I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 2)

In which the computer guesses my personality from my blog posts

A psychologist friend recently shared a story with me about calculating personality traits from social media, and using those results to influence election outcomes by allowing more targeted political advertising. It turns out that you can subject your psyche to this scrutiny for free online.  I was a little hesitant to volunteer my Facebook profile, but I didn’t see any harm in pasting in some of my blog posts to see what it came up with. (These were all written, of course, with no thought that they would be used as part of a personality test.)

I’ve posted the results of the Big 5 personality traits below, along with Myers-Briggs estimates, which were always INTJ or INTP (I have always thought I was an INTJ, but INTP isn’t a bad fit either).

My psychological gender was 95%-99% masculine, which made sense: not long ago I read an article that pointed out that female INTJs have difficulty being accepted because they think like (stereotypical) men. When I first read that, I suddenly realized the peculiar contradiction that I’ve never really struggled with my masculinity, even though I’m a poetry-loving non-athletic academic: in spite of not doing any stereotypically masculine things, I think like a (stereotypical) man.

In general, I’m impressed that it gives fairly consistent results—although this might not mean anything more than that I have a consistent writing style. In terms of personality, I am surprised to see consistent marks in the direction of “Liberal and Artistic”. The other dimensions are not particular surprising to me; some of them are right on the border of course.

Psalms (INTP)

The Idea of a University  (INTP)

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle  (INTJ)

  • Odd that an essay that was trying to get people to stop freaking out showed me as more strongly ‘competitive’ and ‘impulsive and spontaneous’.
  • But this is also where the J in INTJ showed through most clearly, which perhaps suggests decisiveness following the election result. (?)

The Moral Vision of the New Testament  (INTJ)

A People’s History of the United States  (INTP)

  • If writing a negative review of A People’s History gets me the highest scoring for ‘Liberal and Artistic’, I think they must be using the 17th-century definition of ‘liberal’.
  • More ‘Competititve’ here perhaps because I was writing a negative review?

The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time  (INTP)

  • This post was mostly about funny stuff and fun memories. Perhaps that’s why I came across as more ‘Impulsive and Spontaneous’ and more ‘Laid back and Relaxed’?
  • Apparently I should watch more fail videos!

Make economic immigration radically easier, and build a wall  (INTP)

And here are my results from a personality test they have on their web site based on my responses to 100 statements.

Now, if we can assume that the two means of personality evaluation are both valid, the interesting points are:

  • I am more open in my writing than I am willing to admit to on a personality inventory.
  • I am more conscientious in my writing than I admit on the inventory, but also more neurotic.

This test also labeled me as an ISTJ, however, which I think is pretty far off.

And this has been the week’s dose of navel-gazing and self-absorption.

Fake News & Unavoidable Narratives

I attended a security meeting a few days ago, run by an international NGO whose sole purpose is to monitor the security situation and share that information with other NGOs. This NGO collates all of this information—mostly based on what NGOs share with them—and sends a list of them out weekly in spreadsheet format. That is the core product. (There are biweekly and quarterly reports that try to track trends in incident numbers in various regions of the country, but it’s fairly basic data processing.)

This is to say, the weekly reports I get from this organization are “just the facts.” That doesn’t make them infallible: the standard epistemological caveats apply. But if somebody’s detonated an IED, then we get a report that somebody detonated an IED: with little or no speculation as to motives, or the identity of the perpetrators. The reports are, I imagine, as close as we can get to objective news reporting.

In the notes I typed up for myself after the security roundtable, I wrote, “It’s difficult to create a narrative based on a lot of discrete data points.” That reflected my observation that the security NGO truly struggled to place the facts that they had collected into any sort of narrative context. It wasn’t for want of trying, but just about all they are able to say were things like, “Incidents are up X% in this province from last year,” or “Incidents are down Y% from three months ago.” And, tedious as those sorts of observations can be, I admire their intellectual humility in choosing not to create a narrative out of the facts for which they did not have evidence.

On the other hand, the security reports are utterly unreadable. In fact, until recently I was just ignoring them, because the barrage of facts made no sense to me. That’s because they had no narrative.

Humans process facts primarily through narratives. Without a narrative, it’s very difficult to hold a large number of facts together.  I was able to place my spreadsheet-of-facts into a narrative context by getting the data into Google Earth, grouped by week. All of a sudden, my brain could work with the data: the events were distributed spatially and with time. With some furious clicking I could create little animations of how (badly) things were going, and where. Even if my simple data visualization lacked some crucial narrative elements—I still don’t know who the actors are, and I don’t have a clear sense of their goals, beyond seeing where they choose to operate—it provides enough narrative scaffolding for me to make sense of the data.

If I were going to invest in a news media company, I would not invest in one that sent around weekly spreadsheets of events. News is only comprehensible to us because the facts of the situation are presented in the context of a narrative. A more nefarious way to express the idea of the last sentence is to say that successful news must be placed into a narrative of the media company’s choosing. So in this sense, “media bias” is unavoidable, not just with respect to the selection of facts, but also with respect to the narrative context in which the facts are placed. (This is probably where confirmation bias comes from.) So, for instance, atrocities committed by military personnel from various countries can be presented either as isolated atrocities, or as part of a larger narrative an injustice. In the American media, Syria and Russia tend to get the latter treatment. America got the gentler treatment in the earlier Bush years and in the Obama years. Or, if you can remember the news from 2015, there was a tremendous spate of stories about gun violence and shootings—despite the fact that gun violence was decreasing at that time.

In all eras, stories from media outlets have reflected the narratives that those outlets wish to promulgate (for instance, during World War II). It seems to me that in the 1990s, the growth of cable news added a market element in: consumers could choose who they wanted to get their news from. And then of course in the last fifteen years or so, social media has encouraged the formation of echo chambers. Fake news flows inevitably out of this situation. Once the echo chamber has been formed, all that is needed to satisfy our itching ears is a tiny narrative to fit into the larger one. The factuality of the incident is less important than the narrative resonances that it evokes.

The Idea of a University

I finished reading The Idea of a University a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to write up my thoughts on it. I still don’t have time to do the book justice, but I thought I would write something at least before whatever synthesis I have slips away. I read from a Kindle, and so it is easy to include quotations. I doubt there exists any book titled The Quotable Newman because, as is evident from the length of my quotations, Newman thought in paragraphs rather than in sound bites. So these quotations are overlong but, I believe, still worthwhile.

Because it is a famous book, I had a go at it probably twelve or fifteen years ago. I did not make it further than the introduction. One passage from the introduction struck me then, and struck me again recently. Newman contrasts with the goals of liberal education with the lesser goal of making suitable conversation partners—instilling a superficial knowledge that consists mostly of having opinions on a wide variety of matters.

Some one, however, will perhaps object that I am but advocating that spurious philosophism, which shows itself in what, for want of a word, I may call “viewiness,” when I speak so much of the formation, and consequent grasp, of the intellect. It may be said that the theory of University Education, which I have been delineating, if acted upon, would teach youths nothing soundly or thoroughly, and would dismiss them with nothing better than brilliant general views about all things whatever.


Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of “views” on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practised on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Newman was concerned about the rise of periodical literature in 1852. How much greater cause for concern in 2004, with the then-new 24-hour news cycle. How much greater cause for concern in 2016, with blogs, tweets, social media, and so forth. “Chief evils of the day” isn’t putting it too lightly. Indeed I almost (almost!) look back fondly of the media climate of twenty years ago, when ‘infotainment’ at least gave a nod to information. Today’s media and social media coverage seems to have a laser-like focus on my opinion: Condemn this! Support that! Have an opinion about this! It’s the democratization of the shallow news coverage we all despise. And the causes were of course the same in 1852:

We refer the various matters which are brought home to us, material or moral, to causes which we happen to know of, or to such as are simply imaginary, sooner than refer them to nothing; and according to the activity of our intellect do we feel a pain and begin to fret, if we are not able to do so. Here we have an explanation of the multitude of off-hand sayings, flippant judgments, and shallow generalizations, with which the world abounds. Not from self-will only, nor from malevolence, but from the irritation which suspense occasions, is the mind forced on to pronounce, without sufficient data for pronouncing. Who does not form some view or other, for instance, of any public man, or any public event, nay, even so far in some cases as to reach the mental delineation of his appearance or of its scene? yet how few have a right to form any view.

“Few have a right to form any view”—that’s not terribly democratic, but I think it’s more or less accurate. What legitimate right do I really have to a view about the situation in the Middle East, the presidential election, or this or that shooting? I’m a linguist with exposure to a very narrow slice of the world.

In one of the early chapters, Newman argues that it is necessary for theology to be taught in universities in part because, left unchecked, academics are likely to colonize other areas of study with their own approaches and methodologies. As Newman points out, this is a flaw in the individual, not the science:

For example, it is a mere unwarranted assumption if the Antiquarian says, “Nothing has ever taken place but is to be found in historical documents;” or if the Philosophic Historian says, “There is nothing in Judaism different from other political institutions;” or if the Anatomist, “There is no soul beyond the brain;” or if the Political Economist, “Easy circumstances make men virtuous.” These are enunciations, not of Science, but of Private Judgment; and it is Private Judgment that infects every science which it touches with a hostility to Theology, a hostility which properly attaches to no science in itself whatever.

Of course, anyone with any exposure any media will be familiar with academics who use their credibility in their narrow specialization as a soapbox to declaim about any social or scientific issue they desire. (An advantage of peer review: it is acknowledged that the scientist is not the authority, and that individual claims stand or fall on their own merits.)

Properly, a university environment should correct these tendencies in individuals, by keeping the individual grounded and oriented in the big (universal) picture. These lines, which I am sure have been quoted thousands of times by proponents of liberal arts, are worth quoting again:

This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.

(Tangentially, it is interesting to see Newman—throughout the book—addressing an audience in which, although it was obvious that not everyone was a Christian, it was not really socially possible to be open about that. On the one hand it allows for some interesting rhetorical ploys, and on the other it gives him opportunity to refer gently to unspoken realities.)

I quote the passage below for the last sentence. Newman defends the idea of a liberal education as a real thing, not just a label. That’s not an easy distinction to make, so I find the last sentence interesting methodologically.

Now, as to the particular instance before us, the word “liberal” as applied to Knowledge and Education, expresses a specific idea, which ever has been, and ever will be, while the nature of man is the same, just as the idea of the Beautiful is specific, or of the Sublime, or of the Ridiculous, or of the Sordid. It is in the world now, it was in the world then; and, as in the case of the dogmas of faith, it is illustrated by a continuous historical tradition, and never was out of the world, from the time it came into it. There have indeed been differences of opinion from time to time, as to what pursuits and what arts came under that idea, but such differences are but an additional evidence of its reality. That idea must have a substance in it, which has maintained its ground amid these conflicts and changes, which has ever served as a standard to measure things withal, which has passed from mind to mind unchanged, when there was so much to colour, so much to influence any notion or thought whatever, which was not founded in our very nature. Were it a mere generalization, it would have varied with the subjects from which it was generalized; but though its subjects vary with the age, it varies not itself.

A beautiful passage about the formative effect of education, as opposed to a mere utilitarian concept of instruction, or training:

Moreover, such knowledge is not a mere extrinsic or accidental advantage, which is ours to-day and another’s to-morrow, which may be got up from a book, and easily forgotten again, which we can command or communicate at our pleasure, which we can borrow for the occasion, carry about in our hand, and take into the market; it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment. And this is the reason, why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word. We are instructed, for instance, in manual exercises, in the fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business; for these are methods, which have little or no effect upon the mind itself, are contained in rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use, and bear upon an end external to themselves. But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connexion with religion and virtue.

Note how precisely calibrated the last sentence is, hinting at an association without committing himself to an identity. Later on, however, Newman differentiates clearly between virtue and intellectual formation.

I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.


There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.


To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself), I say, an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.


It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates. And therefore a truly great intellect, and recognized to be such by the common opinion of mankind, such as the intellect of Aristotle, or of St. Thomas, or of Newton, or of Goethe, (I purposely take instances within and without the Catholic pale, when I would speak of the intellect as such,) is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.

A caution to those of us who are in a position to acquire an (ahem) superficial urbanity because we have had the opportunity to travel:

Perhaps they have been much in foreign countries, and they receive, in a passive, otiose, unfruitful way, the various facts which are forced upon them there. Seafaring men, for example, range from one end of the earth to the other; but the multiplicity of external objects, which they have encountered, forms no symmetrical and consistent picture upon their imagination; they see the tapestry of human life, as it were on the wrong side, and it tells no story. They sleep, and they rise up, and they find themselves, now in Europe, now in Asia; they see visions of great cities and wild regions; they are in the marts of commerce, or amid the islands of the South; they gaze on Pompey’s Pillar, or on the Andes; and nothing which meets them carries them forward or backward, to any idea beyond itself. Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Every thing stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leave the spectator where he was.

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

A gem:

That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.

This is a harsh perspective on the potential of mass media. I think we can credit readers with the ability to process what they read, and to profit from it.

What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.

An apt contrast:

The bodily eye, the organ for apprehending material objects, is provided by nature; the eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.

The following provided food for thought. I believe it is a commonplace that the Industrial Revolution reduced craftsman to button-pushers. There is a parallel sense in which, in our highly specialized modern world, everyone is reduced to a cog in a machine.

“It is an undisputed maxim in Political Economy,” says Dr. Copleston, “that the separation of professions and the division of labour tend to the perfection of every art, to the wealth of nations, to the general comfort and well-being of the community. This principle of division is in some instances pursued so far as to excite the wonder of people to whose notice it is for the first time pointed out. There is no saying to what extent it may not be carried; and the more the powers of each individual are concentrated in one employment, the greater skill and quickness will he naturally display in performing it. But, while he thus contributes more effectually to the accumulation of national wealth, he becomes himself more and more degraded as a rational being. In proportion as his sphere of action is narrowed his mental powers and habits become contracted; and he resembles a subordinate part of some powerful machinery, useful in its place, but insignificant and worthless out of it. If it be necessary, as it is beyond all question necessary, that society should be split into divisions and subdivisions, in order that its several duties may be well performed, yet we must be careful not to yield up ourselves wholly and exclusively to the guidance of this system; we must observe what its evils are, and we should modify and restrain it, by bringing into action other principles, which may serve as a check and counterpoise to the main force.

One might succeed reasonably well in a highly specific field in a university setting, for instance, and then move to a developing country and realize the extent to which one was dependent on one’s context. J

Mr Newman quoting Mr Davison’s reply to Mr Copleston:

Judgment does not stand here for a certain homely, useful quality of intellect, that guards a person from committing mistakes to the injury of his fortunes or common reputation; but for that master-principle of business, literature, and talent, which gives him strength in any subject he chooses to grapple with, and enables him to seize the strong point in it. Whether this definition be metaphysically correct or not, it comes home to the substance of our inquiry. It describes the power that every one desires to possess when he comes to act in a profession, or elsewhere; and corresponds with our best idea of a cultivated mind.

Here and there, you can tell that Newman really perceives university education as a component of spiritual and moral formation.

But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to [pg 178] popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

We’ll just ignore the slightly gnostic tone at the end of this first paragraph (As an INTJ, I understand what he’s getting at.)

Here then I think is the important aid which intellectual cultivation furnishes to us in rescuing the victims of passion and self-will. It does not supply religious motives; it is not the cause or proper antecedent of any thing supernatural; it is not meritorious of heavenly aid or reward; but it does a work, at least materially good (as theologians speak), whatever be its real and formal character. It expels the excitements of sense by the introduction of those of the intellect.


This then is the primâ facie advantage of the pursuit of Knowledge; it is the drawing the mind off from things which will harm it to subjects which are worthy a rational being; and, though it does not raise it above nature, nor has any tendency to make us pleasing to our Maker, yet is it nothing to substitute what is in itself harmless for what is, to say the least, inexpressibly dangerous? is it a little thing to exchange a circle of ideas which are certainly sinful, for others which are certainly not so?

And more on intellectual development as a moral good. What to say? I can’t deny the benefits of education in my own life. I resist the idea that formal education offers any unique opportunity for moral formation, simply because today’s widespread formal education is a historical anomaly, and postsecondary education is not typical even in America. The second passage below is more amenable to my democratic sentiments.

In many cases, where it exists, sins, familiar to those who are otherwise circumstanced, will not even occur to the mind: in others, the sense of shame and the quickened apprehension of detection will act as a sufficient obstacle to them, when they do present themselves before it. Then, again, the fastidiousness I am speaking of will create a simple hatred of that miserable tone of conversation which, obtaining as it does in the world, is a constant fuel of evil, heaped up round about the soul: moreover, it will create an irresolution and indecision in doing wrong, which will act as a remora till the danger is past away. And though it has no tendency, I repeat, to mend the heart, or to secure it from the dominion in other shapes of those very evils which it repels in the particular modes of approach by which they prevail over others, yet cases may occur when it gives birth, after sins have been committed, to so keen a remorse and so intense a self-hatred, as are even sufficient to cure the particular moral disorder, and to prevent its accesses ever afterwards;—as the spendthrift in the story, who, after gazing on his lost acres from the summit of an eminence, came down a miser, and remained a miser to the end of his days.

Cheap literature, libraries of useful and entertaining knowledge, scientific lectureships, museums, zoological collections, buildings and gardens to please the eye and to give repose to the feelings, external objects of whatever kind, which may take the mind off itself, and expand and elevate it in liberal contemplations, these are the human means, wisely suggested, and good as far as they go, for at least parrying the assaults of moral evil, and keeping at bay the enemies, not only of the individual soul, but of society at large.

And a final, lengthy-but-worthwhile reflection on the distinction between liberal education and spiritual formation. I feel as though C.S. Lewis could have written this first paragraph; presumably he profited from it when he read it.

And from this shallowness of philosophical Religion it comes to pass that its disciples seem able to fulfil certain precepts of Christianity more readily and exactly than Christians themselves. St. Paul, as I have said, gives us a pattern of evangelical perfection; he draws the Christian character in its most graceful form, and its most beautiful hues. He discourses of that charity which is patient and meek, humble and single-minded, disinterested, contented, and persevering. He tells us to prefer each the other before himself, to give way to each other, to abstain from rude words and evil speech, to avoid self-conceit, to be calm and grave, to be cheerful and happy, to observe peace with all men, truth and justice, courtesy and gentleness, all that is modest, amiable, virtuous, and of good repute. Such is St. Paul’s exemplar of the Christian in his external relations; and, I repeat, the school of the world seems to send out living copies of this typical excellence with greater success than the Church. At this day the “gentleman” is the creation, not of Christianity, but of civilization. But the reason is obvious. The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart. She ever begins with the beginning; and, as regards the multitude of her children, is never able to get beyond the beginning, but is continually employed in laying the foundation. She is engaged with what is essential, as previous and as introductory to the ornamental and the attractive. She is curing men and keeping them clear of mortal sin; she is “treating of justice and chastity, and the judgment to come:” she is insisting on faith and hope, and devotion, and honesty, and the elements of charity; and has so much to do with precept, that she almost leaves it to inspirations from Heaven to suggest what is of counsel and perfection. She aims at what is necessary rather than at what is desirable. She is for the many as well as for the few. She is putting souls in the way of salvation, that they may then be in a condition, if they shall be called upon, to aspire to the heroic, and to attain the full proportions, as well as the rudiments, of the beautiful.


This embellishment of the exterior is almost the beginning and the end of philosophical morality. This is why it aims at being modest rather than humble; this is how it can be proud at the very time that it is unassuming. To humility indeed it does not even aspire; humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain. It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound; however, we are little concerned with them here, for, I repeat, it is hardly professed even by name in the code of ethics which we are reviewing. As has been often observed, ancient civilization had not the idea, and had no word to express it: or rather, it had the idea, and considered it a defect of mind, not a virtue, so that the word which denoted it conveyed a reproach. As to the modern world, you may gather its ignorance of it by its perversion of the somewhat parallel term “condescension.” Humility or condescension, viewed as a virtue of conduct, may be said to consist, as in other things, so in our placing ourselves in our thoughts on a level with our inferiors; it is not only a voluntary relinquishment of the privileges of our own station, but an actual participation or assumption of the condition of those to whom we stoop. This is true humility, to feel and to behave as if we were low; not, to cherish a notion of our importance, while we affect a low position. Such was St. Paul’s humility, when he called himself “the least of the saints;” such the humility of those many holy men who have considered themselves the greatest of sinners. It is an abdication, as far as their own thoughts are concerned, of those prerogatives or privileges to which others deem them entitled. Now it is not a little instructive to contrast with this idea, Gentlemen,—with this theological meaning of the word “condescension,”—its proper English sense; put them in juxta-position, and you will at once see the difference between the world’s humility and the humility of the Gospel. As the world uses the word, “condescension” is a stooping indeed of the person, but a bending forward, unattended with any the slightest effort to leave by a single inch the seat in which it is so firmly established. It is the act of a superior, who protests to himself, while he commits it, that he is superior still, and that he is doing nothing else but an act of grace towards those on whose level, in theory, he is placing himself.


Knowledge, viewed as Knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own centre, and our minds the measure of all things.

A couple of brief quotes on literate:

Literature stands related to Man as Science stands to Nature; it is his history.


Literature is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his Life and Remains.

This is a portion of an interesting passage in which Newman rejects the idea that we should aim for a Christian literature, and reject secular literature. Following on from the shorter quotes above, Newman observes that since literature is a mirror of humanity, it’s pointless to expect it to be exclusively Christian.

Such is man: put him aside, keep him before you; but, whatever you do, do not take him for what he is not, for something more divine and sacred, for man regenerate. Nay, beware of showing God’s grace and its work at such disadvantage as to make the few whom it has thoroughly influenced compete in intellect with the vast multitude who either have it not, or use it ill. The elect are few to choose out of, and the world is inexhaustible. From the first, Jabel and Tubalcain, Nimrod “the stout hunter,” the learning of the Pharaohs, and the wisdom of the East country, are of the world. Every now and then they are rivalled by a Solomon or a Beseleel, but the habitat of natural gifts is the natural man. The Church may use them, she cannot at her will originate them. Not till the whole human race is made new will its literature be pure and true. Possible of course it is in idea, for nature, inspired by heavenly grace, to exhibit itself on a large scale, in an originality of thought or action, even far beyond what the world’s literature has recorded or exemplified; but, if you would in fact have a literature of saints, first of all have a nation of them.

And I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Christian literature doesn’t often work. Christian themes work best when explored in literature indirectly. (One thinks of The Lord of the Rings and The Space Trilogy in this regard; and of course of Lewis’s gentle criticism of the novels of George MacDonald.) Novels written from a Christian world view, set in a world saturated by Christianity, don’t work because that’s not the world we live in.

The moral implications of individualism and collectivism

The moral implications of the question of individualism verses collectivism have been a splinter in my mind since I first studied the issues around ten years ago. Some cultures—like Western cultures, especially American culture—view the individual as an autonomous unit, responsible for all of his/her own decisions. Other cultures emphasize broader social units: decisions are made by groups (or by leaders within groups), and people identify not primarily a free agents but as members of a familial or social group. (More here.)

The books I’ve read about this, from the likes of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede, have emphasized that both individualism and collectivism create social problems. Individualism’s focus on the individual creates problems like pathological self-centeredness and high divorce rates—in short, a personal ethic that extends no further than individual desire, and a social ethic than recognizes nothing more than mutual consent (even if this produces inconsistent judgments in some cases). Collectivism’s tendency toward in-group/out-group dichotomies promotes things like discrimination and genocide.

From the perspective of cultural relativism, there’s nothing more to say. Cultural relativism doesn’t allow cultures to be compared along a moral dimension, since morality too is relative in that framework. I, however, believe in morality—even absolute morality—and so am faced with a quandary. Do cultures really just choose between divorce and genocide? Should we split the difference, as India and Spain seem to do? At what point is it illegitimate for a society to intrude on the actions of the individual? At what point should individual desires be subordinated to the group life?

I myself stand out as an individualistic person in the most individualistic society in the world. I was chided in high school for my lack of school spirit. I don’t have any branded clothing except what I may have picked up at a thrift store. I’m not patriotic (though I am proud of some aspects of American culture). In my bones, I just don’t care about group identity. On the other hand, the perils of individualism are plain for me to see: the aforementioned divorce (along with a general lack of loyalty to family), lack of interest in civic life, selfishness, and so forth. So I’m an individualist with strong reservations about individualism. My experience in a more collectivist society has shown me both some strong points and weak points of collectivism: the tendency on the one hand for the individual to be steamrolled by (in this case) the family, but on the other hand the strong family ties that exist, and the individual’s commitment to the welfare of people beyond his immediate family.

All of this a prelude to a distinction that occurred to me this morning as potentially helpful. By way of introduction, here are four decisions that, as an individualistic American, I would expect to make for myself.

  1. Who to marry
  2. Whether or not to kill someone
  3. What I do for a living
  4. What religion I practice, if any

As an American, the very idea that someone would make these decisions for me produces a wave of revulsion. Am I not free? Can’t I make my own decisions? I have rights! The full emotional and intellectual response, etc.

Where I live, most people would generally not make these decisions on their own, but to follow the decision of the head of household, or the broader family (#2 in special circumstances only, of course, like an honor killing). As an American, I bristle at that. And yet, I see that arranged marriages don’t produce notably unhappier marriages, and that most people would never think of choosing their own profession. (In fact, I’ve basically come around on the idea of arranged marriages.) The problem is that I’m certain that my reaction mixes some legitimate moral concern and some American culture—how to distinguish these?

Here’s the distinction I’ve realized. Decisions #1 and #3 are matters of preference; decisions #2 and #4 are matters of conscience. I’m slowly arriving at the conclusion that cultures can “legitimately” delegate matters of preference to units larger than the individual. On the other hand, matters of conscience need to remain in the hands of the individual. When the group makes a decision in a matter of conscience, I may bristle as an individualistic American, but that’ just a cultural difference. When the group makes a decision for an individual in a matter of conscience, then the culture has perverted the moral order. (As all cultures do, one way or another: Tim Keller said once that all cultures take good things and turn them into ultimate goods. I think that is a very elegant way of describing things.)

To take this a bit further, even an American can recognize that #1 and #3 are not only up to the individual. Maybe I love Jane, but Mary is the only one willing to marry me. Maybe I want to be a doctor, but I can’t get into medical school. These are cases were my preferences may be strong, but not determinative. If I can’t marry the person I want, or if I can’t get the job I want, then that’s disappointing, but I haven’t been forced to violate my conscience. But if I don’t want to kill someone and society requires me to, or if I want to change my religion and society will not allow me to, then I am forced to violate conscience. (C.S. Lewis helped me to realize that the former is why I am a pacifist.)

This doesn’t solve the problem for me, but I feel like there is a seed of a solution here. I feel like I have at least some intellectual traction in parsing out my emotional/moral/spiritual responses to various cultures.

Politics and postmodern decision making

In his article “Equality” (The Spectator, CLXXI, pg. 192) C.S. Lewis identified two arguments in favor of democracy, one of which he considered valid, the other invalid. The valid argument democracy is that people are inherently sinful, and that there is every reason to suppose that people who are given power will abuse it. If the people are given a voice in selecting their leaders, the leaders are less likely to abuse their positions. I take this to be uncontroversial. The invalid argument in favor democracy is that people are inherently good and wise, and therefore deserving of having a share in governing. Quite the opposite, Lewis says: “I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors.”

Our current political season is of course dominated by people who believe advertisements, think in catchwords, and spread rumors. Indeed, if there’s been anything else going on I’ve missed it entirely. This, and other developments, have given me occasion to reflect on the nature of communal decision making.

The humanism that Lewis criticizes can be updated to postmodernism. There is no notion of inherent goodness, but rather a claim that all individual claims to truth are power plays designed to assert power. If somebody claims to be interested in truth rather than power, then that is just a sneaky way of trying to seize power. One can develop a political morality from this analysis in two ways. You can either try to be the strongest and seize power, which was popular in Germany from the time of Nietzsche until around 1945, or you can develop a pluralistic society that somehow assigns weight to all points of view. There is no ultimate reality, in this analysis, there is just a sort of negotiated middle ground, which merely has to be defended against the baddies who make such manipulative power plays as to claim that 2+2 really does equal 4, that the world really is round, that you really shouldn’t murder.

I’ll then update Lewis in this way. When we are making decisions as a group—whether in a committee for an organization, or even at the societal level—there are two reasons that we would seek to involve a diverse group of people. The first reason—the legitimate reason—is that each of us has our own perspective on the world, but none of us sees the entire picture. “Where there is no guidance a nation falls, but there is success in the abundance of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14, NIV). The second reason is that there is no actual reality—no actual best solution—so that the best we can do is try to appease a variety of power centers. The group decision is simply a negotiation of competing interests.

An example of the importance of taking in a diverse set of views. In the 1990s police developed the “broken window” principle: if police kept after people in a neighborhood about seemingly trivial details, it raised the image of a neighborhood as a whole, leading to a decrease in crime. Something as simple as enforcing trivial municipal ordinances (i.e., broken windows, loitering) actually leads to a decrease in violent crime. I’ve read about the broken window principle in a variety of articles; Malcolm Gladwell discussed it in one of his books. It’s a great story because it seems like a win-win: enforce the laws, communities improve, crime drops. Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve found that there’s another point to view to that: that the police are harassing poor people—who, given current demographics, are more likely to be black people. Given that every interaction with the police carries a certain probability of someone getting shot—even if that probability doesn’t seem to depend on race—then the broken window principle means larger numbers of black people getting shot by the police. That’s not competing visions of reality; it’s mathematics. But I did not consider the mathematical logic until I had reason to think about things from another perspective. That’s why I know we need to rethink the broken window principle.

An example of illegitimate decision-making from diverse views. One time a committee chair was reporting on a controversial decision. He said that all of the members of a committee who voted in favor did so for his/her own reason. There was no single, widely-accepted argument in favor of making that particular decision. This is foolishness. Even if that committee had representatives of every point of view, and even if they had all individually considered the matter wisely, it is apparent that their discussions didn’t lead to any shared conclusion about reality. It wasn’t a discussion, it was a poll.

Even as I write this I have that sinking feeling you get when you realize that the idea you’re putting forward is unlikely to be understood, much less implemented. Is a lively debate about reality, leading to conclusions about reality, and then to a decision based upon reality, too much to ask? For the most part, it seems that the answer is ‘yes’.  Certainly at the national level, none of our political structures is oriented towards developing consensus and moving forward. They’re aimed rather at the baser second-tier democracy of determining the will of the majority. At lower levels—levels at which I participate—I am a little more hopeful… a little more.

Loving Trump Supporters

This is not as good as I had hoped it would be, but run out of steam and want to be able to stop thinking about it, so here goes…


Like any other politically observant person, my reaction to the Trump phenomenon has shifted over the last few months from amusement to confusion, and finally to horror. I have some ideas about the mechanics of how Trump has succeeded in the media, but I am largely befuddled by the relatively widespread support that Trump has received in the Republican nomination process. I understand can understand the appeal of Clinton, Bush, and Obama as leaders. I cannot understand how anyone can stand to be in the same room as Trump. Surely part of the secret of his success is that it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a person, so that he is always underestimated. But how could anyone support him?

I confess that Trump produces a feeling of loathing deep within me, hitherto reserved for Nazis and pedophiles. The recent description “everything we teach our children not to be” resonates. And yet he has his supporters, and a substantial portion of the electorate at that—not the entire population, but apparently those who care enough to vote in primaries, whom one would imagine to be the better sort. The idea of anyone supporting Donald Trump produces a range of questions, but I will stick to: Why?

I think it will be uncontroversial to say that nobody is voting for Trump over moral issues. The phrase “unrepentant serial adulterer,” which appeared somewhere in my Facebook feed, seems accurate, given his Wikipedia article and his public statements. Trump claims to be a Christian, but also says he has never asked for God’s forgiveness; this means that no person who understands what it means to be a Christian (much less an evangelical Christian) could take Trump’s claim to faith seriously. I can take him at his word if he is using the word “Christian” as it was used in my elementary school days­­­­—as a sort of ethnic label—to mean “not Jewish.” Similarly, I take heart in the polls that show much lower Trump support among churchgoers, rather than just among “evangelicals” (which, in that context at least, appears to have become a proxy term for “white trash”). So I set aside any possible moral or religious appeal.

Trump is an inarticulate person ranting incoherently at the status quo. This is an important point of contact between him and the average American. Most people are not terribly well-informed about political and economic issues. Polls routinely show Americans’ ignorance of basic civics issues (e.g., the identity of our leaders, various constitutional rights, etc.). So, if you’ve got a candidate whose analysis of the American political and economic scene is little more than an inarticulate grunt of frustration, that resonates with a lot of people. I don’t think that the appeal of this should be underestimated.

Still, I believe that economic issues play the biggest role. Various commentators have suggested that the Trump and Sanders candidacies have largely played on working class dissatisfaction with globalization—the increasingly competitive global marketplace, which generates wealth by leveling the economic playing field across nations. American manufacturing has hollowed out; there are studies that indicate that wages have been stagnant in real terms for people without a college degree, since the early 1980s.

Trump has been successful with less-educated people; Sanders has been successful with more-educated people. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Who do you blame for the world’s problems? Generally not people who occupy vastly different social stations. It’s natural for white collar people to blame “Wall Street” for financial problems, because they are their white-collar peers. If they’re not direct competitors for jobs and resources, they’re at least natural targets for envy. By the same token, it’s natural for less educated people to fault immigrants, who are their competitors in the manufacturing and services sectors.

(This is basic human nature. What prompts envy in the heart of a linguist? A successful surgeon? No, I’m not a surgeon; it’s not even my world. An astronaut? No, they’ve got great jobs, but it’s not my path. One of the elder statesmen of linguistics? No, I reverence them. It’s own peers who generate feelings of envy: those producing the publications that I wish I were producing.)

(Of course, as I’ll note below, blue collar workers at least understand who represents an economic threat. I am amazed at the white collar narrative that America is a country of great, hardworking people, but that the Wall Street thugs are tricking us and stealing our money. It’s a familiar story if you have any experience with the mentally ill: “I used to have it all man, but then this so-and-so tricked me, and I lost it all! Someday I’ll teach him a lesson.”)

The first humility check for me, then, is that I am not in the socioeconomic class that is hit hard by globalization. Computer programming jobs—which would probably be my most lucrative option if I were in the traditional workforce—are not in danger of being sent overseas any time soon. (I’m not actually part of the normal economy, anyway, but that doesn’t matter psychologically: I know that any time I wanted to I could walk away from my current situation and make two or three times as much money. Moreover, I have no reason to fear for the future economic well-being of my sons.) So my desire to welcome immigrants from all over the world carries zero personal cost. They’re not threatening my livelihood, and—at least in the places where I’ve lived in America—their assimilation issues do not really affect my life. Who wouldn’t be generously inclined in my situation? “What credit is it to you? The pagans do as much…”

Nevertheless, the moral argument for globalization is clear. If two people are willing to do the same job, and the first has the lower bid, but I choose the second instead because he is an American and the first is something else, then I find that to be morally unacceptable. I feel that I’m on rock-solid moral ground there. At the same time, I can’t pretend that it is personally costly for me to accept that argument.

That said, I am not prepared to conclude that anyone who is opposed to immigration, or who is in favor of trade protectionism, is personally motivated by racial animus. It may just be economic self-interest. If I dig ditches for $20/hour and someone comes into the country willing to do it for $10/hour, then that person is a threat to my livelihood, whether the person is English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, African American, Mexican, or whatever. This, I think, is why America has a history of short-lived animus against recent immigrants. It’s always been clear who the competitors are, and the racial/ethnic labels are laid over the economic concerns.

(Given that nowadays American racial issues tend to break across skin color, it is funny to imagine discrimination among rival European immigrants. Still, a friend of mine is from a Portuguese family who changed their name long ago to avoid discrimination. It’s similarly difficult for me to take seriously the insistence of my British friends that English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, etc. are all different groups. And it took five years at least before I could begin to pick out the differences in facial features that distinguish the similarly-hued ethnic groups here in my adoptive country, and I’m still not very good at it.)

Another nasty thing about Trump is the anti-Muslim animus—the call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for instance. I can’t really find a perspective from which this makes sense. I have this in my favor personally: that I’ve met hundreds of Muslims, and never one terrorist. Still, it’s not as if I had to meet those people before concluding that not all Muslims are terrorists.

I’m then left with what, morally, feels like accepting the null hypothesis: these yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television. As I’ve previously written, I’m not really comfortable assigning people the category of moral cipher—people whose moral judgments are simply a result of sociological conditioning rather than reasoned reflection. But I’m not really sure how I can reconcile that discomfort with the facts before me.

“These yahoos all just believe whatever they see on television.” Of course, it’s at least a little more complicated than that. There are competing narratives in the media as well, and there is profit to be made in pushing false dichotomies. It’s how they get attention, how they get advertising revenue. (Who doesn’t enjoy controversy? Who doesn’t enjoy criticizing people of the other camp?) That’s not all the news that’s available, but it’s not hard to find a news diet that features nothing but invented controversies. I think that in historical perspective it will certainly become clear the damage that this has done to our national discourse. It pushes people away from subtlety and common sense.

I think for instance of the controversy, I believe now six years old, over the “Ground Zero Mosque.” One didn’t so much become aware of the plans for building a cultural center, as of the controversy over people’s reactions to it. Some were affronted at the idea; others called those people anti-Muslim bigots. That was the story, and those were the only two positions. “These people are gloating over the destruction of the World Trade Center.” “We have to repudiate the claim that there is any association between Islam and terrorism.” It was the equivalent of the old joke: have you stopped beating your wife? There dichotomy contains an implicit assertion, which is somehow not available for analysis. There were secondary controversies as well. “It’s not even a mosque, it’s a cultural center with a prayer space”—irrelevant non-arguments produced for the benefit of people who wanted to feel better informed than the other side. I followed the coverage fairly closely, and it was some time before I read what seemed to be the only sane opinion about the matter (I believe from Charles Krauthammer): no one holds present-day Germans responsible for the Holocaust, but you still don’t build a German cultural center right outside of Auschwitz. Good taste alone provides the middle ground. No surprise, the common-sense observation was barely discussed.

Repeated controversy. Repeated false dichotomies. Tribal affiliations based on loyalty to opinion leaders. It sounds like Fox News vs. MSNBC, but these forces have been around for a while. There’s a reason the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cater to different audiences.

I am aware that this brings me back to the narrative that I mocked earlier: the American people are decent and generously inclined, but the cable news executives manipulate them into being prejudiced!

It’s the same narrative, and yet different. People generally consume media to be reinforced in their existing opinions rather than to discover new facts and arguments. That may be human nature, but it is not morally neutral. I believe that there is an intellectual responsibility to consider different points of view, to gather a variety of perspectives, and—shocking, I know—to discard analyses that presuppose false dichotomies. I’m not saying that everyone need possess the intellectual capacity to absorb the entirety of a complex situation and then look at it from different angles. But wisdom doesn’t require that we be able to compute all the possibilities, because it’s always possible to listen to other people.

The fault in being a Trump supporter, then, isn’t so much the decision to support Trump, as the meta-decision, made years ago and perhaps unconsciously, to be formed by certain types of sources: which can mean specifically alarmist and controversialist news media, but can mean more generally a limited intellectual diet. It could also mean past decisions to engage with one’s own cultural and linguistic group, when others were available. (Different parts of the country enable that to different degrees, I suppose.) Those far-off decisions have begotten present-day Trump support. Wisdom is known by her children, indeed.

It’s far easier for me to identify with weakness along this intellectual access. I’ve got a better record in maintaining  intellectual diversity in politics, for instance, than in theology and biblical studies. So then, what are my blind spots? In what areas of my life am I content not to be challenged? Those are the areas that might, in now-unforeseeable circumstances, lead me to embrace morally reprehensible positions.

It would be nice if I could make a short checklist and then mop up the extra bits. I expect that the reality is that I’ll be repenting of some things in eternity—not Trump, but then I doubt that will be the most decision I make in life.


Ten Questions

Today I took a half-day for prayer, reflection, and Bible study, reflecting on how my life is going and how things should change. Along with many more personal reflections I developed a list of questions, which are below. I welcome anyone’s input. (Your answer to #1 might be more of a guess, unless you’ve known me in years past. After #1 they got a little more general.)

  1. Have I always needed nine hours of sleep? Or is that new? It’s not hard to believe that I was previously chronically sleep-deprived.
  2. How does one balance the need for personal time with the need to spend time with the spouse and children?
  3. How can learners be made (to speak frankly) to accept responsibility for their language learning?
  4. How can I embrace a vocation of suffering when—so far—increased stress levels have harmed family life? How do I protect my family without that being an open-ended license for laziness and self-indulgence?
  5. How can I satisfy my intellectual (and moral? and spiritual?) need to articulate the rottenness of a given situation, without discouraging others and prompting despondence in myself?
  6. How do I hold forth a positive vision for language learning without snuffing out smoldering reeds and/or ignoring the more significant pastoral issues involved?
  7. How do organizations work? How can there ever be congruence between the kind of person the leader is and the kind of person the people need for a leader?
  8. How does a person in a position of strength relate genuinely without overpowering a person in a position of weakness?
  9. What kind of leadership profits strong-minded and self-motivated people?
  10. How should a strong-minded person relate to an organization? With no loyalty, cooperating incidentally on shared aims as a matter of convenience? Or with an intensity of commitment to molding the organization that will (almost inevitably) beget conflict? Or is there a middle ground?

The Insecurity of Totalitarianism

At lunch the other day, Tajikistan’s ban on long beards, Arabic names, and hijabs came up. A colleague made the observation that regimes in other countries have required beards. Why all the fuss over a beard?

Coincidentally (or not), Wikipedia had a brief mention that day of Iran’s Kashf-e Hijab decree, the 1936 ban of the hijab in the name of secularization. The article states, without apparent irony, that “some scholars state that it is very difficult to imagine that even Hitler’s or Stalin’s regime would do something similar.” That seems a bit extreme, but I’ll certainly grant that controlling women’s expressions of modesty is a strong totalitarian measure.

Although I’d never thought about it before, the answer to my colleague’s question (“Why all the fuss over a beard?”) came to me almost immediately: because it’s enforceable. Even the most totalitarian of regimes cannot control what people think. They too have to worry about what laws they can enforce, and what laws they can’t. Say whatever else you will about the policy: you can enforce a no-beards law.

This brings home to me the reason that totalitarianism, moral concerns aside, is unworkable. The greater the desire of a government to control its citizens, the less it can tolerate any deviation. A totalitarian government sets a high standard for itself, and is therefore fragile. A cake has a greater margin of error than a soufflé. E.B. White wrote, “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom — he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.” A government that is threatened by a drunken poet—or a man with a long beard—or a woman in a veil—is very easily threatened indeed.

Surely in the exercise of power, the more subtle the more effective. Who can disagree with Screwtape? “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” I think similarly that if I were seriously interested in controlling the thought of a population, I would aim for a lighter touch. Unstated assumptions are the strongest ones. The elements of a culture that are most resistant to change are surely those that cannot or may not be discussed.

It follows that if one wanted to find oppressive structures, one would not (necessarily) look for government agents with hair clippers, but for the more subtle influence on people’s thought.

This brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, which I have previously summarized as, “You have freedom of speech, but you have nothing to say.” (Take a moment with me to appreciate the irony that the top Google result for “Solzhenitsyn Harvard speech” is hosted by Solzhenitsyn speaks to the totalitarianism of wealth and freedom.

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.

So while I value the freedom to trim my beard in accordance with the dictates of my conscience, I will try to not fall victim to the lie that salvation lies therein. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does…”

Further Markings

I have just finished A Reader’s Guide to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Waymarks. Bernhard Erling, the translator and annotator, has done us a great service by providing a more direct translation, and doing such careful (and, I imagine, tedious) work in finding sources and providing explanations for dates. I don’t agree with all of his interpretations, but I am grateful for his reflections. Some final favorites, all from the Erling translation…


To let oneself be bound by a duty from the moment it is intuited is a part of the integrity which alone entitles one to assume responsibility.


This morning the birds’ song
Filled the mind
With the night’s cool tranquility.


Your body, your mind —
Only entrusted goods
For a baton bearer.

Maturation and loss:

You will never return.
Another man
Will find another city.


Easter 1960 Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality through the fact that the one who “forgives” — in love — takes upon himself the responsibility for the consequences of what you did. It therefore always involves sacrifice.

The price of your own liberation through the sacrifice of another is that you yourself must be willing in the same way to liberate, irrespective of the cost.

Saying yes:

I don’t know who — or what — put the question. I don’t
know when it was put. I don’t remember that I answered.
But I once did answer yes to someone — or something.
From that time comes my certainty that existence is
meaningful and that my life, therefore, in self-surrender,
has a goal.

From that time I have known what it means “not to
look back,” and “not to be anxious about tomorrow,”
Led through life’s labyrinth by the Ariadne-thread of the
answer, I reached a time and a place where I knew that
the way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe and
to a catastrophe which is triumph, that the cost of life
commitment is reproach and the depth of humiliation the
exaltation that is possible for a human being. After that
the word “courage” lost its meaning, since nothing could
be taken from me.

As I continued on the way, I learned, step by step, word
by word, that behind every saying of the hero of the gospels
stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the
prayer that the cup might pass from him and the promise
to empty it. Also behind each word from the cross.


Is it a new land
In another reality
Th an that of the day?
Or have I lived there,
Before the day?

An ordinary morning with gray light
Reflected from the street,
Awakened —
From the dark blue night
Above the timberline
With moonlight on the moor
And the ridge in shadow.
Other dreams,
The same mountain country:
Twice I was on the ridges,
I stayed by the remotest lake
And followed the river
To its sources.
The seasons have changed
And the light
And the weather
And the hour
But it is the same land.
And I begin to know the map
And the directions.

Do Christians and Zoroastrians worship the same God?

I can never ignore a controversy, so here we go. Do Christians and Zoroastrians worship the same god or different gods?

I find that this is not as simple a question to answer as I would like. My problems are not theological but linguistic. It brings me into semiotics, semantics, and pragmatics. Most of my linguistic education and all of my linguistic research, on the other hand, focuses on sounds, so if this seems a bit amateurish, that’s why.

It’s not the case that words are unimportant. A theory of semantics that links words directly to real-world objects (as we call them, “referents”), misses some points. There are some words that directly identify real-world objects, like “Earth,” “Moon,” etc. But not always. Frege observed that the sentence, “The Morning Star is the Evening Star” is meaningful and informative: it means that both astronomical entities are actually the planet Venus. If the signs “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” referred directly to real-world objects, then the aforementioned sentence would be equivalent to, “Venus is Venus,” which is tautologous and therefore uninteresting. But since the sentence is actually informative, it is clear that the words themselves have semantic significance. The sign “the Morning Star,” for instance, has significance beyond its real-world referent. We can say things about the sign itself: it has meaning.

In this connection, my mind wanders back to the Wars of the Roses. During that bloody conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, was there any political question less to the purpose than, “Are you loyal to the King of England?” Because of course everyone thought that he was. The divisive question—if you wanted to be divisive—was, “Who do you take to be the King of England?” That situation, however, is not quite parallel. Back then, we could have set Henry, Edward, and Richard all in a row, and the task would have been to choose one to whom to assign the title “King of England.” On the other hand, we can’t place YHWH and Ahura Mazda next to each other and ask which one is “god.”

But speaking of presidents… Suppose we’ve got two people thinking about a specific person (a specific referent), with different ideas about that person. The difference again is between sense (or meaning) and referent. Let’s suppose that the referent is easy: everyone believes in the existence of Barrack Obama. But one person’s dictionary definition reads, “Forty-forth President of the United States (2009-2017), notable for ending the Iraq War and passing the Affordable Care Act.” Another’s reads, “Foreign-born communist, impostor to the presidency, who wants our guns and our freedom.” Are those people talking about the same person? Yes, they have the same referent for the sign. Does the sign have the same meaning? No, certainly not.

A printed dictionary entry traditionally includes a short biographical sketch, and we might imagine the same to be true of the mental lexicon. But there is in principle no limit to the amount of information in the biography. The research I’ve read doesn’t give me any reason to believe that there’s a firm boundary between a sign and the whole of a person’s encyclopedic information about that sign.

On the other hand, our different understandings of a sign don’t typically interfere with communication. People who think that the President is a modern-day Gandhi and people who think he is a modern-day Stalin can still refer to the sign “Barrack Obama” without any misunderstandings. It’s not as though Democrats and Republicans interpret differently such sentences as, “Barrack Obama attended the G7 Summit this week.” So in some contexts, it doesn’t seem that encyclopedic information is particularly germane. And when semantics runs out of gas, it’s time to turn to pragmatics.

Although my focus here is on Zoroastrianism, it’s hard not to draw in some other monotheistic religions as well. If a Jew or a Muslim were to say to me, “I worship the Creator of All Things,” then I could reply with perfect logical consistency, “How wonderful! I worship Jesus too.” This would be logically consistent, but it would not be helpful in inter-religious dialog, and it would not be what pragmatists call a “cooperative” use of language. In fact, my interlocutor would almost be obliged to interpret my perfectly logical utterance as a poke in the eye.

Why is that the case? Because communicating successfully means (believe it or not) reading someone’s mind to understand what they are saying. I need to understand that when a Jew or Muslim says “Creator of All Things,” I need to interpret that sign from the perspective of the speaker. Even if I am logically free to plug that expression into my set of personal beliefs, it would be a disingenuous way to communicate. It would be uncooperative.

Incidentally, according to this blog entry, Miroslav Volf claims in his book Allah: A Christian Response, that there are four properties of god that Muslims and Christians agree upon (monotheism, creation, uniqueness, and goodness), and concludes that, “Whoever agrees on these four convictions about God refers to the same ‘object’ when talking about God” (pg. 101, according to the web site). The linguistic reason that this is nonsensical is that it’s impossible to say what “sufficiently similar” means for every pragmatic context. In some discussions, the property of “goodness” will be irrelevant, and the property “became a man once in 1st century Palestine” will be quite relevant. In other contexts—such as in discussing the question, “Shall we stop killing one another?”—the property of “goodness” will be quite sufficient. But if one could simply define the meanings of words one and for all, for every context, there would be no discipline called “pragmatics.” (Also, computers would understand language better, though at the cost that language as a whole would only work as well as computers understand language now.)

The distinction between sense and referent is why Paul of Tarsus can say of non-Christian Jews, “I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). There is no question for Paul that Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews (and, fortunately for people like me, now Christian non-Jews) all worship the same god. Unfortunately there’s little more than tragic irony to be drawn from the identity of reference. “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).

It’s obvious in these days of interreligious strife, however, that the question of the identity of the Christian god with Ahura Mazda is more about in-group/out-group differentiation than it is about theology, or even, sadly, about linguistics. I harbor no illusions about the ability of linguistics to solve the world’s problems. Linguistics at least allows us to sit Qoholeth-like on the sidelines with a clear (if sad) understanding of what’s going on in the broader world. But if you want my non-linguistic advice on the whole matter: stop talking about what Zoroastrians believe, and start talking to Zoroastrians.

And as a reward to those who scrolled to the end to save time:

Do Christians and Zoroastrians worship the same god? The question is (literally) meaningless and knowing the answer will certainly not help you to understand what you are trying to understand, or to make point you are trying to make. In fact, if you still care about the question at this point, then you haven’t really understood the point of this blog entry. But yes.

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