Month: <span>November 2022</span>

Book Review: The Ethics of Beauty

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


This is a review I did for the first issue of American Hombre, a new magazine being published by a friend of mine. I did an excerpt of it back in September, but he’s graciously agreed to let me release it in its entirety. If this makes you interested in the full magazine, the PDF is currently available for free at americanhombre.gumroad.com. But also you should consider subscribing to the print version. This magazine deserves to be held. 

You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of the print issue. The next issue is coming out in January and it will include another review by me. (The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, if you’re curious.) 

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, featuring the “Harry Potter Cave” (because it was used in one of the movies.) You might also be familiar with them as the “Cliffs of Insanity” which played such a prominent role in The Princess Bride.

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example.

II- War and the Associated Trauma

The northern transept of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which contains battle standards from previous wars in which the Irish fought.

Patitsas starts his discussion of Beauty in an unusual place. He devotes the very first chapter to a discussion of war, specifically how to heal the trauma that pervades modern warfare. He asserts that much of the reason trauma has become so pervasive is that we have abandoned all efforts at healing soldiers with beauty. We focus only on the truth of it. The deaths, the injuries, the horrible things soldiers witness. Essentially we wallow in the awful facts of war, while making no effort to craft a larger, more spiritual narrative of sin and redemption.

Patitsas asserts that in our current, trivialized conception of beauty, there is nothing beautiful about war or its aftermath. It’s all ugliness, and much of modern therapy is designed to dig up and highlight the ugliness. But under Patitsas’ broader philosophy, healing the trauma of war has to begin with a beauty-first approach to war. There’s the beauty of individuals sacrificing for their brothers in arms, which wars inevitably require. There’s the beauty of community and brotherhood, which creates the necessary bonds for that sacrifice. These are perhaps sometimes acknowledged in the treatment of trauma, but Patitsas goes even farther. 

For Patitsas, trauma is the result of anti-theophanies. Trauma comes from experiencing things that occlude the divine, that make you viscerally doubt the existence of God. It seems overly simplistic to describe it merely as ugliness, but for Patitsas that’s basically what it is — a deep, soul destroying ugliness. The only way to heal it is with true-theophanies, or Beauty. How do we give theophanies to those suffering from Trauma? Patitsas mentions things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger 12-step community, with their core tenet (step 2) of belief in a higher power. But, when talking about war, he spends most of his time talking about the Iliad. 

He borrows this approach from the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Shay argues that reciting the Iliad was a therapeutic act for the ancient Greeks, a way of treating the trauma of war. Patitsas interprets this as healing trauma with beauty. 

Think of how many of our own war movies today tell the story of war in terms of heroics and blood lust. But though the Iliad contains such elements, its larger message is a noble sorrow for the soldiers whose lives are cut short, who experience bad leadership, privation, homesickness, confusion, fear, and pain. The poem was recited to a group of veterans who felt all these emotions again, but on behalf of Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Odysseus, and all the other warriors who in the story go through just what these later soldiers have gone through. The listeners are healed because in grieving for the heroic and ideal combat veterans, they learn to grieve for themselves. 

Patitsas goes on to claim, based on Shay’s work, that this beauty-first approach is more effective than the truth first approach, and leads to better results and fewer military suicides. This makes intuitive sense to me, for reasons I’ll shortly get to, but I haven’t read Shay’s book, so I’m not sure what kind of factual basis he provides for the power of the Iliad. 

For me, this is one of the few weaknesses of Patitsas’ book (the other is its length, it could have been shorter). He largely alludes to other books as providing a factual foundation, which he goes on to interpret using his philosophical framework. So while it’s easy to find statistics about the increase in military suicides, until I get around to reading Shay’s book I’m not sure what kind of evidence there is for treating trauma by reading the Iliad vs. other forms of therapy. 

As I just said though, it does ring true to me, because, as long as we’re referencing other books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, makes an analogous point. Junger, who does provide hard statistics, points out that the PTSD rate among World War II veterans was far lower than the rate among Vietnam veterans, despite the fact that WWII was far bloodier. And we see the same trend of more PTSD combined with fewer injuries when comparing Vietnam veterans to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this disparity are not entirely clear, but it seems safe to say that whatever we’re doing it’s not working.

Junger speaks of the same noble sorrows Patitsas does, and explains that these were sacrifices that soldiers made for their tribe, for their larger society—another way of describing a beauty-first approach. War is horrible, even soul-destroying, but at least you were doing it for your tribe. A truth-first approach focuses entirely on the first part, how horrible it is, without the second. Or as Patitsas says, “truth-first methods can take the soul apart, but they cannot put it back together.” 

III- Beauty for the Non-spiritual

The ruined cathedral, or Teampuil Mor of Kilmacduagh Monastery in Ireland. The cathedral was built in the 15th century and is mostly intact except for the roof.

When Patitsas implies that Beauty can put the soul back together, he’s asking us to assume that we in fact have a soul, and that it can be reconstructed by bringing it into contact with the divine, which must also, by necessity, exist. 

At its most stripped down Patitisas is advocating for dualism over materialism, but this advocacy is far from abstract. He wrote an explicitly Christian book from an uncompromising Christian perspective. Should one take from this that if you’re not Christian, religious, or at the very least spiritual, that the book has nothing for you? I don’t think so. Certainly, should you decide to read the book you should be aware of Patitsas’ forthright Christian advocacy, but in the midst of that he makes several points which should be valuable even for committed materialists.

Before we get into a more intellectual discussion of things, take a moment to consider beauty in raw form. Take a look at the picture at the top of this section, and if you want extra credit look at the rest of the pictures in the review as well. If we momentarily put everything else aside, are these pictures beautiful? I suspect if you’re honest you’ll admit that they all possess significant beauty. Why is that? To just take the picture at the top of the section as an example, why would a ruined chapel full of graves be beautiful? If we have a soul and God exists, the answer is straightforward. But what’s the purely materialist/scientific/evolutionary explanation for the beauty of that picture? Shouldn’t evolution want us to avoid ruin, and eschew death? 

Obviously, there are many potential answers to this question, and a comprehensive discussion of the potential evolutionary basis for beauty would take up far more space than we have. But it’s still worth taking a stab at things.

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, is a book about hemispheric differences in the way the brain operates — the old left-brained vs. right-brained idea. But this is not a book about the popular science version of this difference, it’s a 600 page multidisciplinary dive into neurology and culture, art and history and it gives us our dualism without needing to resort to theology. 

McGilchrist asserts that the right brain, the hemisphere that collates information into a cohesive worldview, and the source of our holistic, intuitive understanding of the world, has historically been the Master. This is in contrast to the left brain, the part that breaks things down, that is focused on the minutia, the parts and pieces, which historically was the Emissary — the part that was sent out to return and report. While reading Ethics of Beauty, I couldn’t help but be reminded of McGilchrist’s book, which posits that the Emissary has usurped the role of the master, that modernity has placed too much emphasis on breaking things down into comprehensible pieces. McGilchrist calls this a left-brained approach; Patitsas appears to be describing much the same thing, but calls it a truth-first approach. Both assert that by following this path we have abandoned an integrated, intuitive understanding — a right-brained understanding (McGilchrist), or a beauty-first approach (Patitsas). This obvious comparison is one of the reasons why I found Patitsas’ book to be so valuable, it dovetailed nicely with things I had read elsewhere, but from a new direction. 

Patitsas work also dovetails with the work of Jane Jacobs, and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has been called the single-most influential book written about urban planning and cities. Published in 1961, the book was a searing critique of “urban renewal”, charging that it created unnatural, sterile spaces, in the process destroying older, more organic communities.

This may seem like a somewhat unusual connection, but second only to Patitsas’ status as an Orthodox theologian, is his status as a protege of Jacobs. He worked closely with her for many years, and Ethics is peppered with anecdotes of their interactions. Once made aware of the connection between the two it’s easy to see how Patitsas’ framework fits over Jacobs’ critique. The urban renewal of the immediate postwar period was a “truth-first” approach to city planning, which supplanted the previous “beauty-first” design naturally adopted by people historically — in the absence of top down diktats such as zoning regulations, building codes, and minimum parking requirements.

Patitsas ties Jacob’s insights into a three-tiered progression for science. His first tier is the science of establishing correlation between two variables. His second tier is the science of statistical analysis. And the third tier is the science of complex systems. In this latter tier we have both strictly organic systems, like plants and animals, but also pseudo-organic systems like cities. Jacob’s genius was uncovering the presence of this third tier within the discipline of urban planning. It is also within this third tier that Patitsas locates beauty. But how does one square his initial definition of beauty as the experience of mini-theophanies with this second definition where beauty is located in complexity? For me it helped to pull in the duality described by McGilchrist — complexity and deep intuition are both right-brained tasks — which is why I did it, but Patitsas doesn’t have access to McGilchrist, he only had access to Jacobs so how does she make the connection?

…Jacobs then proposed something much more radical…which was that in studying organic systems it was a scientific fact that you would never understand such systems if you didn’t first love them! 

…Jacobs’ logic was that living systems are so complex, so alive, that you almost have to “win their trust,” or at least have to give patient, sympathetic attention to them, before you will ever come to see their surprising rational structure. This importance of love is very odd for a scientific method, and it is one more way that problems in organic complexity reverse the assumptions behind the first two kinds of science. Cold objectivity is no aid to the science of complex systems, Jacobs insisted.

The way I put it to my students is that organic systems cannot be understood or known unless we somehow let them “know us back.” For example, you won’t know a particular city until it has claimed you for itself, has changed you. This is not a principle of Enlightenment science by any means, but Jacobs says that in organic systems this is what you have to do. You have to love what you are studying, and you have to let it “know” you. You have to let this organic phenomenon you are studying impart to you a new intuition, a new faculty of awareness, appropriate specifically to it. 

You can certainly imagine this “new intuition” he mentions in connection with complexity to be essentially the same thing as the theophany definition we started with. This is also another illustration of the difference between a truth-first approach and a beauty-first approach. Traditionally science, by emphasizing cold objectivity has no room for any emotion, let alone “love”. But as we seek to understand more complex systems, it’s necessary first to appreciate their beauty, i.e. to love them, before we can truly understand them. Reductionism alone is perhaps inadequate to yield comprehension of the whole which as a cohesive entity is something other than a mere sum of its parts.

IV- Tying it all together

The N11: Star Clouds of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

As this is the first book review in the first issue of American Hombre it seems like an appropriate place to have a discussion about the point of reviewing books in the first place.

For most reviews the primary goal is to answer the question: Is this book worth reading? At its most basic this might be accomplished with a simple “yes” or “no”. But generally this sort of accuracy is only possible if you’re reviewing the book for someone you know very well. When you’re reviewing it for a more general audience, the process of conveying that information becomes significantly more difficult. Given these difficulties it might be worthwhile to break the process down into discreet steps:

  1. What is the book about? What is the author attempting to convey to the reader? 
  2. How does the person writing the review feel about the author’s attempt? (As a subset, does he think it’s true?)
  3. What should the person reading the review take from all of this? 

Most book reviews (including this one) spend nearly all of their space on the first step, which is as it should be. The book is the star, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t have anything to add to that. Without some time spent on step 2, a reviewer might as well just list the table of contents.

It’s when we get to step 3 that things get really difficult. The reviewer has to imagine not merely the average person reading his review, ideally he should cast a net that catches all of the readers. Such a thing is of course impossible, but I’d like to give it my best shot.

I’m imagining that like me you occasionally experience powerful emotions around music, art, and stories. There are things that deeply move you without needing to have any connection to your life or your loved ones: Beethoven’s 9th fills you with a sense of triumph; Michelangelo’s Pietà fills you with inexpressible sorrow; and maybe you also, like me, cry at the end of the Iron Giant. You’re not sure why you experience these emotions so powerfully, but sterile explanations of evolutionary adaptation seem inadequate. 

You’re someone who looks at the picture of stars and interstellar dust at the top of the section, and you can feel the beauty of the overwhelming vastness of space. But you wonder why that should be? Such a view has only been available for a few decades, why should it nevertheless feel familiar?

You’ve heard the explanations for why things are or aren’t beautiful. Why certain forms of art inspire emotion completely out of proportion to their impact on your day to day life. But your intuition tells you that something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s supernatural or divine, or perhaps it’s just some profound connection to the world in its entirety. Whatever it is, it deserves a deeper discussion.

Out of all of this you came to the same starting point as Patitsas. Beauty is foundational, and the world has made it superficial. If you want to leave behind that superficiality, and see what can be built once you truly start with Beauty as a foundation, then yes, you should read this book.


After reading this you might be wondering why I don’t include more pictures in my post. Mostly it’s because I also do an audio version of the post and pictures complicate that. But as I look at the ones included here, it feels like I should figure out a way to do it anyway. If you’d like to fund that endeavor, consider donating


Finding “The Answer”

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.

This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”. 

I.

Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.

The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else. 

Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.

Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.

Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.

Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims. 

At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different. 

However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.

II.

For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a loadstone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)

At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back

The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.

This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society. 

The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home. 

But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas. 

Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism. 

One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.

If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.

As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:

The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.

Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect. 

All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?

III.

The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders. 

At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.  

Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.

It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation? 

Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right. 

Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy. 

This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)

In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer. 

Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal. 

In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:

…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.

But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.


This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.


The 7 Books I Finished in October

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


  1. What We Owe the Future by: William MacAskill
  2. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by: Michael D. Gordin
  3. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by: Jonathan Shay
  4. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by: C.C.W. Taylor 
  5. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy by: Mortimer J. Adler
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

 

A couple of months ago I decided that it was time for another survey (I last conducted a survey in 2018.) I figured that my 300th post would provide a good excuse for it, and that the newsletter would be the best place to announce it. Looking ahead I calculated that I would have to do three essays in September and October to get the timing right, which seemed only fair since my output in July and August had been so pathetic.

On top of trying to fit in additional writing, I could have picked better months to do it in. Things have been crazy with my business. I’m enrolled in a sort of a mini-MBA, my biggest client has kept me super busy, and I hired a couple of people (only one of whom is working out, the other I’m going to have to let go.) Beyond that I still haven’t completely unpacked after the move to the new house, and to complicate the chaos, we just barely moved my mother-in-law into the basement.

I bring all of this up because there was a moment in October when I realized that I had way too much on my plate, and something had to give. In that moment I suffered a mini existential crisis where for a brief period (basically the space of an afternoon) I reconsidered everything, including reading. 

Among the many things I recognized in that moment of panic is that reading, which was usually relaxing and enjoyable, had become oppressive. The panic didn’t last, and it was mostly caused by all the other things I was trying to juggle, but I did make a few decisions: I started skimming a bit more. For obvious reasons this happened more with books I read than books I listen to. I also decided that each month I would make sure to have a book or two I actually enjoyed in the mix. Probably something I had already read, where enjoyment was guaranteed. (Thus the Wizard of Earthsea.) Also, I read a lot of recent non-fiction about how the world might be screwed up. Going forward I think I’m going to try to cut back on that, at least a little bit. It’s unclear how successful I’ll be there. The drive that keeps me writing (see the last post) also drives me to read books like that. But I think I should be alel to back off a little bit. 

But, yeah, this all kind of started with wanting to put out a survey, so it would be great if you could spend a couple of minutes filling it out if you haven’t already. I’m giving $100 Amazon gift certificate to one random person. Though some people have told me they didn’t fill it out because they didn’t want to take $100 from me. If that describes you, you can just say don’t enter me in the drawing. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

What We Owe the Future 

by: William MacAskill

Published: 2022

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The ideology of long-termism in particular our responsibility to the potentially trillions of humans who might come after us. 

What’s the author’s angle?

MacAskill is right at the very heart of the effective altruism movement, being not only one of the originators of the idea, but also the co-founder of many of the institutions most closely associated with the EA movement.

Who should read this book?

As someone who’s very familiar with effective altruism and long termism, I’m not sure how much new stuff I really got out of the book. So if that describes you, or if you’ve listened to one of the thousand or so podcasts MacAskill is on you can probably skip this book. But if you’re just now hearing of long-termism/effective altruism then this is a great introduction.

General Thoughts

When one is reviewing a book that has received as much press as this one, it becomes quite the challenge to say something which hasn’t already been said—possibly dozens of times. To this I say, “Challenge accepted!” Though of course you may already see what the problem is. Unless I have watched, listened to, or read every piece of commentary on the book (which I haven’t) and remembered it all (even more unlikely) then I will never know if I was successful in this challenge. But I trust my readers to point out if I’ve failed. 

With that throat clearing out of the way I’d like to expand on an analogy he briefly introduces in his chapter on stagnation. 

We may be like a climber scaling a sheer cliff face with no ropes or harness, with a significant risk of falling. In such a situation, staying still is no solution; that would just wear us out, and we would fall eventually. Instead, we need to keep on climbing: only once we have reached the summit will we be safe.

There is a lot of pressure these days for making things sustainable, and the point of MacAskill’s analogy is that sustainability might not be an option. Not every point in our civilizational trajectory represents a good stopping point. As an example he points to the 1920’s:

[C]onsider what would have happened if we had plateaued at 1920s technology. We would have been stuck relying on fossil fuels. Without innovations in green technology, we would have kept emitting an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Not only would we have been unable to stop climate change, but we would also have simply run out of coal, oil, and gas eventually. The 1920s’ level of technological advancement was unsustainable. It’s only with the technological progress of the last hundred years that we have the capability to transition away from fossil fuels.

That period’s lack of sustainability is obvious in hindsight. But is our current position similarly unsustainable? MacAskill thinks it is and he mentions that we’re at a point with “easy-to-manufacture pathogens and other potent means of destruction”. But he thinks that if we keep climbing the cliff then we will eventually get beyond these dangers and “reach a point where we have the technology to effectively defend against such catastrophic risks”

This is of course one possibility, that there is some sort of safe summit with respect to technology. That we’re currently in a position where we’ve created the harm but we need to go a little bit farther (or maybe a lot farther?) to create the defense. He mentions defending against pathogens but where does he get the faith that such a thing will ever be trivial? Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that it is and always will be a wickedly difficult problem. I suppose once we’ve spread outside of the solar system it will cease to be an existential risk. (See here for why it needs to be outside the solar system and not merely a Mars colony.) But if so we’ve still got a very long climb ahead of us, and if we’re already tired?

Another possibility is that there is no safe summit, that even if there was a reasonably effective defense against pathogens, by the time we’ve developed it we will have developed a host of other harmful technologies, which require us to develop still more complicated defenses. (Everyone’s favorite example here is AI.) 

This lack of a summit is another expression of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I have talked about several times, most notably here: The idea that technology is like drawing balls of an unknown shade from an urn, and if we ever draw a pure black ball that it will mean the end of humanity. In fact, it’s interesting that MacAskill should use the analogy of climbing towards a summit, because no one climbs in order to reach safety. Summit’s aren’t safe, and in fact the highest summits in the world are in something called the Death Zone. Called this because human life is unsustainable for extended periods, and the vast majority of people need supplemental oxygen. 

There’s a reading of this whole analogy where sometime around the Enlightenment we became obsessed with reaching the summit of a nearby mountain so that we could see the rest of the world, and that we’re going to succeed in reaching it, only to have no idea what to do once we get there. In fact there’s an argument to be made that our confused arrival at the summit is what’s happening at this very moment. 

Beyond the two choices of continuing to climb or falling to our deaths, there are other ways we might extend the metaphor. Perhaps MacAskill is right and we do need to reach the summit, but we’ve picked an impossible route, and if we carefully retreat there’s another route we might be able to take. Or perhaps there’s a ledge where we could rest before we continue with the route we’re already on? And why do we have no “ropes or harness” in MacAskill’s analogy? What reason did we have for creating this exceptionally fragile situation? Perhaps ropes and harnesses represent traditional methods of reducing fragility? Things like religions which encourage high birth rates and prudent behavior. This all makes one wonder why MacAskill would choose for his analogy what may be the least prudent behavior humans engage in. 

There’s another interesting dichotomy to consider here. People like MacAskill, Holden Karnofsky and others believe that we’re at a unique moment in the history of humanity. Karnofsky calls this the most important century. Still others, like David Deutch (who I recently reviewed here) and Steven Pinker think that we’re just walking up the mountain, not climbing, but rather than being alone we are in a group. Also, it’s possible that recently the terrain has gotten more difficult, and some members of our group are starting to complain. And the group as a whole is getting tired. But for them the key danger is that we’re going to end up camping in the least hospitable terrain, or worse start fighting, when in reality the difficult terrain is just a temporary inconvenience.

Eschatological Implications

In the last section I talked about our position on the mountain, in this section I want to talk about our condition. Are we tired as a civilization? Are we beginning to lose our grip? If so, why? Here I think that MacAskill suffers from focusing on the wrong thing. He has a whole chapter on stagnation, which is good, but all of his proposed solutions revolve around technology. He mentions our declining birthrate but mostly in the context of increasing the number of researchers. When he talks about whether biotechnology could help, his example does not involve how it might help with infertility, but that we could clone Einsteins. For MacAskill, stagnation is caused by the slowing of technological advancement and can thus be solved by figuring out how to speed it back up. 

But is slowing technological advancement really the cause of stagnation? I mean sure, tautologically it’s the cause of technological stagnation, but is that really the stagnation we should be worried about? 

In the chapter immediately preceding the one on stagnation MacAskill has one covering collapse. That chapter obviously discusses the potential of nuclear annihilation, and includes the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But those cities, rather than being examples of devastation, are actually examples of resilience, as MacAskill himself is at pains to point out:

Before learning about Hiroshima’s subsequent history, I would have thought that, even today, it would be a nuclear wasteland, consisting of little more than smoking ruins…Despite the enormous loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, power was restored to some areas within a day, to 30 percent of homes within two weeks, and to all homes not destroyed by the blast within four months. There was a limited rail service running the day after the attack, there was a streetcar service running within three days, water pumps were working again within four days, and telecommunications were restored in some areas within a month. The Bank of Japan, just 380 metres from the hypocenter of the blast, reopened within just two days. The population of Hiroshima returned to its predestruction level within a decade. Today, it is a thriving modern city of 1.2 million people.

The Japanese had every excuse to abandon Hiroshima. And even if they didn’t abandon it, it would have been perfectly understandable if it had stagnated, but neither of those things happened. Rather what MacAskill describes is an amazing vitality. This is the opposite of a civilization being tired, and yet it happened at the end of one of the most brutal defeats ever recorded. Technology wasn’t what prevented stagnation or collapse in the example of Hiroshima. It could have caused it, but it definitely didn’t prevent it. Something else was going on. 

The question I have is not whether technology is stagnating, though it might be. The question I have is could we bounce back from disaster as quickly as the Japanese did in 1945? If we can’t, that’s the stagnation I worry about. That’s the weariness that is going to make us lose our grip and fall off the cliff face. You might call it willpower or cohesion, but whatever it is I don’t think modernity has served to increase it. 


The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

by: Michael D. Gordin

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The controversy over Immanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, and the origins and meaning of the term pseudoscience.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gordin is a science historian who decided to spend a few hours looking at the massive, posthumous collection of Velikovsky’s papers, which had been stored and cataloged at Princeton. He was so taken by what he found there that a few hours turned into a few years and a book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really curious about Velikovsky then this is a great book. But I suspect that not many people fall into that category. In fact Gordin claims that if you’re younger than 50 you’ve never heard of Velikovsky. For what it’s worth I had. Carl Sagan “rips him a new one” (as we used to say) in his book Broca’s Brain. The book does have some interesting things to say about our current battles, but only in a very broad sense. There’s very little specific advice.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I was stuck at work late. We were doing some kind of server migration which involved a lot of waiting. And somehow we got on the subject of pseudointellectuals. And as we discussed the topic it gradually became apparent that people were using the term differently, to the point where we stopped the conversation and asked everyone point blank to give us their definition of that word. We discovered that out of the half dozen or so people who were there that every single person was using the word differently. I regret that at the distance of nearly two decades that I can’t recall all the definitions, though I do recall that all of them essentially boiled down to “pseudointellectuals are people I don’t like”. 

I was reminded of that conversation for the first time in quite a while by this book. Because Gordin makes a similar claim. He points out that there is no universally accepted definition of pseudoscience. And that much like my coworkers all those years ago, People use it and its synonyms to refer to any intellectual effort which they find objectionable. Or as Gordin memorably says in the very first line of the book:

No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, “I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudo experiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudo-facts.

In light of this Gordin decides to dig into the history of the word, and how one of the most famous accusations of pseudoscience played out by examining the case of Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision. As I already mentioned, if you’re younger than 50 you probably have no idea who Immanuel Velikovsky is. But despite the fact that he’s entirely obscure now, he was so well known and so ubiquitous at one point that if you’re over 60 it’s impossible that you haven’t heard of him. For those who are unfamiliar with him or his book, I’ll going to steal Wikipedia’s description:

The book postulates that around the 15th century BC, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object and passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object allegedly changed Earth’s orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes that are mentioned in early mythologies and religions from around the world. The book has been heavily criticized as a work of pseudoscience and catastrophism, and many of its claims are completely rejected by the established scientific community as they are not supported by any available evidence.

When you hear the description it probably sounds so fantastical you wonder that anyone took it seriously, but it was amazingly popular. The book itself was a huge bestseller. There were, ostensibly, academic (pseudoacademic?) magazines. College courses were taught around this hypothesis. Carl Sagan and Velikovsky gave contending speeches at the 1974 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Velikovsky supporters, who had flooded the meeting, gave him a standing ovation. The thing that surprised me the most was that Velikovsky even ended up getting to be really good friends with Einstein before his death. So yeah, it was a phenomenon. 

As you might imagine many of the same dynamics are playing out today in the debates over what science is. Despite this, it’s unclear what lessons to take from these past efforts. As this statement from one of the combatants illustrates:

Dennis Rawlins, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, deftly noted the catch-22: “If one simply ignores the crank, this is ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘arrogance.’ If one then instead agrees to meet him in debate, this is billed as showing that he is a serious scholar. (For why else would the lordly establishment agree even to discuss him?) Irksome either way.” So the 1974 experiment [the AAAS meeting] was never repeated. It had been neither success nor failure. It raised the visibility of scientific opposition, but it had resolved nothing.

Currently, the more respectable scientific bodies seem to lean towards not formally engaging with ideas they consider to be pseudoscience. Deciding that it’s better to appear close-minded or arrogant, than to give it any status. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right play. But as the quote points out there is no perfect solution, it’s a catch-22. As such I don’t have many takeaways on what we should be doing. But I am very interested in how the topics we’re fighting about have changed.

Eschatological Implications

Both eras identify certain things as pseudoscience, but outside of that commonality there has ended up being a huge difference in what those things are. The fight over the veracity of Worlds in Collision had no direct impact on people’s lives. Even if it were to be established that Venus was ejected from Jupiter, for the vast majority of people that wouldn’t change anything concrete. People would still send their kids to school in the morning, go to the same job, and eat the same things for dinner. That’s not the case with the things we’re currently debating. Current battles are very different in that they have the possibility of affecting all of those things.  As with so many things the big example here is the debate we had over pandemic precautions. 

Does this mean that it’s more important to stop pseudoscience (whatever that is) cold? Because while believing that Venus dispensed manna thousands of years ago is ultimately harmless, believing that vaccines don’t work gets people killed? Or does it mean the exact opposite, that we should give these ideas as much attention as we can spare? Because lives really are at stake, and locking in the wrong consensus could have massive negative consequences?

I would personally lean towards the latter. At some point you either believe in the scientific process or you don’t. The people who decided to invite Velikovsky to speak to the AAAS, obviously really did believe in that process. They believed that if they honestly grappled with the facts that the truth would emerge, and while it appears that they didn’t consider that invitation to be successful at the time. The influence of Velikovsky arguably started to decline at around the same time and, a few decades on, no one has heard of him. 

I will say that times are very different. And also that there was a localism to solving problems back then which has largely dissipated. (Which, I would argue, is another step in the wrong direction.) But I think if scientists back then were willing to take Velikovsky seriously, that we need to do a much better job of taking current concerns seriously, and not just dismiss anything we don’t like as pseudoscience. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character 

by: Jonathan Shay

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the experience of combat, and the subsequent PTSD experienced by soldiers in Vietnam, parallels the experience of the Greeks and Trojans, and particularly Achilles, in the Iliad.

What’s the author’s angle?

Shay thinks we’re treating PTSD all wrong. In support of this hypothesis he turns to the Iliad as an example of how soldiers used to be treated, and contrasts it with the failed methods we used both during and after Vietnam.

Who should read this book?

I suspect this book might be a little bit out of date, but I’m definitely no expert on current best practices for PTSD. Also I’m curious about data on soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger’s Tribe (which I talked about here) seemed to indicate that PTSD has gotten even more prevalent. 

General Thoughts

I read this book because it featured so prominently in The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas, which I reviewed for the magazine American Hombre. I was particularly curious about whether Shay claimed that studying the Iliad was more effective than traditional therapy at healing PTSD. He sort of does, at the end, but I think Patitsas may have overstated the case. 

Also as I was reading the book I was reminded of a post by Bret Devereaux, ancient historian, and author of the very popular blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, where he claimed that

[T]here is vanishingly little evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean or medieval Europe experienced PTSD from combat experience in the way that modern soldiers do.

I’m inclined to believe this, nevertheless Shay does draw some remarkable parallels between the experiences of Achilles and the experiences of the hundreds of Vietnam veterans he’s worked with. They really do seem to be describing much the same thing as Homer, and having read the book it’s hard to believe that Shay’s not on to something. But exactly what continues to be elusive.

I already mentioned Tribe by Junger, which covers similar ground. And actually claims that PTSD has gotten even worse since Vietnam. He does speculate that PTSD provides an easy path to getting declared 100% disabled and thereby being eligible to receive around $3300 a month, inflation adjusted, for the rest of your life. This is a non-trivial incentive for veterans to lie about such things. Junger also points out the very counterintuitive fact that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced combat are less likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. So there’s a lot about this subject that needs unraveling. 

Another thing that makes me doubt that PTSD is getting more prevalent, is just how bad Vietnam was. Shay includes story after story of truly awful events, and I know such events also took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine that either conflict was as bad as what the veterans in the book say about Vietnam. Still, if you just look at reported rates they’ve gone up.

In the end I’m just some guy who’s read a few books. I have no direct experience of combat and very little experience even of trauma. But I still can’t shake the feeling—a feeling this book only reinforces—that we’ve gotten a lot worse at dealing with such trauma. 


Socrates: A Very Short Introduction

by: C.C.W. Taylor 

Published: 2019

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Socrates, the historical man, the character in Plato’s dialogues, and a few other things besides.

Who should read this book?

As an audiobook this was just four hours, and in that time it distilled out a lot of information. I read it to broaden my understanding of classical philosophy, which I’m still trying to work my way through.

General Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before in this space I’m trying to work my way through the great books of the western world. I kind of fell off the wagon this year, and I’m hoping to get back on, and I figured reminding myself of what I had already read was a good way to do that. Also this was a test of the Very Short Introduction series, a collection of books put out by Oxford on, as of this writing, 754 different topics. If they’re good they would be an excellent resource to be able to draw on. 

I found the book to be very informative, but kind of dry, though I kind of expected that. I’m going to try out the VSI for Plato as well, and we’ll see how it goes.


Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy 

by: Mortimer J. Adler

Published: 1997

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The philosophy of Aristotle summarized for a modern audience.

Who should read this book?

I read this in preparation for reading actual Aristotle (which is the next author on my great books list). It’s another short one, only five and a half hours on audio. I thought it was pretty good, but I’ll know more once I read some actual Aristotle.

General Thoughts

I thought the book was structured well. And flowed pretty easily. Also it was somewhat less dry than the Socrates book. As I alluded to, I mostly read it to lay a foundation before actually reading Aristotle, so that I don’t get too lost. Whether it fulfills that purpose is yet to be seen.


A Wizard of Earthsea 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1968

205 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ged, a talented wizard who is consumed by pride until that pride leads to a horrible mistake which he spends the majority of the book trying to rectify.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short.

General Thoughts

I suspect most of my readers have heard of A Wizard of Earthsea, so I don’t intend to spend much time discussing the actual book, rather I want to talk about why I decided to read it. I believe Tim Ferris mentioned that the audio version was fantastic, but more than that I realized recently that rather than reading 3-4 non-fiction “This is why the world sucks” books every month (which don’t get me wrong I enjoy, they’re my jam.) I could read 2-3 such books and have time to re-read a couple of books I really love, like A Wizard of Earthsea. So going forward I intend to do that. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to read next, but I’m excited to figure that out.

I will include one quote from the book that struck me on this read through:

[T]he truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.


III- Religious Reviews

Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances

by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

Published: 2012

556 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An apologetic work which examines the temple ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In particular the similarities between these ordinances, the Masonic Ordinances, and what we know about ancient temple ordinances.

What’s the author’s angle?

Over the years the Church has frequently been attacked for copying its temple rituals from the Masons. As an LDS apologist, Bradshaw sets out to show that the rituals have many elements which existed as part of ancient temple rituals, but which were not part of masonic rites. Given that these elements were not known at the time of Joseph Smith, this would imply that they came by way of revelation.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is interested in the connection between LDS temple rites, Masonic rites, and Ancient rites. (Which I assume will mostly be members of the Church, but doesn’t have to be.)

General Thoughts

Surprisingly, I don’t read as many LDS books as you might expect, so I’m not an expert on what sort of books have already been published on this subject, but this one seems pretty authoritative. It’s one of those massive books where it’s only about half primary text, and the other half is bibliography and endnotes.

As you might expect there’s no ironclad proof that the LDS Temple Ceremony was practiced anciently in its current form, but there are a whole host of elements whose existence is confirmed by ancient texts which only appear in the LDS ceremony and not the Masonic rites, and furthermore this ancient evidence was not something that Joseph Smith would have had access to. I assume as per usual, some people will find this very compelling and other people, less favorably disposed to the Church, will think that Bradshaw goes too far in the connection he draws. 

But for anyone genuinely looking for answers to this question of the connection between the Masonic Rites and the LDS Temple Ceremony, there is no better or more fascinating book on the subject.


If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that this is my 301st post. It’s possible I only had 300 of these clever(?) end of post donation requests in me, and that going forward I’m going to just have some boilerplate outro. You know one of those ones where I thank my patreons by name? If you want to see your name on a low-traffic, niche blog, with severe brevity issues, there’s an easy way to make that happen.