Censorship We Will Always Have With Us

There’s probably a sense in which this is a continuation of Is Philosophy for Private Gardens?

Most people are not equipped to deal with hearing contradictory opinions on fundamental subjects. Once you accept that, a great deal of human history makes sense, and especially recent reactions to a free-for-all in which everyone became allowed to trumpet their opinions into the public sphere. And if you don’t think that this is new, recall that for most of its history blasphemy was a punishable offense in the United States. And in fact this was most of the world for most of its history. Publicly proclaiming what the ruling powers found offensive was illegal to various degrees in most places and most times.

Of course, this has never meant that offensive opinions weren’t held, simply that they tended to go underground. But going underground poses a problem, because how do people who don’t already know that they share a view share that view?

They came up with ways to communicate subtly.

That is to say, they got around censorship laws by not being explicit. They did things like write out the argument but left the conclusion unstated. Or they talked about parallel situations. I’m told that this is a popular approach in China—when one wants to criticize the Chinese government, one writes a historical drama in which the villain is doing the same thing as the present government. Since China has a very long history, one can find a suitable bit of real history for almost any narrative, I’ve heard, and since the present government holds itself to be in distinction to the previous dynasties, it’s not in a great place to complain about depicting how awful the previous governments which the present government overthrew were.

Getting around censorship is of course a neutral thing; it has been used by heretics to spread lies to undermine truth as well as by saints to spread the truth to undermine lies. That is to say, it’s just a tool. So I think as society degenerates further, it’s a tool very much worth studying.

In service of which, here are a few elements of avoiding censorship which seem to be useful:

  1. Don’t argue directly with the powerful. It attracts their attention. It also makes them assume everything you say is against them.
  2. Make your arguments without stating your conclusion. Someone intelligent enough to understand how the conclusion follows from the argument is intelligent enough to supply what the conclusion actually is. Those who aren’t will get no benefit from the argument anyway. But the unintelligent oppressors won’t realize what you’re saying.
  3. Talk more about first principles than about specifics. This can be over-done, but if you can win people over on first principles the specifics will be relatively easy. If they’re not won over on first principles, they’re not likely to be persuaded on specifics. If a man doesn’t first love God, it’s pointless to argue with him about loving his fellow man.

Nothing is foolproof, of course. #2 was, as I understand it, the approach used by Averroes, but unfortunately for him Al-Ghazali understood and exposed him. Still, I think that these things are worth bearing in mind and developing further, the more dangerous it becomes to be explicit.

What Are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson?

Or you can watch the video on YouTube:

I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.

Keeping Our Eyes Fixed on God

The Frank Friar reflects about keeping our eyes on God as discussed by Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection:

For Br. Lawrence, our treasure is God.  All actions we say or do, must be pointed to this treasure.

It’s a topic I’m very fond of; it’s related to the instruction to “pray always”. The really interesting question is how to do this? One approach (which is a good one) sounds like this:

For him even the most mundane task  can be blessed by God and offered up for the Divine Glory… Thus, as we journey through our day, I believe Br. Lawrence would ask us to take minute, then during that minute to actively think about whatever it is that we are doing.  When we understand, what it is we are doing, then we can begin to see if we are eye keeping our eyes fixed on God.

There is a another—related—way to look at this, which I’m not sure how to describe, but is something to the effect of fully considering what we’re doing. It is probably not the intention, but when I hear language about offering up our tasks for divine glory (which is common language), it sounds to me as if there is somehow a way in which the task is not involved in the divine glory but can be made so. Now of course no one would say, if it was put this way, that there is anything which does not serve God’s good purposes, but even so, there seems to me to be a tension between doing things well and always thinking about God; one can’t put one’s full attention in two different places at once.

And I think the key to resolving this tension is that one does not need to put one’s attention away from creation to put it on God. This is because all things in creation point to God. There is nothing in creation which, if seriously considered, is not fundamentally about God. Clouds and ships and chairs and dust all point to the one who makes them in every instance of their existence; each thing, insofar as it is good, is a reflection of God. It seems to me, then, that the most effective way of turning a task into a prayer is to take the effort to truly be present in the task; to really focus on the task as it is in itself, which is to say to focus on it as it is part of God’s creation. All of creation exists relationally; truly it is not good for man to be alone. And neither man nor dust is alone; God has put us together.

The problem comes in when we think of our tasks only as a means to an end, because that means we consider our tasks not in themselves but in ourself; when we focus on our goals we think only of things as they relate to us and our purposes. We may wash the dishes worse if we fold our hands in prayer while washing them—with what would we wipe the dish if not our hands?—but we will not wash the dishes worse for considering the dish we’re washing instead of absent-mindedly thinking of something else. The dishes want to tell us of God, if only we’ll listen. Perhaps the most effective way to be always praying, while we do the dishes, is to pray with the dishes instead of ignoring them.

Atheists often want to concentrate on the secular, because they think this is a common ground with believers where they don’t have to hear about our faerie-stories. They are, in this, gravely mistaken. The secular world all shouts about the glory of God, if only we’ll stop talking inside our heads about what we want, and listen to it.

There is a sense—a very limited sense—in which holy places are the enemy of sanctity, for holy means “set aside”. In this fallen world it is good that there are places we set aside to do nothing but think of God; still, I think it’s a worthwhile goal to figure out how to make that unnecessary because there is no place where God is forgotten.

Direct Relationship vs. Sacramental Mediation

Fr. Ayre started a twitter thread on the misapprehension of sacramentality like this:

(Read it all for context. Also, in this post all references to The Church are to the fullest sense of The Church, i.e. the mystical body of Christ, i.e. all people, angels, etc. who in the end love God including those who may only come to know Christ after their death, such as Abraham or Moses and we hope as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church all those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ or his church but following the dictates of their conscience sincerely seek God.)

I think a lot of the problem is that the Church is necessary as a mediatrix for a full relationship with Christ, but not for just any relationship with Christ. That is to say, a relationship with Christ is not only through his Church. You can see this in the prayer which Christ himself gave us. It begins “Πάτερ ἡμῶν.” Literally: “Father ours”. Jesus himself taught us to pray directly to the father. Our primarily relationship is directly with God. But, our secondary relationship is indicated in that second word: ours. We are to pray directly to God, with our fellow creatures, that is, with the Church.

However, in the modern era, only one one of those two words is deeply felt. And this is all the more so because we live in a polyculture. Human beings by nature live in small family groups; we’re not made for widespread dissension. Some of us are better at handling it than others, but most aren’t good at it and so naturally try to compromise. That is, they try to find common ground, or put more depressingly, they try to go to the lowest common denominator. The extreme of this is atheism, where people figure that everyone agrees on secular things, at least, so let’s just get rid of the spiritual part and all agree. Within Christianity and especially in America we’re plagued with Protestantism; people’s natural desire to compromise in the practical sense leads people to compromise in the worse sense of damage.

This is especially the case given that what many protestants believe is some variant of Believe or Burn. Long story short: Martin Luther turned faith from living according to truth into an abstract pledge of allegiance to Christ in theory but (often) in practice to the dominant culture. The Church as mediatrix is—if one isn’t paying attention—awfully close to “pledge allegiance to the group or burn in hell”. This makes unmediated relationship with Christ all the more attractive, since believe-or-burn is repulsive.

But I think all this points to the way to recover sacramentality. Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it to the full, not merely that we might just barely scrape by. The natural virtue people in the modern age most need to develop is courage. It takes courage to strive for living to the full instead of just scraping by. Scraping by is safe precisely because it is minimal. The less you do, the less you can do wrong. We need to remind people that the less that they do, the less that they do right, and life is fundamentally about doing right and only incidentally about not doing wrong.

I think that in this, too, humor might be helpful. What are we to make of a man who is willing to be tortured and executed for Christ, but can’t bring himself to tell his sins to a priest? What are we to make of a man who is willing to be beaten instead of renounce the name of Christ, but isn’t willing to listen to a few bad hymns in order to eat his body and drink his blood? What are we to make of a man who won’t judge a woman who abandoned her husband and children to take up with her new lover, but who will judge someone for gossiping about that woman?

So in conclusion, that I think that reinforcing the sense of the Church as mediatrix of Christ will be done most effectively by calling on people to be courageous. I don’t think anyone really objects to loving their fellow man in principle, I think that most of the time they’re just too scared.

Though like all things it traces its origin back to having faith—that is, trust—in God. Our fellow men are imperfect, and if we pray with them they may screw up our prayers. If we use the sacraments, we may have to wait or get them before we understand or all manner of imperfections. At the end of the day, like in all things, the only solution is to do our best and trust the rest to God. And in this specific case, if we trust God, what have we to fear from our fellow men?

The Fall of the Simpsons

 

Over on his blog, Brian Niemeier comments on a video talking about the rise and fall of The Simpsons. This to me is the crux:

…The Simpsons was a reaction against a long-gone age that would have eventually exhausted its fuel supply, anyway.

Matt Groening & co. set out to deconstruct the conservative establishment’s vision of post-Reagan America. Along the way they became the establishment, which is always fatal to subversive projects.

The lesson for writers: undermining traditional culture can be good for a quick buck and fleeting fame.

This stands (somewhat) in contrast to the video which Brian describes, in which (at the end) Super Eyepatch Wolf says:

And that’s what The Simpsons is: one of the purest and most raw expressions of social and political unrest… and despite what it’s become and how it’s all ended, I can’t help be so glad that we got those early seasons. It was a show that shaped a generation and transformed entertainment as we know it.

I think that of the two, Brian is far more correct. And I think that Super Eyepatch Wolf is actually rather dangerously wrong. Satire is a nice vacation from the main work of fiction, but it should never be the main work of fiction. I shudder to think what a generation shaped by satire would be like, though in a sense we’re living it out. It’s the spiritual equivalent of people who grew up eating nothing but frosted donuts: lazy, flabby, and useless, they’re terribly warped versions of what a human being should be.

Actually, rather ironically, The Simpsons later years is described as “Zombie Simpsons,” but this seems largely to be what became of people who grew up on The Simpsons. Unable think or feel anything sincerely, they know nothing but a desire to destroy those who can think. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that zombie shows are extremely popular these days; it’s a metaphor for what a generation who grew up on tearing down ideals became. I was recently in a discussion about the live action Beauty and the Beast where someone mentioned that the live action movie would probably have had to be darker for it to be something that a modern writer could write and have it work. I asked, something like this (paraphrased from memory, embellished a bit):

Gaston introduces Belle to heroin and she gets hooked. She falls in love with The Beast who tries to help her kick her addiction but she can’t and eventually goes back to Gaston, who pimps her out to pay for her heroin. She’s eventually killed by a customer and the Beast, learning about this, kills Gaston in a murderous rage, then commits suicide before the police arrive. The last part is witnessed by a pretty young girl who just arrived in the city looking to become an actress, and she asks a man nearby who turns out to be the brother of Gaston what happened, and he charmingly comforts her from the scene and invites her out to coffee. As the movie closes, we get the sense that the story will be played out again, no one having learned anything.

Here was Russell’s response:

In a sense he’s right; that’s part of why I like cheerful, adventurous fiction: I’m very familiar with dark. But the thing is, dark is really easy. It’s practically no work at all. Just start telling a story and keep making it go wrong. You could almost train a monkey to do it. Everyplace there is order, break it. Everywhere there is hope, crush it. The only thing approximating creativity in going dark is figuring out how to prolong things before you kill everyone except for the people who most deserve it. Given that most dark works seem to contain plot holes anyway, this is the epitome of easy; it only pretends to be hard because there’s a constant sense of violation of decency that requires a certain amount of willpower (or sheer degeneracy) to continually violate.

This is the problem with growing up on satire; it’s too easy. It trains people to not do the hard work of having a good time.

All Is Grace, That Is, All Is Gift

If one spends a few moments looking at creation, one of the first things one will notice is that one sees it. Creatures exist in relation to each other. This need not be so; it would be possible for God to create each creature in a way that has only a direct relationship with God and nothing else; it could be enough for a creature to be born into the everlasting beatific vision and nothing else. And yet that didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen to us. Why not?

Before I give an answer, I should not that it is foolishness to try to give an account for the actions of God as if one can know the mind of God, and though I’m a fool I’m not that much of a fool, so the answer I’m going to give should not be understood in that sort of sense. Neither I nor any creature can give a comprehensive answer to why God did anything, except the very general answer, because it is good. Which can also be phrased, out of love. If we want to be more specific, we are limited to noting one or more particular types of goodness which are contained within an action of God, and that is how my answer should be understood. The purposes of God I cannot know, but one sort of good which God does I can know. And it is absurd to suppose that God does anything by accident.

A theme running throughout creation is that of delegation. God could create each person individually, but instead he gives it to parents to be his act of creating their children. God could give each of us all the knowledge we’re capable of understanding, but instead he gives us speech so that we can tell truth to each other, and be his act of giving us knowledge. All of our interactions with other creatures—at least where we do rightly—involve us being some sort of gift to them. This is itself a sort of theosis; we not only know God, which we could do if it was just us-and-God, but we actually become incorporated into God’s goodness.

This also helps explain how evil acts which seem positive are none the less negative (since evil is a privation of good): it was given to all of us so as to order the world for the benefit of all others; to shoot a man with a gun is to fail to order the world for his benefit.

As I said above, I don’t claim anything so ridiculous as this being all that God is doing, but it seems inarguable that it is something which God is doing, and it seems to me to obviate a number of questions of the form, “why is God hidden?”, or “why doesn’t God act?” God isn’t hidden. God did act. You were just distracted by the man waving his arms.

This is All Wrong, Except Maybe “Jewish”

So I saw this recently on Twitter, and I’m in the mood to tear it apart:

Christianity:
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

This is an entirely incorrect description of orthodox Christianity except for—depending what is meant—the “Jewish” part. Let’s go through it step by step, at least as long as I have the patience for it:

The belief

Christianity is a religion, not merely a belief. It is a way of fundamentally orienting one’s life. Christianity has beliefs, for example we Catholics recite many of the core ones every Sunday by saying the Nicene Creed. This isn’t merely nit-picking, because it borders too much on believe-or-burn nonsense. Christianity is about living in accordance with the truth, not merely knowing it.

that some cosmic

This makes it sound like Jesus is some sort of energy being like a marvel comic book character such as Galactus or Eternity or The Living Tribunal. Those are all contingent beings. Nope, wrong.

Jewish

As long as this means that he was a descendent of Abraham, etc. fine. If it is meant to deny that he was also a Christian, no.

zombie

A zombie is a dead body which has be animated by an evil spirit. Or if it’s a scientific zombie it’s a corpse which is walking around because the writers don’t know anything about science and have no idea how viruses/radiation/respiration/muscle activation/etc. work. This has nothing to do with a person who has come back to life.

can make you live forever

Eternal life refers to living to the full in eternity, not to never dying. This is opposed to being in hell—the “in” referring to being in a state, and the “hell” to the state of rejecting God/goodness/truth/beauty—in eternity. Not dying is, depending on what you mean by it (and how you understand the dormition of Mary), reserved for Mary and a few old testament figures. It has no relationship to the Christian faithful.

if you symbolically eat his flesh

The eucharist is not a symbol but in fact the real presence of Christ, and you really eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have the outward form of bread and wine. The Orthodox just say “it’s a mystery” while Catholics explain in somewhat more technical language that the substance of the bread and wine chance while the accidents (such as the atoms which composed the bread and wine) remain. Then we say it’s a mystery. But in both cases, we affirm that this is real and not a symbol, though its reality is not something you can detect with your eyes or tongue.

and telepathically

Prayer is not telepathy. That the one creating all things as they unfold knows everything that is happening has nothing to do with whatever sci-fi you’re thinking of with telepathy.

tell him

Nothing in Christianity depends on what you say to Jesus. This comes back to the first point; Christianity is about action. The content of faith is works; it is not everyone who says “Lord Lord” but the one who does the will of the father, etc. We accept the salvation which God freely gave to us out of his generosity by living in according with that salvation, and reject it by living as if it is not true. This is like any other gift; if someone gives you $20 for your birthday, you accept the gift by spending the money, and reject it by never spending the money.

you accept him as your master

Partially this is wrong because of the above; it’s not any pledge of allegiance that saves, but rather the living out of the acceptance of salvation. Further, this is not accepting a master in an earthly sense where one is property to another’s benefit, but rather living in according with the one who made us and therefore being ourselves to the maximum extent possible given the nature he gave us.

so he can remove

Salvation is positive, not negative. Sin is itself a privation, that is, a deprivation of part of our reality as a human being. Sin does not have a reality to itself; it is like a shadow. The act of salvation is the act of repairing us—of restoring to us that part of ourself which we have destroyed through sin.

an evil force

Sin—original or otherwise—is not an evil force. It is a diminishment of the person. It is a warping, a twisting, of that which is straight just like a broken arm is not something being added to the arm but something being removed from it. Original sin, specifically, is a hereditary problem in that one can’t give what one hasn’t got, and so a lack of perfection is passed on. This is often talked about in a positive way simply because our language works better that way; this is the same way we talk about the “shape” of a shadow despite the fact that it is the light around the shadow which has a shape, not the shadow itself.

from your soul

Again, salvation is the adding to you of that perfection which is missing, not a removal of something which was added.

that is present in humanity because a rib-woman

All women have ribs. I presume this is meant to refer to a literal reading of the book of Genesis as if it were a historical-biological textbook. It isn’t, stop doing that. It refers to God walking in the cool of the evening. God doesn’t have a body. It refers to God asking where Adam and Eve are. God knows everything. This is mythology, not a type of textbook that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years. It was describing important things, not irrelevant details. Our modern fixation on irrelevant details to the exclusion of wisdom produces nothing but misreadings when applied to anything written before several hundred years ago and many things written since. Limit your reading of books as if they are biology textbooks to actual biology textbooks.

was convinced by a talking snake

See above; the serpent is generally understood to represent spiritual powers that wish us harm, such as Satan.

to eat from a magical tree.

Magic has absolutely nothing to do with it. Again, reading the book of Genesis as if you are reading a modern biology textbook is just trying to misunderstand it. The tree in question is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now, what happens when you eat something? It becomes a part of you. To make good and evil a part of you means that you are doing evil. Talking about “eating from a magic tree” is on the level of reading a cartoon book made for kindergarteners. The story of the fall of man in Genesis talks about how human beings chose evil over perfection when tempted by powers which deceived them. It’s a richly complex story the exegesis of which takes many pages, but to talk about “a magical tree” is to utterly and completely misunderstand it, worse than to think that evolution is about “survival of the fittest” as if that means “everything gets bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger all the time”. It’s a complete misunderstanding on the level of a children’s cartoon book. If you can read this blog post, you can do better than that.

Starting to Automate the Podcast

As you may know, I’ve got a podcast version of my youtube channel where I extract the audio and put it up. Specifically, I use the wordpress functionality to have a category dedicated to the podcast where I embed the audio which wordpress.com hosts on my account and the RSS feed of that category is the podcast.

Putting up each episode is some work and I’m both lazy and a programmer so I’ve written a perl script to use ffmpeg to extract the audio into an mp3 file then upload it to my wordpress blog. I don’t have it actually composing the post yet, but I might add that later, depending on whether it seems like less work, given that each episode does need a description and a link to the original video.

If you’re in this exact situation, feel free to hit me up for the script. It’s in perl and you need to run CPAN to install XML::RPC, but that’s really easy.

Could the Star Wars Prequels Have Been Saved?

Since I love to talk about timely things, I figured I’d bring up whether there was any way the Star Wars prequels could have been saved with less than a near-total rewrite. My position, though I’m not completely certain of this, is: no.

I say near-total rewrite because I did think that two things were done well in the prequels:

  1. Anakin Skywalker as a nine year old was portrayed as very kind-hearted and generous. This was a great contrast to who he would become.
  2. The fall of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was far more realistic than it was believable.

That aside, I don’t think anything in the Prequels which wasn’t necessitated by the original trilogy is salvageable. For example:

  1. Episode 1 was about a trade embargo on an insignificant planet. Given that the Republican Senate represented so many planets that it was impossible to see all of the senators in the same shot, this is the wrong scale to start the empire on.
  2. The virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker. No. Put down the Joseph Campbell until you’re old enough to know how much of it is just Campbell trying to excuse himself from being Christian.
  3. The insanely coincidental nature of the Jedi meeting Anakin Skywalker at all. You only get to base your plots on coincidences this unlikely if you are explicit God is behind it or if you’re writing history not fiction. The principle is the same: the only author who gets to do highly unlikely coincidences is the author of all that is.
  4. A midichlorianometer: absolutely not under any circumstances. Space  wizards do not use anything-ometers.
  5. Anakin as most powerful Jedi ever: this makes no sense with Darth Vader basically being an enforcer for the Emperor and taking orders from grand admirals.
  6. The Jedi council won’t train Anakin, the most powerful force user of all time: no one is this stupid.
  7. Qui Gonn has Obi-Wan promise to train Anakin: Nope. Watch the original movies again. Training Anakin was an act of hubris, not duty.
  8. Defeating the Trade Alliance by a slapstick accident: no.
  9. All robots fall down when the central computer explodes: no.
  10. Anakin as an angsty teenager: no. You do not set the fall of a good character to an evil character in his teenage years because he was manipulated as a child by a parental figure.
  11. Anakin as an angsty teenager: no. he’s a space wizard who routinely fights assassins as part of an organized military. He does not have typical high-school woes. His life has meaning and purpose which is obvious to him since he’s not being kept as a neotenic child long past physical maturity.
  12. Anakin as angsty teenager: no. When you have the potential to be the most powerful force user of all times and are a member of an order of space wizards, you focus on developing your power, you don’t whine constantly.
  13. Anakin as angsty teenager: still no. This is a story for an audience, we don’t need to pay money to hear teenagers complain about how their lives aren’t perfect. There’s a good change we’re at the movies to get a few blessed hours relief from hearing that.
  14. Anakin as continual rebel who doesn’t fit in: Maybe, but not this way. People who don’t fit in because they are loners don’t just sign up to be a lackey in the opposite cause.
  15. Anakin in love with Padme: the age difference is way too big at their age, there’s no reason she waited for him, and she never showed any interest in him. Having been established as a woman of deep devotion to duty, she would have had more respect for his vows, even if he didn’t, especially given that she didn’t seem to find him attractive and those two people having a romance was insane.
  16. Anakin’s arm getting cut off: No. That sort of thing doesn’t run in the family. Stupid callback.
  17. Anakin’s arm getting cut off: No. If you’re building the character up to fall from grace due to pride, you don’t teach him humility partway through.
  18. A completely unexplained clone army. Thanks!: No. No one is this stupid.
  19. [stuff so boring I cant even remember it]: no.
  20. Anakin Skywalker kills the kiddies while storm troopers handle the adult Jedi: Are you kidding me? What’s the point of making him the most powerful Jedi ever if he never actually fights any Jedi?
  21. “Give up, Anakin, I’ve got the high ground.”: No. This means nothing to people who can force jump over 50 feet in the air and even with normal swords and no force jumping in no way makes up for Anakin being a massively better sword fighter and more powerful force user. Plus is the high ground even an advantage with light sabers? The lower Jedi can defend everything the higher Jedi can reach, but can attack the ankles of the higher Jedi. It’s much harder to fight with recently amputated feet.
  22. Obi-Wan can defeat Darth Vader: Well then what was all that stuff about virgin birth and off-the-scale midichlorian count about? At the end of the third movie Anakin accomplished nothing that other Jedi couldn’t have bested. And the storm troopers murdered the Jedi instead of Darth Vader helping to hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights? There’s no way to make this compatible with the best of the original trilogy.

But perhaps the least salvageable part of the prequels was the way that the Jedi Knights were turned into Lawful Neutral Buudddhiiiiistttsssss Iiiiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace. You can’t be the guardians of peace and order and be lawful neutral. You can’t be a guardian of what you don’t value. Yoda’s famous line, “War not make one great” means nothing if that’s just because Yoda doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as greatness. In short, the prequels make a complete mess of the original trilogy by making the Jedi order something so awful that it should have been extinguished. There’s simply nothing you can do with that.

Is Philosophy for Private Gardens?

A friend of mine who is a philosophy professor was discussing the current decline of civilization with me and made an interesting remark: philosophy may have to go back to the gardens. He explained that until the middle ages, when Christendom created the universities, philosophy was a private thing carried out among friends in places they would not be overheard, like in gardens.

Some would write, of course; there’s a reason why we have Plato’s writings, after all. But historically philosophy was not an overly safe practice and was best done where it would not be misunderstood. And of course a common approach in those who did write was to write very obliquely, leaving it to clever readers to figure out the implications of what they said while less clever readers would take things at face value or not even notice that anything of significance was said. Of course that didn’t always work out well; unfortunately for Avicenna, Al Ghazali could understand him and exposed him.

Still, it’s something to think about as the modern world degenerates. It’s possible that philosophy will retreat into the gardens again. Like all things it will probably me mixed in its effects; it’s just possible that Shakespeare wouldn’t have written so many excellent plays if he could legally have written Catholic prose.

Beauty and the Beast

Yesterday on Twitter Russell Newquist and I had an interesting conversation about Beauty and the Beast (which branched off an interesting conversation with the publisher of Cirsova Magazine—if you’re on twitter, you can see the start here). Russell and I disagreed on some specifics, but we did agree that the Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast was set in a historical context but written to modern sensibilities. Twitter doesn’t make nuanced argument easy, so I’m going to present my take as a coherent idea here and invite Russell to give his more-than-140-characters-at-a-time take in response. (Though if you’re looking forward to that as much as I am steel yourself for possible disappointment—he seems to think that being the father of four young children and working a full time job and running two businesses is some sort of excuse for not blogging about everything I’d like to read.)

It is my contention that in the animated movie Gaston is a proud man. Now, I mean that in the sense of the vice of pride, i.e. of having a wrong opinion of the importance of the self. Pride is often confused with vanity and arrogance, as well as—most frustratingly—with a proper opinion of the self in defiance of excessive modesty. That last one is actually properly described as humility, and if it is counter-intuitive that it can require humility to be immodest, none the less it is true. Vanity is an excessive care for what others think of oneself, and obvious Gaston is a vain man, but that’s not relevant to the moment. Vanity can be highly functional in social circumstances, so it’s very hard to disentangle from a reasonable concern for the implications of the perceptions of others. Let’s just set that aside. Arrogance is acting as if one is superior, but it is only a social sin if one really is superior. Beauty and the Beast makes it fairly clear that Gaston really is superior in the ways in which he acts like he’s superior—it is reasonably established that in a wrestling match no one can bite like Gaston, etc. But the proud aspect is that Gaston acts like he’s royalty, when he’s as much a peasant as anyone else in the village. This is somewhat difficult to pin down, exactly, since Beauty and the Beast seems to be set in an early 19th century village in the late medieval period. (By which I mean: it’s anachronistic.) Still, there is the strong suggestion of feudalism and no hint of upward social mobility, which makes Gaston’s thinking of himself like royalty as highly misplaced. Even remarkable peasants are still peasants.

This is a complicated matter, but relates to the way in which european aristocracies were never thought, within Christendom, to be moral aristocracies. As such, a man who was specially brave or strong or what-have-you was not out of place by being a commoner, and this did not entitle him to higher rank. That the members of his village don’t resent him thinking himself so far above them is an aspect of our modern sensibilities. We’re used to the idea of a meritocracy along the lines of economic output, while the peasants of Gaston’s time should have been more resentful at him thinking himself so high above people he was born equal to. (Not that there was no social mobility, but it was very uncommon and was won on the battlefield in extremis.) That said, the people of the village don’t seem to mind.

As such, by any worldly estimation, Gaston is quite a catch for a young woman. He would clearly be a good provider as well as raise his wife’s social status. He was good looking and confident, so he would be attractive. And yet Belle wasn’t interested in him. Why?

There are two possible explanations, the likely one and the one I prefer. The likely one is that the writers need Belle to not be together with Gaston so they tip their hand and wink at the audience and show that he’s actually unlikable. Gaston is depicted with tell-tale signs that he’s going to end up a fat slob in a soiled white a-shirt reminiscing about how great he was back in highschool. Granted, none of that fits in with the story at all, but it’s clearly the archetype being referenced. I picked “no one bites like Gaston” up above for a reason: this is one of the ways in which the writers tip us off that Gaston is really awful. Why on earth would he cheat in wrestling? That the people singing his praises sing his praises about this too turns them into toadies whose high opinion of Gaston is worthless. Also the gulf between Gaston and LeFou—his closest friend and a bumbling fool who worships the ground Gaston walks on—tells us that Gaston is actually insecure and constantly needs to reassure himself he’s actually worthwhile at all. Those are very recognizable signs; we’ve all seen them in dozens of utterly unrealistic high school football player bullies.

The reason Belle isn’t interesting in Gaston that I like is that she’s a young woman who studied during a time in which much of what there was to read was religious. Specifically: Christian. Being an intelligent young woman of learning, she’d be well aware that pride is the deadliest of the sins, and that the purpose of marriage is to get to heaven while raising saints. Not how most people in her time would have thought of it, but very reasonably how a well educated person of her time would have thought of it. Now if you cast your mind over the story of saints, and especially of female saints, a woman who refused an advantageous marriage because the offered husband was a bad man who loved himself more than God would not be out of place. Saints’ stories are unusual, but Belle was an unusual woman.

And it is in the sense of my preferred interpretation of why Belle is not interested in Gaston that I hold that Beauty and the Beast is written to modern sensibilities: the modern world doesn’t understand pride or even sin in general and nor does it understand trying to avoid sin.

As an addendum, on the subject of whether Gaston would have been attractive to Belle, Gaston’s pride might would come off as confidence in one or a small number of meetings, and as the PUA who lurk in the shadows of the internet like to say: women are attracted to confidence. But PUA spend most of their time in clubs and other venues where everyone is a stranger to everyone else. Gaston would be known to Belle for many years and years of acquaintance tend to erase the confusion of outward similarities. A proud man eventually gives himself away over the course of months, let alone years. Further, given that Gaston does not seem to be a man of strong moral character, it is likely that he would have danced in the hay with the young women of the village who whole-heartedly sang Gaston’s praises, which to a woman of character and Christian principle would have reduced Gaston’s appeal as the years wore on. This would, perhaps, make Belle an exception to the general behavior of fallen humanity, but the whole reason we’re watching a movie about her is that her story is exceptional.

Be Careful How You Flesh Out Villains

In Star Wars (Episode IV), Darth Vader was what you might call a cardboard cutout of a villain. We never had any inkling of his motivations, hopes, desires, or fears; we knew nothing of his inner life at all. Yet Vader was a great villain. This goes against a doctrine in fiction which became popular in my youth that “two dimensional” villains were bad. Villains must have backstory and motivation!

Where did the doctrine of the three dimensional villain go wrong? It went wrong by not understanding perspective. A cardboard cutout is uninteresting because you can clearly see that the two dimensions are all there is to it. A shadow, by contrast, is interesting, because you know that there is something far more complicated to the shadow which you’re just not seeing. Further, villains are very difficult to make interesting for the very simple reason that in reality evil is banal. “The banality of evil” is, I believe, a phrase coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt when she observed (and possibly interviewed) the leaders of the Nazis after the fall of the Third Reich. They had done monstrous amounts of evil, but were utterly unimpressive as people. Not only unimpressive in their persons, they were unimpressive even in their hatred. The men who had (through orders given to others) murdered millions of Jews didn’t even hate the Jews particular more than other people. It seemed like there should be something equally grandiose to the magnitude of the evil done, but there were just some small, unimpressive, even pathetic, men. This of course follows necessarily from the fact that evil is a privation of good. A man can be very, extremely good, but the maximum amount of nothing he can be is, well, nothing.

All of this adds up to the fact that realistic villains are very hard to make interesting. That is perhaps why so many people, in their desperation to do so, turned their villains into misunderstood heroes. It is not impossible to make genuinely interesting villains who are fleshed out—of these, Shakespeare’s Iago is the greatest—but the fact that it is hard means that those who are not up to the task should not try. In cases where you can’t show something, it is best to only hint at it. Readers have imaginations of their own, and if you give them an outline they will flesh it out, with more imaginative readers fleshing it out better than you would have. And even where they don’t, people can be content to not know everything, trusting that what they don’t know is rationally consistent. And as long as you don’t give inconsistent details in your shadow, that’s possible. It’s also where so many villains in the 1990s (and beyond) went wrong—they were fleshed out in ways that were completely incompatible with their actions.

The most egregious example which comes to mind is the Reavers in Firefly/Serenity. When they were mysterious, it was possible for them to be part of some ultra-satanic cult of madmen. Once they were turned into scientific zombies, they became ridiculous. Once fleshed out as victims of a peace-drug experiment, it made precisely no sense how they could cooperate well enough to pilot space ships, even space ships they didn’t take the best care of. The problem with high technology is that it requires complex maintenance. The Firefly would, fairly often, have gone nowhere had it not been for Kylie’s work in engineering. Somehow we’re to believe that rage-monsters managed to keep spaceships going with less work? Why? Did the rage-monsters luck into brand-new spaceships which could go ten thousand light years before their first scheduled maintenance? How did the drug-addled rage monsters even manage to navigate from one place to another? Because they were flesh out badly, there is no rational consistency possible for the viewer to imagine exists.

In short, the golden rule of story telling is: only flesh out what you can flesh out well.