Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Current Project: The First King of Montana (On Fiction: Part II)

Last week, I explained how some ideas can be very difficult to express, comparing them to the fictional butterfly, Americanus Exoticus, elusive and dead once you pin it down. We looked at some data on bestsellers and found that neither popularity nor critical acclaim -- nor both together -- will guarantee that a work has lasting value.

Writing good fiction is hard. I've been working at it seriously for four years, and I've tried a number of different approaches: make-it-up-as-you-write, experimental, minimalist, outline-based, hero's-journey-based, etc. I'm not enough of an authority to tell you the best way. In my make-it-up-as-you-write phase, I let a short story I was trying to write grow into a novel. The premise? It was probably too obscure: Europe of the 52nd century is descending into its third dark age, and a ecology-defending order of knights is slipping into civil war as their leading Council of Sages is split by philosophical disagreements that cannot be rationally worked-out.

I think it turned out like most first novels or novel-attempts: a story that meanders superficially from one colorful idea to the next. The unifying theme was weak and too-easily forgotten as I wrote. I fell in love with my characters and setting, and lost my objective view of the story, to the point where everything I wrote seemed interesting.

When I would describe this 52nd-century knighthood to people, with its devotion to ecology, political freedom, and logic, and the way its warriors rode in giant, self-replicating machines called "steeds," they tended to say, "I'm excited to read the novel!" But after reading my draft they tended to say, "I'm sure there are people out there who will like it."

The setting was too complex for the theme. It was too difficult to convey in a way that could move people. I don't think there is anything wrong with a complex setting: Dune is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, and probably one of the most intricate. But Dune delves deeply into universal philosophical themes: the nature of knowledge and wisdom, courage, heroism, power, corruption, decadence, and the two-sided nature of civilization itself.

My theme was that some disagreements can't be decided rationally. It was too weak. There is no reason to set a story 3000 years in the future to make this point. Dune is set 10,000 years in the future, but that's because Frank Herbert had no other choice. He was asking, "What if human beings developed their physical and mental capabilities to the farthest imaginable limit? What kinds of tyrants and heroes might you see in such a world?"

In my case, I had a bunch of knights who were well-trained, and heroic enough. They were the type of warriors you might encounter in your typical fantasy novel. The exceptional things about them was that they cared about the environment, they had sworn off wealth and power, and they rode around in giant spider-like machines. Kind of cool, right?

With the number of books being published today, fiction should never settle for kind of cool. It's fiction. You're making it up. You have the freedom to make it extraordinarily cool, so cool it goes off the charts into deep. Why the hell else are you writing? You might as well tell about your experience working in a cubicle today and cross your fingers that some critic will praise your story for "accurately portraying the real America."

By the time I set aside my first novel (this was late 2012) I had read or re-read a good number of classic sci-fi novels: Asimov's Foundation series, 1984, Childhood's End, K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Cat's Cradle, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Glass Bees. I also started becoming familiar with in-house authorities like Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, and Larry Niven. I decided to do what most science fictions writers traditionally do to get their start: publish short stories. Almost no one reads sci-fi shorts except sci-fi writers. It is a sort of professional club.

The problem with seasoned sci-fi professionals is that they are bored of sci fi. Let me explain. I've read a lot of sci-fi short stories. The best thing about the ones being published today is that each one is utterly unique. One's about the member of a race of genetically-enhanced space-faring soldiers with a pacifistic streak and family issues that lead him to commit suicide. Another is about an astrologer who settles a distant planet to find that all the constellations she relies on have changed. Another is about a man who is working with his ex-wife to understand an alien race that is landing, and as the dark skeletons of his past infidelities and alcoholism are exhumed, so is the terrible truth about the aliens: they have already conquered earth, uploaded the human race, and the two of them are merely reliving the events the led up to the conquest. Thus the protagonist is doomed to be, eternally, a cheat and a drunkard.

Maybe you understand already the worst thing about contemporary sci fi short stories: each one is utterly unique. The only thing unifying them is the craft. And with all the experimentation going on with plot & character (and experimentation is only getting more flamboyant as sci-fi editors get more bored) even the craft itself maintains only the barest of unity. The problem isn't that there aren't good writers out there, the problem is that if you take the sum total of a million brilliant, disharmonious visions, it is merely chaos. I'm not talking the healthy, complex chaos of a jungle ecosystem. I'm talking about a massive compost heap that's on the edge of spontaneous combustion -- a place where dreams and values go to die.

Nobody reads sci-fi shorts but sci-fi authors. I've submitted a couple of stories about cultures where machines do all the work and humans spend their days in virtual reality, where the humans' values, and eventually their bodies are absorbed into the giant mechanism and you have nothing but self-replicating machines. "It's been done a million times," I'm told. To me my idea is a world apart from the Matrix movies, for example, where machines took over by violence rather than human choice. But the Matrix movies aren't even on the radar when you're talking to a seasoned sci-fi professional: they will have the name of a Heinlein novel at the ready that parodies the subgenre of science fiction based on the idea that you thought was unique.

I will admit that my craft is still being perfected -- I do not grudge my dozen rejections from magazines like Analog and Asimov's. They get more submissions that than they do subscriptions; they're gateways to an exclusive club.

Almost all professional sci fi authors were rejected dozens of times at first. Only Heinlein, it is said, an ex-military intelligence agent, sold his first submission and never looked back. He's most famous for the story of a hermaphrodite who had a sex change and went back in time to sleep with herself and become her/his very own father/mother.

Be that as it may. Last Christmas Emily and I stayed up late with a couple beers and watched the Lord of the Rings movies. (This has been our little Christmas tradition.) I realized that here we have a story written by an author who overcame all cliche by overcoming his fear of cliche. Contrary to popular opinion, fantasy had been thriving as a genre for over a hundred years by the time the Fellowship of the Ring was published. Tolkien never avoided cliche, instead he researched each cliche, found its roots in ancient, classic, or romantic literature, saw its value, sharpened it, and made it into a theme. Fairies become the ancient and nature-loving races of Elves and Ents, the everyman hero becomes the Hobbit, the wise sage becomes Gandalf, the magical item becomes the One Ring to Rule them All.

So I went back to my original inspiration for writing: an apocalypse where stale values fall away, and out of the chaos comes a hero who must fight to put virtue back in its place. None of the stories I had written so far had had a central hero (except my future-version of Perceval, which had avoided making Perceval the view-point character out of fear of cliche). I decided to write a story with a hero, and thus the character of Jack Young was born, an elite soldier who returns from defeat at Washington D.C. to find his home state, Montana, under the rule of neo-fascist militias.

It's a cliche that in the apocalypse neo-fascist militias will take over. So instead of avoiding neo-fascists militias I put together the most atrocious one I can imagine. It is a cliche that a hero with a gun will rise to defeat them, so instead of avoiding it I make Jack the most daring, most heroic bastard you'll ever meet.

Tolkien makes his cliches themes by making them real. Gandalf is more like a grandfather than a wizard, the Ring is a nondescript band of metal, and the elves are good with a bow but are a little more arrogant, petty, and sometimes also more cowardly than your typical immortal.

So I took my ideal of Jack and made him flawed. He wants a peaceful solution, but he's perhaps too idealistic and too daring and it gets him in trouble. He has a tendency to fall for the wrong women. As long as I give him the basic premise that makes Jack Jack -- a desire and ability to protect the weak from violence -- he can be flawed in other ways, and he will be forced to overcome himself again and again on his way to the throne.

It's important that Jack doesn't want to be King. He just wants peace. He hates politics and soldiering and wants to go back to farming. But the land is being ravaged by nihilists and -- what is worse -- violent idealists who will fight each other to the death for money, power, glory, democracy, truth, or justice. And out of this chaos and violence, the partisans of ideology and politics will meet their appropriate tragic fates, and the one leader who is willing to remain faithful friends with anyone -- nihilists, religious fundamentalists, and hippie-ecologists alike -- will have the most allies and will be the last one standing when the dust settles.

This is a basic idea. There's also a love story, central to the plot, not only because it's cliche, but because it's my favorite way to deepen the human aspect of a story, to sharpen the tragedy and sweeten the adventure. It's time-tested: the modern romantic aesthetic has its roots in the Shakespearean tradition. I figure that if I spend as much time developing romantic tensions as I do politics and war, I might save my story from becoming as hopelessly grim, hollow, or dark as your average fictional apocalypse.

Which brings me to another cliche: post-apocalyptic settings. Typically you've got a vast desert almost void of life, and some grungy humans with guns duking it out. It's nonsense. If there's no farmland, what do they eat? If they're all fighting, how's anyone still alive? Where do they get their guns and bullets? Realistically, most of the survivors of the apocalypse won't be violent idiots. They will be people who are equipped to grow their own food without any help from technology. But is there anyone out there like that? Sure there are: in the U.S. you've got the Amish, and in Mexico you've got millions of Mayans. These ethnic groups have managed to preserve traditional ways of self-sustaining agriculture, and their birth rates are high enough than in 200 years you could see them spread throughout North America. So now I also had a unique post-apocalyptic setting: pacifistic Amish and traditional Mayans struggling to cultivate a depleted landscape, in need of a leader who can protect them from the wealthy ex-military men who've become tyrants.

I'm almost 200 pages into my first draft, and I'm currently refining a complete, scene-by-scene outline. I probably have another couple of years before I have any sort of presentable draft. Unlike my previous stories, the title of this one was easy to come up with: "The First King of Montana." 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Storytelling as the Art of the Hard-to-Express (On Fiction: Part I)

My 2011 blog posts describe how I discovered my philosophical question, and how I searched for and found answers to that question. But they fail to really express those answers, to convey the essence of my philosophy of life. My struggle over the last 4 years has been trying to find a way to do so.

How do I explain my struggle to express my philosophy without first expressing my philosophy? Let me try a metaphor. My wife has finally made me watch "The Fall," and I highly recommend it. Most critics rave about its imagery. I think its strong point is the touching friendship between the two hospital patients, a stuntman and a little girl, a friendship based around a silly fantasy story they make up together, a story which carries so much more meaning for them than it could possibly convey on its own, even with the best special effects in the world. Within this fantasy story you've got manifold symbolic elements charged with wonder and possibility. One of the characters is a heavily stylized version of Charles Darwin, who wears a colorful fur coat and in an emergency consults his pet monkey. He's searching for an extremely rare butterfly called "Americanus Exoticus" -- it is his life's dream.

When he finally finds the butterfly, it's dead and pinned, and he grieves. It's a silly scene, filmed comically, but it's got the essence of the tragedy of storytelling.

Let's think about what this butterfly must have been like when it was alive. To behold it is to experience a kind of beauty that is impossible to fully describe. For someone like our fictional Darwin -- who's been chasing it his entire life, and understands how it weaves its cocoon, how it drinks only from the purply-orange orchid "Fragilus Exquisitus", how it lays its eggs only by the sweetest of spring pools, how it's broadly tapered and trailing wings have unique aerodynamic properties -- the experience of beauty multiplies with one's scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if you were merely to describe its diet, habits, size, color, shape in coldly quantitative terms, the beauty is lost. Seeing it dead bears no comparison to observing it as it flits among the jungle ferns.

If you could film it as it flies, you might capture a good part of its aesthetic beauty. But even if Darwin had access to a movie camera, he still needs to somehow explain what the butterfly has taught him about ecology, evolution, and life itself.

The philosophical answers that I found are like Americanus Exoticus. Their significance can't be explained by art or science alone, but only by both together. If I were to explain myself scientifically, the meaning is lost, it becomes too technical. Expressing beauty is very difficult. All you can do about a lovely sunset is say, "Come look!" If you must describe it you might name the colors and talk about the shapes of the clouds, but how do you capture the subtlety and emotional impact?

So I've been trying my hand at painting the butterfly, that is, writing fiction that illustrates my philosophy. Since reading Chretien de Troyes's medieval romance "Perceval," I've been inspired by an alternate vision of the Apocalypse, one where it is the darkness and struggle for survival itself that must shape the seed of virtue for a new Golden Age. Since late 2008 -- for 6 years in fact -- I've been attempting to write a more romantic, more hopeful, more evolutionary kind of apocalyptic science fiction.

I am trying to write stories with a meaning and a message. Modern literary critics will tell you that this is a very bad idea.

These days, most fiction avoids having a meaning or a message, because modern writers are terrified of being too preachy. That's why most bestsellers are thrill rides and spectacles of sex or violence, and why most critically-acclaimed novels are obscure, unnecessarily complex, or hip and superficial. Whether high- or low-brow, modern novel writers are seeking to evoke pure pleasure, because that's what critics ask for. And critics ask for pure pleasure because they've grown tired of resisting a publishing industry that chases profits above all else. And because critics themselves want their readers to agree with everything they say, and it is much easier to agree that, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night," than to agree, "This novel is a thrill ride, a fast-paced page-turner that will keep you up at night, but ultimately promotes a set of values that will damage the moral conscience of this nation."

Besides, it's the first part of the quote that will be printed on the dust-jacket.

Don't get me wrong. I want people to take pleasure in my stories. It's essential. But the craft of writing must enhance the meaning of a work, not obscure it. If you look at the classics that have stood the test of time, they all speak with a clear voice and a solid meaning that is powerfully there but cannot be easily or fully explained without telling the story. You can say this about Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Jane Austen, H.G. Wells -- and almost any writer famous for more than 50 years. If all James Joyce had written was Finnegan's Wake or even Ulysses, no one today would know who he was. It's the clear, philosophical prose of Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that makes Joyce worth knowing.

If you look at bestseller lists from more than 50 years ago, you'll see that instant popularity does not ensure any kind of lasting value. Here are the U.S. bestselling novels according to Publisher's Weekly from 1932:

  1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  2. The Fountain by Charles Langbridge Morgan
  3. Sons by Pearl S. Buck
  4. Magnolia Street by Louis Golding
  5. The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow
  6. Old Wine and New by Warwick Deeping
  7. Mary's Neck by Booth Tarkington
  8. Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas
  9. Inheritance by Phyllis Bentley
  10. Three Loves by A. J. Cronin

Do you recognize any of those? Let's look at the number 1 bestseller for each year in the 1920s:

1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We all know "All Quiet on the Western Front," not because many of us have read it, but because we've all at least heard of the movie. If you recognize any others, you're probably in a university literature department. I'm guessing that even your best read literature professor will know nothing of these in another hundred years.

Neither critical acclaim nor bestselling status will guarantee immortality. Nor both together! Sinclair Lewis's 1922 "Babbit" was the 9th bestselling novel in 1922 and perhaps his most critically acclaimed work. You'll notice that Sinclair Lewis wrote two #1 bestsellers during the 20s, and he also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. From this data alone you might conclude he was the most important novelist of the 1920s. But most people today have never read any of his books. I remember picking up Babbit at the library five or six years ago -- it failed to hold my interest.

For a novel to be great it must explore timeless values. Sinclair Lewis was too hip. Most of his novels were satires of the middle-class American life. But middle-class America of the 1920s was full of superficialities that are rare in any other time and place. In Main Street he wrote about a woman who was "too educated" and "too liberal." He didn't realize that feminism was a trend that would grow immeasurably in our culture. And, on the other hand, it's a trend that's been special to Western culture and is not as common in other places and times.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby satirizes the same time and place as much of Lewis's work. But because it develops more eternal themes -- obsession, love, materialism -- Fitzgerald's work has lasted.

It is worth noting that The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, received mixed reviews, and that Fitzgerald was deeply disappointed by its meager sales. One of the most famous critics, H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," called it "no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that." Of the bestselling Babbitt, the same critic wrote, “I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America."

Not to conclude that genius is always misunderstood, either! Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) was critically acclaimed, the #6 bestseller, and has been famous now for over 100 years. It's possible to speak both to the present and to the future, though it is very rare.

My point is, novels like The Jungle or The Great Gatsby that have clear allegorical meaning, meaning that could not easily be expressed in nonfiction, meaning that touches on our eternal values: these are the novels that become a lasting part of a culture and make it what it is.

We need to stop being afraid of "having a message."

(Next week, I'll talk science fiction and tell how I came to write my novel-in-progress: The First King of Montana.)

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Art of Philosophy: How to Hope, How to Despair

My practice of war may be summarized in four propositions. First: I attack only causes which are victorious . . . Second: I attack only causes against which I cannot expect to find allies . . . Third: I never attack persons; I only avail myself of the person as of a strong magnifying glass to render a general but creeping calamity . . . Fourth: I attack only causes in which any personal difference is out of the question . . . To attack is with me a proof of good will . . .

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Reason, like the raw strength of a mountain climber's grip, is necessary to get a philosopher to the peak, but is not the whole of the art.

Each stage of a climb is different. First you practice, explore, and plan. Then you climb. Last -- and this is the most important thing if there is to be an art of mountain climbing -- you climb back down teach the next generation what you've learned.

There was once an art of philosophy in the West, and it was taught in the old books of Aristotle. But he was Greek, and America does not understand the Greeks anymore.

Behold our great philosophy forum in the New York Times: "The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless."

I read the Stone frequently. I do not mean to indict it when I say that its philosophical content is virtually zero. It is usually well-written, and often worth reading -- but it is not philosophy. It's more like a display case where makers of mountain-climbing equipment like to show off their latest creations.

It's a shame because we need philosophy: only movies written for shock value win Oscars, only obscure literature is dubbed "literary," and only frivolous scientific studies make the front page.

Deep thinking -- real philosophy -- has three steps:

(1) Doubt. (Explore, play, learn.)
(2) Reason. (Search, think, feel.)
(3) Express. (Return, change, teach.)

This is my rubric. Any philosophy that does not explore cannot be new and does not inspire people to change. Any philosophy that does not search cannot go deeper and, like a bad art film, does not penetrate appearances. Any philosophy that does not return from its abstractions, like an academic journal full of jargon, does not move or teach.

Let's take a look at a recent article in the Stone by its moderator and see how it measures up:

Critchley argues that hope is almost always a form of cowardice in the face of reality that leads to disappointment and disaster. He gives an example from Greek history where Athens gives Melos an ultimatum: "Submit to us or be destroyed," and Melos, hoping that Sparta comes to their rescue, refuses to submit. Athens then proceeds to kill or enslave the entire population of Melos. Critchley believes that our involvement in the Middle East is also based on false hopes -- abstract ones of justice and freedom. He says we would do best to take Nietzsche's advice, abandon our hopeful ideals -- including goodness and virtue -- and stick to realistic goals.

Set aside the idea that Melos might present a shining example of courage in the face of the tyranny of Athens. Set aside the fact that Critchley says he "loves Nietzsche," and that Nietzsche's favorite Greek was Alcibiades, a might-makes-right schemer who supported the decree to destroy Melos. Set aside Critchley's disdain for the abstract ideals of truth, justice, and virtue that guide any free society. Rather, let's take take a look at his philosophical method.


In the first place, philosophy must explore, must break new ground, must doubt conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom among intellectuals today is that science has it right, and we must abandon metaphysics and religion. And this is precisely Critchley's conclusion. But why I should I read a piece of writing that concludes what I already know? Perhaps Critchley is hoping that a Christian or Platonist somewhere is reading his article and has a change of heart.

If he's trying to convince Christians to listen to him he needs to cite his Christian opponents, engage with them, and explain where they went wrong. He mainly cites Nietzsche and Thucydides, who seem to agree with him.

I can't say that I love everything about Nietzsche's philosophy, but I do think it could teach Critchley something more about doubt, if Critchley would stop using Nietzsche as a crutch and use him more like a sparring partner. Nietzsche would never a take a flat position like, "Hope is self-deception: stop doing it." Quite to the contrary, the need for self-deception is a favorite theme of Nietzsche's writing. Just now I opened up my Viking Portable Nietzsche at random and got this passage from Zarathustra:

"Suitor of truth?" they mocked me; "you?
No! Only poet!
An animal, cunning, preying, prowling,
That must lie,
That must knowingly, willingly lie . . .
. . .
Prey for itself--"

Zarathustra, Nietzsche's prophet persona, is being mocked by the sun in his suffering over the truth. You do not suffer for the truth, the sun is saying, you suffer for self-deception. This monologue is Nietzsche's indictment of himself, a symbol of his pitiless, scorching self-doubt that does not flag. Nietzsche's doubt was superhuman; it drove him to madness. To patronize him as an ally in a superficial battle against "false hopes" disrespects his suffering and his sacrifice.

Not that Nietzsche sought any sort of pity. He compared his own thinking to a dance, a playful leap from doubt to self-deception, and back again. It is, in fact, an incredibly fruitful method for doubt. The basic rule is to pretend. This is necessary because you cannot truly doubt what you do not first pretend to understand, yet you cannot understand what you do not first pretend to doubt. Which is why, in the exploration phase of thinking, you must leap from one to the other, the way a child plays or a scientist hypothesizes. This is how we learn. Critchley's not being jaunty enough. Rather than sparring with Nietzsche, he simply takes him for granted, which is both the cause and the effect of his shallow interpretation.

Critchley fails to doubt the conventional wisdom that Nietzsche was opposed to all hope. I will admit that Critchley's outright condemnation of hope is a little jaunty. It would be more bold if there were more Nietzschean self-doubt here: what would really happen if we abandoned all our ideals? What ideals guide me? How do I know that an ideal is unrealistic?


Let's move on to the next item on our rubric: reason. To reason philosophically is not merely calculation; it is to search for an answer to a specific question. It is goal-directed, logical, and must engage every relevant faculty of the mind, both emotional and rational. It does not finish until you have a logically-consistent position that satisfies your original doubt.

The crux of Critchley's position is his claim that it was unreasonable for Melos to resist the ultimatum of Athens. This calculation is too cold. Would it have been better for Melos to submit, and thus strengthen the brutal Athenian Empire? Might their sacrifice not have stirred up more courage throughout Greece, and in the end helped defeat Athens? Melos' answer to the Athenian ultimatum (submit or perish) was their own ultimatum: if you do not leave us be, we'll prove your savagery. As Thucydides quotes them,
You should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right . . . Your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance
and an example for the world to meditate upon.
In modern politics, it is considered good policy to ignore the demands of terrorists. This isn't blind hope -- it's a rational, far-sighted policy designed to discourage terrorists from making unjust demands in the first place.

True to modern reductionist thinking, Critchley fails to take the context into account. He reduces everything to a single cause and a single effect: Melos resists and Athens destroys Melos. True reason seeks every important connection, and to see what is important there must be a goal or question that you seek to answer. But Critchley failed to doubt, and thus failed to have a coherent question, and this keeps his analysis on the surface of things.

He applauds Thucydides' account of this event because this Greek historian "offers no moral commentary." Of course he doesn't. He's giving an objective history. He's not a philosopher. Does Nietzsche, on the other hand, ever give an objective account of anything? Critchley writes:

What we need in the face of what Nietzsche calls “a strict, hard factuality,” is not hope, but “courage in the face of reality.”

What's the difference? Is courage not an ideal? Was Melos not courageous? Critchley calls Plato's ideals of justice, virtue, and the good "fictional." What earns courage its "reality?" My money is on its manly, warlike sound -- calling us back to a romantic age where physical and emotional strength meant something. I'll admit it: Plato is an excessively civilized philosopher, and his favorite ideals lacked the free-roaming spice of passion, daring, or ruthlessness.

Critchley fails to reason deeply. His goal was to scrub us clean of all abstract ideals, but doesn't do so in his own case with any thorough logical rigor.


The other essential component of good philosophy is rhetoric. As Aristotle puts it, rhetoric is the study of "modes of persuasion." He says the point is not to move your audience to "anger or envy or pity," but to show that something "is so or is not so."

Of what does Critchley wish to persuade us? His thesis is that the we need to do away with all hopes except the reasonable ones. But who actually believes that this is not so? Who is he trying to persuade? It's unclear. A con man doesn't care if his hopes are "unreasonable," and his victim doesn't know. You're never going to hear a Christian say, "I believe in God, though I know it's unrealistic." As one of Critchley's commenters responds, "Who decides which hopes are reasonable and which are not?"

Apparently, we know from the outset that the hopes of Christians, Platonists, and "moralists" are unrealistic; Critchley wastes no breath explaining why this might be so. Justice, goodness, and liberty, in Critchley's view, are obviously unreasonable. Does he think so because they cannot be seen, touched, or analyzed with a spectrometer? Or maybe because the laws of evolution guarantee the continuation of human cruelty? We don't know, because he does not say.

To be fair, we're talking about a column, not a book or a paper. Surely, Critchley has a more complete view described elsewhere, perhaps in papers full of big words in academic journals, or in his notebooks. Whatever this view is, his column fails to express its essential difference from conventional wisdom. Most people believe that truth, justice, and goodness are worth fighting for, are reasonable hopes. Critchley assumes, without explanation, that these are unreasonable hopes.

It is not sound rhetoric to prove a contentious point based on a another contentious point. Philosophy 101: start with premises that everyone agrees upon.

I'm sure Critchley's ideas moved him when he first had them. Perhaps after reading some Thucydides and Nietzsche, he took a long walk in that drearily cold spring weather he mentions, and was struck by some very deep, original thoughts. If so, Critchley has failed to return from his abstractions, to express the essence of his thoughts, to teach us anything new. He's excised their most colorful specimens, what he believed readers would find the most sensational. Unfortunately, the resulting passages are like clipped flowers, wilting and incapable of producing seed.


To all appearances, nobody in America is teaching the art of thinking. In a nation with more spare time than almost any other civilization in history, it's disappointing. We're like a country in the Alps where you've got specialists in making hiking boots, specialists in training the muscles in your upper body, specialists in driving stakes into a rocky cliff, but no real mountain climbers.

In college we get our knowledge piecemeal: here's how to write a paper that argues from a premise to a conclusion; here's how to prove a logical inconsistency; here's how to grab your reader's attention. The rare professor who teaches true doubt does not teach how to reason, at least not in the same seminar. So you never get the big picture. We train our future thinkers to argue, but not how to ask interesting questions. We train them to do research, but not how to think for themselves.

Philosophy is an art. Any color can be mixed from red, blue, yellow, and white, but you can't teach painting by having a seminar on red, another one on blue, etc. Nor could you just go to 256 seminars, each on a different color. Nor even could you learn painting by learning painting alone. Every great painter in history has also been a philosopher. Every great painter paints ideas, thoughts, profound emotions.

Good thinking is teachable. If it weren't, it would have to be innate, but it clearly is not. It takes well-roundedness. You need the doubt of a psychologist, you need the rigor of logic, you need the audience-awareness of art. Each must flow into the next. Reading the dictionary cover-to-cover is not fruitful exploration, and doubting the definitions you find is not fruitful doubt. To find good questions you must play well. And good questions are questions that lead to insights that will do people some good, and that you will be able to express clearly.


It's easier to criticize than to do better yourself. Let's not simply denounce Critchley's philosophizing, let's philosophize better.

Everything turns on the question of what a reasonable hope is. When there is no reasonable hope, you've got reasonable despair. When it's not reasonable to despair, you've got some reasonable hope. Each is the exact logical negation of the other.

What does it mean to be reasonable? In practice, the term is empty. Once you've admitted your hope is unreasonable, you've lost hope. But there is a reason we use the term reasonable, and that's to encourage people to reason. When we tell someone, "That's unreasonable!" it's short for, "Hold on second, you need to think about that instead of jumping to conclusions." When Critchley tells us to have "reasonable hopes," it's short for "Think about those hopes before you accept them."

The point of Critchley's article and the point of this blog post are the same: think.

What we disagree on is the best way to learn how to think. Critchley wants you to read Nietzsche and Thucydides, but not Plato or St. Paul. That is because Critchley believes that the latter two will tell you to adopt unreasonable hopes. I want you to read Nietzsche and Thucydides and Plato and St. Paul. This is because I believe that Plato and St. Paul will show you how to dispel unreasonable despair.

Nietzsche will teach you how to root out unreasonable hopes. He will teach you how to be hard on yourself and doubt what you've taken for granted. But that is only part of what philosophers do. If all we did was demolish hopes, there would be nothing left of our culture. Some say that Nietzsche went mad because of migraines. I think it's likely that these migraines were the result of too much doubt. That fact is, it was so difficult for him to stop his thoughts from running on and on, that he was prescribed opiates to help him sleep. After ten years of productive philosophical writing, he became catatonic.

Neural health aside, I would argue that Nietzsche's despair was unreasonable. Let's flip open his final, most "mature" book Ecce Homo:

The whole of history is the refutation by experiment of the principle of the so-called "moral world order."

I doubt that the United Nations will last forever, let alone bring about world peace. But I do think this "moral world order" is a good thing, and that it owes nothing to Nietzsche, and almost everything to Plato. Nietzsche was a fantastic doubter, and if we follow his line of thinking we can see clearly how dependence on institutions can dampen the vitality of a culture. But when it comes to constructing new, useful ideas, you need an idealistic thinker like Plato who's mustered enough hope to write an extended, positive treatise -- like Laws or the Republic -- outlining in detail what an ideal society might look like. Nietzsche never would have had the patience for this, and that's why, on the whole, Plato's philosophy has done far more to help Western societies achieve political liberty -- based on the very ideals Nietzsche wants to reject, of liberty, justice, and the common good. By outlining how an ideal society might work in practice, Plato helped dispel the unreasonable despair of ever forming a just government.

So here's my augmentation of Critchley's thesis. It is neither hope nor despair that needs to be dispelled, it is unreasonable hope and unreasonable despair. In short, it is unreasonableness, unthinkingness that we must resist. To do this, we need to follow the example of constructive philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, whose methods of philosophizing were careful, well-trained, well-informed, and thorough.

Philosophies like Critchley's "abandon (almost) all hope" seek to make our culture rational by destroying whatever we can't easily rationalize. Such philosophies do not promote a healthy ecology of ideas. No thriving species or ecology is composed of only a few varieties. For any ecosystem to thrive, biological or cultural, motley seeds must be spread liberally.


Despair that a single brilliant mind, let alone idea, can remake American philosophy. Hope that a diverse society of well-rounded minds will.

Grow your own diverse, playful ecosystem of ideas. Read Plato, Thucydides, St. Paul, Nietzsche, Darwin, St. Augustine, the Koran, whatever it is you most disagree with. Learn from it, let your thoughts dance, let them cohere. Share your insights well, whether through art, music, science, or philosophy.

Cultivate both despair and hope.


For more on the pros and cons of idealistic hope in the face of oppression, I recommend this documentary on the Zapatista movement for indigenous independence, started by a philosophy professor from Mexico City. The brief interview with him at the end is both sobering and illuminating:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

American Anti-Philosophy and What We Can Do to Fight It

There is something deeply disturbing about the Hunger Games phenomenon, and it goes beyond the grotesqueness of the violence. What has bothered me most about it -- and the movies, board games, and licensed merchandise haven't helped -- is that it is a action-adventure thriller about children killing children that children are supposed to read that is supposed to constitute a critique of our society's tendency to desensitize itself to violence.

It's hypocritical. You don't criticize the glorification of violence in a culture by coming up with the most disturbing form of violence you can and glorifying it. What you should do is write a satire. But for a satire to be effective it must constitute a philosophical argument, and be funny. A true satire of the glorification of violence, in the spirit of Voltaire's Candide or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, might go something like this:

On her way home from seeing Hunger Games II in the theater, Heroine is accidentally shoved in a cryogenic freezer to find herself waking up a few decades later to an interesting new America, where the Hollywood entertainment industry has become so disgustingly wealthy on its action-horror-adventure bloodbaths, that it has successfully lobbied Congress to legalize the fight-to-the-death of underprivileged children who are going to starve to death anyway, and give a fraction of the money made from this TV show to the District where the winning child came from, and justify it by saying "Hey, before you had twelve children who were going to die, but we're going to make sure one of them lives and becomes wealthy to boot." Since Heroine's family is long dead, she is an orphan and considered poor and ends up in the games, and now regrets ever having bought that movie ticket to Hunger Games II that helped bring these bastards to power.

That's, more or less, what a satire of our culture's glorification of violence should look like.

We Americans have forgotten how to think deeply about things. I could multiply examples of this, citing Tarantino's Oscars, the banality of higher education, or the decline of academic philosophy itself. But things are still worse than this: we have become -- not just non-philosophical -- but anti-philosophical.

Take the so-called Culture Wars, the supposed fight to the death between science and religion over things like prayer in school and evolution. The fight over evolution is particularly interesting. In most cases you've got a Christian on one hand saying, "Look, I just don't see how something so complex could come about by chance," and an atheist on the other saying, "There's mountains of evidence for it, this is a stupid debate, and I'm going home."

Hold on a second. First of all, the question of how complex adaptations came about by variation and natural selection was exactly the question Charles Darwin set out to answer in a 502-page book called On the Origin of Species. These debates really should go something like this:

"Look, I just don't see how something so complex could come about by chance."

"Fantastic! I have just the book for you. Have you read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species?"

"Well, actually I have."

"Really, that's awesome! Just where did his argument seem to go wrong."

"Well, on page 230 he argues . . ."

Ah. Music to my ears. I have never in my life heard an evolution debate go anything like that, and it's because we've become anti-philosophers who say things like, "This debate is stupid, creationists are idiots." No, they're asking questions. They're doubting. Many brilliant evolutionary theorists became so because they started out as curious creationists. People born atheists rarely take the time learn the ins and outs of Darwin's theory because they've never had occasion to doubt it in the first place. Disagreements are opportunities for both parties to learn. Most of what I know about evolution comes from one of three periods in my life:

(1) When I was making the transition from creationist to evolutionist personally.
(2) When I was debating evolution with creationists and actually took the time to read some creationist literature.
(3) When I was trying to decide among alternate theories of evolution. [Note: scientists don't like people to think that evolutionary theory is still being developed, but like any good theory, it is.]

Everything that I've learned about evolution, or about anything for that matter, has only come when I have taken the time to doubt. And the art of doubting is dying in our culture (though I sometimes wonder if it's ever really thrived on American soil).

I can prove beyond a doubt that America is the most anti-philosophical civilization ever to reach any prominence. (Rome would beat us out for that title, but for two names: Cicero, St. Augustine.) Here's how: the most highly regarded American philosophers are Henry James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. Each of these philosophers described themselves as Pragmatists (though both Pierce and James had their qualms about what the term came to mean), and in fact they gave rise to the most influential American school of philosophy -- Pragmatism. This is the view that philosophy should jettison any thought, belief, or idea that has no practical use.

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?--fated or free?--material or spiritual?--here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. (Henry James, "Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.")

Philosophy is about how to live your life in the most meaningful way possible. "What is the meaning of life?" is the perennial philosophical question, and it has occupied every great philosopher from Confucius to Emerson. By "meaning" I don't mean the definition of words. I mean meaningfulness, as in ultimate purpose or highest good.

Practical utility is the opposite of meaning. The most useful things in WWII were planes, tanks, and guns, and the factories that made them. But planes, tanks, and guns weren't the meaning of the war. The meaning of the war had to do with freedom, power, and sacrifice. It had to do with our deepest values.

Henry James was actually a fairly deep philosopher, and would have granted that the pragmatic method isn't really applicable to questions of the highest good. The problem is not that his thinking was wrong, but that he failed to give it a cohesive form beyond the notion of pragmatism, and this crippled later incarnations of his philosophy. (The problem of passing down philosophical knowledge is a deep and important one that needs more attention.) But if you ask a contemporary pragmatist about the "highest good" I guarantee they will answer something like, "I have no need for such an hypothesis." That was pretty much what happened to me studying for my Ph.D. in Philosophy. I asked Socrates' favorite question and got a blank stare. That's why I decided to quit with my Masters and do a little thinking on my own.

Anyway, my point is: even our philosophers are anti-philosophers in this country.


This blog post is a call to action. It's a call to philosophy. And philosophy is not pragmatism; it's not the dismissal of all impractical questions. It's actually the opposite of that; it's the embrace of the most impractical question of all:

How do I live my life in the most meaningful way possible?

This question has led people to do very impractical things: quit school, quit their job, spend hours a day staring off into space. I speak from experience, because I've done all these impractical things and more in my own personal pursuit of this question.

Most contemporary Americans that call themselves philosophers are a special kind of philosopher called an "analytic" philosopher. There's nothing wrong with being an analytic philosopher. They are experts in analyzing language, definitions, and scientific methods. But an analytic philosopher is usually not really a philosopher. They don't care to apply their insights to the question: "How do I live my life?" Their insights are applied to scientific practice, psychology, linguistics, and legal theory. Analytic philosophy is largely irrelevant to the task of traditional philosophy. Worse that this, it causes all kinds of confusion when we send our young men and women off to college to learn the meaning of life, and they come back spouting logical technicalities.

Again, logical technicalities are fine and good, but they are not the meaning of life. To think that they are is another example of American Anti-Philosophy. It's like thinking that guns and bombs are the meaning of war.

Here's another example. Many an art film has run off into an abyss of meaninglessness because it is hip to think that "Life doesn't really have a meaning." You know, the American Beauty kind of meaninglessness. (Incidentally, if you watch the American Beauty DVD with commentary you will get a few hours of the director saying things like, "I used rose petals in this scene because I like rose petals.") Nihilism is hip, and a movie with a moral has a tendency to anger critics, because critics, more than anyone, hate to doubt what they think they already know. A good example of this is Avatar: critics hate the plot because there's good and evil and the good guys win. I think the public can actually be trusted more on this one: people love it because in the real world whenever big corporations chasing a profit have teamed up with a cynical military you get a hell of an evil villain. And in the recent past it's usually been us, America. The success of Avatar proves that most Americans do have a philosopher deep inside that craves doubt. We want to doubt that our way of life is the best, and the deepest movies are the ones that give us an excuse to do this.

Imagine that you've got a prosperous kingdom, so wealthy from trade that the king decides that the kingdom can afford to have ten kings. So he hires on ten more kings, and they all live the luxurious kingly life. Since the kingly duties are split, it gives all these kings more time for philosophy, art, and science. This causes their science to advance quickly, and they discover how to breed a new kind of hay that makes the horses of the kingdom run extremely fast. They send these horses off to every corner of the world to trade, and bring back even more knowledge and more wealth. And now the kingdom can afford to have a hundred kings. You see where this is going? More knowledge, more power, until finally you have an entire kingdom where almost everyone is a king or queen.

Now in this kingdom, because they've got such fast horses, their food can be grown in other kingdoms and shipped in. So you've got kings and queens who are born and die and never in their lives see the peasants that support them. Can you imagine how complacent such a culture would get? How inane their philosophy? How empty their entertainment? You've even got some kings who imagine that, one day, everyone in the world will be made a king, and suffering will be over forever. Of course, these kings are forgetting that 95% of the world is peasants, and this percentage has never really changed.

If you haven't caught on, I've just described the history of America (and of Europe, and Rome, and every high civilization ever). Maybe it should be obvious why very few civilizations ever manage to produce any interesting philosophy. Europe did, because it rose from the ashes of Rome. Rome did, because it imitated Greece. Greece did, I suppose, because it had Socrates.

Socrates did not care for riches or fame. He didn't care much for science or poetry. Even better, he did not care to flatter the priests or politicians in power. The was one thing that he philosophized about, and one thing only, and that was the individual human heart and its relationship to the Good. His philosophy has survived a dozen dark ages of war and poverty because it does not glorify high civilization -- it glorifies the individual.

What do American philosophers want to do? They want to disprove religion, or prove religion. They want to feed the world, cure poverty, cure cancer. All of these goals presuppose that the culture of kings that we live it will reign forever and everyone will become a king. All of these goals glorify high civilization. And high civilization is a collective, it is not an individual.

When our civilization finally collapses (and all civilizations are mortal), democracy will pass away, welfare will pass away, medical science will pass away, and our wealthy cynicism will pass away. If people remember anything that our philosophers say, it will be the things that strengthen the individual human heart.

When Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions, and threatened with execution, he did not run away. He stood his ground, and continued to doubt, question, and argue until the moment he was put to death. I know of no philosopher who has ever shown greater intellectual courage (unless we count Jesus as a philosopher, and maybe we should). It is no wonder that for over 2,000 years Socrates has set the standard for rationality.

If America wants to accomplish anything lasting in the realm of thought, we need to take our cue from the Greeks.

The Greeks saw philosophy as an art. You find a master and become an apprentice. Plato was Socrates' apprentice, and Aristotle was Plato's apprentice. The art of thinking can be taught, and it must be taught well if we are to give rise to any lasting sort of tradition.

Given that we are not yet teaching philosophy well in this country, what do we need to do?


I have no doubt that all the successful intellectuals, writers, and professors in America have a working theory of rationality that they use when they think about things. But of all the dozens of such thinkers I've met in my life, not one has really cared to teach it. I understand why. Teaching takes work, it takes planning and time, and you have to find the right students. And if you wanted to teach your entire system of rationality you would first have to work out what that theory is, and it's surprisingly hard to uncover your own methods of thought. (Try it: next time you think about something complex, go back and try working out every rational step in your reasoning. Even if you've been trained philosophically, it's hard, and you'll usually end up with gaps.)

We need to go back to the Greek idea that philosophy should be broken down into a teachable craft, like jewelry-making or Buddhism. The main problem, though, is lack of teachers. So until someone starts an academy, the only way for us to learn is by reading.

By reading I do not mean academic textbooks. Precious few textbooks are written from the heart, and fewer still will pass the test of time. Alas, the same goes for popular philosophy bestsellers. Now if only there were some way to take a time machine in to the far future and see which books they'll be reading in 2,000 years . . . Hold on a second, that gives me an idea! Why don't we just read the textbooks from 2,000 years ago that have survived to today? The Greeks, Romans, and Chinese wrote countless textbooks on philosophy, haven't we yet determined which of those were best?

We have, and here's the list:

1) Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu
2) The Confucian Analects
3) Plato's Dialogues
4) Aristotle
5) St. Augustine

As far as teaching one how to think philosophically, the most well-rounded of these is Aristotle. He covers everything from logic, to tragedy, to ethics, to politics. If you want to learn how to think, start with him. But don't be fooled into thinking that Aristotle will be fun -- he is actually the most boring of the five. At one point in college I remember resolving to read Aristotle straight through. It was so dry I didn't get through three pages. It wasn't until grad school that I managed to read most of Aristotle's works, and only because I had the time and motivation.

This brings me to the next essential thing that is needed if American philosophy is to thrive: motivation. You must crave the truth. And nothing will ignite this passion more than a healthy dose of doubt.

Before there can be philosophy, there must be doubt. If you do not truly doubt -- your religion, your science, your art, your spirituality -- you cannot fix any of these things. To fix something you must take it apart. To take a belief apart is to doubt it. "How do I know this is true?" "What if this isn't true?" etc. If you do not doubt deeply enough, you will produce ideas that merely confirm what everybody already knows. Books like that are unhealthy. If you need some help doubting, seek out the master doubters in recent times. Read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, read all of Emerson, read Wittgenstein's Investigations.

Start with doubt. Move on to reason, but always keep your highest values and goals in mind. Find the answer. Once you have the truth, learn to express it clearly.

When you find yourself doubting enough that you crave meaning, seek out the masters of building belief back up again. (If you do not build back up, you risk becoming one of those artsy movie directors that don't know how to reassemble their story, or Continental Philosophers who can't form a cohesive argument to save their lives, or postmodernist literati that drift way in a sea of ennui and unjustified snobbery -- you get the point.) The masters of re-constructing belief are, as far as I'm concerned: Aristotle and St. Augustine.

Proper philosophical thought takes time and effort. You must go all out, no holds barred. Meditate. Read. Find quiet time every day. Think. Suffer. Feel your problem. Give yourself weeks, months, years if needed. Be tough-minded. Stand up to critics. Do not back down from an argument you believe in, but always be willing to lose an argument if you are wrong.

Strive for a goal or an end in your thinking. Find answers to your questions or show why they are not answerable or not important.

Once you've found your answer, come back to reality. Find a way to show people what you've found. This is often the most difficult step. Express your insight so that they can actually make use of it in their lives. Create something -- Art, Science, Religion, Literature -- that will make individuals into better individuals.