Thursday, June 26, 2014

The "Class" - An Abstract Writeup - Hour 2

2 A. Science vs. Politics vs. Arts

2 A I. Before all three, there was religion - To this very day, religion’s effect upon the world is third only to death and family. Its effect upon us is more consequential to us even than sex. Sex provides momentary ecstasy, whereas the ecstasy of religion can last lifetimes and motivate people to heal and kill millions, or to build everlasting monuments to the glory of their god and destroy others. We cannot control death, but we can control our attitude toward it, and religion still gives billions the ability to believe that they can transcend death. As Egon Friedell, a no longer much read but fine historian, alleges, there is no more crucial aspect of each human’s makeup than a person’s attitude towards God. To this day, the plurality of the world’s population believes in monotheism. And the echoes of monotheistic mindset continue to this very day and will beyond long past when every living person is no longer alive. If there is one god who creates the heaven and the earth, there is therefore only one source from which all things flow. The King, or Emperor, or Lord, derives his authority as David and Saul did, from divine right. Just as the Pope’s was, the sovereign’s word is the word of God transmuted upon Earth. Science is only important as it explains God’s creation, and an insistence on no scientific exploration seemed perfectly satisfactory for nearly a millenium of Europeans. Art is only important as it reflects the glory of God, and the vast majority of medieval Europeans contented themselves with the anonymous chants and iconography of the church, endlessly evolving folk songs, bards who declaimed their poems, violent passion plays and puppet shows. Life was divided into sanctity and sin. Monotheism made servility possible, the recognition of moral behavior and the absolution for its transgressions.

2 A II. Aquinas/Dante-Erasmus/Luther-Galileo/Shakespeare-Newton/Milton- In all four of these combinations of ‘nearish’ contemporaries, the former insists upon more rarefied levels of understanding, the latter on bringing greater levels of understanding to the public. They are not men who define their age, but they are representative of the progress that was made. Through them, we see the thread that shows how much progress was being made in bringing greater learning and understanding to Europe. This dual approach to increasing the world’s knowledge is ultimately what brings the world out of what we call its Middle Age.  

2 A II a Aquinas/Dante - Thomas Aquinas is considered the great theologian/philosopher of the Gothic Age (though he came slightly after it and in many ways signified its ending). He is important for many reasons, including the fact that he codified so much of Church doctrine about virtuous behavior. But perhaps his greatest contribution was to re-insist upon reading ancient, pre-monotheistic, classics, particularly of Aristotle.

Dante, the great Italian poet, still the greatest poet of all in many people’s estimation, brought the world the first great written European literary work for nearly a millenium in a vernacular language. Many of the great poems of the Middle Ages: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, the Nibelungenlied, the Song of Roland, were obviously meant to be declaimed, not read, and an editor put together a literary version of it after many generations of the stories being passed down. Until Dante, European literature, European intellectual discourse, was still conducted in Latin. By writing out the Divine Comedy in Italian, Dante meant for his poetry to be read as well as declaimed in the language which people spoke in the streets.

2 A II b. Erasmus/Luther - Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the first priest of real eminence to criticize the Catholic Church for its fallibility and not be branded a heretic for doing so. In the era of the Protestant Reformation, he was the greatest proponent of compromise and rationalism, and only fanatical in the anti-fanaticism which he pleaded with both the Papacy and the Lutherans to maintain.

Luther, Erasmus’s younger contemporary and most important debating partner, had two great contributions to thought. The first was his belief that priests needn’t serve as intercessors between worshipers and God. His belief in ‘salvation by faith alone’ was the most fundamental doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. His second was his translation of The Bible into German. The Bible had been translated into other languages before, but as Dante brought high secular literature to the layman, Luther brought the sacred directly to him.

2 A ii c. Galileo/Shakespeare - Galileo, like Luther, had a two-fold important contribution to history. Firstly, by discovering four moons around Jupiter, he proved, definitively, that the entire Universe does not revolve around the Earth. Secondly, he directly contradicted church doctrine, and published a scathing indictment of Church simplemindedness when it came to science, all the while under the Pope’s sponsorship, and even if he was forced to recant, he lived to tell the tale. His courage, and his success, motivated many curious people to follow their thoughts in the centuries that followed.

If Galileo made us finally examine the science of the heavens, Shakespeare, his exact contemporary, made us finally examine the science of us - what makes humans human? What motivates us to act as we do? There are plenty of supernatural forces in Shakespeare, but for the first time perhaps ever, Shakespeare, and literary rough contemporaries like Cervantes and Montaigne, gave us the choice to be indifferent to the supernatural. Man was the primary focus of humanity, not God.

2 A II d. Newton/Milton - Newton, as we earlier established, was the point of no return. Here, finally, is the thinker who provided an explanation for creation that operated independently of biblical myth. After Newton, we were definitively on the track toward a more scientific, empirical understanding of the world. The industrial revolution was around the corner, as were the revolutions in biology and the humanities.

As important as Milton was as a polemicist and republican, his main contribution to us is Paradise Lost, which is, in some ways, a recognition of the ways which God has failed humanity, and most outrageously, did so through the personage of Satan, who is portrayed almost sympathetically. His epic poem was, in his words, an attempt to ‘justify the ways of God to Man.’ And in doing so, he made it possible for people to question God’s ultimate benevolence.  

2 B. 1859 The Dawning of the Age of… - We have briefly covered an enormous amount of material, and are finally out of the age in which monotheism is the most progressive possible explanation for why the world is what it is. We are at what Germans might call the Zero-Hour of a new age. What does this age look like?

2 B I. Darwin: The Scientific Dawn - The science world of Galileo and even Newton is static and unchanging. The laws of the universe are universal. But by Lamarck and Darwin, there is a recognition that the world is always dynamic and shifting, which in turn paves the way for the world of Einstein and Heissenberg, in which dynamism and change are the very state of existence.

2 B II. Marx: The Political Dawn - In Hobbes and Machiavelli, the state justifies its power through the chaos that would unleash in its absence. Then come liberal theorists like Locke and Voltaire who believe that greater freedom for individuals will result in greater order. Then come utilitarians like Bentham and Mill who believe in greater freedom for a greater number of individuals leads to their pursuit of the greater good, which then leads to Marx, who believes that there is no freedom unless all men are free. From Marx comes the new absolutism - which curiously resembles the old. Instead of the perfect Kingdom of Christendom or Allah’s perfect Caliphate, Man, instead of God, stands at the center of the world, and the Earth is his paradise. But without time to fully explore the implications of a world in which serving one’s fellow man is the goal of politics rather than serving God, this Godless world falls back on old models. In Marxism’s first incarnation, he paved the way for the great “atheist theocracies” of the twentieth century, not only the left-wing totalitarian states of Russia and China, but also the right-wing ones of Germany and even Japan to a certain extent. To reward of forming this paradise is so great that, in Mao’s words, it is perfectly justifiable to kill half of humanity so that the other half might live in paradise.

2 B II a. After the Soviet Union? - But what comes after the atheist theocracies? Is there a capitalist version of Communist dictatorship, as China attempts, which will supply the needs of the individual that so satisfies its citizens that protest against it is unnecessary? More relevantly, and more possibly, will the new communitarian visions of anarcho-libertarian socialism and communism turn out the same way as the old visions of socialism, communism and anarchism? Or will such ideas bring about a better, more benevolent world in which people’s needs are met far more often? Just as it took democratic ideas two thousand years to resurrect themselves as legitimate, is it possible that Communist ideals will eventually reveal themselves to be the best possible world, even if it similarly takes millennia to germinate before indisputably proving the most progressive idea for the world?

2 B III. Wagner: The Artistic Dawn - Wagner didn’t like much the realism of contemporary theater or literature and worried that music after Beethoven would ossify into more modest ambitions. He wanted a theater that more resembled Shakespeare and Greek Drama - in which all the arts were synthesized. And he wanted a literature like the classical and medieval epics of the Greeks and Nordic peoples, in which heroic men transcended human concerns to become more extraordinary beings. From Wagner’s music dramas, like Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, The Ring of the Nibelung, and Parsifal, comes the conception of the ‘total art work’ in which all the arts are subservient to a unified conception - which in turn prefigures the entire idea of the Movies. From the germ of Tristan und Isolde comes the idea that music need not conform to a key, but can delay its endlessly, belying our expectations and increasing the tension the music inspires in us exponentially. Before Wagner, there was, even in the age of Beethoven and Byron, still a nagging sense that ‘the artist’ only exists to serve God and the State, and that personal art was, in some sense, a sin against all good sense and established order. Even Beethoven and Byron conformed to the traditional rules of their arts, even if they bended those rules enormously. But Wagner broke the rules of all the arts to create a new art, which sought nothing more than to emulate the great art of old. After Wagner, the artist is definitively not a man who serves authority but the man who was served. No longer did art require a purpose or a goal, art could mean whatever the artist or listener desired it to mean. All movies, all modern art, all postmodern art, shares him as their most important ancestor.

2 B III a. After the Death of the Author - In 1967, a critic named Roland Barthes published a work called ‘The Death of the Author’ in which he argued that artist and creator are independent entities, and once the work was written, the author’s intentions is irrelevant because the work belongs to the public. It is hard to deny his point in the age of movies and television and popular music, few creations of which can be attributed to a sole author. The arts are consumed by a public far larger than any Michelangelo or Shakespeare could dream of reaching, and in manners beyond even their imaginations. Who, ultimately, is the author of a movie or a music album? Does anyone have property over artistic work anymore, and if not, then is the artist any less subservient to public taste than artists were in the ages when they served of God and the State?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“The Class,” an ‘Abstract’ Writeup - Hour 1

1. How we got to 1859? In order to start in 1859, we have to start in 1666, cultural history’s last ‘miracle year’ when the ground on which human thought grew shifted unrecognizably. It was the year Moliere premiered ‘The Misanthrope,’ which reached whole new levels of what satirists could be free to say directly to their audiences, Vermeer completed ‘The Art of Painting,’ which gave painting a whole new level of realism, and the year Louis XIV commissioned the French Academy of Sciences. But most importantly, it’s the year of London’s Great Fire which reduced the city to rubble, and the year Isaac Newton began forming the theories of Universal Gravitation.

1 A. Newton explains the Universe - The myth of Newton’s genius is that the ‘apple fell from the tree.’ But, in my humble opinion, it is more likely that ‘The Great Fire’ stirred his desire for an explanation. Born as he was in 1642, Newton would have already lived through two civil wars, the execution of a divinely-anointed King, a theocratic dictatorship of Puritans, and a plague that wiped out 100,000 Londoners. But even through all that, London, the ‘celestial city,’ the greatest edifice to the Glory of God an Englishman would ever see in his lifetime, still stood. It’s more likely that so many disturbances to the established order of things - dictated by God - made Newton, a self-described Christian heretic, think differently about the way which God constructed the universe.  

1 B. Newton explains Copernicus and Kepler - Copernicus posited, correctly, that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. His correctness was later fundamentally demonstrated by Galileo. Kepler demonstrated, conclusively even if not widely accepted, that the Earth revolved not in a circle but in eliptical form, and gained speed the closer it came to the Sun. Newton showed that it was all possible due to universal gravitation - any two bodies in the universe attract one another with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Thanks to Newton, we were definitively out of the Dark Ages - our knowledge of astronomy, physics, optics, and mathematics, increased exponentially, which eventually seeped into our knowledge about how to create new technology.

1 C. Vico explains Newton - If Newton founded modern physics, then Vico founded the modern study of history. All this new knowledge and technology led to speculation about how so much progress was made. Thus was the study of modern history born, and the idea that historical progress has to be viewed over extremely long spans. For the vast majority of human history, when people recounted historical events, these events might as well have happened when the listeners’ grandparents were children.  Until extremely recently in human history, it did not occur to most people in most civilizations to measure time precisely. Enter Giambattista Vico, the Italian philosopher, operating in the 1720’s. Vico’s primary idea is the ‘Verum Factum:’ The truth is not something observed, as Descartes or Plato believed, but formed. Nothing of this world, not even mathematics or science, is grounded in eternal truths but only in human perceptions of the eternal truths. Knowledge is therefore something to be understood, analyzed, and abstracted, but never something to be understood in its totality. The only way in which we can increase our knowledge is by asking ‘why did this happen?’ ‘why did we develop this knowledge?’ And because we have the capability of human thought and empathy, we can attempt to enter into the minds of the people who may have caused such events. In abstract, even if not in practice, this idea sounds very much like something out of Immanuel Kant, but Vico published all this when Kant was still a baby.  

1 D. Montesquieu explains Vico - If Vico founded modern history, then Montesquieu founded modern social science. Among his other contributions, Vico provided the first foray into modern historical interpretation by using language to show how civilizations evolve through their rise and decline through the meanings they ascribed to certain words. And while it’s probable that Montesquieu never read Vico (though Marx certainly did), he somehow intuited Vico’s ideas about historical evolution and took them to the next logical step. He compared the legal systems, and through their laws, he intuited their entire cultural makeup - their customs, their morals, their aesthetics, their religion. He went through many different civilizations to show that each civilization rises and falls by how well they uphold their own principles. French people have a conception of Frenchness, English a conception of Englishness, Persians a conception of Persianness. Each is based in part on their national character, based in part by the climate in which they live. In our day when questions of orientalism and agency have gained so much importance, this may seem rather backward. But for its time, it was astonishingly progressive. It allowed that men were in fact different, and there is not a single, unifying vision for all mankind that would be true for all men, but that the rules of one society should allow for the toleration of another society’s rules.

1 D I. Darwin the Humanist - It may seem odd to attribute so much of the evolution's evolution to the humanities. But Darwin was nearly as much a literary man as he was a scientist, and his concept of evolution would not be possible without a working knowledge of the humanities. It is foolish to say that Darwin had nothing to do with the ideas of Social Darwinism that followed him. He intuited the idea of evolution as much from ideas that were circulating in the social sciences as he did from geology or Lamarckian biology. From Vico came the idea that the world must develop over enormous spans of time. From Montesquieu came the idea that the world develops differently in different spaces. Later thinkers unfortunately used Darwin's ideas to promote evil, which is the curse of all great thinkers.

1 E. Lamarck explains Montesquieu - While the Comte de Buffon was the first writer to present a theory of biological evolution in the 1750’s, it was still only speculative and unthorough. Due to the still-overwhelming power of the Catholic Church, Buffon could only be presented his theory to the public as a vague, ironic speculation. It was only in the early nineteenth century with the coming of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that the world was able to seriously reformulate biology according to all the new developments in physics and the social sciences. For his contribution, Lamarck has been derided, scorned, and mocked as one of science’s greatest idiots for two centuries. But like many morons, Lamarck had a secretly brilliant side to him, and acknowledgement to that brilliant side is long overdue.

1 E I. Lamarck and the Giraffe The most famous example of Lamarck’s most important theory is the example of the giraffe. He believed that the giraffe developed its long neck by the successive efforts of generations of giraffes to reach the leaves of trees. This sounds absurd, and yet, it only sounds absurd because it is one degree removed from the truth. Environment does determine a species’s evolution, but it does not do so on an individual-by-individual basis. No individual is a blank slate which can simply mould itself to its environment like putty. But even so, Lamarck’s theory is not even completely one degree removed from the truth. A giraffe, like nearly every animal, must grow to its full height, and in order to do so, must exhibit an elemental will to live. It was simply Montesquieu’s study of climate forming history applied to the history of biology, and like Montesquieu, a significant step closer to the truth. Or put differently, Lamarck’s theory is simply Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will to Life, applied to organic biology. Furthermore, current genetic research shows that our DNA and our very genes can morph over time with regard to our life experiences. So yet again, Lamarck has been validated.

I F. Darwin explains Lamarck Like Galileo and Kepler before him, the ‘why’ of his field eluded Lamarck. What Lamarck lacked which Darwin had was an extensive private collection based on extremely extensive travel. Darwin, an immensely wealthy heir to a huge fortune, was able to use his wealth to travel and collect thousands of specimens which no one else would ever be able to obtain, and then write pages upon pages describing each of them, and then draw conclusions based on his findings.  

1 F I. Natural Selection vs. Universal Gravitation - Much like Newton before him, Darwin discovered the ‘why.’ Newton is famous for saying ‘if I have seen farther, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.’ He was able to do so because everything was in place - a reliable telescope, calculus, the proper shape of the world’s orbit, the proof of moons orbiting Jupiter - which proves that the world is not geo(Earth)centric. All that was needed was a basic explanation of the why all this happened. In the same way, the pieces were in place for Darwin - evolution was already widely debated, and the world finally awoke to a proper sense of the enormity of the scale of time and space on which it was placed.

1 G. Darwin explains Us - As soon as Darwin published, something snapped in the air. From Newton to Darwin, the world was being set into place.  Until On the Origin of Species, the world was moving toward a faster pace, but it never really achieved it. Newton supplanted ancient learning about the world above and below us, but Darwin supplanted ancient wisdom about the world of us. The world of monotheism, the world under the word of the Gospels and the Koran, as it existed roughly from the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 337 until Darwin published, was a world of uniformity. The world was united under monolithic Empires, each of which strove mightily (even if not successfully) to bring all its territories under the thumb of the same one god, the same collection of laws, the same language, and the same immutable, eternal truths. But natural selection demonstrated a way in which the world was constantly changing to fit the world’s ever changing circumstances. The world of the eternal kingdom, with eternal representatives on earth, was no longer possible. Empires began to die off, while experiments in democracy and republicanism, once thought the dangerous experiments of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, began to spring up all across the globe.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

800 Words: The Gospel According to Darwin - Parts II and III


After his return from the HMS Beagle in 1836, it took Darwin two years to hit upon the theory of Natural Selection. He did not begin the book until 1842, and within two years he completed his first draft. He did not publish it until 1859, because he wanted to ensure he had the maximum possible evidence to back up his theory. All told, it took twenty-three years after his return for Darwin to accept the conclusions of his trip. Twenty-three years of careful observation, recording, deduction, reading research publications, and tracking down rare books. Twenty-three years during which he was a celebrity for the enormous collection of rare specimens he brought back and associated at parties with the intellectual creme-de-la-creme of Victorian society - known not primarily as a scientist or even a writer but as a type of imperial adventurer. Twenty-three years of terrible health and terrible anxiety over the coming firestorm which he knew such a publication would reap. And most importantly, twenty-three years during which Darwin and his beloved wife Emma had to endure the death of three children. By any standard, Emma and Charles had a wonderful marriage, but Charles worried that Emma’s Christian faith was all that could sustain her in the face of such losses. If Charles proved to her that his theory was correct, Emma could be destroyed.

In every way, the capacity and fortitude for concentrated work which he exhibited so purposefully on The Beagle was still more important after his return. Particularly because in Darwin’s own mind, his results were in no small part a failure. Like Marx, Darwin’s 500 page On the Origin of Species was a mere abstract of the great 2000 page work he meant to write which would refute every possible objection from the theory’s acceptance and shield him from the criticism which he knew such a controversial theory could accord him. Famously, he told friends that “A better man would have written a better book.” And for all Darwin’s skill with writing, On the Origin of Species is still a tremendously difficult book to read. Darwin’s greatest champion in the British press, T. H. Huxley (grandfather of Aldous), nevertheless said that the book was “one of the hardest books to understand thoroughly that I know of. For exposition was not Darwin’s forte and his English is sometimes wonderful.” By wonderful, Huxley meant not ‘excellent’ but full of confusion.  The anxiety of it all resulted in a near-complete nervous breakdown during its year of publication, during which he finally had to take a rest to recharge himself from this herculean effort expended over nearly three decades.  

Darwin knew precisely how controversial and sensational the book might be. One of his grandfather’s closest friends was the great chemist, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen. Priestley was a free thinker, and in part because of his daring scientific theories (some of which, admittedly, were laughably wrong), he was suspected of sedition. During the Birmingham riots of 1791, he had to flee his house, which was burned to the ground by anti-French militants. Due to the suspicion he engendered, he had to spend his remaining decade in America.

True to the sensation Darwin knew his book would cause, the publication sold out on its first day of release. Contrary to today’s common misnomer, what was controversial about the book was not its theory of evolution, a theory that long predated Darwin and was accepted by many scientists as verifiable.


It is important at this moment to understand how the theory of evolution came to be. And in order to understand, we have to go back roughly 130 years to the city of Naples and a figure named Giambattista Vico. Vico is a thinker not much thought of today, nor was he in his own day. But it is through Vico that the modern conception of history was invented through his most famous book, The New Science. Vico’s contribution to human thought was due to Newton’s. Thanks to Isaac Newton, the idea of historical progress was formed. We were finally, definitively, out of the Dark Ages, and the post-Newton world was clearly so superior to the World of Yesteryear, that people began to be interested in how such progress was made. Thus was the study of history born, and with it, the idea that time and progress must be viewed through long, long spans. When Homer wrote about Odysseus or the Yahwist about Moses, they might as well have been describing events which occurred when the reader’s (or listener’s) grandparents were children. And to the vast majority of his audience, Shakespeare’s plays might as well have been the same. Except perhaps to the Ancient Egyptians and early Hindi, the conception of the past as something to be measured precisely is an extremely recent phenomenon in human thought.

But Vico’s primary idea is, in many ways, the beginning of historical thought as we think of it today. His idea, known as the "verum factum", is that the truth is not something observed, as Descartes believed, but something that must be created. As he wrote: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.”

This idea that the truth can only be created, not observed, may seem preposterous at first glance. But think a bit deeper about it: a truth is not simply discovered, it must be made before it's discovered. There must be something to form it. Even if there is an eternal creator to form it, every event, even the creation of an eternal creator, needs something that caused it to happen. Thanks to Vico, the world was no longer a place of eternal truths. The world is now a dynamic place of constantly shifting paradigms, perceptions, and progress.

History is the study of tracing back all those causes as far as it can go, and evolution is impossible to understand without seeing its roots in the historical thought of its day. Once Vico demonstrated as beneficial the idea that we ought to determine the origins of things as best we can, thinkers were then free to explore the past as far back as it went. Montesquieu tried to determine why civilizations rise and fall and how climate formed the particular laws and customs of various civilizations. Condorcet could trace mankind’s intellectual evolution. In the seventeenth century, Newton and Descartes posited their truths as static and eternal, but in the eighteenth century, Lamarck and Buffon could present the world as a place in a state of eternal change. All of which of course made Hegel’s later Theory of History possible. As did it Saint-Simon’s theory of the progress of humanity, and - most importantly for evolution - Auguste Comte’s Positivism, in which all human endeavor evolves forward from theology - a god or demon causing an event, to metaphysics - an hidden, unseen power is behind all events, to science - which will eventually explain all forces through unconvering the laws of nature.

It was the Comte de Buffon, director of King’s Garden’s in Paris, compiler of Buffon’s Natural History, General and Particular, and the least known thinker on this brief list, who first presented a theory of biological evolution. Within his famous book, he speculated that when one saw the physiological similarities between a pig and an ass, one might suspect them of having a common ancestor. His book, as popular as any Malcolm Gladwell book in its day, contains many such ironic speculations about the common origins of species which, sadly due to the power of the Church, he could not speculate sincerely.

Sincere and systematic speculation had to wait until the early Nineteenth Century for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. As with all truly new ideas, his was met with scorn and derision - but Lamarck received the ultimate derision - he was ignored, and died in penury. He was ignored partially because, until fairly recently, Lamarck’s conception was plainly ridiculous. According to Lamarck’s most famous example, a giraffe’s neck was not always long, it grew long over time because of successive generations of giraffe’s efforts to reach upward towards the leaves of trees. In light of the fact that genetic research now shows that our genes can morph over time with special regard to the experiences of our lives, this conception is not quite as absurd now as it was for the majority of the last two hundred years. But it is, nevertheless, fundamentally untrue.

And yet, it seems absurd because it is only one degree removed from the truth. Environment does determine a species’s evolution, but it does not do so on an individual-by-individual basis. No individual is a blank slate which can simply mould itself to its environment like putty. And even so, Lamarck’s theory is not completely untrue. A giraffe, like nearly every animal, must grow to its full height, and in order to do so, it must exhibit an elemental will to live. It was simply Montesquieu’s study of climate forming history applied to the history of biology, and like Montesquieu, a significant step closer to the truth. Or put differently, Lamarck’s theory is simply Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will to Life, applied to organic biology.

In time, his theory was not completely ignored. During his publication in the first decade of the 19th Century, Lamarck’s only significant review was from the famous anatomist, Cuvier, who believed Lamarck to be completely insane. But a few others began to notice, including Goethe - the pre-eminent name among all German writers and intellectuals for all time - who used Lamarck’s theory as a departure point for a botanical theory he called ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants.’

Across the Channel, another thinker was positing the theory of evolution a few years earlier: Dr. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles. As we said before, Dr. Darwin was a great polymath - he even anticipated the use of steam cars and flying machines. Unfortunately, Dr. Darwin had a habit of putting his scientific ideas forward in poetry, which made them seem rather more ridiculous than they were:

“The hand, first gift of Heaven! to man belongs;
Untipt with claws the circling fingers close,
With rival points the bending thumbs oppose
. . . .
Whence the fine organs of the touch impart
Ideal figure, source of every art.

But the chief trigger for the widespread discussion of evolution pre-Darwin was a book published in 1844 - the year Darwin substantially completed On the Origin of Species. It was called The Vestiges of Creation, and its writer, Robert Chambers, insisted on publishing it anonymously for fear of controversy. The book surveyed the entire history of evolutionary thought until that point. Unfortunately, while Chambers had no truck with Lyell’s explanation for how evolution works, he failed to make a hypothesis of his own. His book was derided, particularly by a novelist and back-bench politician named Benjamin Disraeli, for its assumption that some invisible hand inevitably guides existence to a more perfect state. Thanks to Chambers, Victorian England’s knowledge of evolutionary theory was so widespread that even Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Victorian Poet Laureate, puts forward a concept of evolution in his extraordinary long 1850 poem “In Memoriam”, in which concepts are put forward of man’s kinship with the ape, and a vast chain of beings.

"I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones.
That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
So then were nothing lost to man;
So that still garden of the souls
In many a figured leaf enrolls
The total world since life began.

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

800 Words: The Gospel According to Darwin - Part I

It’s one of the great ironies of Charles Darwin’s life that he was perhaps his own best evidence. In the physical sense, evolution works not through environment but through heredity. The environment may create circumstances through which certain traits are more fit to survive, but no environment can create the correct circumstances to bring out traits within a living organism that the organism did not inherit.

Darwin himself was born in extremely propitious circumstances to an exceedingly wealthy family, thereby allowing him the leisure and equipment he required to fully explore the depth of his genius. But had he not been born to a family that positively teemed with geniuses, he would never have had such raw intelligence to develop.

Relatives of his included Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of England’s greatest composers, Francis Galton, the father of Eugenics, and ten other members of the Royal Society - England’s eternal club for their most distinguished scientific minds. His father, Robert Darwin, was one of the pre-eminent physicians and surgeons in England, and advanced theories not unlike what would later be known as psychiatry. His maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, was one of the first great captains of British industry, whose innovations in pottery production did much to create modern assembly line manufacturing. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, is an extremely important biologist (or naturalist, as the field’s practitioners were then called) in his own right, nearly discovering through plant life what Charles would discover from animal life two generations later. But whereas Charles was ultimately a scientific monoglot, whose achievements were “limited” to a genius for perceiving the natural world and a talent for writing prose, Erasmus was every inch a charismatic polymath whose other achievements included numerous inventions, pedagogy, and poetry.

And yet it was by no means a given that Darwin would follow in the footsteps of his distinguished lineage, let alone surpass it exponentially. As a young man, he dropped out both of medical school and of divinity school. Unlike his multi-faceted and extremely charismatic grandfather, Darwin clearly suffered from mental ailments which today would probably be termed a learning disability and an anxiety disorder. All through his youth, Darwin displayed terrible difficulty learning anatomy, mathematics, and foreign languages. He would later become a very well-liked man, modest and gregarious, and by all accounts a wonderful father to his many children - yet his letters are not without their anguished worries and flashes of temper. As Paul Johnson points out, all these defects cost him terribly. Whereas his grandfather came reasonably close to the discovery of genetics, such a concept to explain hereditery survival never occurred to Darwin. Without the understanding of human anatomy or the mathematical components of molecules, how could it? And without a rudimentary knowledge of foreign languages, he never could have come across Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper on genetics, even though German - the mothertongue of Prince Albert - was the most common foreign language learned in Victorian England.

Nevertheless, Darwin was an agreeable and charming young man, and many of his teachers saw the potential of such a brilliant but wayward student. For all his obvious flaws, he still was considered an extremely capable youth in search of a niche - a niche his father worried he would never find. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching,” his father once accused him, “and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” And yet it was these frivolous talents - the observation of dog-breeding, the taxing physical labor of hunting and marksmanship, the patience of animal dissection, which gave him the perspicacity and endurance to create enormous troves of observation every day.

This niche came in the form of the HMS Beagle, a ship charged with measuring the sailability of various seaways in South America. One of Darwin’s professors recommended him for a job as the ship naturalist, and Darwin was all too happy to comply.  The work itself was horrible drudgery that seemed to breed demoralization. The first captain of the Beagle killed himself during the voyage, and the captain under whom Darwin worked, Robert FitzRoy, would kill himself later. FitzRoy was only too happy to format his navigation to whatever specification Darwin required so that he could collect the maximum possible specimens, it gave meaning to an otherwise meaningless-seeming voyage.

Even so, it’s almost impossible to imagine the stamina and willpower Darwin had to summon to fulfill his purpose during his five years aboard the HMS Beagle. Even though he brought a valet with him, most of the animals he had to collect took enormous effort. There must have been days upon days when he was suffering from bad food, poisonous food, lack of food, seasickness, terrible heat and cold, exhausting hikes, rude and dangerous shipmates, and psychological isolation. And yet every one of the roughly five thousand specimen Darwin collected is precisely notated with pages of observation to go along with them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

800 Words: Delusions of Grandeur - My Unrealized Projects - Part 1

In Yiddish, we have a word which I suppose the Germans have too, but it’s such a colorful expression that I can only surmise that it went from Yiddish - a language of colorful expressions - into German - the language of functionality - rather than the other way around. The word is ‘sitzfleisch’, which literally means the flesh on your ass where you sit. When a Yiddish speaker says ‘er hat sitzfleisch’ they mean the fortitude it takes to sit down for mammoth periods of time to complete hard tasks.

Perhaps this is a delusion of grandeur in of itself, but when it comes to things I’m passionate about, I pride myself on having more sitzfleisch than 99% of the world population. But whether I have more than 99% or 1%, it’s still nowhere near enough. The failure is, I believe, not a failure of work, but a failure of nerve. It is very difficult for anyone to convince themselves to devote the best years of their lives to projects that require years and years of work for a product that may be mediocre, or worse. And so rather than stake my life on projects I’d really be passionate about, I content myself with short blogposts that can be finished in a few hours before the sitzfleisch might fall asleep.

But should I ever work up the nerve, the next few blogposts are probably going to be about the various projects I would do if I had the nerve to plow through the doubts about my ability to do them well. It's highly unlikely that a single one of them will ever be done, and perhaps its lunacy to think that I'd ever be able to accomplish any of them. But still, what follows are the projects I fantasize about doing every day.

Non-Fiction History:

The Atheist Reformation: Well, at least I’ve made a very rough beginning on this one. This project used to simply be a book about music in my head, then Alex Ross wrote a far more exhaustive book very nearly about the exact subject I wanted to cover called ‘The Rest is Noise.’

But the origin of this book is in Paris, at the famous English language bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., when I found a book I’d long been searching for in America to no avail - A Cultural History of the Modern Age. A history book which takes us through the modern world and its intellectual development from the end of the Black Plague in 1348 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Thanks to the great Clive James (long may he survive his leukemia) and his book, Cultural Amnesia, I learned about Egon Friedell - the cabaret performer and coffeehouse wit who began his adult life as a failed intellectual… sound familiar?... But in middle age, he wrote a three-volume book called ‘A Cultural History of the Modern Age’ which took the German-speaking world by storm. Apparently, every middle-class German household had a copy. In the ever-darkening climate of Nazism and Communism, this work became a symbol for Germans that learning, curiosity, humanism, and freedom are our greatest friends. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, Friedell was one of their prime targets. When they came for him, his maid stalled so he could commit suicide by jumping out of the top window of his townhouse, but not before calling out to passersby to get out of his way as he went down.

Given my excitement when I found the first two volumes in Paris, I couldn’t imagine that the actual reading would be even more exciting. But Friedell is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever had the privilege of reading - the square inch density of ideas he puts forth is only matched by the beautiful clarity with which he phrases them. Like all thinkers who have a million ideas, most of them aren’t very good, but why should that matter? What matters is their passionate profusion, and the vitality which so many ideas generate. As Friedell points out quite correctly, accuracy in history is a secondary concern. There is no empirical way of determining historical accuracy, there is only the ability to make these dead eras and people of our past live again. In the 20th century, there were as many great historians who were clearly anti-democracy as there were anti-democratic great philosophers - Spengler was a fascist German Nationalist,  Solzhenitsyn was a fascist Russian one, Eric Hobsbawm was an unapologetic communist to the end, A.J.P. Taylor a Stalinist fellow traveler, Jacques Barzun was openly anti-democracy, Niall Ferguson is a rank apologist for Empire and imperialism, Paul Johnson a theocrat and a fascist fellow-traveler. And yet all of them made towering contributions to the history of thought, perhaps contributions far greater than their philosophical counterparts, in no small part because their ideas are so wrong.

Philosophy is the study of questions, history is the study of answers. When dealing with life’s ambiguities, we all have to be as humble, timid, and and meticulous as we possibly can. One small misperception can lead to unprecedented disaster. But in the face of life’s certainties, we all have to be audacious, provocative, and cynical. What if our certainties are not as certain as we believe? We have to be certain of our certainties, or else we fall through the ground upon which we stand. The best philosophers are miniaturists, tinkering endlessly with the most infinitesimal possible material, because they know that material so small can create chain reactions that are positively seizmic. The great historians are maximalists, taking in as much of the universe within their grasp as they can, and prodding it endlessly to ensure that the ship upon which we float has no leaks.

Such a metaphor might make it seem as though history is useless, dealing with issues which are already settled and therefore of no consequence. Quite the opposite is true. The re-evaluation of events which already happened is how we plan for our futures. The more endlessly we examine past - the more endlessly we prod and probe its foundations, the more clearly we see what the future holds for us. Even if the logic of a historian is ultimately incorrect, the speculation is what’s important. The sweep of the narrative, the way the historian speculates how one event came logically out of another, is what makes history so useful. The idea that life is nothing more than simple game of chance is a concept that could only be espoused by a bad philosopher. The idea that nothing can be explained may ultimately be true, but contradicts so much evidence that it’s utterly counterproductive to believe. Furthermore, such nihilism is precisely what turns generations of kids off of history, and precisely why so many people in our generation are profoundly ignorant of where they came from.

But what of my project? My attempt to get wrong the history of the world?

Here is my idea. In roughly the mid-19th century, we finally began our ‘evolution’ to the next crucial conceptual step in human thought. Around the year 337, Emperor Constantine was said to have converted to Christianity on his deathbed, therefore Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, monotheism overthrew polytheism as the dominant worldview, and monotheism became the most dominant worldview of the world’s most dominant empires for nearly 1600 years thereafter. It took roughly three hundred years from Christianity’s gestation to the point that it conquered the world.

Just as monotheism was present in the world for many centuries before the death of Christ, atheism was present for many centuries (indeed, a number of millenia) before Darwin. But just as monotheism required the Gospels to become its pulpit so that it might transform into the Western world’s intellectual currency, atheism too requires a pulpit. Atheism’s pulpit is principally The Origin of Species, which gives us a mythology (even if it’s probably a ‘true’ mythology) that explains how the world came to be in a manner that doesn’t involve God. 200 years before Darwin’s book, Newton’s Principia Mathematica replaced God as the Cosmos’ primary mover with Gravity. But while God no longer had power over the heavens, he still had power over the Earth, a far more powerful weapon for the control of the human mind. But when Divine Creation was replaced with Evolution, God lost his primary reason for being the explanation for the world.

There is not a single part of the human worldview that matters more than a person’s view on how we were created. As Egon Friedell says in another one of his good ideas, a person’s view of religion lies at the center of his view on life itself. If you view the world as being made by a creator for an ultimate purpose, no other concept could ever color your worldview more than that.

The purpose of this book is to interpret all the various important cultural movements through that prism. So many of the movements of the next 150 years: Communism and Fascism, Psychology and Critical Theory, Emancipation from Slavery and Concentration Camps, Technological Worship and Hippie Primitivism, the Rise of the Atheist Movement and even the Resurrection of Religious Orthodoxy, can perhaps be best explained by this relatively new absence of certainty about God, and by people’s strenuous but (thus far) failed efforts to find a replacement.

History works in mysterious ways. It’s been 155 years since The Origin of Species was released to the public. It took 300 years for Monotheism to take hold in the world after Christianity’s appearance. No one can know precisely what the future can hold. But the world is always changing. Just as the appearance of Rome marked the second half of Classical Civilization’s domination, perhaps the appearance of America marks the second half of Western Civilization’s domination. Who would have thought that the most important legacy of polytheistic Greece and Rome would be monotheism? In the same way, perhaps the most enduring legacy of Christian Europe and America will be atheism.

Choral Music:

Complete Jewish Liturgies - Morning, Afternoon and Evening Services, Complete Sabbath Services, Complete High Holiday Services, Complete Psalms -

I don’t have a very sophisticated mind when it comes to technique. The only instrument I hear much of in my head is the voice, perhaps because I can sing whatever I think of out loud, and musical voices that aren’t my own are always ringing in my ears. But as I’ve documented a couple zillion times on this blog, I have a bit of an aversion to sacred music. One of the reasons I’ve bonded so well over the years with 19th century classical music is that I can understand music that is written to express the self, even if that self is very different from mine (like Bruckner’s or Franck’s), because that is how we humans communicate and understand each other. but to directly express a god that isn’t even the god I grew up with takes a bit of a leap to a faith I don’t have to a religion that is very distant from life as I’ve lived it. There is something about Josquin and Bach that isn’t in my DNA. There’s something in the music of the great sacred masters of the Western Canon that feels like a lie to me, as though they’re telling me that the suffering of this world is to a greater purpose. I don’t want to hear that our suffering was worth it, I don’t believe there is any great reward in suffering greatly. I want to hear that our suffering has been acknowledged, and that someone up there is working to alleviate it.

And yet when it comes to the sacred music from my own ‘tribe,’ the “Chazzanus,” I’m all ears. Even if I don’t much care for the texts they espouse, the worldview of this music is my worldview. And yet the picture of Chazzanut which we have is utterly incomplete. We couldn’t record the great Cantors in their services, we’ve lost the vast majority of their oral tradition, and even what we have is a pale shadow of what it once was.

The great sacred composers of the Renaissance composed masses and motets in the same way later composers composed symphonies and sonatas. For a composer of that time, it was the ultimate musical statement in a God-fearing era which just discovered that eternity can better be expressed through the greater complexity and permanence of printed music. And yet this revolution bypassed Judaism almost completely. Except for Salmone Rossi, there was not a single Jewish composer of eminence who could make the sacred Jewish texts sing ecstatically in a ‘Western’ manner until the 19th century, when secularism became the most important part of every learned person’s cultural aspirations.

Some Jewish composer needs to turn back the clock. In the same way that Stravinsky, Britten,  Poulenc,  Arvo Part, Alfred Schnittke, Frank Martin, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov,  Gorecki,  Penderecki,  Gubaidulina, Randall Thompson, John Tavener, conjured mythic visions of Christianities past through a contemporary lens, we need a composer who can do the same for Judaism and create a modern compositional liturgy - pieces which the layman can listen to in awe that will move him away from the ecstasies of fake religious revelations to the profundity of silent contemplation.

We’ve gotten bits and pieces of this kind of attempt from a few: Osvaldo Golijov and Steve Reich are the most obvious examples, and I suppose before them came Bernstein, Ernest Bloch and Schoenberg. But we still don’t have any great Jewish composers, not even John Zorn, who want to take on the religion wholesale after the manner of past masters. But in this era of ours, when religious belief is clearly back on the rise, how can Jewish composers of promise resist the call for this demand for much longer? Christians have the enduring monuments to their sacred texts many tens of thousands of times over, but what have we?


The “Bible” - I don’t have any other foreign language well enough to ever try my hand at Dante, Homer, Ovid, Pushkin, Montaigne, Cervantes, Kafka… I’m not a WASPy classics major or a well-traveled private school Fulbright scholar. I’m a Jew who went to Jewish day schools, who lives a twenty minute drive from the house which he grew up in and still sleeps over there once a week. I grew up learning Yiddish and Hebrew and did my best not to pay attention as I was learning it. Insofar as I have a ‘book’ and an ability to translate it, that ‘book’ is ‘The Bible’, or at least the ‘first half.’ For me, its importance is well past even Shakespeare. Shakespeare is universal, but even within Shakespeare I feel a bit like an interloper to a culture I don’t understand. Why is it all so… dramatic? I don’t quite understand the long-winded rhetorical bombast, I don’t quite understand the fascination with great men and royal intrigue, I don’t quite understand the obsession with sexual jealousy, I don’t quite understand the cynical nihilism of his characters, I don’t quite understand the unconcern with moral questions. But The Bible is about little people, outsiders, weirdos, people like me, and how people so isolated as I can still find their voices. The Bible tells its stories with near-absolute concision (if The Bible seems long, just think of how many stories are told within), near-absolute evenness of tone, and near-absolute infinity of vision in its pages. Even more than Shakespeare, any event is possible within its cosmos. Even if I disagree with an enormous amount of the Bible, I understand it.

It’s one of the great ironies of The Bible that no writer in English can ever surpass the King James Version - a version mostly written by William Tyndale, a writer who lived a half-century before Shakespeare and who Shakespeareized the Good Book - making it far longer-breathed, far less colloquial, far more rhetorically ornamented. Perhaps it’s Shakespeare who simply ‘Tyndalized’ the theatre. The King James Bible is a work of absolute beauty. it is also a work completely of its time and place - of extreme practical use to a State which wanted to wrest English church from the control of its Latin-speaking clergy. We need a Bible for our time, and all these minimally changed new versions rendered by committee for every splintered religious sect simply doesn’t cut it.  It’s well beyond time that a ‘good faith’ effort was made by an army of translators to release The Bible from general religious use for a more secular age. I don’t want to translate the whole thing, “God knows,” it’s a horrific waste of people’s time to read Leviticus and Chronicles. But even with my rusty Hebrew, it would be an amazing adventure to try to uncover the exact meanings of what the J-writer and the Elohist meant. To re-place The Bible in the context of its origins, and by doing so, make it as close to absolute the work of revelatory literature it is rather than the work of ever-more mundane religions it’s become.