philosophy


I’m reading the Talmud right now. It’s good coronavirus reading since there’s 37 volumes in the 1886 Vilna edition. (I am not reading that edition.  I’m reading a one-volume, 800-page selection, translated by Norman Solomon.)

To get you in the mood, here’s a lovely scholarly putdown from the Talmud:

If you learned [Scripture] you did not review it; if you reviewed it you did not go over it a third time; if you went over it a third time they never explained it to you.

You probably know that for many Jews, lifelong study in a yeshiva is the highest aspiration. What are they studying, the Bible?  Not really– it doesn’t take years to read the Bible. They’re studying the Talmud. Here’s the first page of the Vilna edition:

talmud2

This page has been helpfully color-coded.

  • The pink in the middle is the Mishna (3C)
  • The orange just below it is the gemara (6C), the Babylonian rabbis’ discussion of the Mishna. The pink + orange is the Talmud proper
  • The cyan column to the right is the commentary of Rashi (11C, France)
  • The blue to the left is the commentary of the Tosafists (Rashi’s successors)
  • The yellow is commentary by Nissim ben Jacob (11C)
  • The other colors are cross-references and other helps

And there’s 5500 more pages like that. You can see it’d take awhile to absorb.

So, what is it? Well, the rabbis believed there was an “Oral Torah” which accompanied and explained the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, rabbis gathered in yeshivot, first in Yavne near Jerusalem and later in Galilee, to codify the Oral Torah. It was finally written down (edited by Judah ha-Nasi) in the 3C; this is the Mishna.

An example. Exodus gives instructions for Passover: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

Now, if you want to take this seriously… and, let’s be honest, if you have a pedantic mindset… this raises a lot of questions. First, do you remove the leaven the first day, or the day before that? The Mishna comments:

This [Ex. 12:15] means on the eve of the festival. Or could it mean on the first day of the festival itself?  No, for it is written, “you shall not slaughter my sacrifice with leaven.” ….But Rabbi Aqiva says, This is not necessary. It says “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your house”, and it is written, “No work shall be done on those days”; since burning is a principal category of forbidden work, it is clear that the removal of ħametz [food with leaven] should not take place on the festival day itself.

Now, even this wasn’t considered enough by the rabbis. They kept talking for a few more centuries, both in Palestine and in Babylonia, where there was a large community of Jews safe from Roman persecution (whether pagan or Christian). The result was two Talmuds, though the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud is both more thorough and more authoritative. It was finally written down in the 6C. It took a few more centuries to get to Europe.

Here’s a sampling of the discussion of the above point:

Evidently, [Meir and Judah] both agree that it is forbidden to eat ħametz after the 6th hour [of 14 Nisan, the day before Passover]. On what is this based?

Abbaye said, on two verses. One states, “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days”, and the other states, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.” What does this imply? The 14th of Nisan is added to remove ħametz.

…It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “We find that the 14th is called first, as it is said, “In the first, on the 14th day of the month.” Rav Naħman bar Isaac said, “First may mean previous, as when Scripture says “Were you the first of men to be born?” [Job 15:7]

Then what about “You shall take for yourselves on the first day”? Can that mean the previous day? That is different, for it continues, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”; just as the 7th day must be the 7th of the festival, so the 1st day is the first of the festival.

Oh dear, and they’re not done yet. They go on to analyze why “first” has a definite article and what that means, and the use of “first” elsewhere in the Bible. They conclude that indeed you must remove the leaven on the 14th, because burning it on the 15th would be work, which is forbidden. (Which is what the Mishna had already concluded.)

After this there’s a discussion of what to do if there are two houses that are already pure, and a mouse takes a bundle of ħametz, but we don’t know which house it entered. They discuss variations on this for several pages.

Isn’t this faintly ridiculous?  Well, the Talmud isn’t above telling jokes. But it’s a thought experiment, no sillier (and perhaps no more serious) than modern ethicists telling stories about trolleys.

The yeshivot had masters and students, but proceeded by argument and discussion. This is reproduced in both Mishna and Talmud, but it’s an artful editorial creation: the rabbis mentioned lived in different times and centuries. Sometimes the issue is resolved, and sometimes it’s not– Elijah would rule on all the unresolved issues when he came. I like the way that disagreements are recorded– even if a point is resolved, it’s a reminder that things will look different to different sages. It’s evident that the compilers relished a juicy rejoinder or a clever bit of logic.

Linguistic note: the Torah and Mishna are written in Hebrew; the Gemara is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time. So you need to know both languages to study the Talmud. (And even so the discussion can be difficult, which is where Rashi is invaluable.)

Now, the rabbis believed that the Mishna might be mistaken, but the Torah itself was inerrant. This led to a good number of problems, which were faced and addressed:

It is written, “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly” (Proverbs 26:4), and it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his folly (26:5). No problem! One verse refers to matters of Torah, the other to worldly things.

That seems like a stretch, but often the rabbis are pretty free with their interpretations… if a verse anywhere in the Tanakh sounds vaguely appropriate they’ll cite it. A particularly freewheeling example: Abba Arika is discussing astrology, and recounts a discussion between Abraham and God. Abraham says (this is not in the Tanakh!) that his horoscope says he won’t have a son. God replies that if Abraham’s belief is based on Jupiter being in the west, he (God) can move Jupiter to the east. The citation is Isaiah 41:2: “Who has roused a victor from the East, summoned him to His service?” Huh?  As it happens, ṣedeq ‘victory’ is also the name for Jupiter!

The Talmud can be charmingly digressive– e.g. a discussion of the Sabbath leads into this discussion of whether astrology is true (the best rabbis say that it doesn’t apply to Jews). In the middle of the discussion of Passover, the rabbis are suddenly insulting “ignoramuses” (those Jews who didn’t take the Law seriously) and discussing the benefits or disadvantages of marrying a priest’s daughter.

Or, there’s this nice story contrasting Shammai and Hillel, teachers in the -1 to 1C:

A heathen presented himself to Shammai saying, Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg! Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measure he was holding.

He came to Hillel with the same request, and Hillel accepted him as a convert.He said to him, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you! That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

Now, the statement of the Golden Rule is elevating and all that, but the piquancy comes from Hillel’s evasion of the pagan’s trap (teach the Torah in a few moments), as well as the contrast to the irascible Shammai. (Rabbinic Judaism goes with Hillel in the few instances where they disagree, thus the slightly negative picture of Shammai here.)

I’m reading about the Talmud and about Judaism as research for my book on the ancient Middle East. And really, I’m surprised the Talmud is so little known or studied outside Judaism. For one thing, it’s one of the largest troves of literature from its time… we can only dream of a similarly voluminous text from Babylonia or Egypt. (As I’ve noted before, you can read almost all of ancient Egyptian literature in three short volumes.)

The other thing is undoubtedly Christianity’s uneasy relationship with Judaism. Christians read the “Old Testament” basically with the idea that they can ignore the Law… except on those issues where they can use it to support a prejudice of theirs. (E.g. they carefully read the prohibition on male homosexuality, and ignore the bits on forgiving debts.) The overall result is that Christians are very interested in Jews… up till the lifetime of Paul, and after that not at all, except for the occasional persecution.

And the result of that is that I think most Christians imagine that the Jews “just have the Old Testament”– that their religion is focused on the Tanakh as Christianity is focused on the New Testament. No, there’s this whole Talmud thing too!

(It’s more complicated than that, of course. There were those that rejected the Talmud, such as the Karaites. There’s Kaballah, which adds a whole mystical element. And the chaos of modernity, which was as disruptive to Judaism as it was to literalist Christianity.)

There is one group of non-Jews that study the Talmud. That’s… South Koreans, where study and discussion of (a simplified, translated) Talmud is a big craze.

 

I’ve been reading about Egypt… I had been trying to keep it out of my book, but it moved itself in, much as Egypt kept moving into Canaan.  The last book I read was the Book of the Dead, translated by Ramses Seleem. In particular, it’s a translation of the Papyrus of Hunefer, one of the shorter versions of the BotD, from around 1300 BCE.

hunefer

That’s Hunefer above, in fact: he got the deluxe illustrated Book for his tomb, with his name in all the spells and pictures of himself and his wife Nasha. (She doesn’t appear in the illo above; the other folks are all gods. To the left Hunefer’s heart is being measured by Anubis against a representation of maat, truth or virtue. Thoth is recording the results. Fortunately, he passes the test, and is ushered into the presence of Osiris, flanked by Isis and Nephthys.)

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Seleem’s version.  The main problem is that he seems to be a believer…. yes, in ancient Egyptian religion. I’m not quite convinced you can be such a thing, but the thing is, he has all of the convert’s convictions that a) he knows things hidden from the experts, and b) whatever he believes is identical to what was believed 3300 years ago.  But religions, like languages, change, and entering into the mindset of people long dead is extremely tricky. Saying you have special insight because you actually believe this stuff only makes it trickier.

To start with, there’s some linguistic BS. For instance, he mentions the Egyptian word for the wrapped body, krst. He then claims that this is “the root of the Latin word corpus” as well as the word Christ. Which is… non-mainstream.  Both words are Indo-European and not even related to each other. (Christ is a nominalization formed from χρῑ́ω ‘rub, anoint’; an actual cognate of this word turns out to be ghee.)  From some quick Googling, this krst nonsense does seem to be widespread, but that just means that cranks have been copying it, one book to another, for a hundred years. A chance similarity just never stops doing its mischief.

Just as bad: he thinks that language derives from lingua (‘tongue’) + age, thus, “the speech of ages.”  Argh!  In fact it’s from French langue (which is from lingua) plus the common nominalizer –age, which isn’t the same as the noun âge.

Well, non-linguists may mess up etymologies. Moving on… he informs us that the Egyptians were not actually polytheists– the words neter ‘god’ and netrit ‘goddess’ should really be ‘law or principle’, masculine and feminine: he suggests yin and yang as equivalents.

Now, I’m no expert– ask me after a few more books– but my suspicions are aroused, because this is how people from polytheistic religions talk when the most privileged religions are monotheistic. You see it in Hinduism and also in ancient Rome: scholars very gravely announce that the gods are illusions and cover an even more ancient monotheism, or even a trinity. (I’m aware, by the way, that the process is very far along in Hinduism.  But that doesn’t mean that such interpretations were what (say) Vedic religion was “really about.”)

One, there’s nothing wrong with multiple gods! You don’t have to give in to Yahweh-envy. And two– if ancient Egypt was monotheistic, it makes it a good deal harder to understand why Akhenaten’s reforms were ultimately resisted.

All of this could be ignored if we can trust his translation. But then he explains that his translations are “symbolic.” E.g., one line from Hunefer literally reads

I am pure in my great double nests, in the city of Sutnny, in the day where the people gave offerings to the great principle in it.

He says that this should instead be translated

I achieved purification of my body and soul in the time of my youth, when other people were busy with the dazzling illusion of life.

I would like a second opinion on this.

If all the Egytologists agree, great. That is, if “double nests” is a way of saying “body and soul”, that’s fine. I’m more wary of “the dazzling illusion of life”, which certainly can’t be explained by anything in the literal translation.

The problem with such interpretive translations is that the translator trusts their own explanations far more than he trusts the actual sacred text. Even if the interpretation is good, it’s theirs more than the writers… and really, it’s a rare interpretation that exceeds the original. Read a commentary on the Dao De Jing, then read a minimalist translation, and see which you get more out of. Or read the parables of Jesus, then some pastor’s book about them. (There’s nothing wrong with writing commentaries… but even as a believer, you should recognize that sages’ words are one thing, disciples commentaries are another. Not a few sages have said just that!)

I much prefer Wendy Doniger’s approach with the Rig Veda. Where the text is maddeningly obscure, she lets it be so. She explains a good deal of it, but separates text and interpretation, and doesn’t over-supply the latter. Yes, it can leave the reader feeling that they don’t understand everything. That’s a plus. It’s no favor to give the reader the illusion of understanding a very old and difficult text.

The other problem with the “symbolic translation”: it bleaches out almost all meaning and interest from the text. Saleem’s version of Egyptian religion turns out to be, well, pretty much like most religious writing. Here’s a random sample from his commentaries:

These three pillars (awakening, purification, and activation) form the earthly triangle. When this has been activated, the heavenly triangle comes into operation. This include the process of rejuvenation. When the body is working correctly, the internal and external energy can be fully utilized. The body then starts to create new skin and tissues in all its organs and muscles, which take about 15 years. 

So… some nice words come together and are given a metaphorical name. There are special disciplines for the elect which allow a fuller life. It’s the message of every religion and completely devoid of any interesting specifics.

By the way, I don’t at all reject spiritual points of view or disciplines. I just find writings about them to be nearly meaningless. I’ve known a few people I consider to be near saintly. The thing is– they talked like any other religious person; it wasn’t their gift. Their quality was in what they did, not what they said. This is undoubtedly why so many religions are based on personal, one-on-one discipleship.

Anyway, I don’t feel I can use much of the book. It does contain a lot of information on Egyptian mythology, and it’s beautifully illustrated.

 

 

I just finished re-reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles. It came out in 1996, and I read and liked it then.  I’m surprised I’ve never written about it; I think it’s my favorite book about God.

meetgod

Illo by Robert Leighton

We often hear about “the Bible as literature”, but we rarely treat it as literature. This is what Miles does; more precisely, he aims to analyze God as a literary character.

This probably wouldn’t work without one further constraint: Miles goes through the Tanakh in order, analyzing what the text says about God without reading ahead, and without reference to later theology, whether Jewish or Christian.  That turns the book from a humdrum Bible-reading plan into a series of shocks and surprises.

Now, eventually this process will result in a portrait of the God most people remember. But it takes surprisingly long to add in all the pieces.  God, at first, makes few demands on humans.  Even when he finds some humans he commits to— Noah, Abram, Joseph— he does not ask for worship or prayer, does not talk about love or law or justice. He has a strange obsession with human fertility.  He does not refer to himself as a father till the story of David; does not present himself as a king until we reach the Prophets.

If you’re a believer, the book is likely to be challenging, yet fascinating. Miles doesn’t assume orthodox theology, so he is constantly asking: what do we know about God so far; what does God think he’s doing? God is always supremely confident, but Miles makes a good case from the text that he is constantly improvising, constantly surprised at the things humans do, surprised too at what he himself does in response. From being the creator of mankind he moves to being a fiery destroyer… seems to repent of that, and concentrates on a single human family, becoming its patron… loses track of them, then rediscovers them as a large population oppressed in Egypt… turns himself into a mighty warrior on behalf of his adopted people, yet becomes murderous when they don’t do what he wants, which is often.

Though he doesn’t use later theology to elucidate any of this, he does use historical criticism— showing how strands of God’s character come from different traditions, related to various Semitic gods. Genesis, for instance, has been knit together from two accounts, one of which calls God ʾElohim (‘god’), the other Yahweh. The patron god of Abraham acts much like other friendly family gods; the warrior god of Exodus has much in common with Baʿal. (The goddesses are largely present as an absence: the compilers made sure God was both extremely male, and devoid of sexuality. Yet feminine points of view do appear later in the book.)

This is given as essential background information, but isn’t allowed to undermine the unity of the text.  The Tanakh was put together as one text, after all, and we read it, not the original sources or myths.  But the seams where it was knit together show, and help explain exactly why God, as a character, is both compelling and unpredictable. He seems conflicted because he was put together out of conflicting elements. We don’t read the text as a story of multiple gods, but of one personality whose conflicts, like ours, are internal.

Miles chooses to read the book in the Jewish order.  Tanakh is an abbreviation: Torah + Nebiʾim (Prophets) + Ketubim (writings). You can compare the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic orders here. But in short, the Tanakh follows the Christian order through Kings (with the exception of Ruth).  Then it includes all the prophets, major and minor. Then, everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The order doesn’t make a difference for the main narrative of the Exodus, the lawgiving, the conquest of Israel, the apogee under Solomon, the centuries of decadence, and the final catastrophe— the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon.

But it does make a huge difference toward the end: in the last of the Writings, God is increasingly eclipsed. His last words are spoken in Job; after that, for nine books, he is silent. He is frequently discussed and invoked and referred to, of course, but he never speaks, much less acts in the world as he did in the first books.  He’s barely present in Song of Songs and Esther; and in Ezra and Nehemiah the roles of the Jews and God have almost reversed: where once God acted and the Israelites reacted (or disobeyed), now the Jews act, and God is simply their passive inspiration.

It’s often said that God answered and silenced Job, and Job repented.  From the text as written, however, it would be more accurate to say that Job has silenced God. Job is truly a strange book: first, a new character named Satan is introduced; he makes a wager— which God accepts— that Job will renounce God if his worldly goods and his health are removed. Job does not renounce God, but he bitterly complains about his treatment: why should an innocent man be punished?  God appears to reprimand him, but tries to change the subject: his entire discourse is an eloquent poem on his own sovereign power. Job concedes, of course, that God is all-powerful. God does not attribute sin to Job, neither does he explain the very ungodly wager he made.

In most translations Job repents, but Miles makes a good case that this is a pious mistranslation. Rather than “I repent in ashes”, Job says “I feel loathing and sorrow for man’s state.”

God never apologizes in words, but occasionally he changes his course of action, and in this case he quickly restores Job’s fortunes. We hear no more of Satan. And perhaps he goes off to think about what sort of being he’s become, because he offers no more prophesy and no more miraculous interventions in history.

And yet it’s not a defeat— more of a retirement in honor. If anything, the Jews do better— taking the Law and their God more seriously than they ever did when he was constantly and directly involved with them.

Miles is by no mean a hostile observer. Sometimes you need to shake things up to make a text come alive. He is always erudite and charming.  And if you’re not a believer, there’s no better or safer guide to the Tanakh.  He’ll show you what’s there, and introduce you to the striking characters inside it, without prodding you to believe or disbelieve in anything.

In 2002 he came out with a sequel, Christ: a crisis in the life of God. It attempts to apply the same treatment to the New Testament, but I found it far less interesting, because it takes far fewer liberties. It basically goes over the standard idea of the incarnation, but doesn’t bring much that’s new to the story. If you want new ways to think about the NT, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which reconstructs the dizzying array of theological options in the first centuries of Christianity, without assuming the correctness of what became the orthodox faction.

 

 

 

I’ve always included Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker on my personal list of best sf books, though I hadn’t re-read it in years. I just re-read it, and it’s still up there, with quibbles. If you have a certain kind of mind, it’ll blow it.

andromeda

Stapledon for some reason seems little talked about these days, and yet he’s held up very well. His first major sf work was Last and First Men (1930), which is about nothing less than the two billion years of humanity, starting from now.  “Oh, he’s an optimist,” you’ll jest.  Not at all.  A lot of that two billion years is taken up with devastation and destruction, and the last of eighteen human species peter outs in a sad twilight on Neptune. (I read it, but long ago, so I don’t recall if he really thinks Neptune has a surface.)  His keen sense of the possible destruction of civilization made him a strange outlier in the gung-ho stage of classic sf, but seems more relevant than ever today.

That two-billion chunk of human history is briefly retold in Star Maker (1937), in about a page and a half: by the standards of Star Maker, that timespan and that story are a trifle. I can’t think of any other book with the scope of this one. Its structure is reminiscent of that amazing film Powers of Ten, in that each chapter takes a wider viewpoint than the last.

A man runs out of his house and up the hill, apparently after a quarrel with his wife, and lies down on a hill looking up at the stars. He starts imagining the Earth in space, and then his imagination becomes real— he finds himself a disembodied viewpoint in space, with the ability to move around at vast speeds, but unable to return to Earth.  He is a little alarmed at this— the quarrel wasn’t that serious— but decides he’d better keep going and see what there is to see.

The best scientific opinion of the 1930s was that planets were created when two stars approached each other, a rare event; thus it takes him a long time to find a star with planets. Fortunately he finds one that’s inhabited.  Later he realizes that this is no coincidence: he was led psychically to a world much like his own.  (I borrowed this idea in my meta-thinking about Almea.)

He sees an alien peasant working in a field, and eventually realizes that he can see through another mind’s senses, and even communicate telepathically.  He explores the planet this way, but the aliens are troubled by his communications.  One of them complains to a philosopher, whose name is Bvalltu.  Bvalltu “cures” the man by inviting the alien visitor to come with him instead, and the narrator gratefully accepts.  They get to know each other, become friends, and then learn to travel telepathically together.

But the characters of the book are not individual people; they’re species. Bvalltu’s planet gets a fairly thorough treatment, but the next planets they discover are covered more briefly.  Stapledon has some fun imagining more and more unusual forms of sapients.  There are avians, intelligent ships, a symbiosis between ichthyoids and arachnids, plant-men, and others. On each planet the group stays for awhile, studies and interacts, and then moves on, often joined by one of the locals.

At this point, they are attracted to planets at a certain stage of crisis. In Stapledon’s terms, the crisis is always whether the species will be destroyed by individualism, or push through to a new form of community. When and where he was writing, in 1937 Britain, the choices were stark and unappetizing: uncompromising communism, reactionary fascism, or a weak and muddled liberal democracy. After WWII, this seemed outdated for awhile; sf futures were almost all a benign future ’50s America.  Today Stapledon (like Orwell) is looking better than ever. There’s no future in reactionary hatred and ecological destruction, and yet it seems to be terribly hard for our species to tear itself away from those paths.

Again, Stapledon is no optimist.  His view is that most species don’t make it; they collapse back into barbarity or destroy themselves. But some figure it out, and create utopias.  He posits that telepathy is used, or created, so that individuals can remain themselves, and yet contribute to a species-wide mind.

Ah, but we’re only halfway through; these are merely the players for later drama.  A species that reaches this stage will spend some happy centuries reorganizing itself, rearranging its genome and its stellar system to its liking, and developing in culture. Eventually it turns to the larger galaxy, and here conflict reappears.  Can it encounter other species as equals, or does it insist on absorbing them into its own system?

This leads to interstellar wars, and eventually the fighting empires merge into a galactic empire— still a utopia for its citizens, but intent on gobbling up every other entity in the galaxy. However, one of the Magellanic clouds has developed another way, advancing further on the way to community.  They are dominated, as it happens, by that symbiotic culture of ichthyoids and arachnids.  The symbionts intervene, telepathically undermining the imperials.  This leads to the emergence of a galactic society and an incipient galactic mind.

A mere side point in Stapledon: this is the first book to mention what were later called Dyson spheres, structures which capture all the output of a star for sapients’ use. (They do not have to be solid spheres.)

The galaxy now begins exploring the rest of the universe, but runs into a serious problem: the stars themselves are alive, and start roasting planets.  The world-minds, you see, had the idea of sending entire star-systems to other galaxies.  Being moved about by their own planets seems baffling and wrong to the sentient stars, who react with confused violence.  By the time this is sorted out, time is running out— the cosmos is growing old, and there is limited time left.  Still, it’s possible to proceed to the next stage, a cosmic soul.

There have been references throughout to the Star Maker, the ultimate creator; the narrator and his companions half expect that once the cosmic soul awakens, it will be able to perceive and respond to the creator, and be accepted as its companion.  That would be a little too dreamy: the cosmic soul does reach out to the Star Maker— but is rebuffed.  The Star Maker, in effect, perceives the soul of the cosmos, analyzes it and appreciates it… then puts it aside.  The cosmic soul persists as long as it can (the suns are going out, but fusion is prolonged in artificial stars; the typical surviving species are now intelligent swarms of worms or bugs living on the surface of these structures).

Finally Stapledon considers the Star Maker itself, from an extra-cosmic perspective, creating one universe after another, moving from simple to more complex creations. Our cosmos is neither early nor late, but is considered the first work of the creator’s mature period.

After all that, the narrator’s vision breaks off, and he finds himself back on the hill looking at the stars.

Whew.  You can probably see why this book has influenced most of the classic sf writers, but not been imitated. It’s not a book you could turn into a blockbuster movie, with a part for Harrison Ford and quips by Joss Whedon. Stapledon by no means forgets about individuals; he is always emphasizing that his world-minds are composed of individuals going about their daily lives, and concerned with their maximum happiness. But his focus is on entire worlds, and on ascending the dizzying scale of astronomical time and space.

On a re-reading, I think that Stapledon’s prose works, but is sometimes too academic. He can write passionately, and insert vivid details, but he doesn’t have the precision of Borges or the wit of Stanisław Lem (perhaps his closest peers). He spends a little too much time talking about how he can hardly describe the concerns of lofty super-intelligences or the cosmic soul… well, sure, who could? Fortunately he goes ahead and does it anyway, and it’s fine. You have to be bold with this sort of thing.

From Wikipedia, I learn that C.S. Lewis didn’t like Stapledon’s philosophy (though he admired his inventiveness), and partly wrote his Space Trilogy in response. More than half a century on, their quarrel seems slim. Lewis of course preferred the personal god of Christianity, who may be awe-inspiring but is still fuzzy and loving. If Lewis was here, however, I’d remind him that he’d written A Grief Observed and wondered if God was “a cosmic sadist”. Stapledon wonders the same thing.  They would disagree on whether “God is Love”, but Stapledon sees the attractiveness of the idea, and Lewis well understood why someone would be troubled by the suffering God permits in the world.

(If you can’t stand the idea of a god at all… well, just take it as a possible advanced cosmology. The cosmic soul has to have something to think about.)

Stapledon tries to stay true to astronomy (e.g., he does not posit faster-than-light travel, though he does allow telepathy); but of course astronomy has changed since he wrote. His account of the stellar life cycle is wrong, for instance— he thinks that our star started as a “red giant” and cooled into a dwarf, whereas today’s prediction is that the sun will become a red giant in about 8 billion years.

He also places the formation of the universe 200 billion years ago, though he acknowledges that this might be an overestimate. It is; the current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old. On the other side, modern science allows far grander expanses of future time than Stapledon: he expects the stars to last for about 75 billion more years, while we now expect star formation to continue for between 1 and 100 trillion years. It’s interesting to speculate what Stapledon would have made of black holes, dark matter, and the possibility that our universe could generate new universes via quantum tunneling.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.  It’s sf for geeks who like their sense of wonder expertly, scientifically frobbed. And these days it’s refreshing to find a classic sf work which veers purposefully away from Imperialism or Capitalism In Space.

 

First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

This paragraph is amazing:

Once upon a time there was a monk who was inclined to imagine things rather a lot. One day, he happened to imagine a man named Jivata, who drank too much and fell into a heavy sleep.  As Jivata dreamt, he saw a Brahmin who read all day long. One day, that Brahmin fell asleep, and as his daily activities were still alive within him, like a tree inside a seed, he dreamt that he was a prince. One day that prince fell asleep after a heavy meal, and dreamt that he was a great king. One day that king fell asleep, having gorged himself on his every desire, and in his dream he saw himself as a celestial woman. The woman fell into a deep sleep in the languor that followed making love, and she saw herself as a doe with darting eyes. That doe one day fell asleep and dreamed that she was a clinging vine, because she had been accustomed to eating vines; for animals dream too, and they always remember what they have seen and heard.

This is from the Yogavasishtha, written sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; the translation is by Wendy Doniger in On Hinduism.

Where do you go after a paragraph like that?  Anywhere you like.  But here’s how it goes.

The vine saw herself as a bee that used to buzz among the vines; the bee fell in love with a lotus and was so intoxicated by the lotus sap he drank that his wits became numb; just then an elephant came to that pond and trampled the lotus, and the bee, still attached to the lotus, was crushed with it on the elephant’s tusk. As the bee looked at the elephant, he saw himself as an elephant in rut. That elephant in rut fell into a deep pit and became the favorite elephant of a king. One day the elephant was cut to pieces by a sword in battle, and as he went to his final resting place he saw a swarm of bees hovering over the sweet ichor that oozed from his temples, and so the elephant became a bee again. The bee returned to the lotus pond and was trampled under the feet of another elephant, and just then he noticed a goose beside him in the pond, and so he became a goose. That goose moved through other births, other wombs, for a long time; until one day, when he was a goose in a flock of other geese, he realized that, being a goose, he was the same as the swan of the Creator. Just as he had this thought, he was shot by a hunter and he died, and then he was born as the swan of the Creator.

One day the swan saw Rudra and thought, with sudden certainty, “I am Rudra.” Immediately that idea was reflected like an image in a mirror, and he took on the form of Rudra. Then he could see all of his former experiences, and he understood them: “Because Jivata admired Brahmins, he saw himself as a Brahmin; and since the Brahmin had thought about princes all the time, he became a prince. And that fickle woman was so jealous of the beautiful eyes of a doe that she became a doe… These creatures are my own rebirths.” And, after awhile, the monk and Jivata and all the others will wear out their bodies and will unite in the world of Rudra.

(Rudra is better known as  Shiva; in this tradition, he is the supreme god.)

So the interlocking dreams turn into a transference of souls just by imagination, and then into the cycle of rebirth.  And it ends up as a playful, vivid demonstration of the idea of pantheism– we’re all forms of Shiva, but just don’t realize it.

Still, it’s the little details that create the intense dreaminess of the passage: Jivata’s drunken stupor, the celestial woman making love, the bee’s infatuation with lotus sap. (As Doniger points out, the common element running through the dream is desire.)

 

cyranoFirst, read this neat article on “cyranoids”.  The semi-stupid name is based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac; the title character provides the words to woo a woman, Roxane, on behalf of an inarticulate friend. This does not work out well.

(Linguistic note: Roxane is one of the few names we borrow from Ancient Persian; Rokhsāna was the Persian wife of Alexander the Great.)

In the contemporary experiment, it works great. Subjects are introduced to a 12-year-old boy and encouraged to talk to him; in fact all his words are provided by a 37-year-old professor via a radio receiver in his ear.  People didn’t suspect, despite the boy’s evident deep knowledge of European politics and Dostoevsky.  The reverse substitution– the professor being given lines by the 12-year-old– worked just as well.

This is mildly surprising, but as the article notes, we didn’t evolve in a situation where people are being remote-controlled by someone else.

If you want to make a billion dollars, my advice is, monetize this. My prediction is that in a hundred years, or perhaps in the Incatena, this will be commonplace.  Some easy applications:

  • Learning seduction, as in the play. Or salesmanship, or politics, or law– anything that requires verbal eloquence and social skills.
  • Teaching: channel a better teacher, or call on one when you’re stumped.
  • Politics: respond to challenges better than you could with your own brain. Never make gaffes or forget someone’s name!
  • Business deals or ambassadorships: send a human for the face-to-face interaction; control them from the head office during the hard negotiations.
  • Real-life avataring: try out life in a different race or gender.
  • Acting: never forget your lines!
  • Interviewing: send out someone handsomer / prettier (or who merely lives in the area).
  • Confrontations: get expert words when you need to stand up to someone who stresses you out.
  • Police or detective work, or journalism: do routine in-person investigations without people recognizing your face or voice.
  • Management: micromanage your employees’ very words!
  • Sex: imagine the possibilities for role-playing or dominance. Also a nice loophole: swap spouses without physically doing so.

The obvious difficulty is the pause while the avatar receives the other person’s instructions. The Wired article isn’t clear on how this was handled, but there are ways to stall for time imperceptibly; also, perhaps, the controller could go phrase-by-phrase instead of sentence-by-sentence. Possibly, with practice, the avatar could acquire the simultaneous translator’s ability to listen and speak at the same time.

The avatar also needs the acting ability needed to bring someone else’s words to life. However, this is a lot easier if you’ve just heard someone saying the words in your ear– it’s far easier than trying to bring a written text to life. (Still, there are people who can hear something and just can’t reproduce the intonation… I recall my high school drama teacher trying to coach a wooden student actor; it was excruciating.)

Would people feel alienated and suspicious if they knew that the people they talk to might be using such services? I don’t think so, any more than we’re weirded out by the fact that small metal devices issue out human-sounding words. If anything, people would probably be surprised if someone– a politician or an interviewee– turned out not to be using an expert in their ear.

More interestingly, it might be that people retreat a bit from our present-day absolute individualism. In ancient times, or in certain other cultures, it was assumed that gods or demons might speak inside your head. (The Romans believed that a spirit called a “genius” dictated ideas to people; we’ve kept the world but absorbed the spirit as part of our notion of the self.) Maybe in such a world, the idea that you had to come up with your own words to speak would seem as strangely burdensome as thinking that everyone had to cook their own meals.

Edit: A Twitter conversation pointed out that I may not have communicated that the idea is kinda creepy. And it is! But then, cel phones can be kinda creepy too (as you may notice if you try to have a RL conversation with someone who can’t keep messing with theirs). I suspect if the option was available, though, it’d be used in some of the ways described above.

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