance that Spinoza felt all of reality was composed of. But at the same time Spinoza sought to show that those same principles could not be true (or at least reasonable which to Spinoza was the same thing) if God was distinct from a created reality. Nor could they be true if God punished people or any of the other things that the Jews and the Calvinists asserted about God. In other words, Spinoza was simply using the common debater’s trick of taking things that one agrees with from one’s opponents and using those things to demolish what you don’t agree with.

But it was not solely for the purpose of messing with his intellectual opponents that Spinoza used the word “god”. Just as some people can talk about math equations being beautiful and can get all excited about the beauty that they reveal, so, too, did Spinoza think that a reasonable person would see a beauty in reality and come to love it. In fact, Spinoza devoted quite a bit of the latter part of his work to showing why this “love” was not only reasonable but required by reason. So as a kind of acknowledgment of this beauty Spinoza calls the one substance “god.”

But the most important reason that Spinoza uses religious imagery is the previously mentioned fact that Spinoza’s god was reason. In order to highlight reason’s supreme authority he often talks of its dictates in religious terms. Take this statement from a note on Proposition XV for example..

This must be admitted by all who know clear reason to be infallible

In statements like this Spinoza is laying down a challenge. What will you accept as the ultimate authority on truth? What will you accept as god? A few old books full of apparent contradictions and the attendant self-perpetuating bureaucracies that specialize in arcane ritual? Or will you accept the dictates of reason as the only true path to truth? For Spinoza, there was no contest.

In spite of Spinoza’s general hostility to religion, many people still want to paint Spinoza as being a religious man. Only, instead of asserting that he was a religious follower of one of the Abrahamic faiths, they would have you believe that Spinoza’s beliefs were basically the same as Buddhism or one of the other eastern faiths.

This is as true and as false as saying that the beliefs of modern society are basically the same as Buddhism or other eastern religions. There are some superficial similarities between Spinoza’s thought and the thought of many eastern religions. But there are also some distinct differences.
The superficial similarity that is most commonly seized upon relates to Spinoza’s contention that reality is composed of only one substance. Since many of the eastern religions also believe that reality is all one, you can see how some people make the connection. In fact, many of the eastern religious practices are devoted to fully realizing this oneness with the whole of reality on a personal level. Ergo, some people argue, the beliefs of Spinoza and of the Buddhist are basically the same.

But this superficial similarity obscures a distinct difference between Spinoza and most eastern religions on the nature of reality. For many eastern religions, reality is malleable and reason gets in the way of coming to the truth. Often an analogy is drawn in the eastern religions between reality and our dreams. Many of the Eastern religions argue that just as we can change the nature our dreams by the power of our thoughts alone, so, too, can we change the nature of reality if we become one with it. Hence, the supposed levitation of meditating monks and other examples of mind over matter that are part of the staple beliefs of many eastern religions.

But to Spinoza the idea that the mind could overcome matter was absurd for if that idea were true it would overthrow the primacy of reason. You might as well have a god who can create and destroy as imagine a world where thoughts can change the relationship between things. In order for reality to be reasonable it cannot be malleable, for reason requires that everything have a fixed relation to all other things. Hence, Spinoza believed that reality dictated what is possible for us to think, as opposed to the common eastern belief that what we think dictates reality. As Spinoza says in Proposition XLVIII in chapter two of his book Ethics:

In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity.

Thus our ideas are determined and we have no real freedom in what we think. More importantly, our ideas of reality are determined by the one-substance/god/reason just as much as reality is. As Spinoza says in Proposition VII of Chapter Two…

Before going any further, I wish to recall to mind what has been pointed out above-namely, that whatsoever can be perceived by the infinite intellect as constituting the essence of substance, belongs altogether only to one substance: consequently, substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, comprehended now through one attribute, now through the other. So, also, a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, though expressed in two ways. This truth seems to have been dimly recognized by those Jews who maintained that God, God’s intellect, and the things understood by God are identical. For instance, a circle existing in nature, and the idea of a circle existing, which is also in God, are one and the same thing displayed through different attributes. Thus, whether we conceive nature under the attribute of extension, or under the attribute of thought, or under any other attribute, we shall find the same order, or one and the same chain of causes-that is, the same things following in either case.

As we have already said, reason requires a fixed relationship between all things. Therefore, at some fundamental level thoughts must have a fixed relationship to things. This is true even of false (Spinoza calls them inadequate) ideas. For example, the idea of Zeus is an idea composed of ideas that are relational to things that really are (such as the nature of men for example). But that is not to say that the idea of Zeus is adequate to explain lighting. Spinoza devoted a lot of time to showing why he thought that inadequate ideas arose and how we could tell the difference between inadequate ideas and adequate ideas.

But it is not necessary for the purpose of this essay to go deeply into the subject of adequate and inadequate ideas as Spinoza defines them. It is sufficient to note Spinoza differed from the eastern religions in that he believed that reality was rigid and reason is the only guide to the truth where as most eastern religions believe that reality is malleable and that reason can get in the way of truth.

Why have we have spent so much time dwelling on Spinoza’s claim that the world’s religions are incompatible with reason and explaining why he uses religious language? Why did Spinoza himself stress so heavily that the religious explanations of reality were not compatible with reason?

The reason is simple. Your version of reality determines your ethic. If the reality you believe in is unreasonable, your ethic is going to be unreasonable as well. By demonstrating that the religious conception of reality was unreasonable, Spinoza was demonstrating that it was impossible for the religious to have a reasonable ethic. This was important to Spinoza because it is an ethic that forms a society. Without a reasonable ethic it is impossible for the religious to have a reasonable society.

It was a reasonable society that Spinoza desired above all else. He lived in an age where religion was a common excuse for wars and violence of all kinds. He lived in an age where expressing an unorthodox opinion would get you burned at the stake. He lived in an age when it was still common to hunt down and burn “witches.” Therefore, he desired to reform society’s conception of reality and its attendant ethic in order to bring about a society that was founded on a reasonable ethic.

So what kind of ethic does reason require? For that matter, what kind of ethic can reason produce? In certain circles it has long been argued that people would not live ethically if they should try to live their lives by reason alone. Such people argue that if you try to live your life by reason alone you will become selfish and immoral. According to this line of thought, people need some kind of impartial spiritual referee who will make sure that everyone plays fair and punishes people who step out of line. Those who argue this way would say that without such a referee, reasonable people will have no incentive to be moral.

Living in an age and nation where religion was still the pillar of society, Spinoza was well aware of such arguments. But he argued that on the contrary, only the reasonable could be truly ethical. As he said in his note on proposition XVIII in chapter 4…..

Note.–In these few remarks I have explained the causes of human infirmity and inconstancy, and shown why men do not abide by the precepts of reason. It now remains for me to show what course is marked out for us by reason, which of the emotions are in harmony with the rules of human reason, and which of them are contrary thereto. But, before I begin to prove my propositions in detailed geometrical fashion, it is advisable to sketch them briefly in advance, so that everyone may more readily grasp my meaning.
As reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands, that every man should love himself, should seek that which is useful to him–I mean, that which is really useful to him, should desire everything which really brings man to greater perfection, and should, each for himself, endeavour as far as he can to preserve his own being. This is as necessarily true, as that a whole is greater than its part. (Cf. III. iv.)
Again, as virtue is nothing else but action in accordance with the laws of one’s own nature (IV. Def. viii.), and as no one endeavours to preserve his own being, except in accordance with the laws of his own nature, it follows, first, that the foundation of virtue is the endeavour to preserve one’s own being, and that happiness consists in man’s power of preserving his own being; secondly, that virtue is to be desired for its own sake, and that there is nothing more excellent or more useful to us, for the sake of which we should desire it; thirdly and lastly, that suicides are weak-minded, and are overcome by external causes repugnant to their nature. Further, it follows from Postulate iv. Part II., that we can never arrive at doing without all external things for the preservation of our being or living, so as to have no relations with things which are outside ourselves. Again, if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself. There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired. Of such none can be discerned more excellent, than those which are in entire agreement with our nature. For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are united, they form a combination twice as powerful as either of them singly.
Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all. Hence, men who are governed by reason–that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason,–desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.
Such are the dictates of reason, which I purposed thus briefly to indicate, before beginning to prove them in greater detail. I have taken this course, in order, if possible, to gain the attention of those who believe, that the principle that every man is bound to seek what is useful for himself is the foundation of impiety, rather than of piety and virtue. Therefore, after briefly showing that the contrary is the case, I go on to prove it by the same method, as that whereby I have hitherto proceeded.

Now all the usual caveats apply as to how it is misleading to quote Spinoza out of context. But in this case I think the biggest risk is that readers of this essay will dismiss what Spinoza has to say out of hand. This danger springs from not reading Ethics in its entirety. If you have spent the time trying to parse Spinoza’s dense and complicated proofs; if you have stopped to ponder what the implications would be if Spinoza was wrong; if you have actually put in the work that understanding Spinoza requires, then you will not lightly dismiss anything he says.

Yet because the conclusions that Spinoza reaches seem so modern, it is easy to assume that it is not worth the time it takes to understand him. Those of us who live in modern society are bombarded by messages that are Spinozan in nature every day. As a result, such messages are more likely to bring out the cynic in us rather than cause us to stop and think. At most, we might find it cool that one who lived so long ago was saying the same thing as modern thinkers.

But we have not dwelt so long on Spinoza because it is cool to hear modern opinions from a Seventeenth centaury man. Rather, we read Spinoza because he could not take anything for granted the way a modern man does. Living in a time when modern society as we now know it was nonexistent, Spinoza had to spell out everything that was necessary for a modern conception of reality and its accompanying ethic. He could not get away with all the unspoken assumptions that underlie so many modern arguments about ethics. When we read Spinoza, we are reading a defense of the modern ethic with all the cards on the table. Thus, what is interesting about Spinoza is not so much the expression of modern ethics quoted above, but the way in which he arrives at that expression of ethics.

As we have said, your conception of reality determines your ethic. If you understand Spinoza’s conception of reality, you will already have good idea of how he arrived at his ethic based on what was quoted above. Nonetheless, there are some key points in Spinoza’s formulation of his ethic that are worth pointing out in greater detail.

One point that is key to Spinoza’s articulation of his ethic is his contention that in order for reality to be reasonable there must be a fixed relation between ideas and the material at some level. We have already touched on this idea to explain how Spinoza and Buddhist thought conflict. But this same idea also serves as the core of Spinoza’s ethical thinking.

For starters, an idea that something exists is necessary to thought. I cannot consider whether I exist or not without first having the idea that there is an I. But since reason requires that everything (even thoughts) be relational, it stands to reason that if the idea of me exists I must also exist bodily. This is because it is not possible under the dictates of reason for an idea to exist independently of anything else. If you can follow this train of reasoning, you can see that it is impossible for anyone to deny their own existence.

At first this seems like a very arguable point. There is nothing to stop me from formulating any number of theories that could explain away my seeming existence. But Spinoza would reply that I could not believe that any of those theories were true. I could say that I did, but as soon as someone kicked me in the kneecap I would demonstrate that I had a deep and profound belief in my own existence.

Spinoza would explain it this way: all of our knowledge of the one substance (and thus reality) springs from other forms of the one substance impacting our bodies. The only reason we can consider the idea that we might not exist is because there are forms of the one substance that cease to exist as far as they impact our body. Rainbows would be a good example of this phenomenon. They exist fleetingly as far as they impact our bodies through our eyes. In other words, the only reason we can even play the devil’s advocate and argue that we do not really exist is that the idea of things not existing is relational to things that occur in the one substance. Thus we can entertain that idea in relation to ourselves.

But even though we can entertain an intellectual position that might imply that we do not really exist, we can never cease to be ruled by the idea that we do exist. In fact, because all of our knowledge of the one substance springs from other forms of the one substance impacting our bodies, we could not even consider the possibility that we did not exist if it were not for the fact that the idea that we did exist was ruling us. This is because it is necessary to have an idea of ourselves in order to have any idea of things impacting our body. To put it crudely, Spinoza argued that as long as we exist, the idea that we exist will always rule us because reason requires it. Conversely, reason requires that as long as the idea that I exist rules myself then I must in fact exist.

That is a very crude way of summarizing Spinoza’s argument and those who are familiar with Ethics will be crying out at the injustice of stating it that way. Indeed, I want to stress the importance of reading Spinoza himself to gain a true understanding of how complex the argument for the necessity of believing that you exist is. But as crude as my formulation of it is, it does bring us to another important point that Spinoza made.

In the process of showing how we come to knowledge of the outside world, Spinoza showed that while your conception of yourself as existing is necessary to thought, your conception of other people as existing is not. In other words, I can think without having any idea of the billions of other people that are out there. Yet I cannot form one single thought if I have no conception of myself.

How then do I come to an idea of other people? By the effect they have on my body. The effect that other people have on my body can come through my eyes, ears, or whatever. But the key point here is that by impacting my body, they must impact my idea of myself. This is because by the dictates of reason my idea of myself must be related to my material body. Therefore anything that impacts my body must impact my idea of myself.

In fact, Spinoza would argue that I don’t really have an idea of other people per se. I just have an idea of how things impact my body. According to Spinoza, I combined those ideas of how things are impacting my body with my conception of myself to form my image of other people. Spinoza goes quite a ways with this argument and it is key to his formulation of the difference between adequate (or true) and inadequate (or false) ideas. But as I have said, we do not need to go into that for the purposes of this essay. It is sufficient to note that according to Spinoza, all of our ideas are in some way founded on modifications of our idea of self.

But there is more to our idea of ourselves than just the idea that we exist and the fact that the idea can be modified. For our idea of ourselves must of necessity be complex (i.e composed of many different forms of the one substance) just as our body is complex. Or we could say that our body must of necessity be complex because our idea of ourselves is complex. However we formulate it, our idea of ourselves is a complex idea with many parts.

But simply saying that reason requires that we must acknowledge our own existences as complex beings does not get us anywhere in terms of our ethics. Ethics is not about debating whether we exist or not but about how we deal with our desires, frustrations, and other such things. But that all changes when we combined our understanding that we exist as complex bodies in reasonable reality with what Spinoza says in Proposition VII (found in chapter three)….

The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.

Now the above might seem hard to understand but if you think about it is obvious. If the substance of all things is the same one substance; what is the essence of the various modifications? It is whatever keeps them in existence as modifications of the one substance. For example, a rock will remain a rock unless outside forces act upon it to change it into something else. Indeed, it will take a considerable amount of outside force to change a rock into something other than a rock. Thus in order to understand what makes a rock a rock, we need to understand what it is that enables a rock to keep its form.

Spinoza argued that reason required that the various forms would persist in being unless acted on by outside forces. After all, reality cannot be reasonable if we have un-relational (or spontaneous) actions for the same reasons that we can not have a god who can create or destroy. In saying this, Spinoza was articulating the reasonable necessity of Newton’s first law of motion.

So how does this all apply to ethics? Well, if you have been keeping in mind the fact that reason requires that all things be relational; and you have also kept in mind what that implies about ideas and material things; then you should be able understand how Spinoza can say that the essence of my idea of myself is the desire to keep on existing. In other words; for the same reason that a reasonable reality requires me to believe that I exist, it also requires me to desire to go on existing.

But we should not understand this desire to go on existing as being anything so crude as the simple statement “I don’t want to die.” Remember that Spinoza said that our idea of ourselves is necessarily complex because our bodies are complex (i.e composed of many different forms of the one substance). By the same token, our desire to go on existing is complex. Through a chain of reasoning that we do not need to go into here, Spinoza arrives at the conclusion that all of our desires spring from this basic desire to exist. Paradoxically, this includes the desires that would lead us to lay down our lives for others as well as the fears that would cause us to commit suicide.

In this Spinoza anticipated modern thought with its emphasis on evolutionary reason for all of man’s desires. For what is more key to the idea of evolution than the idea that all living things are driven to strive to keep on existing through the production of offspring or otherwise? This is not to say that Spinoza anticipated Darwin’s idea of evolution. In fact, Spinoza’s static view of reality is one of his few major differences with modern thought. Nonetheless, Spinoza arrived at an understanding of what drives man that agrees with modern thought simply by the process of trying to prove in geometric fashion what reason required man to be like. Thus, if Spinoza were alive today he would probably note that the demands of evolution and the demands of reason are one and the same.

Because the demands of reason are so in line with the demands of evolutionary theory, anyone who has a good understanding of modern evolutionary explanations of ethics will anticipate much of what Spinoza had so say about an ethic based on reason. Nonetheless, because many people think of evolutionary ethics as being an oxymoron, it is still necessary to sketch out the outlines of what Spinoza thought was a reasonable ethic.

In the first place, there is no such thing as absolute evil and absolute good according to the dictates of reason. Those terms only have meaning in so far as things are displeasing to us or pleasing to us. According to Spinoza, our sense of what is pleasing and what is displeasing is directly related to our desire to go on existing. Since we cannot help desiring to go on existing, we cannot help making moral judgments.

So why do our moral judgments differ so radically if we all desire to go on existing? We have already said our idea of ourselves is a complex one. Therefore, our desire to go on existing is a complex one as well. It drives us in many different directions at once.

The stomach for example, is a quite different form of the one substance than the brain. Because their forms are different, reason requires that their essences are different, for if different forms could have the same essence than what would cause the differences in form? Yet both the stomach and the brain depend on each other to go on existing. Because they both depend on each other to go on existing, we can say that even though they are both separate forms, they are at the same time part of a more complex form with its own essence. From this example, we can say that any forms that are mutually interdependent are part of a larger and more complex form, because their essences are bound up together (the essence of a thing being that which causes it to go on existing).

But just because their essences are bound up together does not mean that all the forms so connected are the same or that their essences always pull in the same direction. For example, imagine that a person’s arm is trapped under a rock. Imagine that there is no hope of rescue. Imagine that there is no hope for this person to get unstuck except to amputate his own arm. In some situations like this, some people are able to amputate their own arm. But other people are unable to make the sacrifice of their arm even though they have the means to do the job and refusal means death.

In such situations you can clearly see how a man’s desire to exist could be pulling him in different directions. A man’s strong desire to exist is what makes him desire to become unstuck. At the same time, man’s reluctance to cut off his own arm also stems from his desire to go on existing. Hence the man who cuts his arm off and lives and the one who cannot bring himself to cut his arm off and dies are both being governed by the desire to go on existing.

If you can accept that, you can understand how it is that Spinoza thought that the desire to go on existing leads people to commit suicide. For the desire to avoid pain is part of our desire to go on existing, but it is also the impetus for committing suicide.

We can see how our desire to go on existing can lead to quite complex problems. Yet these problems only become more complex when we factor in the fact that we are dependent creatures rather than independent creatures. We are not just a complex collections of forms of the one substance that are dependent on each other. We are also dependent on other outside forms to go on existing. We need food, water, shelter, and air at the bare minimum. Thus, it is possible for our desire to go on living to cause us to “love” forms that are not part of the interdependent forms that make up our being.

For example, a man in a desert with only one spring of water will cherish that spring of water as he cherishes himself, even though the spring of water is completely indifferent to his fate. In fact, the man will fight to the death to keep from losing that spring of water, for it would be his death to lose that spring of water.

From the above example, we can see how it as at least possible for the desire to go on existing to cause one to give up one’s life for something that is not part of the interdependent forms that make up one’s self. But we are not all dependent on the same things to the same degree. A modern man who has been raised all his life in a city might very well fight to the death to keep from having to live in an environment that a bushman would feel at home in. In part, this is for the obvious reason that a city man will not have the skills to get food, water, and whatnot in the bush environment. But it is much more than that if you accept Spinoza’s argument.

We are affected in some way by everything that we hear, taste, feel, or see. All of these things affect our body and thus affect our idea of ourselves in some way. What this means is that if the essence of you is the desire to go on existing, it can take more than just food and water and whatnot to fulfill that desire. Take the example of the city man; he will deeply miss the cultural life of the city if he is forced to live in the bush, even if he somehow manages to get enough food and water to keep going. It is possible, therefore, that he could love his culture enough to risk his life for it.

What keeps mankind from bursting apart because of all of this conflicting complexity? Why, reason, of course. Man’s ability to reason is a necessary part of all of mankind’s existence. Only through reason can a man determine how to satisfy his complex desire to go on existing. Even the mentally handicapped must use reason to some degree. The people who are so far gone as to not be able to reason must be kept alive by other reasonable creatures or they will die.

But even after saying that reason is the only thing that keeps man’s complex desires from destroying himself, we have to admit that in many cases those complex desires have destroyed people. Many people overeat even though they know that they are overeating and they don’t want to overeat. Many people have fought over water even when there was enough to go around. Many people have resisted change in their culture even when it was necessary for the culture to change in order for people not to die. In short, many people have done things because of their desire to go on existing that destroyed them or shortened their life by much more than was necessary.

Spinoza felt that all of the above problems stemmed from peoples’ failure to properly value reason. People often don’t bother to reason out things even when they have the ability. They prefer to live by the dictates of their most pressing desire, no matter how this relates to their needs as a whole. Thus, they often harm themselves and others unnecessarily. If you understand that Spinoza felt that anything that hampered man in his basic quest to go on existing had to be considered bad, you will understand why he considered an unreasonable man immoral. Likewise, Spinoza felt that only a person ruled by reason could truly be consider “moral”.

In saying this, Spinoza meant that a reasonable man was the one who could best meet the demands of essence. But drawing on all the points that we have made so far, Spinoza also felt that a reasonable man would strive to better others just as hard as he strove to better himself. This is why Spinoza spelled out is such detail how it was that he thought that things related. He wanted people to understand that because a reasonable man must acknowledge all things as being interrelated he must love all things as much as he loves himself in order to be consistent with reason.

That might seem like it is stretching things, but if you accept the argument so far, you will acknowledge that man is a collection of interdependent forms that depends on relationships with other forms (such as the air we breathe) in order to maintain itself. You will remember that you must also accept that man must desire to go on existing according to the dictates of reason. Now let us go all the way back to the beginning where we said that in order to be reasonable, everything must be relational.

If you can understand that, you should be able to understand that the fact that man is continuously dependent on forms that are independent of himself (such air, food and water) means that mankind is ultimately dependent on all of the one substance. Thus, the more reasonable a man is, the more he will come to see how his idea of himself must relate to all things. If you understand how it is that a man can be said to love a spring of water in the desert you will understand how it is that a perfectly reasonable man must be perfectly selfish and perfectly selfless.

As an example: A man who is not ruled by reason either does not understand or does not consider the harm that comes to him from shooting a man to take his sneakers. A rational man on the other hand, desires everyone to be as well fed and secure as he is, for he understands that in that way he increases his own safety and security. Both the irrational man who desires a pair of shoes and shoots a man for them, and the rational man who desires that everyone be as well fed and secure as he is, are motivated by the desire to go on existing. But we would say that one is immoral because his actions are not properly relational to what his essence requires. On the other hand we call the other man moral, because he understands the relationship between his own essence and the well being of others.

This is a crude example. But hopefully I don’t need to belabor the point. All modern ideologies, from libertarianism to socialism, are based off the premise that a reasonable man will be a moral man. Indeed, it is hard for me to avoided thinking of Ayn Rand’s The virtue of selfishness when Spinoza says….

PROP. XX. The more every man endeavours, and is able to seek what is useful to him–in other words, to preserve his own being–the more is he endowed with virtue; on the contrary, in proportion as a man neglects to seek what is useful to him, that is, to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power.

Indeed, there are many striking parallels between the ethical argument laid out by Rand and the one laid out by Spinoza, for they are both based of off the idea that virtue springs from the reasonable pursuit of man’s own desires. But it is not only the libertarian whose ethic is based off a Spinozan conception of reality. The socialist also argues that a reasonable man will be moral because of self interest. Only a socialist bases his ethic off of Spinoza’s idea that…

Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all.

Thus a socialist argues that reason will cause a man to give up his individual identity because it is in his reasonable selfish interests to do so. A socialist would argue that any man who refuses to do so is ultimately getting in the way of what is best for him. A libertarian on the other hand, will argue that reason will lead us to cherish and defend everyone’s individual identity, because whatever crushes one person’s individual identity ultimately threatens us all.

For what it is worth; Spinoza would have taken a position in between those two extremes. In this, as in so many other things he is a good representative of much of modern thought. But for the purposes of this essay it does not matter where Spinoza falls on the question of the collective vs the individual. What is important to note, though, is that all modern ideologies base their attempts to show how their beliefs are reasonable on the Spinozan idea that there is only one substance and that all things are therefore related. To rephrase that, all modern ideologies are materialistic.

At this point most people will be saying “no duh, what’s your point?” After all, most people would readily acknowledge that modern ideologies are materialistic. So why go through all the work of showing modern ideologies are materialistic? But to ask that question is to miss the point.

The real point is that if you wish reason to be the guide to ethics you can allow for nothing beyond the material. If you allow only reason as a valid guide to ethics you must say that morality is understanding how all things are relational. Moreover, if you assert that morality requires understanding that all things are relational then you must say that religion is immoral. For as we have pointed out previously, religion is the assertion of non-relational things (or irrational things, to use the more common term).

This is particularly true of the Abrahamic faiths. In such faiths, a believer’s reward is non-relational to everyone else’s. Thus, even if no one else is saved, you will still get your golden crown. Even if no one else is righteous you will still get your 72 virgins. By holding such a view, religious people divorce what is good for them from any kind of fixed relationship to other people and the world around them.

Such ideas have consequences. It is quite easy to see those consequences in the Muslim suicide bombers. But such consequences appear even in the better-regarded Christian martyrs.

It tends not be as big an issue in this day and age, but the reasonable Romans used to accuse the early Christians of hating their children. For by their refusal to make any kind of concession to the society around them, early Christians brought about adverse affects on their own children. To many Romans this was immoral, for the concessions that society was demanding were not that great, and the harm that came to your children from refusing was extreme.

After all, no kid wants their parents fed to the lions. It hinders proper childhood development. Thus, even reasonable Romans who might believe that the state’s violence towards Christians was wrong would still think that a Christian’s refusal to compromise was immoral. For how can you justify bringing harm on your children just because you do not wish to make a little sacrifice to the emperor? In other words, even if you are not the direct cause of harm, the relationship between the harm that your decision brings about and the needs of your essences are not proportional. Thus, a reasonable man would say that the early Christian martyrs were immoral.

This is not to say that a reasonable man would say that all atheists are more moral than members of the Abrahamic faiths. There is far more to being reasonable than simply not believing in God. Nonetheless, a man who believes that to be reasonable is to be moral must regard any belief that is not reasonable as immoral. Thus, all the irrational parts of religion, which is to say all of the spiritual parts, must be considered a hindrance to morality, at the very least.

But my intention in writing all this has not been to write a screed against religion. There are enough such screeds out there. Instead, I have been laying out the requirements of reason with a more evil (in the Spinozan sense of word) end view. And since I am not a very rational person, my conscience does not bother me in the least. Though I will confess I wish that I had the talent to have handled Spinoza’s ideas better.

In what I have written so far, I have mangled Spinoza’s carefully constructed arguments by restating them in my own words and with my own examples. Even worse, I put forward my own interpretation of Spinoza without acknowledging that most other readers of Spinoza would differ with me on some points. I have asserted many points that I should have proven in greater detail. And I have ignored many important questions that could have been raised.

But though I would have preferred to do a better job, my intention was not to lay out an airtight case for all that a reasonable reality requires. If you want to read somebody trying to do that, you should read Ethics itself and skip the intermediaries. My intention is more modest. I simply wanted to remind people of the implications of trying to be completely reasonable.

So often we get caught up in debating whether the evidence supports point of view A or point of view B that we forget the implications of the a priori assumption that we are making when we attempt to engage in a reasonable debate. It is often forgotten that reason requires you to think about things in a certain way before you even consider any evidence. It was for the purpose of showing the basis of modern thought apart from all references to evidence that I have drug up Spinoza from the obscurity that he often languishes in.

But though it is necessary for the purposes of this essay to consider the requirements of reason apart from all evidence, we must acknowledge that man is a creature of revelation. If there were no evidence that supported Spinoza’s philosophy nobody would pay any attention to him regardless of how reasonable all his arguments were. But as I have said, science has done much to confirm Spinoza’s conception of reality.

In fact, no other philosopher has so anticipated the finds of science as much as Spinoza has. We could list countless different parallels between Spinoza’s conception of things and current science to demonstrate this. We have already mentioned a few of them, such as the principle of conservation of energy and Newton’s first law of motion. But the greatest vindication of Spinoza’s conception of reality came through the work of Albert Einstein.

It is impossible to read Spinoza’s conception of reality without being constantly reminded of Einstein’s work. Who after all, can read Spinoza’s argument the world is composed of one substance without thinking of Einstein’s famous equation e=mc²? But as big as a vindication for Spinoza as that famous equation was, there are other ways in which Spinoza’s view of the reality finds support in Einstein’s theories. Since Spinoza felt that all things were composed of the same one substance, the only way he could allow for various forms to come about was through relative motion and geometric shape. In other words, the same methods that Einstein used to explain his theories. Take for example Spinoza’s thoughts on time….

Further, no one doubts that we imagine time, from the fact that we imagine bodies to be moved some more slowly than others, some more quickly, some at equal speed.

The similarities between Einstein and Spinoza are not accidental. Long before Einstein published any of the work that made him famous, he was reading Spinoza’s Ethics and he would continue to read it over and over again throughout his life. This is a commonly known fact, and is often used as a starting point by those who wish to explain Einstein’s ethics. But I think that it is obvious that Spinoza influenced more than just Einstein’s ethics. It seems clear that from the very start of his scientific career Einstein was driven by a Spinozan faith.

This explains Einstein’s lifelong horror of any scientific facts that did not seem to be relational and his lifelong endeavors to unify scientific knowledge into a coherent whole. All of the great success that made Einstein so famous resulted from him taking on scientific results that did not seem relational and coming up with a theory that showed that they were in fact relational.

I don’t mean to take any credit away from Einstein or the other scientists who laid the groundwork for Einstein’s success by saying this. Many people have read Spinoza and none of them ever came close to matching Einstein’s achievements. But I can’t help but believe that Spinoza helped spark Einstein’s creativity. After all, Einstein himself said that the secret to being creative was to hide your sources.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, who can deny that Einstein did the most to demonstrate the power of Spinoza’s conception of reality? After all, what proponent of a revealed religion has made as successful a prediction as Einstein’s prediction of how the light of a distant star would behave? What proponent of the revealed religions has ever come up with something as powerful as the atomic bomb? And how did Einstein make his prediction, and how did he lay the theoretical ground work the atomic bomb? Through the power of reason alone. It could be said without too much hyperbole that through the work of Einstein reason has been revealed to be awesome and powerful on a religious scale.

But this essay is not titled “Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason” for nothing. For as true as it is that Einstein’s work is one of the best demonstrations of the power of reason, it is also true that Einstein’s life and times are also one of the best ways to demonstrate the failure of reason.

You see, both Spinoza and Einstein believed in something that was unreasonable. Paradoxically, the irrational thing that they believed in is that reality and reason are equal. Or to put it another way, they failed to realize that the dictates of reason require that truth be greater than reason. To say the same thing in yet another way, reason requires that reality will always seem irrational. In fact, even if our knowledge were to become infinite, reality would still seem irrational. Since we define things by what we know of them, I think we can safely say that reality (or truth) is irrational.

Before we prove this point, let us consider how it is that we might be able to make reasonable statements if reality was irrational. Let us imagine for a moment that reality was in fact irrational. Let us say for example, that rocks really were appearing out of thin air. Now remember that we said that science could tell us nothing if a rock appeared out of thin air?

Strictly speaking this is not quite true. Science could say “a rock appeared out of thin air.” That might not seem like much, but it is a start. If the rocks kept appearing out thin air in identifiable patterns, scientists might be able use those patterns to predict where the rocks would appear. Would that make the appearances of rock out of thin air rational?

Absolutely not. The appearance of rocks out of thin air would never be rational unless we could relate the appearance of those rocks to something. No matter how good scientists got at predicting the times that rocks would appear, the appearance of those rocks would still be irrational.

An educated reader will anticipate that I am going to start talking about Quantum Mechanics and will be groaning at the cheesiness of such an obvious ploy. Let me hasten to assure such a reader that I am well aware that it is cheesy to use Quantum Mechanics to cast aspersions on a reasonable reality. After all, there have been many apparent contradictions throughout the history of science and they have all been resolved by reason. For this reason, I want to take care to point out that the problems with reason do not stem from evidence, but rather from the very nature of reason itself. Nevertheless, I can hardly talk about how science has done much to confirm Spinoza’s view of reality without mentioning Quantum Mechanics, now can I? So bear with me for a bit…

If anyone knows anything about Quantum Mechanics, they know that the reality that it describes is irrational. But for the purposes of this essay, much of the so-called irrational effects of Quantum Mechanics are irrelevant. For example, the biggest problem that bothers scientists about Quantum Mechanics is that it has no relationship to the Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. If the theory that best describes gravity (General Theory of Relativity) has no apparent relationship with the theory that we use to describe everything else (Quantum Mechanics), it makes reality seem irrational. For if reality were rational it also would be relational.

But from a historical viewpoint this phenomenon is not new. Humanity has always had to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the way that it thought about one set of facts and the way it thought about another set of facts. This was always attributed to the fact that humanity lacked complete knowledge. The standard line is that as knowledge increases, humanity’s view of reality will become more rational. Most people would argue that from a historical perspective, having only two theories in major conflict is a great advancement in the overall consistency of humanity’s understanding of reality.

But let us pretend that the General Theory of Relativity goes away. Even if we imagine such a world, Quantum Mechanics still would not be a perfectly reasonable theory. The fundamental problem of Quantum Mechanics is not the weirdness that people tend to get excited about. Rather, the fundamental problem of Quantum Mechanics is that Quantum Mechanics requires that the observer of quantum effects operate under a set of axioms that contradict the axioms that govern the particles that he is observing. In other words, nobody would accept that probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics as being valid if they did not believe that the observer of those effects was a deterministic creature.

As an example of what I am saying, consider a coin toss. It has a 50% probability of coming up with heads, right? Now consider if everything involved in the coin toss was probabilistic. Let us say that there is only a 50% chance that you exist; let us say that even if you do exist that there is only a 50% chance that you will be in the same location for long enough to allow the coin to land; furthermore, let us say that there is only a 50% chance that the coin will not go right through your hand if it manages beat the odds and actually land on it…..

We could go on and on. But the point is that if everything is probabilistic, nothing is remotely probable. In fact, if everything is probabilistic nothing can be known, for even the probabilities of the probabilities of a probabilistic reality will be probabilistic. In other words, unless you have a deterministic foundation to stand on, you cannot define probabilities. Thus, Quantum Mechanic requires an absolutely deterministic background against which to measure the irreducible probabilistic nature of quantum facts.

As we have said, if reality is to be reasonable it must be governed by the same set of axioms in its entirety. But how can the irreducibly deterministic relate to the irreducibly probabilistic if you say that the irreducibly probabilistic is the foundation for all of reality? It is an unsolvable paradox unless you are willing to proclaim that Quantum Mechanics is not a complete description of reality.

The only problem with doing that, is that there is no evidence that would allow one to claim that Quantum Mechanics is not a complete description of what goes on at the quantum level. This was the part that really bothered Einstein. He could accept that Quantum Mechanics was an improvement in human knowledge. What he could not accept was that it was a complete description of reality. Therefore he turned his considerable brain power towards thinking up ways of demonstrating that Quantum Mechanics could not possibly be a complete theory. But as everyone knows, other scientists demonstrated that Quantum Mechanics provided the answer to every one of the problems that Einstein came up with.

In spite of this, and in spite of the opinions of most other scientists, Einstein resolutely refused to concede that Quantum Mechanics could possibly be a complete description of reality. To do so would have required him to give up his Spinozan faith in a reasonable reality. But he fully admitted that he had no evidence on which to base his faith that a better alternative to Quantum Mechanics would be found. Einstein even made fun of himself on that point, saying

“I cannot base this conviction on logical reasons — my only witness is the pricking of my little finger.”

The prickling of Einstein’s little figure may yet prove correct. Certainly, many people think seem to think that String theory or some other mathematical theory will provide a better answer. On the other hand, others are now starting to argue that String theory is nothing but religion dressed up as science because there is no realistic way of testing it.

But for the purposes of this essay it does not really matter. For even if a new theory that is regarded as better in some way by scientists manages to come along, it will still be inconsistent with itself just like Quantum Mechanics. Moreover, Quantum Mechanics is not the only scientific theory that is inconsistent with itself. Although most people do not seem to realize it, the classical understanding of physics is just as irrational as Quantum Mechanics. In other words, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity suffers from the same problem as Quantum Mechanics. In fact, all theories that try to describe reality in a reasonable (i.e. mathematical) way must necessarily be irrational or incomplete. To understand why this is so, we must turn to Einstein’s good friend Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel is one of the most influential mathematicians ever. He proved a number of theorems that are critical to the modern understanding of mathematics and all that other good stuff. But the only accomplishment of his that concerns this essay is the fact that he proved the incompleteness theorems. As stated in their original proofs, you would need to have a good grasp of higher mathematics to understand these theorems. But they have been paraphrased into plain English for the rest of us. Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem is sometimes stated as….

For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, it is possible to construct an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory. That is, any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete

Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem is even more paradoxical and can be stated as saying…

If an axiomatic system can be proven to be consistent and complete from within itself, then it is inconsistent. (emphasis put there by the web site I am quoting)

These theorems may seem hard to believe as stated, but they have been mathematically proven. Of course, saying that does not help those of us who lack higher math skills, but who are inclined to distrust authority. But while it is impossible for those who lack higher math skills to understand the proof, I think that it is possible for us to come to some degree of understanding of how Gödel came up with his theorems.

For starters, you need to remember that reason requires statements that are assumed to be true (axioms). It is only when you have assumed something to be true that you can make deductions. If you think about the necessary contrast in reason between assuming things are true and proving things to be true (making deductions), I think you will begin to understand how it is that reason has limitations. That limited understanding is a long way from proving that reason has its limitations like Gödel did. But once you understand that there is a necessary paradox at the very heart of reason between assuming and proving, it will be easier to swallow that fact that Gödel could prove something as paradoxical as his theorems.

Now, if you understand the implications of those theorems, you understand that every scientific theory must be either incomplete or inconsistent. You cannot escape this problem even by coming up with exotic theories like the Many Worlds Theory, because Gödel proved that his theorems were true even if you tried to construct a theory with an infinite number of axioms. The only way you can escape the problem is if you avoid formulating your theories in a scientific (i.e. reasonable) manner.

To state the above in a somewhat more correct manner; if you construct a series of axioms (i.e. scientific theory) that is capable of generating statements (i.e. predictions) that can be checked against all the axioms of your theory for consistency, your theory will be either incomplete or inconsistent.

How can the study of pure math dictate what physics can hope to accomplish? If you have been following the argument so far, the answer should be obvious. You cannot have advanced physics without math (i.e. advanced reason). The fact that physics is a rational exercise necessarily means that physics cannot exceed the bounds put on it by reason. What Gödel proved was that reason itself has limits, thus those limits must bind all truly reasonable exercises.

When Gödel first presented these theorems and their accompanying proof, it stunned the mathematical world. The implications of Gödel’s proofs are still being discussed in mathematical circles today. But strangely, Gödel’s theorems do not seem to have made that big of a splash in scientific circles. Stephen Hawking has done some public musing on their implications for physics, but other than that nobody else of note in physics seems to have paid Gödel’s theorems much mind. This is puzzling, for how can physics hope to come up with some mathematically complete and consistent theory that describes everything, when mathematicians say that such a thing is not possible?

Probably a large part of this silence on the part of physicists on the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems for physics stems from the fact that a Spinozan faith dominates the sciences (particularly physics). That is not to say that most scientists study Spinoza the way that Einstein did. Heck, most of them probably don’t even know who Spinoza is. But even though they may not have heard of Spinoza, scientists overwhelmingly believe that reason is equal to reality. That is to say, they believe that reality can be defined and explained in a complete and consistent manner.

But to hold this belief, scientists must ignore the implications of their own theories as well as the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. In fact, scientific theories have pointed to the irrational nature of reality since the first truly scientific theories were formulated. The only thing that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems have added to the previous indications of an irrational reality was proof that these indications of irrationality derived from the reasonable process itself and not from a lack of information (or axioms). Thus, you will pardon the cynical observation that it is easy for scientists to ignore the implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems when they have had so much practice ignoring the implications of their own theories.

Spinoza was as guilty of ignoring the irrational implications of his own theory as any modern scientists. You will remember that Spinoza anticipated many scientific discoveries remarkably well. In fact, it could be argued that the only major findings of classical physics that Spinoza failed to anticipate in some way were the finite nature of the universe as a dynamic object and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Spinoza’s failure to anticipate these two findings did not stem from any flaw in his conception of reality as being composed of one substance. Rather, the failure to anticipate those findings of science stemmed from Spinoza’s unwillingness to deal with his conception of the one substance in a consistent manner.

You will remember that Spinoza said that the only way that the one substance could differentiate itself was through motion. But you will also remember that Spinoza said that motion could not happen without cause. So what caused the motion in Spinoza’s rational conception of reality? Spinoza tried to say that the causes of that motion were infinite. In other words, Spinoza would argue that you could never go back to a time where there was no motion. But this is not possible according the dictates of reason.

If reason requires that reality be relational, it also requires that motion anywhere be transmitted everywhere. Since reason requires that motion not occur without a cause, motion in the system cannot increase. Since no two objects in a relational system can have a completely exclusive relationship anymore than an object can only be related only to itself, and since motion cannot increase, then motion throughout the relational system must become constant and thus there will be no differentiation in the substance. Once a relational (reasonable) system gets to the point where motion is constant (equilibrium), it can never get out of it because new motion cannot happen. Since Spinoza’s system must necessarily have an end point, it must necessarily have a beginning. But that is irrational because motion cannot happen without cause.

Spinoza would argue that I am assuming a finite system. He would say that if you acknowledge the one substance and the motion that differentiates it to be infinite you would not have this problem. But you cannot have a relational system where the one substance or motion can be considered infinite and at the same time say the relational nature of that infinite system is finite. In other words, such a system must be infinitely relational. If the one substance is infinitely relational, motion can never differentiate the one substance because an infinitely relational system will always act as one whole. Thus, the one substance must be finite if it is to be differentiated.

We can see that if Spinoza had been consistent with his own axioms he would have traced out the outlines of modern classical physics. But if Spinoza had been consistent with his own axioms he would have been inconsistent with his own axioms because he would have had to say the universe started without cause. That is to say; he would have to say that the universe started irrationally. In other words, in Spinoza’s carefuly constructed argument we can see Gödel’s incompleteness theorems at work.

Of course, classical physics suffers from the same problem. That is why I say that Einstein’s theories (which are just the culmination of classical physics) are just as irrational as Quantum Mechanics. For Einstein’s theories say that the cosmos will move towards and arrive at equilibrium. But Einstein’s theories also say that nothing can move the cosmos out of equilibrium once it arrives at that place. Again the universe must necessarily be finite. So you can think of Einstein’s theories as being complete since they perfectly predict what they are suppose to predict, but inconsistent because they are assuming something that cannot have happened without contradicting Einstein’s theories.

Problems like these have been a used as a “proof” that God exists from the beginning of the scientific era. This has always made those who hold a Spinozan faith very angry. They have always argued that the fact that inconsistencies exist in our current scientific understanding does not prove that God exists. They argue that the idea of God is irrational and you cannot prove the irrational. Moreover they would say that we have always found explanations for the irrational (i.e. things thought to be caused by God) in the past. Thus, they say that to invoke God to explain something is to destroy science/reason.

If those of the Spinozan faith would just stick to saying that you cannot prove the irrational, they would be right. The fact that scientific theories are inconsistent no more proves that God exists than they prove that a pink elephant with wings exists. But they are wrong to believe that the march of science/reason leads to a more consistent view of reality. Instead, the march of science/reason just brings the fundamental irrationality of reality/reason into clearer focus.

As a kind of crude example of what I am saying: Say you threw a rock into calm water. Now say that after a while the water has become perfectly calm again. Now let us say that you start to apply reason to the implications of this fact. At first, you will find that the idea that the water becomes calm again is perfectly reasonable. But the more that you ponder the implications of that, the more you wonder where you got the energy to throw the rock in the first place. After all, if the pond returns to equilibrium after it has been disturbed, why isn’t the whole of reality in equilibrium? In a similar manner, the more science tries to explain things, the more it becomes clear that things are fundamentally unexplainable.

So is it reasonable to believe in God or not? Strictly speaking, the question is absurd. Reason depends on statements that are assumed to be true (i.e axioms). Thus, all you need to do to make the idea of God reasonable is to construct the necessary set of axioms. But here is the catch: According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, the more reasonable you make your idea of God, the more your idea of God is going to be inconsistent and incomplete.

To state this more formally, if you can construct a series of axioms about God that can generate statements that can be checked for consistency by your series of axioms, then your idea of God is incomplete or inconsistent. Thus, the only way you can keep your idea of God from being inconsistent or incomplete is to avoid having a reasonable idea of God.

This is the very way that Spinoza proved that the idea of God was unreasonable. He showed in great detail that all attempts to reasonably explain God’s nature were inconsistent or incomplete. Since being inconsistent or incomplete is contrary to the idea of God, Spinoza said that if you believed in God your belief must necessary be unreasonable.

A lot of people thought that Spinoza landed devastating blows on the idea of God. But if you have been following the argument so far, you will understand that the same thing that can be said about God can also be said about reason itself. Or rather, the same problems that hold true if you try to use reason to explain God in a detailed manner also hold true if you try to use reason to explain anything in a detailed manner. Shall we say that people who use reason to try to explain reality (i.e. scientists) are irrational? In other words, you can not rule out the idea of God on the grounds that it is unreasonable as Spinoza tried to do without ruling out every reasonable explanation of anything.

It is for reasons like this that people like to think that we should divide ourselves into two parts; the irrational/religious part and the rational/scientific part. This is the God-as-grease theory. It is embraced by people who want a reasonable, clockwork-like world but are aware of the problems inherent in such a world. They would say that the answer to such problems is to recognize that the clockwork reality needs a little lubrication. According to this theory, whenever the inconsistent nature of reason gets too bothersome, invoke “God,” but otherwise don’t worry your pretty little head about coming up with a theory that reconciles your scientific views with your religious views.

The problem with the God-as-grease theory is that your axioms dictate what you can think. If there is nothing that limits the axioms that people can use then there is nothing to limit what they can think. To understand why this is a problem, let us perform a thought experiment…

Let us say that there is a man for whom the belief that God is all powerful is axiomatic. Let us further say that for this man, it is also axiomatic that an all powerful God has made it impossible for humanity to go to the moon. Now, how could you use reason to convince this man to believe that it was possible to go to the moon? If you took him to people who said they had been to the moon, our subject would have to say that those people were either lying or deluded. In this he would be perfectly reasonable because his axioms would require such a belief. If you showed him pictures, this man would say that the pictures were fake. Again the man would be reasonable because that is what his axioms would require. Even if you forced the man to take a ride with you to the moon itself and left him there to die of lack of oxygen that man still would not believe that it was possible to go to moon right up to point of death. And he would die a reasonable man.

We will not just pick on the religious. Let us assume that God exists. Let us assume that there is a man for whom the belief that there is no God is axiomatic. Short of supernaturally changing the man’s axioms, what could God do to convince this man that he existed? Anything that God did to convince this man that he existed would just make the man think that he was having a mental breakdown. If God came down out of heaven and whacked him over the head with the Ten Commandments our axiomatic atheist would just believe that the resulting headache was just part of his mental breakdown. If God came down and handed him a book that told him all the major events that would happen in the next year, it still would not change our friend’s mind. Even if he became convinced that book really told him the future he would just think that somebody from the future had a time machine and was messing with him.

The above examples are overly simplistic. We humans are not such simple creatures that we can get away with just having one or two axioms. On the contrary, we tend to have lots and lots of axioms. Thus, in true reasonable debate we try to show that our opponent’s axioms contradict each other. But why should our opponents should care if their axioms contradict each other or not? After all, classical physics contradicts itself and we keep right on using it to explain things. So why should our opponent give up any of their axioms? More to the point, since our reasonable theories must necessarily contradict themselves, what ground do we have to stand on and cast stones?

This is why reasonable debates so rarely accomplish anything useful. We might be willing to give up axioms that don’t mean much to us. But any axiom that we truly believe in we will keep even if it contradicts other axioms we might hold. An astronomer is not going to give up classical physics just because it happens to be inconsistent. Classical physics simply predicts things too well for him to discard it just because the theory says that the universe cannot start moving for no reason and then turns around and assumes that it does just once. The same thing could be said for a deeply religious person. If they are willing to be tortured and killed for their beliefs, they are not going to give them up just because they are a little inconsistent.

One might argue that to say this is to make a false equivalence. Classical physics predicts things. In fact, it predicts things pretty much perfectly on the cosmic level, notwithstanding its internal contradictions. What has religious beliefs ever predicted? Who builds planes off of their religious beliefs?

This is a perfectly valid point. But you should consider the implications of what you are saying when you advance that point.

To say that physics is superior to religious belief because it predicts things is to say that pure reason cannot justify itself. Reason needs proof for its conclusions to be considered true. By proof, we do not mean a reasonable (i.e. mathematical) proof. Rather, by proof we mean a sensory revelation. This is what keeps the sciences from being equivalent to mathematics. In mathematics, you don’t need any sensory revelations.

But once you have said that sensory revelations are necessary to justify reason you have let the cat out of the bag that Spinoza strove so hard to keep closed. For sensory revelations are used by the mystics and the religious to justify their beliefs. You might jump up and down and yell that religious revelation is totally different from the sensory revelation that justifies sensory facts. But once you have said that pure reason is not sufficient to prove truth, you don’t have any way to prove that that the two types of revelation are different. You can try to calmly show that scientific revelation is a revelation that is available to all and can be cross-checked by everyone’s senses and thus is the only legitimate proof of facts.

Strictly speaking, this is not true. People with severe physical or mental handicaps cannot prove many things for themselves. But minor quibbles aside, point granted.

But so what? Do you expect people to allow your axiom that only group revelation is a proper justifier of truth to govern their axioms? Remember, the reason that you demanded sensory revelation in the first place was because pure reason was not sufficient.

In other words, you will never be able to prove to the insane that they are insane. The thing that makes people insane is not that they lack the brains to reason, but that their sensory experiences are totally different from the rest of us. Because their sensory experiences are so different, their axioms are different. And as we have already seen, you can’t reason people out of their axioms.

Truly religious people are the same as the insane. They feel strongly enough about whatever feelings (or sensory revelation) that create their religious beliefs so that such beliefs are axioms for them. In other words, their sensory experiences have created their beliefs, not their ability to reason. As one Christian song writer said, “I did not make it, no, it is making me.”

But you should not feel superior to those poor insane religious folk, because every single human being is truly religious. That is to say; every single one of us depends on special revelation for our ethics.

By special revelation, I mean sensory experiences that are not available to everyone the way that scientific facts are. Now we only need to prove this for a very small percentage of the population. After all, most people are admittedly religious in some way. That leaves only the atheist and the agnostics as people who will try to claim that they have no special revelation. But where does an atheist/agnostic get his ethic?

Let us start out with the simplest case. Let us say that an atheist/agnostic has no ethics to speak of. In other words, they believe that anything that they want to do is the right thing to do no matter how much it harms other people. If you think about it, you will see that this is a form of special revelation. The selfish man is basing his ethic off of something that is only available to him, namely his own pleasure.

Now let us say that an atheist/agnostic believes in the Spinozan idea that everyone is interrelated and you should base your ethic off of what is going to be good for everyone. But how will you prove what is good for everyone?

Why through the sciences, of course. But the sciences only talk about the effects of things, they do not label them as good or bad. In order to say that the sciences prove that something is good for everyone you must get everyone to agree on what “good” means. Since you can’t, you must fall back on your own personal feelings (or special revelations) to define what is good or bad. In other words, you are depending on special revelation.

It was because of problems like this that Spinoza sought to lay the ground work for a reasonable explanation of reality that was consistent and complete. Spinoza knew that it was only through such a theory that you can say through reason alone (with no reference to revelation) that is unreasonable to believe certain things or to have certain ethics. In other words, it is only when you can come up with a complete and consistent explanation of reality that you can have a morality that is independent of special revelation. But as we have already shown, there is no possible way of coming up with such a theory.

It is for this reason that many people like to display their intellectual sophistication by saying that “we can’t know anything for sure.” This has the dual advantage of seeming to be an intelligent thing for oneself to say while at the same time saving oneself from the necessity of thinking.

But as a practical matter, we cannot truly believe this statement anymore than we can truly believe that we do not really exist. There will always be times when our private revelation requires us to say that something is wrong. For example, those who say that we cannot say anything for sure are at the forefront of those who are sure that religious fundamentalism is wrong.

When we started this essay, we started out talking about society. And all the things that we have been saying in this essay really only have relevance insofar as we apply them to society. For if we only consider ourselves as individuals, the fact that we depend on special revelation does not matter. It is only when we consider how we should try to interact with other people that the problems start to arise. This is particularly true if our special revelation leads us to desire a reasonable society.

Obviously, the meaning of “reasonable society” is dependent on the axioms that you use to define it. But I think we all generally agree that a reasonable society is one in which force is not used to change peoples’ beliefs. But figuring out how to create and maintain such a society is a tricky proposition. It is clear that some beliefs would destroy a reasonable society if they ever came to dominate a society. But how do we prevent such beliefs from coming to power?

The typical answer is that we will use reason to convince people with “bad” beliefs that they are wrong. But we have shown the limitations of reason to change people’s axioms.

This was a problem that Albert Einstein faced with the rise of Nazi Germany. Because of his Spinozan beliefs, Albert Einstein was a pacifist. But because of the rise of Nazi Germany, Einstein advocated the creation of an atomic weapon whose creation was based off his own theories. Surely it is one of the great ironies of life that the most deadly weapons in history were created from the theories of, and at the urging of, a pacifist.

But this irony is intrinsic to the very nature of a reasonable society. If you say that you must never use force against an idea that will destroy a reasonable society until the proponents of that idea actually start to use force to implement their ideas, then you are saying that a reasonable society could theoretically sit back and allow a bad idea to get strong enough that a reasonable society would not be able to use force to defend itself.

It is for this reason that some people argue that if we are to preserve a reasonable society we must not tolerate certain axioms even if they are not a current threat. For example, Richard Dawkins argues that no one should be allowed to teach their children any religious beliefs because he believes that those beliefs are intrinsically threatening to a reasonable society.

But leaving aside the question of why religious ideas are more of a threat to a society than atheistic ideas, it seems to me that the only thing that makes a reasonable society different from all other societies is that it will tolerate ideas that are dangerous to it. No society uses force to crush ideas that are not considered dangerous. But only a reasonable society will tolerate ideas that it does consider dangerous. Thus to say that a reasonable society should not tolerate ideas that it considers dangerous is to say it should become like a theocracy.

If the issue were not complicated enough, most people who advocate a reasonable society argue that force should be used to prevent people from practicing certain beliefs. To take an extreme example, there are some people who would use historical facts to argue that adults having sex with a child is not harmful and should be allowed. But most people who believe in a reasonable society will argue that should not be allowed.

That idea that adults should be allowed to have sex with children is easy to dismiss. But it is the idea that a reasonable society should not allow harmful things to be done to children that allow Dawkins to argue that a reasonable society should not allow parents to teach kids their religious beliefs. Dawkins’ position is a natural result of believing that a reasonable society will see that children are not harmed and that religion is dangerous to a reasonable society.

Most readers of this essay will hopefully agree that it would destroy a reasonable society to use force to implement Dawkins’ ideas. Thus, we can see that even ideas from people who desire to preserve a reasonable society can be dangerous to a reasonable society. So then how do you preserve a reasonable society without turning it into something other than a reasonable society?

This is an age-old question. Most of the time this question is phrased in the context of some threat from evil religious fundamentalists, evil communists, or evil Nazis. But if you have understood this essay, you will understand that the root problem facing a reasonable society is the nature of human reason itself. We are all religious fundamentalists who cling with a blind faith to our axioms.

The great failure of reason is that it can never change that fact.

The Aesthetic of Despair


The Aesthetic of Despair


Is despair an excellence or a defect? Purely dialectically, it is both. The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, for it indicates infinite sublimity that he is spirit. Consequently, to be able to despair is an infinite advantage, and yet to be in despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination.

Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death


Despair has a beauty all it own. Most terrible things do. But for some reason, most people don’t think much about despair’s aesthetic side. Yet despair’s awful beauty can be seen in the arts that it has inspired. The architecture that springs from despair is awesome in the full sense of the word. Paintings that have been inspired by despair can hardly be called pretty, and yet your eye is drawn to them. You cannot look away. Books inspired by despair are awful to read and yet still such books are ranked as some of the best books that have ever been produced. In all of these works of art, despair is the source of their great artistic power. It is what drove the artists and it is what gives their work such power to stir our own feelings. The aesthetic power of despair is so great that for many people it is the only source of real beauty that they know.

Goths are a fine example of a subculture where despair is the guiding aesthetic principle. But the Goths raise an interesting question: if despair truly has a beauty, how come so many people fail to see a pleasing aesthetic in Goth culture? Few people besides the Goths themselves see any beauty in people who paint themselves in black and white. They can not comprehend why people would exchange their flesh for metal. It horrifies them that the Goths cut themselves as a form of emotional release. The cumulative horror of the Goth subculture bewilders outsiders and leaves them wondering what could possible cause a human being to want to be part of such a subculture. Where is the beauty in the Goth aesthetic?

In order to properly explore such a question, we must first make a distinction between what is pretty and what is beautiful. A model walking down a runway is pretty; a disabled child overcoming great obstacles to take a few steps is beautiful. To be truly beautiful, to truly move someone, something must have meaning. To be pretty, something must only please the senses. Something can please the senses without having any meaning, but at the same time, something can be displeasing to the senses and yet still be beautiful. This distinction between beauty and prettiness is what divides high and low art. Low art is what is designed solely to please the senses; wildly popular for time, then it fades away. High art is what aspires to have meaning though it is often not pleasing to the senses. But to those for whom it has meaning it is far more beautiful than low art and they preserve it for the ages.

Going back to the Goths, we can now rephrase our question; what is it about the Gothic subculture that has meaning for some people? The answer is all too easy to see if you look at the wider culture that the Gothic subculture springs from. After all, the pop culture’s aesthetic is based on vanity, fakery, and delusion; whatever word you think best describes the pop culture’s aesthetic, the inescapable truth is that the aesthetic of pop culture is by design meaningless. In part you can see this in the aesthetic of personal looks, which is all about faking things you don’t have and pretending to be things that you are not. But perhaps the archetype of the meaninglessness of pop culture is the action movie. Standard parts of this movie are portrayals of sacrificial love and battling evil. Yet you know that artists and writers of the movies would deny that the word “evil” has any real meaning or that there is any meaningful distinction between love and lust. Such a movie is meant only to distract us from the real world, where right and wrong is ambiguous, and there is no love that can be relied upon. If you want to see a movie that has real meaning, one that has truth in it, it is going to be one full of despair. But one does not need to rely only on movies to prove this point; the same can be said of most of today’s popular culture. The only real thing in this culture’s art is the despair; everything else is meaningless by design.

What is fake cannot have meaning. What is without meaning cannot have beauty. Is it any wonder that the Goths fail to see any beauty in the aesthetic of a culture that pressures them to try to look either older than they are or younger than they are so that they might find someone who will offer them fake love? By embracing the look of death the Goths are embracing the one thing that they know to be real. Their look is testifying to each other and to the world that they are not striving after any fake things, no matter how pretty they might seem. Even when they are cutting themselves the Goths are only being more real than the rest of their modern compatriots. After all, as long as cutting oneself is done in moderation it is no more harmful than drugs, alcohol, food, or the many other ways that people use to deal with their despair. Cutting oneself is just a more honest way of destroying oneself in despair than those who mask the fact that they are destroying themselves with temporary pleasure.

But why embrace despair as a governing aesthetic even if nothing else has meaning? Why not take the pleasure that can be found in the merely pretty things? Even if prettiness is meaningless, surely it is better then dwelling on the despair that all humans feel at some time or another. But to a man who is thirsting for meaning, the merely pretty things are like salt water to a man who is dying for lack of water. Pretty things only serve to increase the torment of such a man. The prettiness merely serves to sharpen the hunger for the beautiful. Better, if you hunger for meaning, to wallow in the real despair than to be tormented by the fake pretty. As Dylan Thomas said in the last stanza of his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night……

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This is the summation of the Goth aesthetic. This is the summation of anyone whose aesthetic sense recognizes only despair as having any meaning: the desire to be blessed with real tears rather than a pretty facade put over something horrible. Even if the blessing of the real tears serves only to highlight the curse that they live under, it is still better than putting a fake smile on the face of death.

The idea that real face of death is better than death with a fake smile on its face is not an argument that can be made with logic or un-made with logic. It is purely an aesthetic choice. The fact that such a choice must be made on aesthetic grounds reveals how critical our perception of beauty is not only to our judgment of art, but how we seek to live our lives. This is why good art is so meaningful to humans.

Our sense of aesthetics is so important to how we live our lives that it can sometimes even trump our sense of what we need to do to survive and prosper. There have been countless starving artists throughout history who demonstrate on the most basic level that this is true. But the idea that there is a fundamental conflict between people’s sense of aesthetics and their sense of what is necessary to survive and prosper in life has broader application than the lives of a few talented people willing to suffer almost anything for their art.

It is around the conflict of the pragmatic versus that which is aesthetically pleasing that Aldous Huxley’s book The Brave New World turns. As every reasonably well-read person knows, the Brave New World is all about a perfect world where everyone is pretty, no one is unhappy, and everyone has as much sensual pleasure as they could possibly want. But we are meant to understand that this world is a horrible world. We are meant to be horrified by the teaching of children from an early age to engage in meaningless sexual activity. We are meant to understand that such a world has sacrificed everything of real meaning. We are meant to understand that in such a world there is no faith, hope, or love. And if we should be so dense as to fail to pick up on any of this, characters are introduced as the book progress to pound these themes into our head. The culmination of the book is a debate between the Savage, who is horrified by the Brave New World, and the scientifically minded Controller.

The Savage’s argument against the utopia was based on aesthetics. The root of his argument was that there was no longer anything that could be considered truly beautiful in the Brave New World because nothing was meaningful anymore. Shakespeare was the weapon that the Savage relied upon to make his case. Using the bard’s eloquent language, the Savage sought to invoke all the beautiful things that had been destroyed to make the Brave New World. He sought to make the Controller understand that the price that had been paid for the Brave New World was far too high. The Savage argued that, far from being a utopia, the Brave New World was in fact a type of hell. The Savage felt that the absence of beauty made life not worth living.

Controller’s counter-argument was based on the pragmatic. The Controller demonstrated that all the things the Savage accused him of destroying: chastity, heroism, love–were all sources of unhappiness and grief. What good is a mother’s love for her child, if all that it accomplishes in the end is to give her uncontrollable grief at the death of her child? What good is chastity, if it must be accompanied by unsatisfied hungering and jealous rages? To be sure, the Controller’s choice eliminates all that is truly beautiful, but it also eliminates all that is truly ugly as well. For the Controller this is a price worth paying, because to him the highest demand that humans have is the pragmatic. The desire for shelter, health, pleasure, and other basic animal wants are what sensible humans strive to take care of above all else.

If the Savage’s argument against the Brave New World can be boiled down to a powerful and moving accusation that nothing beautiful remained in the Brave New World, the Controller’s counter-argument can be boiled down to an equally powerful and devastating question: what good is the search for meaning if, in the end, it must always go unsatisfied? To paraphrase the Controller, it would be one thing if you could show that the search for meaning (and thus beauty) would ultimately end in happiness. Than maybe you could argue that the search for meaning might be worth the pain. But all of human nature and human history serves to show that the human search for meaning is one that is doomed to futility and is one of the primary causes of human pain. To the Controller, the Savage is trying to stop human progress, for human progress is all about eliminating unpleasantness and maximizing human pleasure. As the Controller demonstrates, the hunger and search for meaning must be gotten rid of in order to achieve those goals. And if you get rid of meaning, you must also get rid of beauty.

It is far better to read the back-and-forth between the Savage and the Controller than any dry recapitulation of the debate. Most educated people are already familiar with Huxley’s book anyway. But often, those same educated people do not seem to realize that the Savage lost the argument. They might remember that the Controller reduced the Savage in the latter part of the debate to someone who was demanding the right to be unhappy. But this demand people have often chosen to spin as a heroic demand for freedom instead of the admission of defeat that it is. They fail to see that the reason that the Controller is so willing to grant the Savage his right to be unhappy, is that he was confident that the Savage will use this right to prove the Controller correct in the most final way possible. In this the Controller is correct, for the last chapter of the book describes how the Savage proceeds to demonstrate the futility of his hope.

In the book, the aftermath of the debate has the Savage retreating to a secluded place where he attempts to drive out of himself all of the animal desires that made him want to go back to the Brave New World…made him want to go back and look for the woman that he loved (or thought that he could love, hoped that he loved, hoped that he had a love in him that was more than just lust) that he knew would never love him. The Savage wanted to prove that his view of what was beautiful could sustain him. He wanted to prove that he could overcome himself and make himself meaningful. To that end, he sought to punish his body by denying it any kind of easy comfort. From there he went on to self-flagellating, and from there to suicide. The Savage’s end serves as a type of vindication of the Controller’s argument that the search for meaning is pointless, even as the aesthetic sense that rules the book makes the Savage seem beautiful even in his despair.

In the terms of this essay, Huxley has the Savage reject the meaningless prettiness of the Brave New World, only to have him embrace the aesthetic of the Goth. For the Savage, the search for meaning ended up being meaningless. The only real things that the Savage could grasp were pain and death. What made the Savage Gothic is that even as despair was overwhelming him he still preferred the despair to the empty prettiness of the Brave New World. Our sense of aesthetics, not our sense of what is smart, is what leads us to sympathize with the Savage. What Huxley did in the Brave New World was to cause people to make a judgment on what type of society is right for man based on our aesthetic sense, not on what is practical. What is more, he brings us to a point where we are willing to say that a life that is based on (and destroyed by) despair is more beautiful than life based on a permanent high of meaningless pleasure. Huxley brings us to the place were we can see beauty in an aesthetic of despair.

It is this part of the book that many people have problems with. They cannot help but be sympathetic to the Savage even as he kills himself. In fact they are so sympathetic that they are often angry that Huxley did not give the Savage a better choice. They are not content with the fact the Savage’s despair makes him more beautiful than the Controller. They want Huxley to make it so that the Savage is proved right logically as well. They want the accusation of the Controller, that the search for meaning itself is meaningless, proved wrong.

It is not only some readers who don’t like the fact that the Controller is vindicated. Aldous Huxley himself was not happy with the way he ended the Brave New World. He later said that if he could write it all over again, he would have given the Savage a saner choice. But I don’t really think that Aldous Huxley could have truly given his book any different of an ending and still been true to his own vision. Huxley had the Savage commit suicide because Huxley could find no hope for the Savage. He could find no hope for Savage because he could not find fulfillment for the hunger that the Savage had. And hunger without fulfillment is always destructive in the end. Thus, for Huxley to change the ending of the Brave New World, he would have had to give the Savage a fake hope. That would have destroyed the beauty of the book, for what is fake cannot be meaningful.

For the rest of his life, Huxley looked for an answer that would allow him to refute the Controller logically as well as aesthetically. He was so desperate to find an answer that he turned to LSD and other drugs, even though he knew them to be very dangerous. It was his own way of destroying himself in an effort to defeat the Brave New World. But Huxley was unable to find a saner choice for himself, much less for his imaginary creation the Savage. Just as the Savage died in a desperate attempt to escape all that was in himself that made the Brave New World so deadly, so too did Huxley take LSD one last time in a desperate attempt to transcend his own limitations and find a way to refute the Controller.

It is the sheer meaninglessness of such despair that causes some people to take the Controller’s argument and run with it. They would try to deny that even despair has any meaning. They would say that the despair of the Goths can be fixed with therapy or pills that correct the bio-chemical imbalances in their brains. They seem to feel that despair is a temporary aberration in the human condition caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. They would argue that unless you correct these problems, it is impossible for anyone to find meaning in anything. For them, meaning can be reduced to the correct bio-chemical mix. With the correct bio-chemical balance in our brains, meaning can be found in everything. But such belief rests on two very dubious pillars. First, that you can equate depression with despair. The second is that you can have meaning without having despair.

To confuse depression with despair is like confusing pain with damage to your body. You can treat pain. You can even do away with pain, but then you would have a condition like leprosy. Any medical student knows that pain is a fundamentally good thing that alerts us to problems. The fact that pain sometimes needs to be treated does not mean that we want to do away with it. The same thing could be said about depression. When we are depressed we feel that things lack meaning or worth. When we despair of something, we intellectually understand that something is without meaning. That intellectual understanding does not necessarily have to coincide with depression, any more than someone who has just broken their back needs to feel pain to know that there is something seriously wrong. But depression drives us toward things that have meaning, just as pain drives us to avoid things that are dangers to us, or hunger drives us to eat. The fact that we can intellectually understand that we need to eat, or that some things are dangerous to us, does not do away with the fact that it would be unwise for us to take away from our bodies the ability to feel hunger or to be depressed. That fact that we can suppress our desire for meaning does not mean that it is wise to do so, even if the hunger for meaning can make our lives very unpleasant. Take the proverbial man who, at the end of his life, wishes that he had not spent so much time at the office. Was the fact that he managed to keep himself so busy that he did not have time to be “depressed” and consider the meaning of what he was doing, really of benefit to him in long run?

The idea that depression is a necessary part of human need for meaning is counter-intuitive to anyone who has ever had a serious problem with depression. Serious depression is often characterized as a state of mind where one cannot find meaning in anything. Even things that once gave you happiness no longer have meaning for you. But such a feeling is logically defensible. To treat a logically defensible feeling as a medical problem needing a cure is as foolish as thinking that feeling pain when touching hot things is a deficiency in the human body. This is where psychologists and other mental health professionals really start to error. If they can see a bio-chemical reason for something, they think that they can treat the problem by treating that bio-chemical reason. But this ignores the fact that bio-chemical things can be (are?) indicative of something. Pain, for example, can be reduced to a bio-chemical reason. Because doctors understand that, we have pain killers. But doctors also understand that the bio-chemical reaction happens for a reason. That pain is pointing to a truth, as it were, that doctors know that they need to understand if they are to do the patient any real good. But if someone comes in and says to a doctor “Everything is meaningless,” the doctor will prescribe Prozac. That doctor will not stop to think if the statement that everything is meaningless is in fact true.

Therapists often fault doctors for relying too much on medication, and not enough on treating the underlying problem. But the approach of therapists is often no better. When confronted by a mother whose child has just been run over by a drunk driver, they recognize a cause for the depression that the mother is feeling. But they tend to take the same track as the doctors that they look down on. They look at this tragedy’s effect on the mother primarily as something that has damaged her by giving her negative emotions. The way they seek to “fix” her is to get her to “release” her emotions. They want her to know that her emotions are normal and to encourage her to talk about them, so that she does not hold onto them and lock herself in her own emotional prison. They want to teach her strategies for dealing with her emotions so that the she can lessen the strength of her emotions and lead a “normal” life. It all sounds so nice, but in realty they would probably do just as well to give her Prozac and shove her out the door.

Her problem is not that her feelings are damaged. Her problem is that her child who once had meaning for her has been turned into a corpse that has no meaning. Not only that, but it happened for a reason that has no meaning that she can discern. Such a tragedy is enough to make you question the meaning of all of life. You don’t need to feel her emotions to understand this. You could write out a logical argument based on her tragedy that life was meaningless, without ever feeling her emotions. To treat the emotions in her that lead her to seek meaning as damage that needs to be dealt with, is ultimately harmful. She does not need to “deal” with her emotions, she needs to find meaning. The reason that therapy tends to do more harm than good is that by focusing so much on dealing with a person’s emotions it gets in the way of the person’s ability to find a solution for the hunger embodied by those emotions.

As Huxley pointed out in the Brave New World, the easiest way to make sure the woman who has lost her child does not feel despair is to make her child meaningless to her. If her child was meaningless to her, she would be indifferent to whether her child died or not. It was for this reason that “mother” was a dirty word in the Brave New World. You cannot have mothers having meaningful relationships with their children without those relationships being a source of despair. The same could be said of anything that people find true beauty in. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child..

MARGARET, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

We come to “such sights colder” because they lose meaning for us. We no longer perceive those sights as being beautiful; rather, we see them as being merely pretty. Is it worth no longer being able to see the beauty so that we are protected from the grief? That is an aesthetic choice, one that is immune to the demands of logic. Yet, I am afraid, logic does tell us that in the end we will weep. We can keep our lives so full that we do not even have time to think, much less be depressed. We can take pills to make our hearts cold so that we no longer feel the pain. But like a man who has leprosy we can not escape what happens to us. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we see that we are as ugly as hell. Our aesthetic choice is not really between grieving and not grieving, but between going into the night with our eyes open or our eyes shut

Surely we are getting too metaphysical here. Surely we are glorifying despair, and its attendant manifestation depression, just a little bit too much. What about the fact that some people are more prone to depression than others? Does that not indicate that the problem with depression is more than just people’s hungering for meaning? But we would not say that because some people have more artistic talent then others, that artistic talent is therefore a flaw, would we?

Of course not. We all accept that artistic talent is a gift. But most often it is a gift that is made possible because they are prone to depression. It is common knowledge that the more creative a person is, the more likely they are to struggle with depression. What is not often acknowledged is that the depression is what makes much of the creativity possible. Just as hunger is necessary to appreciate the food of even the best of chefs, so too is the hunger for meaning necessary for the appreciation of true beauty. Just as hunger makes the most determined hunter, so too are those who hunger for meaning the best at finding it. This is why despair is so often bound up in the higher arts. The hunger is necessary if we are ever to find the beauty. And to find that beauty, the artists must of necessity be someone who hungers after meaning. But just because they hunger for it does not mean that they find it.

That brings us back to the Goths. Hunger may be real, but it is also as destructive in its own way as leprosy. If your aesthetic is based on always being hungry and never getting to eat, it is going to self destruct. Some people have an aesthetic sense that causes them to prefer to look at starving people rather then see the disfigurement of leprosy, but I don’t think either choice really fulfills people’s aesthetic longings. We may be horrified by the Controller’s choice, but we have a sneaking sympathy for his argument. Despair without the hope that meaning even exists (never mind if meaning is attainable or not), is as meaningless as a black canvas. The Goths may disavow the fake, but they can hardly be said to have found something that is real when the only real thing that they acknowledge is the ending of all things. At least the Savage was trying to find meaning even as he was killing himself; the Goths seem to have given up even looking for meaning outside of the truth of death.

Still, as horrible as I find the Goths to be, and even though I understand the logic that leads people to the Controller’s point of view, I still prefer the aesthetic of the Goths to the aesthetic of those who hold with the Controller. Or should I say, I find the Goths less horrifying than the alternative that modern rationality so often presents. I freely admit, it is purely an aesthetic choice on my part. I can at least identify with and sympathize with the pain of the Goths. I can at least share their horror of what is fake. But those who live by the argument of the Controller, they truly horrify me. They would go into that good night so drunk on pleasure that they can no longer tell the difference between what is beautiful and what is ugly. They would destroy man’s aesthetic sense, which is to say they would destroy man. They would….

But to rave on and on about how abhorrent I find the aesthetic of the Controller is meaningless. The Goths are a real subgroup in today’s society; the Controller is a fictional character. To set up the Controller as comparison to Goths is to seemingly set up a straw man in comparison to what is real. Who really believes what the Controller in the Brave New World believed? Who really expresses the aesthetic of the Controller in the real world? To answer that question, all we have to do is look at the contemporary art world.

Any discussion of the contemporary art world needs to start with Andy Warhol. He is one of the most influential founders of an aesthetic sensibility commonly referred to as contemporary art (it is sometimes called post-modern art). It is in Warhol that the “revolutionary” aesthetic of contemporary art was first fully expressed. In fact, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto claimed that Andy Warhol’s work “Brillo Boxes” marked the ending of art history. I would rephrase that to say that Warhol marked the start of a direct assault on art itself. More particularly, it marked an assault on the idea that our aesthetic hunger for beauty is in anyway meaningful. Warhol’s work is all about the celebrations of man’s animal needs and desires while at the same time mocking the very idea of meaning. All I see in Warhol’s work is an aesthetic expression of the Controller’s argument.

In fact, Warhol’s aesthetic is so much in line with Aldous Huxley’s fictional Controller that if you made Warhol up you would be accused of plagiarism. The similarities start with the superficial, such as Warhol’s worship of Ford, Warhol’s obsession with the Freudian way that advertisers created desire, and the way that Warhol industrialized of the creation of “art”. But what really ties Warhol to the Controller is the message that is implicit in Warhol’s body of work. Over and over throughout his career, Warhol took things that were traditionally considered mundane or base and he celebrated them. He celebrated them because they were mundane and base, not because he thought he saw some beauty in them that people were overlooking. He celebrated them as a direct rebuke to those artists who chose to believe that if you look hard enough, you can find beauty in anything. Through his work, Warhol sought to show that if you look hard enough everything is meaningless. The only thing you can get out of life is a kind of ephemeral pleasure. And even that pleasure, Warhol sought to show, is a product of your conditioning.

To advance his aesthetic vision (if a vision that mocks the very notion of beauty can be called an aesthetic) Warhol deliberately copied old artistic techniques used to highlight beauty and used them to highlight meaningless. Thus when Warhol paints a picture of Campbell’s Soup, he is celebrating the pleasure he got as a child of being fed that soup, and at the same time mocking the idea that there is any kind of higher meaning to be had from life. Warhol made it known that he liked eating Campbell’s soup. But you are not meant to find any kind of deeper meaning in a painting of Campbell’s soup. Warhol did not think the fact that he liked Campbell’s soup made it meaningful. In fact, the ridiculousness of a painting devoted solely to cans of Campbell’s soup just because you like it is supposed to make you question if portraits of other things are really anymore meaningful. What, Warhol asks, makes any painting any more meaningful than painting cans of Campbell’s soup just because you like eating it?

Warhol made this point over and over again. Sometimes in very crass ways, such as when he made an “art” film out of a man performing one single sexual act on another man for a long time. To Warhol pleasure is all there is to celebrate. Pain is all there is to fear. And even our conception of what pleasure and pain are is not a fixed absolute, but subject to manipulation.

In fact, alongside Warhol’s obsession with mocking the concept of beauty was Warhol’s obsession with manipulating people. He was fascinated by how advertisement could create demand for something where previously there was no demand. To him the process was further proof of the meaningless of all things. But to him it also held out the promise of power. He took great pride in his ability to get people to value things for no other reason than the fact he had successfully manipulated their desires. In doing this, Warhol was making the same point as Huxley’s fictional Controller. Happiness is the result of good conditioning, pain is the result of bad conditioning. What is the point of search for meaning when happiness can be manufactured out of thin air by anyone sufficiently talented in the art of manipulation?

The Brillo Boxes that I have previously mentioned are perhaps Warhol’s most direct statement of the value of manipulation. Many commentators on Warhol’s art have noted how Warhol was highlighting how the company Brillo turned a regular product into something that was special through advertising and fancy packaging. But what some commentators fail to see is that Warhol saw himself as doing the same thing with his art as Brillo did with their scrubbing pads. By taking great pains to recreate Brillo’s packaging, Warhol was paying Brillo the most sincere compliment he could muster. But in creating his Brillo Boxes, Warhol also gave visual expression to the Brave New World.

When you are confronted by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes you can either despair at the meaningless of life or celebrate the power to re-condition yourself into someone who needs no other meaning than his own sensual desires. Like Warhol, most of today’s contemporary artists choose the second choice. In doing so, they reject an aesthetic that acknowledges despair and instead choose the “aesthetic” of being high. Not that they necessarily want to use drugs, but they do want their emotions nailed at a permanent high so that they will not have to feel despair anymore. They don’t want to have an aesthetic sense that makes a distinction between the ugly and beautiful since they regard that as a meaningless source of pain. But in order to get rid of despair they have made contemporary art so meaningless that it has become a common butt of jokes.

It is not that contemporary artists have nothing to say. They are full of arguments for the Brave New World. They are full of rage against those who, like the savage, would take away their soma. They are against anything that would interfere with their attempt to condition uninterrupted pleasure. In less metaphorical terms, they will rail against outmoded and oppressive family structures. They will rail against poverty, environmental damage, or other eyesores that get in the way of their pleasure. They will demonstrate against any form of sexual oppression and demand the right to any type of sexual pleasure that they choose.

But those things are all part of man’s animal desires. By devoting themselves exclusively to those things without looking for any kind of beauty (and thus meaning) today’s artists have given up their quasi-religious role as the expressers of all that is in man that does not live off of bread. Man’s animal desires are the things that commerce, politics, and wars have always concerned themselves with. By making man’s animal desires the be all and end all, contemporary artists have ceased to be artists and have instead become advertisers. Their only tools are the same as an advertiser; shock, sex, the faux documentary, the endorsement of the rich and famous, the illusion of exclusivity. They no longer even try to create something that is truly beautiful. They have all bought the argument of the Controller.

I have already made a stab at expressing my extreme dislike of such an “aesthetic.” But since my dislike is based on my aesthetic sense, I find words inadequate to express the feelings that contemporary art brings up in me. To properly express an aesthetic feeling requires a true artist and I am no artist. The best I can do is to borrow the works of those who are artists, and use them for my own ends. So should you ever happen to read Watership Down, take note of Fiver’s reaction to the singing rabbit. It is the best expression of my feelings regarding contemporary art that I can think of. In fact, I have always thought that whole particular warren that Hazel and company came across was a good commentary on contemporary art. The loveless tolerance and the hateful help so displayed was a better expression of distaste for the world of contemporary art than anything I could ever offer.

But regardless of my personal feelings, hopefully you have followed the duality that I have tried to set up. An aesthetic based on despair is horrible, but to me, one that does away with despair as a meaningless expression of bad conditioning is even more terrible. Both choices, though, are so horrible that we are loathe to accept either one. Still, one has to wonder, do we have a choice? Do we really have any other choice but to face life drunk or in pain? Where shall we turn for an example of an aesthetic that cannot be put into one of those two approaches to art? What can incorporate the despair that is part of life and make it beautiful? Would religion provide an answer? Shall we turn to the aesthetic that is prevalent in the contemporary Christian churches?

Anyone who has spent enough hours listening to contemporary Christian music knows what a waste of time that would be. The aesthetic currently ruling in Christendom is really no different than the aesthetic of the Controller/Warhol. To be sure, your typical American Christian is working towards a world more like that portrayed in Lois Lowry’s The Giver than that which is portrayed in the Brave New World. Still, the heart of both aesthetics is the same. They are both equally meaningless exercises in satisfying man’s practical animal desires.

I know that contemporary Christians are not usually associated with contemporary artists. I don’t know who would be insulted more by such a comparison. Would it be your average Christian or would it be your average bohemian artist? Both groups have made it a fixed part of their mental image of themselves that they are nothing like the other group. Any assertion to the contrary would likely elicit an extreme reaction. Yet even on the issues that seem to divide them the most, there is no real difference between them aesthetically speaking. Take chastity for example.

On the surface, there is no starker difference between your average Christian and your average bohemian artist than sexual ethics. You would think that this would point to a difference in aesthetic view point between them. After all, one of the things that the Savage had against the Brave New World is that it destroyed chastity. But the Savage had a spiritual idea of chastity; your average Christian is too practical for that. The typical Christian argument for chastity is based on claims that young people will be deeply damaged if they are not chaste and their marriages won’t be quite as special. In short, be good so you won’t get hurt and you can hit the jackpot down the road.

Aesthetically speaking, how is that any different than an argument that your average bohemian artist would use to justify his sexual ethics? Both of them are basing their argument on what they perceived will get them the most pleasure and the least pain. What makes things right and wrong by both parties reckoning can be shown by which things bring the most pleasure and avoid the most pain. They come to different conclusions of course. But the argument is based around a difference on what is pragmatic, not a difference of aesthetics. To the aesthetic sense of both contemporary Christians and contemporary artists, pleasure is the only sensible means to measure what is meaningful.

One of the surest signs that Christians have the same aesthetic sense as the Controller is that they are allergic to despair. Christians believe that despair is the result of improper conditioning just as much as Warhol and Co. does. In contemporary Christianity, to be upbeat is to be spiritual. To even hint of despair is to reveal yourself fallen from grace. What this belief works out to in terms of the Christian artists is a rigorous self censorship to keep any hint of negative feeling out of their art work.

In some cases it is not even self censorship. I know of one Christian artist who got into big trouble with his record company because he wrote a song about struggling with thoughts of suicide. But you cannot blame the suits for that sort of thing; it is what the people want. The most popular Christian artists are the ones who are so perpetually upbeat you would think that they are on pot. Nothing can crack their cheerful facade. This is not to say that such Christians won’t confess to having bad days. But they will only confess that so that they can tell you how they got on the line with God and got everything cleared up. It is the Christian equivalent of popping soma.

This is a natural result of how the contemporary Christians choose to present God. He is a practical God. His commands are for your own good. Follow them and you will avoid pain and find pleasure. God is one who wants you to be happy, in shape, and happily married. The pouring out of his love means the pouring out of good feelings and high self esteem on those that need it. But those are all functions that the Brave New World fulfilled just fine. In fact, one of the Controller’s arguments against the Savage was that soma could do everything that religion could do with fewer side effects. By arguing for the goodness of God with the same arguments that the Controller used to argue for the goodness of soma, Christians vindicate the Controller’s case.

I sometimes wonder why contemporary Christians present God in the aesthetic light that they do. In order to present such a smiley faced version of the Gospel, Christians must ignore the governing aesthetic that is found in the Gospels themselves. There is something peculiar about that fact that so called Christian radio stations would never play a song that accurately portrayed the meaning of sweating blood. Maybe this state of affairs is due to the fact that most Christians proclaim an allegiance to Jesus because they are hoping for free bread. Or perhaps it is because they are so determined to save the world that they want make the aesthetic of the Gospel as accessible (i.e. pretty or pleasing to senses) as possible. But the process of trying to make an aesthetic accessible to everyone is a lot like a married couple deciding to have an open marriage. It spreads the pleasure, but in the end it makes it all meaningless. If an aesthetic does not have beauty on its own terms, it will never have a beauty on someone else’s terms.

But this is getting far afield. We are not trying to figure out contemporary Christianity. We are trying to escape the Goth/Savage vs. Controller/Contemporary Art duality of aesthetics. How can we do away with despair without doing away with beauty? Or how can despair be beautiful? How can an aesthetic that calls the fake ugly avoid saying that death is the only real thing for it swallows all things? How can we even talk about such questions when we have already said that arguments based on aesthetics are immune to logic?

To that last question there is an easy answer. There is a distinction between what an artist dares and what a philosopher dares. A philosopher needs to make you know, and artist only invites you to see. Any type of aesthetic can only be understood by seeing it. Philosophers can debate about what has meaning all they want; only an artist can show you the beauty in something. Therefore, in order to find an answer to questions regarding despair and beauty we need to find artists who struggle with those very questions. We need to find an artist who has an aesthetic that does not portray the darkness of the Goth aesthetic nor has the emptiness of Warhol’s aesthetic. We need to find an artist who reaches for that which is in man that does not live by bread. We need to find an artist who makes even despair seem beautiful.

I had thought to use Winslow Homer as an example of such an artist because he makes a great contrast to Andy Warhol. To compare the works to the two men is to get a visual representation of two very different aesthetics. But while such comparison would be instructive, it ultimately would not work for the purposes of this essay. For one thing, an in-depth comparison of Homer and Warhol would require lots of esoteric knowledge that would limit the accessibility of this essay for most people. But even if everyone was intimately familiar with both Warhol and Homer the comparison would still have problems because of the great distance that separates them in time.

Because Warhol came after Homer, he incorporates how he views Homer’s aesthetic into his artwork. Homer on the other hand, probably never even dreamed that someone like Warhol would come along. In fact, the Controller said to the Savage that the philosophers and artists of old did not even conceive that something like the Brave New World was even possible. In the same way many people who buy into a modern aesthetic look at older artists in a condescending way. They acknowledge the beauty that is found in many older works of art. But at the same time, they say that if they knew what we know now, they would not have celebrated beauty the way they did.

For these reasons, I think it better to look to an artist who lived in the modern era and dealt with both its emptiness and its despair to provide an example of an aesthetic that is neither darkness nor emptiness; an artist who is widely known even among those who do not follow the arts and can be appreciated even by the unsophisticated. Let us look to J.R.R. Tolkien to provide us with an alternative to the Gothic aesthetic and Warhol’s anti aesthetic.

I can already hear people groaning. Bringing up Tolkien in a discussion of fine art is like serving pizza at a formal dress party. Tolkien’s work simply does not measure up to what the sophisticated and the educated expect when discussing such things. But why is this? Is it simply because the whole genre of fantasy fiction has a well deserved reputation for being frivolous? But Shakespeare wrote works that would be considered fantasy today. If we would not write off A Midsummer Night’s Dream just because it was a fantasy, why would we write off any other work merely because it belonged to the wrong genre? Maybe no one likes to talk about Tolkien’s work in the same breath as fine art because bringing up Tolkien’s works is to risk associating yourself with some of the more embarrassing aspects of his fan base. I can sympathize with this. I don’t like to be associated with most fans of Tolkien myself, but I could say the same of those who idolize the Bard.

This is all just a roundabout way of pointing out that no criticism can be leveled at Tolkien’s work that cannot be leveled at earlier works that people are happy to accept as art. It is obvious to anyone with an iota of literary knowledge that Tolkien borrowed from earlier styles of writing. And I don’t think that a fair-minded person can deny that he does this quite well. Yet most people who make up the liberal art’s educated elite are happy to accord earlier works with the same flaws they claim to see in Tolkien’s books the status of art, yet they vehemently deny that same status to Tolkien’s books.

Why raise the issue of the educated elite’s dislike of Tolkien? Because most of them hate him with a passion that goes beyond that of someone who is convinced that a book is poorly written and not worth the time it takes to read. They hate him because they see an aesthetic in his work that they cannot stand. They hate his work for the same reason that Shakespeare was called smut in Brave New World. Tolkien’s aesthetic awakens desires in people that modern rationality cannot satisfy. Not only that, but most people in the ivory towers think that it is positively wrong to invoke those desires. They fear Tolkein’s “smut” because they themselves used porn as a weapon against the Victorian middle class mores of their forefathers. But out of grave of the mores they thought they had killed and rendered meaningless came a ghost who used fantasy to attack their “reality.”

It may seem that I am getting little carried away. But the lack of sex and his anti-modern stance are two of the most common criticisms that are directed against Tolkien’s books. To me, that is proof that it is not Tolkein’s technical abilities that lead the educated elite to despise him, but his aesthetic. I don’t know why they would get so excited about his aesthetic if they did not feel that it threatened them in some way. I am convinced that if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings in the eighteenth century it would now be required study in any college level liberal arts education. For then, the educated would be able to forgive Tolkien for his aesthetic in the same way that they forgive Shakespeare or Winslow Homer. Artists of earlier times can be excused their sins for they did not know any better. Tolkien, on the other hand, cannot be excused because he does know better.

It is not my intention to defend Tolkien. Tolkien needs no defense from his critics. His work has prospered much to the chagrin of those who hate him. But Tolkien’s critics help illustrate something that is obscured by most of his ardent fans. The Lord of the Rings is first and foremost an attempt to give meaning to words. Not, as many of his fans seem to think, an adventure story. And the words that he is trying to give meaning to are words that the Brave New World strives to make meaningless–words like faith, hope, love, loyalty, justice, not to mention despair and many others.

It is despair that brings us back to the subject of this essay. Because Tolkien’s work is perceived by many people to be very uplifting, it is often forgotten how deeply despair is woven into his work. But to a rational outlook, the heroic things done in Tolkien’s books are all futile, because his mythological world is on a relentless downward spiral. You can see this in The Lord of the Rings by the fact that the choice is between risking the destruction of all that is good in the world by letting someone bad having the ring, or destroying the ring and guaranteeing the destruction of much that is good. Neither choice has much to recommend it for they both move his mythological world further down road to destruction. In The Silmarillion the despair is even more explicit, and the futility of what is done even by the “good” guys is even more depressing, and the downward spiral of the world even clearer.

As a man who lost most of his friends to the carnage of World War I, who lived through World War II, and who lived in an age constantly threatened with nuclear war, it is natural that Tolkien saw the world as being on a downward spiral. What is unnatural is that a man who saw the world on a downward spiral wrote books that most people find very uplifting. The fact that his books were meant to be uplifting only adds to the mystery. Who would write a book that was meant to be uplifting about a world that was going to hell despite the best efforts of the good guys? This puzzle is further compounded by the fact that it is the good guys who are the ones in whom despair has its fullest expression in Tolkien’s work. How is that uplifting?

But one should not really say, “Good guys;” one should say, “The good symbols.” Another thing that many people forget is that the characters in Tolkien’s work are not realistic explorations of human character. Rather, they are meant to be symbolic creatures that will give meaning to words. Too often people miss this, in part because Tolkien’s symbolism is so compelling and so complex that they mistake it for an attempt to be realistic. To be sure, Tolkien meant to talk about things that were meaningful. But what is realistic and what is meaningful are not the same thing. The word “despair”, for example, surely describes something that is real. Yet you cannot lay your hand on the meaning of despair. You could realistically describe someone else’s despair, but that would only be describing one view of despair. You still could not have been said to encompass all of what the word despair means.

If you want to talk about the meaning of words in an encompassing way, that puts you in a bind. You can’t possible describe in a realistic manner all of despair’s various forms and still have time to actually say anything else. It is to get out of this bind that Tolkien uses symbols. Symbols (if they are successful) do not rigorously define something. Rather, they draw the definition out of you, instead of having the definition handed to you as a realistic portrayal tries to do. A fine example of how Tolkien does this is through his symbolic hero Hurin.

The tragedy of Hurin is a little-known story because it was never fully finished. A shortened version can be found in The Silmarillion. It is a shame that it was never finished, because the tragedy of Hurin demonstrates Tolkien’s genius for creating symbols that drag meaning out of the human heart. More to the point of this essay, the tragedy of Hurin was Tolkien’s most thorough exploration of the despair of a good man even though he never finished it. In no other symbol that he created was the tragic nature of life more forcibly symbolized. And in no other symbol was man’s helplessness in the face of evil more completely expressed.

In Tolkien’s typically over-the-top manner, Hurin was the most powerful human hero to ever walk the earth. But Tolkien had a reason whenever he went over the top. He wanted to highlight Hurin’s power so that terribleness of his helplessness would be apparent. Also, Tolkien wanted it to be apparent that through Hurin, Tolkien was talking about the strength of all men. Thus we are meant to admire Hurin’s heroic rear guard action that enabled the high elves to escape from a battle that they were losing badly. After he was captured, we are meant to admire Hurin’s heroic resistance to the torture that was inflicted on Hurin to make him reveal the location of a secret high elf kingdom. Once Tolkien has firmly entrenched the heroic nature of Hurin in our brains, Tolkien turns around and drops the hammer on us.

All this heroic action naturally angered Tolkien’s Satan figure, Melkor, who had been hoping to destroy the high elves. As revenge, Melkor cursed Hurin’s family. Melkor then gave Hurin the supernatural ability to watch as Melkor’s curse destroyed his family over a matter of decades. The truly horrible thing about this curse is not that Hurin’s family died, but that they destroyed themselves in manner reminiscent of some of the darkest of Greek tragedies. As a really diabolical final touch, Melkor then released Hurin, who confirmed that all the horrible things that Melkor had showed him had really happened. In desperation, Hurin turned to the very same High Elves that his rear guard action had saved so many years ago for help. But the high elves feared a trap and they left Hurin to die, half mad from despair. In his despair, Hurin did a number of things that aided Melkor. And before he died, Hurin came to realize that most of his actions had only served to advance the design of Melkor.

As depressing as this synopsis sounds, it is even more depressing when you read Hurin’s full story in The Silmarillion. But Hurin is never fleshed out as a real character. The despair you feel when reading the story of Hurin is not that of realistically drawn Hurin, but it is your own. By using the symbol of Hurin, Tolkien is able to weave the reader’s own despair into his aesthetic. Thus, by using symbols, Tolkien is able to draw people deeper into his aesthetic than he would have been able to had he made realistic characters with realistically described emotions. Each of his characters has its own function, but their functions all revolve around drawing the meaning out of you, rather than supplying you with it. And they often succeed in drawing things out of you that you did not know were there.

It is the fact that Tolkien draws things out of people that they did not know were there, or did not want to know were there, that made me compare his work to smut earlier. Some authors use sexually explicit things to try to get people to be realistic about themselves and the world. This is who you truly are, they say. If you were different you would not hunger after these things. It is the success of this technique that makes some people angry. They are angry because the sexually explicit things do reveal what people’s appetites are really like. More than that, it excites those same appetites and makes them stronger. Tolkien’s aesthetic works in the same way except that he excites people’s hunger for a beauty that is neither practical nor realistic.

Yet how can this be? We have said that the fake cannot be beautiful. How can what is unrealistic be beautiful? Yet realistic only means worldly. Fake means without meaning, and thus determining what is fake is an aesthetic choice. Those modern artists who incorporate sexually explicit material into their art work do so in order that people’s appetites will testify to the work’s authenticity. Tolkien bases the authenticity of his work on the hunger that is in people that cannot be met with worldly pleasures. See, he says, this is who you truly are. If you were different you would not be moved by these things.

The ring in The Lord of the Rings is the primary instrument to reveal the otherworldly in Tokien’s most famous book. The ring is presented as the ultimate expression of our practical needs and desires. Its power over people is always that it provides a means for taking care of legitimate and all too practical worldly needs. Most of the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are simply those who are rational and have no desire to do the stupid thing. Yet in the aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings, the completely rational is ugly. The symbolic power of the ring to those of us who read the books lies in our recognition, consciously or unconsciously, that if we let our worldly needs and desires dictate how we live our lives than we will be ugly as hell.

By making the ring the ultimate expression of our worldly needs and desires, Tolkien highlights the unworldly and unpractical nature of that which defeats the ring. It is not strength or smarts that enables the ring to be destroyed; rather it is Sam’s unrealistic love, which causes him to be always willing to give all and never ask for anything in return. It is Frodo’s unrealistic faith, which keeps him trudging towards his goal, even though he has no worldly reason to believe that he can get where he is going (or even destroy the ring when he gets there for that matter). It is Aragorn’s unrealistic hope, which leads him to lift up his banner and challenge Mordor to a hopeless battle. It is these unrealistic things that make the books beautiful.

But the books are beautiful not because those characters are realistic, but because we long to see hope, faith, and love expressed in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We realize, consciously or unconsciously, that in order to be beautiful ourselves we must have something in us that transcends the worldly. Tolkien strives to makes us feel this. It is our own appetite for the otherworldly that Tolkien uses to legitimize his aesthetic.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear people saying. If we did not already realize that Tolkien is all about the celebration of love, hope and what-not we would have stopped reading the essay when you brought him into the discussion of art. But how does that help us understand the original question about despair? But that question is not really the one that we need to be working on right now. What we really need to work on is the question of how Tolkien’s conception of love, hope and “what-not” differ from meaningless pleasure on offer from Warhol and the contemporary Christians.

Despair, though, will help us make this distinction. It is in the pure despair that you can find in the story of Hurin that most obviously separates Tolkien’s aesthetic from the contemporary Christian aesthetic of today. Contemporary Christians are happy to write about the world going to hell, as long as good guys remain untouched. Despair is only for those who missed the boat, so to speak. To write a story like the one that Tolkien wrote about Hurin would be inconceivable to the contemporary Christian aesthetic. What separates Tolkien from so many other moralistic authors is that he never lets his symbolic heroes make a “right” choice that does not have unpleasant consequences. That runs counter to the aesthetic of most moralistic authors, for whom escaping pain and suffering is the ultimate goal, and who are determined to point out that it is most rational to do the right thing. But in Tolkien’s world, you cannot escape pain and despair by being a good little boy. In fact, being a good little boy is likely to bring you into more pain and suffering than you would otherwise run into. You can see the pattern all throughout Tolkien’s works.

In Hurin’s case, accepting the job of the rearguard did not get him a hero’s award or even a hero’s death. Instead, it got him a life of living hell that he did not deserve in any way. In Frodo’s case, the price of being the one who destroyed the ring was that everything lost meaning for him. In fact, what Frodo suffers from at the end of the Lord of the Rings is a clinical case of depression. Even Sam suffers in the end, though he comes closest to having a true happy ending (there is symbolic significance in that, but it does not pertain to this essay), because Sam spent the whole book trying to save Frodo, only for him to be unable to save Frodo at the end of the book.

This pattern of people being forced to give up everything they struggled so hard to save as payment for their good deeds is so important to Tolkien that he goes out of his way to make sure that it happens. Take the story of Aragorn and Arwen for example. Tolkien could have easily let their particular part of the story end happily. Instead, Tolkien tacked an appendix on the end of The Lord of the Rings to make sure we see the price that Arwen paid to cleave to Aragorn and the grief and pain that Arwen went through when Aragorn dies. The end result is that Tolkien makes it clear that Arwen accepted eternal separation from her father and the giving up of her own immortal nature just for something that in the end dies. As if it were not enough to make sure that we realized that Aragorn dies, Tolkien also felt compelled to go out of his way to make it clear that there was no peace to help Arwen deal with Aragorn’s death.

Does Tolkien afflict Arwen with all this pain to show that she made a bad choice? Does he afflict the pain on her because he thinks that love is in the end futile? Of course not. What Tolkien is after is the realization of the otherworldly. If we identify with the symbol Arwen, we are forced to confront the question of whether Arwen’s choice was a foolish one or not. If we deny that she was foolish, we are admitting that we hunger for a love that is irrational and unworldly. And more than that, we are admitting that it is worth giving up all worldly things for that love, and to take on all worldly pain for it. We are admitting that Warhol and the controller are wrong. We are admitting that the pleasure and the avoidance of pain are not the only meaning to be found in life.

In admitting this, we are acknowledging that the reason that Warhol’s aesthetic is so horrible is that it is limited to what is worldly. We are acknowledging that the worldly can never satisfy us. Yet in acknowledging this, we are putting ourselves on a collision course with the modern era. Back in the bad old days when life was short and brutish, it was more natural to think that this life was bound to be unsatisfying. Nowadays, though, we have made so much progress towards curing disease, granting better health, and in general increasing the amount of pleasure that man can expect to have that it is natural to think that if we could just a make a little more progress we would be perfectly happy. But by awaking in us our hunger for an unreal love, an unreal faith, and an unreal hope, Tolkien seeks to show us that even if we could grasp the ring; even if we did have the power to meet all our animal desires, we would be ugly, terrible things, devoid of real life. It is only if our lives are ruled by an otherworldly aesthetic, that we can hope to be beautiful.

But how can the pain and death of Arwen be anything other than an expression of the Gothic aesthetic? If death swallows all things, how can anything but death be truly meaningful? But in Tolkien’s aesthetic, death does not swallow all things. That is why so many people find The Lord of the Rings and other works of Tolkien so uplifting. In them we confront all that seems ugly in life, only to see it turn into beauty in the hands of Tolkien’s aesthetic.

The Goths look around and see death at the end of all things. Tolkien looks around and sees that same death. Yet amongst all that death, Tolkien sees an unworldly aesthetic. It is that supernatural beauty that Tolkien sees as the ultimate consumer of all things. Therefore, in Tolkien’s aesthetic, everything has meaning, for everything is working together towards the complete revelation of true beauty. Thus even death, pain, and despair are beautiful because they are also are working towards the revelation of all that is beautiful. That is not to say that everything is good, anymore than Gollum is good just because he helps to get rid of the ring. But it is to say that everything is meaningful, and thus beautiful in its own way.

In every way he possibly can, Tolkien strives to show this. At its most obvious level, this is why he has Frodo undergo a symbolic death instead of real one. At its more subtle level it explains why he puts in a poem about love conquering death right before Frodo gets stabbed by the Witch King. It is also why Tolkien puts into The Lord of the Rings a poem about faith, buttressed by love, leading to the downfall of the Satan figure Melkor even though it seemed that Melkor had won all. And where does he put this poem? He puts it right before the deliberations of Elrond’s council on the fate of the ring.

Tolkien realized (as many of his critics never cease to point out) that he was not the best of poets. Yet he strove to use his bad poetry as a means of alerting people to the underlying symbolism of his story. He never wanted people to read his book and miss the fact that though his book was fantasy, he was trying to show people meaningful things. By juxtaposing his poetry to key points in the story Tolkien hoped to help people understand and appreciate his symbolism. Before all of the darkest and most critical turning points in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien places little markers like this. He strives to make sure that you will be on the lookout for the beauty that is in even the worst of things. He strives to make you see how the darkness only highlights and increases the beauty of the otherworldly. But most of all, Tolkien wants you to realize that the supernatural virtues that conquer the ring spring from a realm that will consume death and make all things meaningful.

But in spite of Tolkien’s best efforts, the symbolism of his works passes most people right on by. Take the symbol that goes by the name of Arwen, for example. Most people do not seem to understand that the symbol that is Arwen is influential all throughout The Lord Of The Rings even though she has almost no speaking parts. They don’t see the markers that Tolkien lays down all throughout the book that show how Aragorn drew a hope from her love that sustained him in the darkest times. About the only one that most people get is the obvious one right before Aragorn goes down the paths of the dead. Nor do most people understand that Tolkien did not want Arwen to serve as the stereotypical hot chick that the hero gets in the end, but rather to serve as a symbol of unreal love. That is why Tolkien made sure we would all understand that Arwen sacrificed her high position. That is why he made sure that all of us would see the pain that she suffered for her love.

But Tolkien’s symbolism is deeper than even all of that. If you understand that the stars serve for Tolkien as the promise of paradise in a dark world (that is why the elves love them), you will understand that with Arwen Tolkien is trying to point out that unreal love is a type of star. It is because her love serves as a type of star holding out the promise of an unreal world that Aragorn has such hope all through out The Lord of the Rings. A man who has seen the light of the blessed realms fears no black riders. He fears no besieging forces. He fears not even the paths of the dead or death itself.

This is why Aragron is named Estel (which means hope) and Arwen is named Undomiel (which means Even Star). You are meant to understand that true human love is a light that comes from the hereafter, and it gives us hope as we face the long night of death. If Tolkien made this any clearer, he would have to write it out on a coal shovel and hit us over the head with it. Yet even if he did that most people would still miss it.

Even though most people could not parse out the symbolism of Tolkien’s books to save their lives, I think the symbolism still serves its purpose. For Tolkien’s symbolism works even when we don’t understand it. His many fans are testament to that. Even many people who profess not to care much for Tolkien’s work and who don’t understand it, still admit to finding the moral drama of it moving.

But if the fake cannot be beautiful, how can Tolkien’s aesthetic be beautiful? Surely the idea that the revelation of true beauty will consume all is un-provable at best, a delusion at worst. But the idea that death will swallow all things is un-provable as well. We will not know for sure that death consumes all things until every last thing has gone on into oblivion. Warhol’s aesthetic is un-provable as well. What makes the Gothic aesthetic work to the extent that it does is that we all see death bringing things to an end. What makes Warhol’s aesthetic work is that the desire to live is very strong in all of us. To whatever extent Tolkien’s aesthetic works, it is because it draws out of us a hunger for more than the worldly and it creates in us a fear of becoming worldly.

As I have said, an aesthetic is immune to logic. It is not by logic that an aesthetic can be judged. Rather, it is by what we can see that we judge an aesthetic. The real problem here is that I have described Tolkien’s aesthetic instead of showing Tolkien’s aesthetic. When you describe an aesthetic you invite people to treat is as a logical argument instead of something to be observed and considered. Believe me; I really would have preferred not to do it that way. Tolkien has no special gift for logical arguments. His power stems from what he could see and from what he can get others to see. To parse his symbolism, as I have done, is in a sense to weaken it. Once you parse it in logical fashion, you are forcing it to stand alone without the support of the longings of our own inner world. It was never designed to withstand such.

But many people love The Lord of the Rings without thinking about why they do and what about it moves them. They don’t stop to realize that the beauty of Tolkien’s work depends on your perception of the otherworldly. Speaking to a grieving Arwen, Aragorn says “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world.” Tolkien himself faced the modern world and he too felt the despair. He saw that no other aesthetics were possible in the circle of this world than that of Saruman or Denethor. To rephrase this in the terms of this essay, Tolkien saw no choice in the circle of this world except the aesthetic of Warhol or the Goths. But as Aragorn also said to Arwen “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond that is more than memory.” This was Tolkien answer to the modern aesthetics. To Tolkien there was no beauty to found in them because anything that denied the otherworldly would never be beautiful.

Whether you hold with Tolkien’s aesthetic or not, the fact remains that in the circle of this world despair is the only possible base for an aesthetic. Unless of course, you think being drunk counts as valid aesthetic. For whatever the universe may do, we can see the downward spiral that happens in our very own bodies. That downward spiral testifies to us that the things that we love of this world are as ephemeral as dreams. If we don’t bury that thought in our minds; if we face the fact that everything we look at is dying, how can we do anything else but despair?

But despair is not to be despised. For despair is like a purifying fire that burns the dross and reveals the gold. If you can not see any gold, it is not the fault of the fire. But if the fire does reveal gold, than you will learn to love the burning for what it reveals.





This is the plain truth, Mr. President and it is terrifying — Emile Zola


I am your typical red-blooded ignorant hillbilly. I am not prone to wishing for aid from any Frenchman. Even less am I prone to wishing for the aid of a member of the French intelligentsia. To even think of such a thing somehow feels as if I am betraying all of the great unwashed who are my brethren.

And yet, I can’t help myself. I wish that Emile Zola was alive today to say what needs to be said. I wish that he was alive to bring charges in the court of public opinion against those who are spewing out lies unchallenged. Since I know that cannot be, since Emile Zola himself can not come back from the dead, then I wish that some spiritual heir of his would spring forth. Let someone come who can write with Zola’s mixture of eloquence, politeness, and anger. And let that heir bring charges against the perverse liars that make up America’s political and social elite.

But as much as I look for an heir to Zola, I have yet to see one. The charges thus lie unheard while the liars continue to prattle about. I would bring the charges myself, but I lack the eloquence and politeness necessary to get a hearing. All I have is anger. And anger without eloquence or control only fuels a futile fire.

Those futile fires have already been lit a number of times. I have seen them burn to no avail and I had no wish to join them. Those fires were lit by people who heard the lies that I hear and were as angry as I am. But those angry people lacked Zola’s artistry and stature and so they were unable to make their charges heard. All that these people managed to accomplish was to shout to an empty room or to stir up the anger of people who already agreed with them.

I am not a stranger to the theory and practice of shouting to an empty room, but I dislike preaching to the choir with a passion. I know that my blog is as vain and as pompous as any other blog. But in a vain attempt to avoid being ordinary I had wanted to differentiate my blog by writing about subjects that had not already been rehearsed by the various ideological choirs. But when I kept seeing the same lies bandied about, anger weakened my resolve to the point were I could hardly restrain myself.

What sparked such anger? What is such a horrible lie that I would welcome the aid even of Frenchmen to help me prosecute? What is driving me to write something against my better judgment? I am almost embarrassed to confess. People will laugh that something so ridiculous has got me worked up.

But anger has trumped decorum in this case. I cannot stand being silent while liars say that the Social Security trust fund will help pay for the Baby Boomers retirement.

I know, I know. It is such a passé thing to get angry about. Nobody talks much about it nowadays. Nowadays sensible people are only supposed to get angry about the lies that led to the war in Iraq. Or the lies that say that it was lies that lead us into Iraq. It all depends on your political persuasion what particular lies you are angry about. But however much they differ on niggling little details, everyone agrees that Iraq should figure into your anger one way or another. Especially if you are going to prattle on about how angry lies make you.

But I think that lies about the Social Security Trust funds efficacy are in a special category all their own. Accusations of lies usually revolve around two competing stories that have their own internal logic and make sense in and of themselves. The dispute usually centers on what the facts are and whose story they support. But people who claim that the Social Security Trust fund will help pay for the baby boomers retirement are different.

Unlike most liars, they do not even attempt to create a plausible story. Instead they simply spew out a brazen denial of reality. What they say cannot possibly be true even if you accept their version of the facts. Their lie is so brazen that it violates the English language in ways that would shock even Orwell. They are so caught up in….

I suppose I had better make an attempt at politeness. It does not do to verbally abuse my opponents before I gave them a chance to speak. So let us look for someone of the opposing camp who has lowered themselves to respond to the heretics who deny the efficacy of the Social Security Trust fund.

The best response that I have found comes from the Social Security Network. I find the name slightly misleading, because the web site is in no way associated with Social Security Administration or any other part of the Federal Government. But I could spend all day pointing out things that they do that I consider misleading. The only thing on their web site that concerns us at the moment is the little article where they take issue with those who deny the efficacy of the Social Security Trust fund. They call denying the efficacy of the Social Security Trust fund a myth. Here is there little argument in its entirety. …

Myth #3: Social Security’s trust funds are filled with worthless IOUs.

When investors become worried about the economy and the stock market, they “flee to safety” by selling their other securities in exchange for U.S. Treasury bonds and bills. Backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, U.S. Treasury securities are considered to be the safest, most reliable investment worldwide. Because the federal government is legally obligated to pay back interest and principal on those securities, it would take an almost unimaginable calamity for a default to occur. Social Security’s trust funds, which now amount to $1.5 trillion and are expected to grow to $5.3 trillion by 2018, hold nothing but U.S. Treasury securities.

Alan Greenspan, now the Federal Reserve chairman, led a bipartisan commission in 1983 that recommended changes to Social Security explicitly to produce the large trust
funds that the system will draw on to pay for the baby boom generation’s retirement from roughly 2008 to 2030. Those reforms, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, were widely hailed at the time by both parties as a model of effective government. If anything, those reforms have turned out to be even more successful than originally imagined, as the improved forecasts in recent years for the program demonstrate. The central reason for that success was the Greenspan Commission’s idea of building up trust funds invested in safe U.S. Treasury securities.

That is it, folks. That is the entirety of their argument. I almost admire these people’s command of the liar’s craft. These are people who could teach Bill Clinton how to conduct a discourse on the meaning of the word “is”. It takes some skill to pack so much misrepresentation, misdirection, and misinformation into a couple of paragraphs. Yet, the ridiculousness of their lie is still so evident that one has to wonder how they can promulgate it without shame. One wants to say, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

People who are either more charitable than I or more naive, might challenge my characterization of them as liars. After all, even if they are wrong, is it not possible that they believe what they are saying? And don’t we only call people liars who know what they are saying is false?

But for people who have such qualms about my language let me ask you this: do you think that the people behind the Social Security Network would call me a millionaire if I wrote out a paper that said that I owed myself a million dollars?


Even if I showed them that I had perfect credit and that I was making interest payments to myself? The answer is obvious. We all know that owing yourself money does not increase your net worth.

Would the people who argue for the efficacy of Social Security Trust fund also argue that companies can spend all the money in their pension funds and if they promised to pay it back when it was needed?


Even if the company had a good credit, put its own bonds in the fund, and promised to honor them? It would be insulting someone’s intelligence to even ask the question.

Would the people who talk about how the trust fund will put off any problems with Social Security for a long time, recommend raiding your 401K to pay for hot cars and fancy vacations as long as your credit rating was good?


It is obvious to any one with enough intelligence to read that spending money now and promising to pay it back later is not an asset but a liability. Nobody would be so uncharitable as to accuse the Social Security Network or any other group of recommending that private companies run their pensions or insurance funds the way the federal government runs Social Security. In fact, such actions would be illegal under current law for the obvious reason that money that you owe yourself will not help you pay future needs.

If it is so obvious to everyone what the truth would be if a private individual or company tried to do the same thing that the Federal Government is doing with Social Security, why should we believe people are being honest when they try to get others to believe that the trust fund will help matters? Would they dare explain what the Federal Government is doing with Social Security in language that a class of six-year-olds could understand? Just try and imagine it…

Now, class, Social Security is very important. It helps your grandparents to pay for their food when they are too old to work. Your mommy and daddy are going to need it to help feed themselves when they get too old to work, too. But wise people a long time ago figured out that when all of your mommies and daddies retire, Social Security would not be able to pay them all the money they need to take care of themselves. If nobody did anything, all you little boys and girls would have to solve the problem. But that would not be good at all, for the wise people knew that when you grow up you will have lots of problems that you need to take care of yourself without having to worry about whether your mommy and daddy have enough to eat. So the wise men came up with a plan to fix the problem. They had all your mommies and daddies pay more money to Social Security so that Social Security made more money than it needed to take care of your grandparents. The Wise People took that extra money and spent it on wars, roads, and other such stuff that governments do. They kept careful track of all the extra money they spent so when your mommies and daddies want to retire they know how much money you owe them.

The last part is the part is the part that would be tough to explain to any six year old. Some things that adults do are so stupid that you cannot explain them to a child. Just trying to think of a way of doing so makes my head hurt.

Teacher, what would happen if the trust fund did not exist?

Well, if the trust fund did not exist and it came time for the baby boom generation to retire, congress would either have to cut benefits, raise taxes, or issue more public debt.

Teacher, how is the trust fund going to change that?

When the baby boomers start to retire, Congress is going to have to raise taxes to pay what is owed to the trust fund, or it is going to have issue more public debt to pay what is owed to the trust fund, or it is going to cut benefits so that it does not have to pay the trust fund.

Teacher, if Congress is going to have the same three choices even though the Trust Fund exists than what is the trust fund doing for us?

Umm…. What are you supposed to say? It’s a lie. Though I suppose if you wanted to be polite you could call it a legal fiction. Whatever you want to call it, the trust fund serves no purpose except to deceive people. And the people who go around saying that the Trust Fund will help this nation pay for Social Security are perpetuators of this deceit. I will not stop calling them liars until the day comes when they are willing to advocate that the same accounting practices the federal government is using should be applied to everyone.

Even if I were to grant that they truly believe that the Trust Fund will help pay for Social Security in the future I would still call them liars. For the fact that they truly believe in the worth of the Social Security trust fund would only prove that they are so desperate to believe what they want to believe that they are willing to throw out everything they know and confess to be true. If they will do all that just so that they will not have to give up that one delusion, how is that morally any different than lying?

It would be less absurd for people to go around saying that I have murdered someone than for them to say that trust fund is efficacious. The charges would be slanderous as I have never murdered anyone (yet). But to say that the Chieftain of Seir has murdered John Doe would do no violence to the English language. It could be true depending on the facts. But to say that the Social Security Trust fund is both a liability that demands that the Feds pay up and an asset that enables the Feds to pay up is a farce as soon as it is uttered. It makes the words asset and liability meaningless before one even begins to look at the facts.

I first became aware how widespread this lie was as a teenager. At the time I could hardly believe what I was reading. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Being the good little religious fundamentalist that I am, I had read in the Bible that people would love lies rather than the truth. But I always thought that the lies that people would love would at least be somewhat plausible. I never thought that I would live in time where people would openly say things that made a farce out of English language
itself and expect people to believe it.

This would not be anything to be excited about if it were only few crack pots promulgating this lie. But it is not. I have heard politicians of both parties say that the trust fund will keep Social Security solvent for a long time. I have read it in the New York Times (not that it means much anymore). I have read it in union newsletters. In fact, the general consensus of the political elite seems to be that Social Security will not have real problems until the trust fund “runs out”.

When I was younger, I worried about facts and figures that seemed to me to show that the western world was heading towards a grave crisis. I still pay attention to that sort of thing, but I no longer give them as much weight in my thoughts as I once did. As I have meditated on history I have seen that it is not so much the problem that creates the crisis as it is how people react to the problem. To name just one example; World War II became such a big problem not so much because of the Nazis, but because of how people chose to react to the threat that they posed.

That is why I have harped so heavily on the deceitful nature of the trust fund and those who would have us put our faith in it. You can argue that Social Security is sustainable without being a liar. For the question of Social Security’s sustainability is a question about the future. And nobody knows what the future will bring. But if you cling to a lie to bolster your faith in Social Security’s future, it speaks ill of your character and your ability to deal with what problems the future will bring.

The fact that this nation’s elite has readily embraced a lie so absurd that it would discredit a child’s intelligence is more disturbing than a mountain of data that seems to show problems ahead. It reveals something terrible about the character of this nation that bodes very ill no matter what problems the future holds.

Sadly, the issue of honesty is lost in all of debates about Social Security. Most of the people who try to point out that the Trust Fund is a lie have issues that prevent the dishonesty of the Trust Fund from being clearly highlighted. They are usually ideologues who never saw a government program they did not want to destroy, or they are survivalists who are always looking for signs that the world is heading towards Armageddon. Their arguments are so full of data and overblown rhetoric that the simple charge of dishonesty tends to get drowned out. It all blends together and sounds like just another ideological debate.

I am as guilty as the next party. That is why I wish for someone with talents like Zola. I want the charge of lying to be clearly heard apart from the ideological debates. Not because I believe that some talented man can come and save us. I simply want someone to fulfill the role of the prophet and leave people with no excuse to say “we did not know.”

Maybe Tom Wolfe will volunteer.