Calm down

Plato's Laws X, 4

So here is the argument for the divinity of the sun. It's long, so buckle up.

Step one: establish that the soul can't be accounted for by things like fire and stone. Thus, our souls are not produced by the interactions of fire and stone, but in fact it is the soul that takes the things of the world and orders them into beings like us. That organizational activity can be seen in the regular order of our bodies, and is not found in raw nature.

Ath. Well, then, tell me, Cleinias-for I must ask you to be my partner-does not he who talks in this way conceive fire and water and earth and air to be the first elements of all things? These he calls nature, and out of these he supposes the soul to be formed afterwards; and this is not a mere conjecture of ours about his meaning, but is what he really means.

Cle. Very true.

Ath. Then, by Heaven, we have discovered the source of this vain opinion of all those physical investigators... I must repeat the singular argument of those who manufacture the soul according to their own impious notions; they affirm that which is the first cause of the generation and destruction of all things, to be not first, but last, and that which is last to be first, and hence they have fallen into error about the true nature of the Gods.

Cle. Still I do not understand you.

Ath. Nearly all of them, my friends, seem to be ignorant of the nature and power of the soul, especially in what relates to her origin: they do not know that she is among the first of things, and before all bodies, and is the chief author of their changes and transpositions. And if this is true, and if the soul is older than the body, must not the things which are of the soul's kindred be of necessity prior to those which appertain to the body?

Contemporary atheists and other materialists deny the existence of the soul, so the question of its priority would not move them. They would say that even we ourselves are made up of ordinary matter, things like 'rocks and fire,' i.e., carbon chains and water, salts and such that become capable of electrical activity and self-organizing. Yet the self-organizing really does precede at least most of the matter; it begins as soon as the zygote is formed, which somehow contains the patterns necessary to organize a hundred pounds or two hundred or even more of heretofore-inert matter into a functional being. The capacity to do this is realized in the zygote, but is prefigured in the two parts that come together, neither of which is functional alone and yet both of which are ideally formed for realizing this project in unity.

That's amazing, but it was unknown to the Greeks. Yet they could see that 'the thing that gives life' must precede rather than follow the creation of the body. The body is organized by what they are calling the soul, not the other way around. 

So, step two: bodies like planets and suns also exhibit organization and regularity.

Ath. Some one says to me, "O Stranger, are all things at rest and nothing in motion, or is the exact opposite of this true, or are some things in motion and others at rest?-To this I shall reply that some things are in motion and others at rest. "And do not things which move a place, and are not the things which are at rest at rest in a place?" Certainly. "And some move or rest in one place and some in more places than one?" You mean to say, we shall rejoin, that those things which rest at the centre move in one place, just as the circumference goes round of globes which are said to be at rest? "Yes." And we observe that, in the revolution, the motion which carries round the larger and the lesser circle at the same time is proportionally distributed to greater and smaller, and is greater and smaller in a certain proportion. Here is a wonder which might be thought an impossibility, that the same motion should impart swiftness and slowness in due proportion to larger and lesser circles. "Very true." And when you speak of bodies moving in many places, you seem to me to mean those which move from one place to another, and sometimes have one centre of motion and sometimes more than one because they turn upon their axis; and whenever they meet anything, if it be stationary, they are divided by it; but if they get in the midst between bodies which are approaching and moving towards the same spot from opposite directions, they unite with them. "I admit the truth of what you are saying." Also when they unite they grow, and when they are divided they waste away-that is, supposing the constitution of each to remain, or if that fails, then there is a second reason of their dissolution. "And when are all things created and how?" Clearly, they are created when the first principle receives increase and attains to the second dimension, and from this arrives at the one which is neighbour to this, and after reaching the third becomes perceptible to sense. Everything which is thus changing and moving is in process of generation; only when at rest has it real existence, but when passing into another state it is destroyed utterly. 

This 'motion that seems impossible, because the same motion imparts swiftness to one part and slowness to another' was the subject of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. It's really true; although it applies much more to the record than to the things the Greeks were observing in the heavens. There, the regularity of motion is not a function of the things being connected, like the points on the surface of the record that are held together by the record's body. Rather, they are often illusory or at least perspectival: they occur to our eyes, but the revolution is the revolution of our own planet, and the stability is produced not by the substrate connecting the stars but by the vast distances involved. Some of those stars may not even 'still' be there, yet they will for quite a while yet continue to appear to be, and to move regularly in alignment with stars that they are actually nowhere near.

Of course, if Newton's inverse square law of gravity holds something like true, there is a kind of substrate that connects them after all; and they do affect each other, even at great distance. But that is for another day.

Step three, then: since the suns and planets exhibit such regularity of order and body, we must ask if they are being ordered from outside, or if they are ordering themselves (as our bodies do).

Ath. Everything which is thus changing and moving is in process of generation; only when at rest has it real existence, but when passing into another state it is destroyed utterly. Have we not mentioned all motions that there are, and comprehended them under their kinds and numbered them with the exception, my friends, of two?

Cle. Which are they?
Ath. Just the two, with which our present enquiry is concerned.
Cle. Speak plainer.
Ath. I suppose that our enquiry has reference to the soul?
Cle. Very true.

Ath. Let us assume that there is a motion able to move other things, but not to move itself;-that is one kind; and there is another kind which can move itself as well as other things, working in composition and decomposition, by increase and diminution and generation and destruction-that is also one of the many kinds of motion.

Cle. Granted.
Ath. And we will assume that which moves other, and is changed by other, to be the ninth, and that which changes itself and others, and is co-incident with every action and every passion, and is the true principle of change and motion in all that is-that we shall be inclined to call the tenth.

Cle. Certainly.

This complexity is reduced by Aristotle, in the second book of the Physics. Things come to be by nature, or they are made to be by something else. "By nature" for Aristotle means that they have a form that is self-replicating -- like the zygote that is ordering itself out of the material of the world into, well, you. The alternative is that the ordering is being driven by something else. Note that 'by nature' as Aristotle is using it here doesn't mean 'natural forces,' e.g., gravity is acting upon asteroids to form them into a belt. That's being acted upon by 'something else,' to whit, the sun's gravitational pull and their own attraction to each other, etc. "By nature" as Aristotle is using it means the kind of self-ordering that Hans Jonas calls life, and that Plato is describing as the work of a soul.

Step four: which of these modes of ordering is really the superior one? Obviously the self-ordering principle, the soul; and by the way, Plato's Athenian notes, only such a being could actually have put the 'something else' movements into play anyway. 

Ath. And which of these ten motions ought we to prefer as being the mightiest and most efficient?

Cle. I must say that the motion which is able to move itself is ten thousand times superior to all the others.

Ath. Very good; but may I make one or two corrections in what I have been saying?

Cle. What are they?
Ath. When I spoke of the tenth sort of motion, that was not quite correct.

Cle. What was the error?
Ath. According to the true order, the tenth was really the first in generation and power; then follows the second, which was strangely enough termed the ninth by us.

Cle. What do you mean?
Ath. I mean this: when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle?

Cle. Very true, and I quite agree.
Ath. Or, to put the question in another way, making answer to ourselves:-If, as most of these philosophers have the audacity to affirm, all things were at rest in one mass, which of the above-mentioned principles of motion would first spring up among them?

Cle. Clearly the self-moving; for there could be no change in them arising out of any external cause; the change must first take place in themselves.

Ath. Then we must say that self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.

Cle. Quite true.
Ath. At this stage of the argument let us put a question.
Cle. What question?
Ath. If we were to see this power existing in any earthy, watery, or fiery substance, simple or compound-how should we describe it?

Cle. You mean to ask whether we should call such a self-moving power life?

Ath. I do.
Cle. Certainly we should.
Ath. And when we see soul in anything, must we not do the same-must we not admit that this is life?

Cle. We must.

Now that last deduction is almost certainly wrong in the eyes of the materialist. The motion of the stars wasn't 'started' by some self-organized being acting on other things, because there was never a time when things were at rest. Time itself comes to be with the Big Bang, it may be; or there may be ways of talking about an 'arrow' pointing back through previous cycles of creation. That's a matter contemporary cosmology discusses. But the point is that you don't have to have something 'starting' the motion; there's always been motion. 

Yet of course you do need a start to the motion, and it does have to be something that lies 'in the nature of the thing' in Aristotle's sense. Uranium, for example, is such a thing that if you put enough of it together in one place, it will by nature explode. Something like that has to be true to explain the Big Bang: the nature of the stuff of reality, whatever it is, must be such that it explodes if compressed to a certain degree. This is even more true if there are cycles of Big Bangs, as some theorize; it's what drives the cycles. But it must have been present prior to any such cycles; and thus, the Athenian is correct that even if everything were together and unmoving (in the sense of the Big Bang singularity, which is 'unmoving' because there's nowhere to move), an internal principle must give rise to the motion. Aristotle, at least, is correct. The Athenian has more steps.

Step five: this 'eldest and mightiest principle' is not only a soul, but a divine soul.

Ath. Yes; and if this is true, do we still maintain that there is anything wanting in the proof that the soul is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has become, or will be, and their contraries, when she has been clearly shown to be the source of change and motion in all things?

Cle. Certainly not; the soul as being the source of motion, has been most satisfactorily shown to be the oldest of all things.

Ath. And is not that motion which is produced in another, by reason of another, but never has any self-moving power at all, being in truth the change of an inanimate body, to be reckoned second, or by any lower number which you may prefer?

Cle. Exactly.
Ath. Then we are right, and speak the most perfect and absolute truth, when we say that the soul is prior to the body, and that the body is second and comes afterwards, and is born to obey the soul, which is the ruler?

Cle. Nothing can be more true.
Ath. Do you remember our old admission, that if the soul was prior to the body the things of the soul were also prior to those of the body?

Cle. Certainly.
Ath. Then characters and manners, and wishes and reasonings, and true opinions, and reflections, and recollections are prior to length and breadth and depth and strength of bodies, if the soul is prior to the body.

Cle. To be sure.
Ath. In the next place, must we not of necessity admit that the soul is the cause of good and evil, base and honourable, just and unjust, and of all other opposites, if we suppose her to be the cause of all things?

Cle. We must.
Ath. And as the soul orders and inhabits all things that move, however moving, must we not say that she orders also the heavens?

Cle. Of course.
Ath. One soul or more? More than one-I will answer for you; at any rate, we must not suppose that there are less than two-one the author of good, and the other of evil.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. Yes, very true; the soul then directs all things in heaven, and earth, and sea by her movements, and these are described by the terms-will, consideration, attention, deliberation, opinion true and false, joy and sorrow, confidence, fear, hatred, love, and other primary motions akin to these; which again receive the secondary motions of corporeal substances, and guide all things to growth and decay, to composition and decomposition, and to the qualities which accompany them, such as heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, hardness and softness, blackness and whiteness, bitterness and sweetness, and all those other qualities which the soul uses, herself a goddess, when truly receiving the divine mind she disciplines all things rightly to their happiness; but when she is the companion of folly, she does the very contrary of all this. Shall we assume so much, or do we still entertain doubts?

Cle. There is no room at all for doubt.

So, here is the proof of the existence of gods, and that they order the universe and determine the nature of good and evil, and thus justice and injustice. Since they are the very source of these things, of course the gods must be deeply devoted to things like goodness or justice; and you are wrong, then, to think that you can lightly escape them by gifts. They've gone to a lot of trouble to establish the order of the world and the nature of justice, and they must therefore be deeply interested in it. 

I promised we'd get to the sun, so let's close with that. The sun is a body; it shows regularity and order in motion and other ways; thus, it must be ordered. If it is ordered, it must be ordering itself or be ordered by something else. Either way, the Athenian argues, the thing ordering the sun must be a god.

Ath. Every one sees the body of the sun, but no one sees his soul, nor the soul of any other body living or dead; and yet there is great reason to believe that this nature, unperceived by any of our senses, is circumfused around them all, but is perceived by mind; and therefore by mind and reflection only let us apprehend the following point.

Cle. What is that?
Ath. If the soul carries round the sun, we shall not be far wrong in supposing one of three alternatives.

Cle. What are they?
Ath. Either the soul which moves the sun this way and that, resides within the circular and visible body, like the soul which carries us about every way; or the soul provides herself with an external body of fire or air, as some affirm, and violently propels body by body; or thirdly, she is without such a body, but guides the sun by some extraordinary and wonderful power.

Cle. Yes, certainly; the soul can only order all things in one of these three ways.

Ath. And this soul of the sun, which is therefore better than the sun, whether taking the sun about in a chariot to give light to men, or acting from without or in whatever way, ought by every man to be deemed a God.

I said 'either way,' but he describes this as three ways; the first two look to me to collapse. If the sun is like us, it has a soul 'inside' its body, or that is ordering matter in such a way as to provide itself with a body (as our soul/nature/form orders matter into the shape of our body). Or, alternatively, the soul that moves the sun -- which must exist, due to the proof that the original motion of things like suns requires a soul -- somehow is wonderfully able to guide the sun through an invisible power. In either case, this is a pretty impressive soul. 

And thus, we should worship the mighty soul of the sun -- if not the body of fire itself -- as a god. 

The allure of patterns

Sometimes a crochet pattern takes forcible possession of my brain. My sister keeps sending me these. I know I'm going to have to pick up a tiny crochet hook and some tatting thread and make edgings for something. Sometimes I have to make many linear yards of a pattern before it releases me. That last one is going to do it this time, I think.

Plato's Laws X, 3

So, the Athenian lays out his plan to prove the existence of gods. Along the way, he establishes one should 'hate and abhor' those who disagree that they exist.

Ath. Who can be calm when he is called upon to prove the existence of the Gods? Who can avoid hating and abhorring the men who are and have been the cause of this argument; I speak of those who will not believe the tales which they have heard as babes and sucklings from their mothers and nurses, repeated by them both in jest and earnest, like charms...

Now, as to the question of which side Plato really favors, you can run that one both ways. On the one hand, maybe it's a sincere sentiment; on the other hand, maybe Plato is having his character express clear disgust to draw off suspicion that he's really going to advocate that the gods don't exist. After the long preamble, he gets to the doctrine that maybe the planets are just rocks and stars just fire.

Ath. I am afraid that we have unconsciously lighted on a strange doctrine.

Cle. What doctrine do you mean?

Ath. The wisest of all doctrines, in the opinion of many.

Cle. I wish that you would speak plainer.

Ath. The doctrine that all things do become, have become, and will become, some by nature, some by art, and some by chance.

Cle. Is not that true?

Ath. Well, philosophers are probably right; at any rate we may as well follow in their track, and examine what is the meaning of them and their disciples.

Here it looks like Plato is setting up the Athenian to admit the truth of the 'philosophers' doctrine, which is probably right, and said to be wisest of all.' But he and Cleinias remain opposed once it is lain out.

Ath. They say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance, the lesser of art, which, receiving from nature the greater and primeval creations, moulds and fashions all those lesser works which are generally termed artificial.

Cle. How is that?

Ath. I will explain my meaning still more clearly. They say that fire and water, and earth and air, all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only. 

So here is the first step of 'the philosophers' doctrine': nature has priority over art, for after all our arts generally only mimic nature: the painting of the landscape draws all its inspiration from the actual land, and sea, and air; and those things change wondrously daily, and through the seasons. Not so the painting, which dulls with age. Art is thus categorically inferior to nature. Therefore, the highest and noblest things -- suns and planets, for example -- should be products of nature, not art.

Being a product of nature means being formed by natural forces -- they do not know the names of gravity and the like, but that is what they mean. This is the best kind of formation, and it would be insulting to attribute mere art to such things.

Step two:

Ath. Art sprang up afterwards and out of these, mortal and of mortal birth, and produced in play certain images and very partial imitations of the truth, having an affinity to one another, such as music and painting create and their companion arts. And there are other arts which have a serious purpose, and these co-operate with nature, such, for example, as medicine, and husbandry, and gymnastic. And they say that politics cooperate with nature, but in a less degree, and have more of art; also that legislation is entirely a work of art, and is based on assumptions which are not true.

Cle. How do you mean?

This should bring back the earlier books on the education of the young. The arts there were highly praised, but because they perfect nature. Arts such as lewd poetics that brought about greater heights of pleasure, in a way that weakened nature, were said to be bad. Nature has priority. Art is valuable if and only if -- and indeed, only insofar -- as it works to perfect what nature has left unfinished. 

Step three:

Ath. In the first place, my dear friend, these people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.-These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions, these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others, and not in legal subjection to them.

Cle. What a dreadful picture, Stranger, have you given, and how great is the injury which is thus inflicted on young men to the ruin both of states and families!

Plato has had the Athenian give a pretty compelling argument for the opinion of 'the philosophers, who are probably right, and which some say is wisest of all.' Yet Plato does this. In the Protagoras, Protagoras has some fantastic and noble arguments. They don't end up making sense, but Socrates' responses are conflicted in the opposite way -- as Socrates himself notes. 

So, here too we can run it both ways. One: Plato isn't in the business of mocking his opponents. He is fighting an honest fight. He gives them their best possible argument in part of this honest struggle, so that he is not cheating them even if he ultimately defeats them; and when he cannot, as in the Protagoras, he admits it. 

Two: Plato is subversively arguing for the rocks-and-fire position (which happens to be true, by the way), but framing the opposition of his characters as a kind of self-defense against censure. Clearly they're expressing the socially acceptable views, and are entertaining these horrid thoughts only to refute them. 

As if to add weight to the second side, Plato now embarks upon a brief debate between the Athenian and Cleinias as to whether they should even continue trying to construct arguments against such a terrible position. Shouldn't the legislator simply ban such thoughts, and drive out such people? Or, after all, wouldn't it be better if you could persuade people of the wrongness of such evil thoughts? And shouldn't you be able to do that, if indeed they are wrong ideas? And after all, wouldn't it be a way of honoring the gods to defend them in such a fight? 

So again:  One: Plato is defending the idea of a fair fight, not simple legislative action. He believes and wants others to accept that persuasion is better than force. Or, two: Plato is hiding his tracks. He wants to continue to show the truth of the rocks-and-fire argument, but he's afraid of drawing censure. This argument is to give cover for continuing to explore the true idea he wants to advance.

See what you think about all that, and then we'll explore the argument that the sun and the planets are really divine. 

Captain John Smith

Pirate, duelist, mutineer, and the first enslaved man in America -- well, except for those enslaved by Native Americans, of course. It's really quite a story.

The Secret History of the Election

This is the version the winners want told, because they want credit. 

It’s in Time magazine, for now. I linked also to an archive, because I imagine they’ll think better of it. 

Plato's Laws X, 2

No true believer does wrong, says the Athenian, out of fear of the gods: 

Ath. No one who in obedience to the laws believed that there were Gods, ever intentionally did any unholy act, or uttered any unlawful word; but he who did must have supposed one of three things-either that they did not exist,-which is the first possibility, or secondly, that, if they did, they took no care of man, or thirdly, that they were easily appeased and turned aside from their purpose, by sacrifices and prayers.

So we can distinguish the 'country music case' as the last one of those three options. He does believe in God! He just thinks that God is going to be pretty easily appeased, with some prayer and apologies. A Christian might well come to the conclusion that God is forgiving if only you'll ask, because preachers have been telling him that since childhood. The Greek gods were not supposed to be easily appeased where violators of justice were concerned: they had names like Nemesis. Zeus was supposed to be a particular defender of justice, and Apollo would bring plagues down on wrongdoers (the Iliad, recall, opens with one).

Thus, the Athenian reasons, Greeks who think they can easily turn away divine wrath are paying the gods an insult: such persons don't really believe that the gods are devoted to justice so much as to gifts and attention. That's a kind of sacrilege, and itself an insult to the gods.

He goes on to propose that, if they were honest, such persons would admit that they feel one of these three ways about the gods: that they don't exist, or that they don't care about us really, or that they're easily turned. Such persons would demand of "us" a proof that the gods do exist, and that they are in fact attentive to justice. 

Cleinias responds to the challenge, stating that the gods' existence is obvious.

Ath. How would you prove it?
Cle. How? In the first place, the earth and the sun, and the stars and the universe, and the fair order of the seasons, and the division of them into years and months, furnish proofs of their existence; and also there is the fact that all Hellenes and barbarians believe in them.

These sorts of 'proofs' are still widely used. The argument from the orderly nature of the universe, for example, is Aquinas' fifth proof of the existence of God and yet also the oldest; here we see it in Plato. It is answered by atheists and agnostics in our day by the argument that the order is a kind of chance; that observers could only exist in a relatively orderly universe, and thus since we are here to observe, no other sort of universe is possible (and thus no explanation for the order is necessary, and via Occam's Razor, no God or divine plan is necessary, and should be omitted). The Humeans argue that there is no actual plan or order at all, just us imputing one based on our observations of uncaused patterns in the 'mosaic' of reality. 

Plato is onto the fact that this explanation won't satisfy. Yet the Athenian praises it, and accuses his own people -- Athenians -- of being too corrupted by false poets to appreciate it. Well, false poets like Homer! The Iliad opens with the Greeks being punished by Apollo, as mentioned, and turning aside his wrath with a sacrifice. If Homer isn't a true poet, who is? 

Not Hesiod, apparently, whom I take Plato's character to be describing in the next passage.

Ath. At Athens there are tales preserved in writing which the virtue of your state, as I am informed, refuses to admit. They speak of the Gods in prose as well as verse, and the oldest of them tell of the origin of the heavens and of the world, and not far from the beginning of their story they proceed to narrate the birth of the Gods, and how after they were born they behaved to one another. Whether these stories have in other ways a good or a bad influence, I should not like to be severe upon them, because they are ancient; but, looking at them with reference to the duties of children to their parents, I cannot praise them, or think that they are useful, or at all true. Of the words of the ancients I have nothing more to say; and I should wish to say of them only what is pleasing to the Gods. But as to our younger generation and their wisdom, I cannot let them off when they do mischief. For do but mark the effect of their words: when you and I argue for the existence of the Gods, and produce the sun, moon, stars, and earth, claiming for them a divine being, if we would listen to the aforesaid philosophers we should say that they are earth and stones only, which can have no care at all of human affairs, and that all religion is a cooking up of words and a make-believe.

Hesiod's Theogony sounds like the source for this objection. Uranus can be translated as "Sky," and the Hamilton translation invokes the word "sky" in this passage about the earliest stories about the gods. Now these earliest stories about the gods involve parricide and castrations, and various other sorts of violence by the gods including Zeus. These are old stories, though, and the Athenian isn't quite willing to say they shouldn't be taught (though Plato is! He says in the Republic that the poets should only teach things about the gods that are in line with justice; and the Athenian has already decried any new such stories from poets). 

It does complicate the matter, however, of proving that we are governed by true gods who do care about justice and won't be easily turned aside by flattery. The Athenian has argued for the importance of upholding the old ways, civic customs, and the honor of our ancestors; but here is a place where the stories our ancestors have long told about the gods themselves are a real problem for his intention. 

Note that the Athenian is preparing to prove that the divine beings include the stars and planets.  We'll get to that argument in the next part.

Bob Newhart

Having given up cable television in 2004, when I discovered I was only using it to watch old movies that I could just buy for much cheaper, I wasn't aware that Bob Newhart was still in business. Apparently he is!

I'm just the right age that his best-known character for me is the Vermont innkeeper who is never quite accepted as a local even after a decade. He's been on a more recent series, though; and perhaps more famously on an older one. Of course he also did a great deal of quasi-Vaudeville sketch comedy, which was very often good. 

A Bright Spot on a Dark Sea of Danger

North Carolina's lieutenant governor is looking good so far. Let's hope the moment produces more like him.

UPDATE: Less good local NC news.

What is a Fact?

In general our dictionaries all suggest that a "fact" is something that has or can be shown to have happened: here are three such examples. The Oxford example includes an etymology, which I always find helpful in understanding the deeper meaning of a word.

Late 15th century from Latin factum, neuter past participle of facere ‘do’. The original sense was ‘an act’, later ‘a crime’, surviving in the phrase before (or after) the fact. The earliest of the current senses (‘truth, reality’) dates from the late 16th century.

Now when I was a boy in school, the way this was taught to us was as a distinction between "a fact" and "an opinion." A fact was said to be something that could be proven true or false. An opinion was a statement about reality which cannot be proven true, nor proven false. This model raised hackles among those who did not like the idea that a thing proven false was a sort of fact; it might be better to say that there is 'a fact of the matter' about it.

The ACLU gives us four "facts" about trans athletes today.

1) "Trans girls are girls." 

2) "Trans athletes do not have an unfair advantage in sports."

3) "Including trans athletes will benefit everyone."

4) "Trans people belong on the same team as other students."

Only one of those statements, the first one, is possibly a fact. The others all depend on things that fall in the category of opinions, e.g, "what does it mean to have an unfair advantage"? Obviously athletes do have advantages over each other, which is one of the reasons to have the competition: to see who is best. Many of these advantages are considered fair, for example, two boys who are differentially strong or skilled but of similar weight will be allowed to wrestle. That one boy has been wrestling for three years and the other one has never done it before is not considered an unfair advantage; it is for the unskilled boy to learn to do it better. That one is weaker will be met with the advice: "Grow stronger!"

So too for what it means for a thing to be a benefit, which we must know before we can evaluate (3); what it means to belong, etc. Those are value judgments that are opinions. One might say that 'to benefit' means to obtain some good, such as a scholarship; in that case, several people will benefit at the expense of several others, but it is not true that 'everyone' will benefit. Or one might say that 'to benefit' means to develop a character that accepts all kinds of others even when it is expensive to one's self; perhaps then 'everyone' will benefit, but not to the same degree -- some will have to pay a cost, and some will not. 

The first one is a fact, though, unless we turn 'being a girl' into an opinion. That actually seems to be the proposal: that if one feels like a girl, one is a girl. Yet there is a fact of the matter about this, which makes (1) a fact in the sense of being a false fact. This is not an opinion; and therefore, it is also not a prejudice (which is a 'pre-judgment') because no judgment is being made. We don't have to decide if an individual, X, is or is not a girl; we simply have to know that 'a girl' is 'a young female human being.' Whether X is or is not that depends on facts about X that we don't have to know to know that the definition of the word means that non-young human beings are excluded from the category, as are non-females, and non humans. There's nothing wrong with being a kitten or a foal, but they're not "girls" in a factual sense. If you call one "a little girl," you're speaking metaphorically, not factually.

And you are free to speak metaphorically! You're also free to speak falsely, as by saying that an opinion is a fact; or even to say that a fact ought to be an opinion. Freedom is important; but so is clarity of thought. One's freedom to say those things must not interfere with our ability to point out that, in fact, that is not how things are.

The Thirty Tyrants

An outstanding piece by Lee Smith, analogizing the current situation vs. China to the conflict between Athens and Sparta following Sparta's victory in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates and his student Critias make an appearance. 

The basic problem is that China has become the source of vast wealth and prestige for a large group of people at the top of industry, government, and former government officials or others who can make useful introductions. The problem has been fomenting since Nixon, took sharp shape during the Clinton administration, but in the last decade its advocates generated 'class consciousness' and began actively working to subjugate America as Athens was subjugated.
For decades, American policymakers and the corporate class said they saw China as a rival, but the elite that Friedman described saw enlightened Chinese autocracy as a friend and even as a model—which was not surprising, given that the Chinese Communist Party became their source of power, wealth, and prestige.... Trump’s incessant attacks on that elite gave them collective self-awareness as well as a powerful motive for solidarity. Together, they saw that they represented a nexus of public and private sector interests that shared not only the same prejudices and hatreds, cultural tastes and consumer habits but also the same center of gravity—the U.S.-China relationship. And so, the China Class was born.
Smith provides many useful examples, which makes it clear that the lines don't fall cleanly along our apparent party factions. Dick Gephardt turns out to be one of the good guys, arguing against trade with China because its use of slave labor will both undermine American workers -- who can't compete with slaves on wages -- and American honor. John McCain and Bill Clinton are aligned, but sadly (tragically) so is Jim Mattis.

The piece also chides Trump for failing to staff his administration with those who would fight for America, rather than find ways to backslide to Chinese wealth. In a way this is fair: the buck stops with the President, and the President was routinely undermined by his team -- leaks, impeachments based on leaks, outright betrayal and refusal to carry out his policies. In another way, though, who could do what Smith asks? You could find a few handfuls of people to put in the very top positions, but moving the whole ship of state requires a great deal of people. Who are the people who both understand the problem and are committed to solving it?

Don't answer that, because if you do they may well be destroyed before there's a chance to use them. Yet if you can't answer that question, how would you put together the staff? 

Smith suggests the betrayal goes very deep indeed, in language that may be too strong. Some of you will think it is; but others of you will think it's just right. I could probably guess which of you will feel which way, but that's not important; the point is that both perspectives are present here. 
[B]ecause it was true that China was the source of the China Class’ power, the novel coronavirus coming out of Wuhan became the platform for its coup de grace. So Americans became prey to an anti-democratic elite that used the coronavirus to demoralize them; lay waste to small businesses; leave them vulnerable to rioters who are free to steal, burn, and kill; keep their children from school and the dying from the last embrace of their loved ones; and desecrate American history, culture, and society; and defame the country as systemically racist in order to furnish the predicate for why ordinary Americans in fact deserved the hell that the elite’s private and public sector proxies had already prepared for them.

For nearly a year, American officials have purposefully laid waste to our economy and society for the sole purpose of arrogating more power to themselves while the Chinese economy has gained on America’s....

That Democratic officials intentionally destroyed lives and ended thousands of them by sending the ill to infect the elderly in nursing homes is irrelevant to America’s version of the Thirty Tyrants. The job was to boost coronavirus casualties in order to defeat Trump and they succeeded. As with Athens’ anti-democratic faction, America’s best and brightest long ago lost its way. At the head of the Thirty Tyrants was Critias, one of Socrates’ best students, a poet and dramatist. He may have helped save Socrates from the regime’s wrath, and yet the philosopher appears to have regretted that his method, to question everything, fed Critias’ sweeping disdain for tradition. Once in power, Critias turned his nihilism on Athens and destroyed the city.
That's an interesting proposition. Can you teach philosophy, which requires wrestling with the harderst questions, without encouraging nihilism? Many of the hardest questions end up having no certain answers. These hard questions without certain answers are often discovered at the foundation of all fields of knowledge, even mathematics. If there are unanswerable questions at the basis of these things we take to be certain, then nothing we know is really reliable. Finding that no one is right about anything, perhaps, it is easy to drift into nihilism, solipsism. and the like. Even Kant ends up conceding that we can't really know anything about the world as it actually is, the noumena; we can only discuss phenomena, the world as our brains give it to us. 

(Or maybe we can: our brains give us a Euclidean world, but we have decided that gravity actually seems to create curves in spacetime. This is based on math and physics, which we performed inside our minds, based on observations that we had to understand with our minds in order to apply the tools. So perhaps we can get outside the world our mind presents to us to say something about the actual reality, even using the tools that depend on our mind. Or perhaps not; after all, every observation is itself a phenomenon, and our conclusions are themselves phenomena. Maybe there's no way to the real thing; and the fact that we can't be completely sure about that, either, is another of these hard questions at the root of our world.)

The Church taught philosophy for centuries without falling into nihilism, because it taught there was a final ground that had to be accepted on faith. This was also Socrates' answer: that not man, but a God, had to be the final root and the final measure. On the other hand, the fall of the Church from its central position was also brought about by philosophical enquiry that undermined some of its core teachings: having rooted them on God, the Church looked to be wrong about God when they were proven to be wrong about the basic nature of reality. Many lost faith as a result. 

In any case, I've only taken you about a third of the way through Smith's piece, which you should read in full. It is an excellent treatment of our present problems, At minimum it offers you a model for knowing your enemies, their motivations, and many of their names. 

Smith concludes:
What does history teach us about this moment? The bad news is that the Thirty Tyrants exiled notable Athenian democrats and confiscated their property while murdering an estimated 5% of the Athenian population. The good news is that their rule lasted less than a year.
I will add to the good news side of that ledger. In their wake came Plato's work, and Aristotle's, which advanced the human condition in ways from which we still profit today. Also to the bad news side: neither Plato nor Aristotle escaped unthreatened by tyranny in their lifetimes. Plato's Seventh Letter discusses a problem he has with a tyrant; Aristotle had to flee Athens to escape being put to death. In Aristotle's lifetime democracy vanished from the world for a time under the hand of his best student, his Critias, known to us as Alexander the Great. 

This philosophy stuff is dangerous work.

An unpaid ad for Brexit and the Bad Orange Man

Powerline on the inconvenient power of freedom of choice to give us stark examples of how some approaches work out better than others. If the Very Smart People had had the power to enforce global standards for the pandemic, we'd have no way of sorting out which policies were most effective. They'd just be telling us their way averted terrible disasters, and its huge costs were completely unavoidable, and there's not going to be any way to alter the progression of the pandemic in the next few months, anyway. Luckily, what we have instead is 50 states who had some freedom to try different things here in the U.S., and dozens of countries (not counting the EU captives) who had the freedom to try different things worldwide.

Sensitivity to Bull

Not only a useful skill but a sign of a good person, argue these Scandinavian academics

A Grey Horizon

Two pieces published in the last twenty-four hours call for the government to make war on a subset of the American people. The first is by a CIA officer who also served with the Army in Afghanistan.

The second is by "an investigative journalist" in New York. It's not clear what exactly he's investigating here.
Despite the differences, Grant and Biden share more similarities than most might assume. One was a grizzled war hero, who’d crushed the most treasonous movement the country had ever seen. The other is a seasoned politician, known for moderation and political tact.
Which of those were meant to be similarities? And "tact"? That's what Joe Biden is known for, his tact?

I worry that these people actually believe they are facing an "insurgency" that would merit a severe response. They aren't, at all. The 'Stop the Steal' rally created the events in Congress only because the security forces -- who are already more than adequate to stop such a thing if properly employed -- didn't take any of the obvious steps necessary to contest tens of thousands of angry demonstrators. It also took months to arrange, and can't be repeated without a similar public process of organizing that would give security people plenty of time to respond. We already have more than enough force deployed, we just need people to pay attention and do their jobs. 

Meanwhile, the threat to the American way is much greater from this impulse to wage war on Americans than from the relatively few crazies out there. Demanding loyalty oaths from every fire fighter in America (as the CIA officer recommends) is crazy. Those guys wear American flag patches on their uniforms because they're already patriots. They picked that line of work to do good things for Americans. Many of them are volunteers, who risk their lives to help their fellow Americans at any hour of the day and without pay. Treating them as suspect is poisonous to our whole culture. 

Relentless Propaganda

David Foster's post on the effects of relentless gaslighting and propaganda is worth reading (h/t AVI). By coincidence, I was awakened this morning by the New York Times' email of its daily thoughts they'd like me to think. Today's newsletter begins, "Good morning. Why has the U.S. economy fared so much better under Democratic presidents than Republicans?"

Why indeed? Wait. It hasn't, though. The greatest economic growth in decades just happened, growth that (unlike the growth of other administrations) improved the lives of working class people and not just the rich. Until the coronavirus and its associated policy responses, growth was gangbusters under the most recent Republican administration. Likewise, the Reagan years were good years for America -- good enough that our economic growth broke the USSR's ability to compete. 

What follows is the sort of statistics that Mark Twain admired, which ends up putting Trump at the very bottom of the list of economically successful presidents in the last hundred years. Naturally there is no need to contextualize the mass destruction of our economy occasioned by the virus, nor to show how his policies were quite successful at spurring growth before an Act of God (or, arguably, China) came around.

Now everybody lived through this not long ago, so we all know that Trump's first three years were a time of massive economic growth. Yet the thing we're supposed to know is that Trump was the worst president ever, and the thing we're supposed to learn is that massive increases in regulation and vast government spending on the Green New Deal, etc., are the path to economic gains. 

So that is, of course, what the newsletter says. Here's the larger piece from which it was drawn.

Readers know that I think Trump was largely a buffoon, who nevertheless succeeded in several respects in much the manner of the line from Casablanca: "We musn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918." His success, where it happened, was bred of his willingness to reject expert opinion and try things that seemed sensible to ordinary people:  drill for oil. Expand fracking. Cut taxes and regulations on business, reducing the cost of doing business so that the little guy can compete with the firms who can afford lots of lawyers and accountants. Help your friends. Punish your enemies. Don't make deals that disadvantage your own country just so you can have some sort of legal arrangement in place. Compete, rather than govern.
Yesterday I read that the Biden administration has changed the rules on calculating the cost/benefits of regulations to allow regulations to enjoy incalculable benefits. Yes, this regulation may cost the average business a million dollars to implement; but there will be an untold benefit to racial or social justice. Therefore, even though we can't say anything about what the actual benefit will be, we can rule it an acceptable burden for businesses to bear.

Bloomberg calls this "exceedingly important," "excellent," and "fresh." The NYT would have you believe the economy is going to benefit from all these new regulations. 

I'll bet it won't. 

The Feast of St. Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, who may or may not actually be a pagan goddess. This day was known in pre-Christian times as Imbolc, a festival to mark the very beginning of Spring. It was sacred to the goddess Brigid, who may or may not have been transformed into the saint by early Christianity. 

Since I missed out on Burns Night this year, I decided to combine the feasts into a general Celtic holiday. 

So that’s a North American Haggis at the top left. Also served was venison pie, Scottish shortbread, Cranachan, and of course Scotch. This bottle was a gift from a friend. The beer is an Old Chub Scottish Strong Ale, from a local brewery here in the mountains.

Plato's Laws X

We're down to the last quarter of the book, for those of you who are happily anticipating an end to this series. Yet I've really been enjoying it; if you have nominations for a philosophical work to read after this (ancient or medieval by preference, but I'll entertain other suggestions), please drop it in the comments.

This book of the Laws should be fun to read. It contains a proof for the existence of the gods, against "those" who say that things like stars and planets are just rocks and fire in the sky. We're in the unusual position of (a) knowing that the planets and suns are in fact 'rocks and fire,' and not gods, but also (b) believing in theology (as far as I know; it's fine if any of you are atheists, but I'm not aware of any atheists in the audience). The theology Plato is defending is of a very different sort from the kind of theology that was developed by Avicenna, and later altered and adopted by Jewish and Christian philosophers. So you're free to entertain the idea that these arguments are just wrong; but also to entertain the idea that there might be something to them.

It's also worth asking yourself which side Plato is really on here. As with the last section of Laws IX, it's possible that Plato intends for the Athenian's arguments to fail. Maybe Plato really doesn't believe in Apollo, as Socrates was said not to; but he can't say that he doesn't because that sort of thing gets you killed. Which side comes out stronger in the work?

I'm not going to provide any further analysis today, just this introduction. Read it yourselves first, if you like, and see what you think before I tell you what I think. 

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear

This looks like a good read; I've just downloaded it in Audible form. Apparently this civilization business is harder than it looks:
If the Libertarian vision of Freedom can take many shapes and sizes, one thing is bedrock: “Busybodies” and “statists” need to stay out of the way. And so the Free Towners spent years pursuing an aggressive program of governmental takeover and delegitimation, their appetite for litigation matched only by their enthusiasm for cutting public services. They slashed the town’s already tiny yearly budget of $1 million by 30 percent, obliged the town to fight legal test case after test case, and staged absurd, standoffish encounters with the sheriff to rack up YouTube hits. Grafton was a poor town to begin with, but with tax revenue dropping even as its population expanded, things got steadily worse. Potholes multiplied, domestic disputes proliferated, violent crime spiked, and town workers started going without heat. “Despite several promising efforts,” Hongoltz-Hetling dryly notes, “a robust Randian private sector failed to emerge to replace public services.” Instead, Grafton, “a haven for miserable people,” became a town gone “feral.” Enter the bears, stage right.
That's not to say I've changed my attitude toward my local governmemt. Much of what they do is a silly waste of time. I just sat through an Economic Development Corporation meeting in which I received the breathless good news that these people have yet again developed a new logo. Honestly, they come up with new logos and new color schemes constantly, along with sending out endless surveys to discover "what the local businesses need to sustain and grow their businesses." I don't know, maybe a business plan, a product, customers, financing, lower taxes, relief from the heavy hand of the local Heritage District?

"Oligarchy in America"

I think this piece has much truth in it.

I encourage all to read it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

"A republic, Plato noted, decays from within, not from invasion. Build the American Athens and, sooner or later, you will find yourself living in the American Rome."

"Oligarchy in America - Crossing the Rubicon of Class"

By Dominic Green


I'm going to do one more, this one not about anything serious at all. It's by Dale Watson, who (if you follow the link about Billy Joe getting in trouble) did the song that caused Billy Joe trouble at his trial. But this one's just about finding a man's heart through a man's stomach. 

Black Rose

 I want to follow on that thought immediately with another one.

So this is a song written by the recently deceased Billy Joe Shaver, performed by Waylon Jennings on his best album. What's it about? It's about a man who falls in love with a woman that he can't keep up with; and he stays enchanted with her until he catches her with another man.

But of course the "Black Rose" is black; and the singer, like Billy Joe or Waylon, is white. So is the song racist? 

In a way it has to be, in that everything coming out of their time and place and era was tinted with the concept of race. This is Caribbean philosopher Charles Mills' theory about race: our society did so much with it for so long that we can't really expect to walk away from it, not easily or quickly. When Billy Joe Shaver wrote this song, society had only barely made interracial marriage legal. Society had not in any way processed the change; and anyway he was writing about a relationship he'd had in his youth, when the law probably hadn't changed.

So he and she and whomever was in a similar case were forced into illicit gatherings, and informality rather than the clear lines of marriage. (Though it must be admitted that Billy Joe had a strange relationship with marriage; he was married three times to the same woman, as you may remember from the story.) This kind of unstable and hidden relationship was the best he could do.

And he shows no scorn for her; only the need to walk away when she proves unfaithful. But then again, how could you expect her faith when she had no hope of a legitimized relationship with you?

Ultimately it shows how deeply this philosophical error -- I mean accepting the concept of 'race' -- cut into human tissue. Wolfram von Eschenbach did not need it, and neither do we. It's only done harm, and very great harm.

The Iron Horse

We've done this one before, but I was reminded of it by AVI's discussion of trains. It's a really nice piece, too, which none of you should mind to hear again. She's picking with three fingers, two up and thumb down. It's very good work.

The story is pure Americana, too. It's the story of the meeting across cultures, the love that unites; and the separation occasioned by technology. You could say that the Native American aspect is tragic, spirited in its failure to overcome the technological advantage, and that would be true enough as far as it goes. 

But who made the banjo? Why, that's an instrument the South has from African... er, "immigrants." It's become a key feature in Southern music of all kinds, especially bluegrass, which she has adopted at another remove. 

So really this is an American song. It's about the meeting of cultures in the wild American land, the ways they come together, and the ways they are kept apart.