Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Ennui of Civilized Man

One of the great problems of our times is how to deal with the angst of civilization. We used to be happy to survive, back when food and shelter were our main concerns. Then, we invented ways of mass-producing necessities, and discovered "free time" (time that could be spent doing something other than looking for food, looking for shelter, or recovering from that search). Free time allowed us to play around more--to do things like build, trade, and make war.

The ancestral economy makes sense to us. Assuming you survive, it is not hard to live and be relatively happy while you are looking for food (that you expect to find), looking for shelter (that you expect to find), and recovering. Primitive, uncivilized people we can observe are often happier than their civilized counterparts, particularly as you look toward the bottom of civilized social hierarchies.

Civilized "free time" provides many benefits, of course, but these come at the expense of significant social and psychological turmoil. I don't know how to get my own food. I must rely on someone else to get it for me. I don't know how to get my own shelter. I need someone else to provide it for me. If I am living in a cultural backwater like the Middle East (or Africa or many parts of Eurasia and the Americas), then I am keenly aware that everyone really close to me lives subject to the whims of people we never meet. People with power. People who inherit a long tradition of free time, complete with awesome ways of making food, shelter, and war. I have three choices: abject worship ("please, god on earth, don't kill me! you want these shiny things? please, take them!"), avoidance ("better to avoid dealing with gods altogether: I think I will take up residence in a mountain cave and chant with some beads"), or revolt ("death to the evil gods who run my life without my consent!"). The choice between fight and flight is one that each person must make for herself, and we all make it differently. But some of us always choose to fight. Fighting is part of human nature.

For me, the really interesting question becomes one of finding ways to manage the fight-response to civilization. Can I take the urge to revolt, to burn civilization down for its crimes (which would be a crime, of course, but that did not stop the Mongols, and I am guessing that it will not stop the terrorists today), and turn it into something good? Can I build a cure for civilization into the death-wish that it spawns in certain people? We are always trying. (Politics and economics historically involve warfare: they struggle to contain and suppress and redirect it towards less destructive outlets, so that instead of burning your house down with fire I do it with bankruptcy in a court of law. It is easier to recover from bankruptcy than from war, on the one hand; on the other, going bankrupt too often will eventually drive people to war.)

The angst of civilization ultimately comes from lack of control over one's own life. The more you can convince people that they make decisions that really matter to their individual lives (and deaths), the less eager they are to blow themselves up (and seek another life beyond the grave, whether as glorified Homeric heroes or mujahideen copulating with crowds of virgins). The more invested people become in civilizations' games as active players, the less they want to burn every game to the ground (and start over, building new games--new ways of occupying people's "free time" that always resemble the old ways in time). When I hear people calling for more education (as a solution to problems of civilization), I think this is really what they are aiming to do: they want to show the desperadoes--the outlaws, rebels, and terrorists--that there is a productive place for them in existing civil games, that society has a nice place for them right here, if they would just put down their arms and play cool instead of fighting. Part of the problem with this idea, however, is that civilization is dynamic. People always lose its games; you have to lose (sometimes, something) in order to win. There is no such thing as a civilization that endures unchanging and perfect ("with liberty and justice for all," blah blah). If you play civil games (the market), you will get burned. Eventually, you will die. Confronting that reality is too hard for many of us (not just the poor or the outlaws), and some people cannot see it without going berserk. I don't have any easy answers for this problem. All I can do is observe it closely, and then take what measures are available to insulate myself maximally from its harmful effects (as I observe them in myself and the people around me).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Prophets

A prophet is simply a spokesperson (προφήτης).  Historically, spokesmen for divinity divide pragmatically into two predictable groups: (1) the divine spokesperson who speaks for some human establishment or institution (the Sanhedrin, the Synod, Senatus populusque Romanus, the LDS church, Harvard); (2) the divine spokesperson who speaks for him- or herself, and for humanity outside any particular establishment or institution (Amos, Jesus, Cato, self-appointed Mormon apologists, rogue academics).  The two kinds of prophet have a history of fighting one another tooth and nail, with the establishment predictably winning battles (Jesus is killed) only to lose wars (when the response to their crackdown is the foundation of a new establishment dedicated to preserve the memory of a martyred prophet).  The new establishment relatively quickly becomes everything it claims to loathe in the old establishment (read Mormon writings on the Great Apostasy and then compare the modern Mormon establishment with Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox establishments: from the metaphorical 30,000-foot view, they are virtually the same in terms of how they relate to outsiders and insiders via bureaucratic process).  The original sin of fallen prophets or their followers, it would seem, is that they found a church to entrain, contain, and disseminate in some controlled fashion that which is fundamentally unstable, unentrainable, uncontainable, and beyond institutional human control.

We need communities, of course.  But these communities will not be managed (not for long at least) by visionaries who speak meaningfully for interests outside the community.  To lead a community is, historically, to shut oneself off to the world, to commit oneself to a position that cannot be changed easily, to become fragile (and make others fragile as a means of protecting the fragility one has discovered by incorporating as a community with explicit procedures for life).  Caiaphas is the leader of your community, semper et ubique.  He is not always a bad dude, viciously or maliciously punishing people who shouldn't be punished.  He is legitimately a prophet.  He is a punitive prophet, a conservative stick-in-the-mud who pulls society back from the wild ideas of anti-establishment prophets (who are also dangerous, though not the same way he is).

Outside the community or on its fringes, we get another kind of prophet.  Jesus does not write books.  He does not live by protocol (until he visits the temple or the city, where he makes a good show of paying tithes and taxes--and occasionally busts some heads, when he finds the establishment cheating flagrantly at its own game).  He does not have a church.  He does not aim to exist in history, but in eternity: the atemporal present wherein individuals become aware of themselves confronting a unique and personal mystery--that I exist, inexplicably, and there is something else out there around and with and through me, something larger than I am that has the power to mould my life in interesting ways.  Communities, history, taxes, bureaucratic process: Jesus dispenses with these things (necessary and helpful as they are, for the down-to-earth inhabitants of this world).  "My kingdom is not of this world," he says, deliberately abandoning church, country, and even the family to live naked before his Father in the wilderness (fasting and praying and being generally useless or even detrimental to the community, from Caiaphas' perspective). 

When too many people follow Jesus into the wilderness, bad things can happen: society might collapse entirely, or (what more often happens) the check Jesus provides on community values (traditional values) may be lost--as Caiaphas moves into the desert without leaving the world behind.  "We can build heaven on earth here with you, Jesus.  We can make it an external, communal experience.  We can deliver it to groups through an organized, efficient process of education that I will oversee carefully."  Wrong.  There is no church of Christ.  Paul, the Christian missionary to the West, was just another Caiaphas.  He was building community, not running away into the wilderness to commune with God and then speak to friends.  The paradox of Jesus is that the gospel must be preached without ever being established.  You cannot put new wine in old bottles, and even when you put new wine in new bottles, it ages (and becomes old, i.e. other than it was).  As Caiaphas runs the risk of being a vindictive, reactive stick-in-the-mud, so Jesus runs the risk of being a cheerful onlooker to the collapse of human civilization (which requires rules and procedures and tradition that is communal and so at some point antithetical to the prophetic gospel he embodies).

At the end of the day, all prophets are dangerous--for they are human beings, and carry within themselves the seeds of mortality.  We are all going to die at some point.  We are all going to do things on the way to death.  At some point, all of us will embrace or avoid tradition in ways that are dangerous.  There is no way to "fix" this, no way to make death go away (or become innocuous).  Integrity is something we seek as we embrace mortality, our own and that of the species (collectively).  No individual is made to last, just as no community is.  Integrity exists as we seek and discover the means to negotiate this reality with dignity and respect that looks both inward (to ourselves and the mystery of life as we perceive it) and outward (to other people and the mystery of life as it appears to communities).  We need Jesus and Caiaphas, and both are prophets.  But neither one will save us from death: nobody and nothing can do that.  The only way to deal with death is to die.  Die well, my friends! 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Intellectual Property

One thing that has persistently fascinated me is the manner in which ideas refuse to be owned, despite our attempts to claim them (e.g. Newton and Leibniz fighting over calculus, Darwin and Wallace over natural selection). My own research consistently discovers people saying utterly ridiculous things about individual responsibility (e.g. "Plato is largely responsible" for some trope that runs thick through culture before and after him). It seems to me that ideas find people: a really powerful idea will find more than one person (over and over, as people bump into the circumstances that enable it).

I once tried to express this insight to a fellow student (in grad school), and his response was to worry that I would steal his research--and claim it for myself--as though my assertion that I could never really own an idea amounted to an excuse to lie (about ideas that might not even have occurred to me). I was surprised by this (and a little saddened, honestly, that I presented myself so poorly to this person that he came away from our encounter taking me for a thief). For me, the reality that I don't really own ideas is one that invites honesty and openness rather than the reverse. I don't care if you steal my ideas: I relinquish them as assets that I control. I cultivate ideas not because they make me rich or famous or respected (famous in the right places), but because I enjoy thinking--and want to do it mindfully. If there were no external fame and glory in my work as a thinker, I would still do it--and have "a real job" on the side, as so many other thinkers (more skilled than I) have in the past. To live by one's wits is fundamentally, for me, to be an honest charlatan. I see that I claim a kind of superiority over my own thoughts that I don't really possess. I see that thoughts possess me at least as much as I possess them. I see that it is silly to worship me when I am possessed by a thought that society judges to be cool (for whatever reason: the judgement of society, even learned society, is always at some point absurd). I feel this very deeply. I hope I can learn to express it without coming off as some kind of sleazeball (the academic version of an empty suit).

Every good idea I have, including the one for which I get credit (and tenure and κλέος ἄφθιτον), is one that someone else has probably also had (or will have, with as much claim to originality as I). Seeing this reality, I cannot take too much credit for my ideas. This does not predispose me to take credit for your ideas, but to take less credit, and give less, for the mere possession and expression of an idea. Ideas are valuable. People are valuable. People are not valuable to me because of their ideas, but because of their character (the way they use those ideas). This means that I am very comfortable sharing ideas with people whose character I would never adopt. I can think with Hitler, or Lenin, or Osama bin Laden, or anyone, really. I can see their ideas with the realization that these are present, powerful, and real to them--and perhaps to me. But I cannot then act as they do. I must keep my actions, my responses to ideas, filtered by character.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Musings on Market Share

I hear people talk about there being an 'asset bubble' in the Western education market, similar to the one in the US housing market that popped around the turn of the century.  I agree that there is probably a bubble in education, and here are some thoughts I had about it, and about asset bubbles (or "economic growth") in general.  In sum, I do not believe in progress without regress, life without death, up without down, etc.

Every commodity can be over-valued. I think many people pay far too much for education right now--largely because they confuse education with institutional affiliation, as though learning or professional vocation were somehow inextricably dependent on possessing the imprimatur of a particular institution. The more the latter becomes true, the closer to collapse the market is. The more institutions corner the market on education, the more they invite the kind of corruption and abuse that sow seeds for a regime change that will severely depreciate the social value of their imprimatur (which may go extinct as a valid way of offering credentials, the way Bear Stearns is extinct as a means of managing finances).

Why do I oppose Monsanto? Not because I don't believe in science (or evolution, or agriculture). I don't believe in putting all eggs in one basket. I don't believe in cornering markets. I would like to find the smallest margin of profit I can maintain without going under (as an individual or institution), and then seek to maintain that (as long as the environment supports it)--not grow it to the point where I dominate (and invite the lightning-bolt of Zeus).

I oppose Monsanto because I see them doing to agriculture what universities aspire to do to education, what GoldmanSachs aspires to do with banks (and the nations that rely on banks), etc. To control all shots is dangerous, semper et ubique. I want minimal control (enough that I don't die), not too much (so much that I become "too big to fail" and wind up dragging entire communities down with my inevitable failure). Whatever we build must eventually fall down. I want to engineer institutions with this reality in mind--with the mortality of all companies clearly present in the mind of those creating them and working for them. We should aim not to live forever (nobody has achieved this, and you are not smarter than the guys who built Rome), but to die with minimal harm to those in and around us. We want to minimize corrosion, not maximize utility (or profit or advantage or brand or control or market-share or whatever anyone wants to call it). Losing well, over a history of multiple market-cycles, is more important than winning in any individual cycle (and there is no such thing as winning over all cycles).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Chris Hedges.  War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.  New York: Perseus, 2002.  ISBN: 1586480499.

This is a sobering book, packed with insightful observations of the human condition at its worst.  Hedges writes from the perspective of a seasoned war journalist, well aware of all that his job entails (especially the evil).  Here are several passages that really struck me.  Even though the first is quite long, an extended reflection on war built around anecdotes from modern conflicts (especially the Persian Gulf War), it is worth quoting entire (pp. 146-150).
It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective. And because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war. The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

Edmund Dene Morel, the British crusader against Belgian atrocities in the Congo, denounced World War I as madness. He argued that through a series of treaties kept secret from Parliament and the public, Britain had become caught up in the senseless and tragic debacle. His fight against the war saw mobs break up his meetings with stink bombs and his banners ripped down. He finally could not rent a hall. His friends deserted him. Police raided his office and his home. The wartime censor banned some of his writings. He was flooded with hate mail. The government finally jailed him in 1917. It was only after 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded that he was proven correct--the treaties did indeed exist. The war was a needless waste. But by then the myth of the war was no longer needed, since the fighting had ended.

The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism. And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Dr. James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, used to tell us that we would end our careers fighting an ascendant fundamentalist movement, or as he liked to say, "the Christian fascists." He was not a scholar to be disregarded, however implausible such a scenario seemed at the time. There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war--both for and against modern states--and those who believe they understand and can act as agents for God.

History is awash with beleaguered revolutionaries and lunatic extremists who were endowed with enough luck and enough ruthlessness to fill power vacuums. The danger is not that fundamentalism will grow so much as that modern, secular society will wither. Already mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lie defeated and emasculated by the very forces that ironically turned them into tolerant, open institutions. In the event of massive and repeated terrorist strikes or an environmental catastrophe, an authoritarian state church could rise ascendant within American democracy. The current battle between us and our Islamic radical foes can only increase the reach of these groups.

But whether the impetus is ostensibly secular or religious, the adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause. When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled. We did not fight the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, but to ensure that we would continue to have cheap oil. But oil is hardly a cause that will bring crowds into the street.

I was with young Islamic militants in a Cairo slum a few weeks after the war. They no longer attended the state school because their families did not have the money to hire teachers to tutor them. The teachers, desperate for a decent income, would not let students pass unless they paid. These militants spent their days at the mosque. They saw the Persian Gulf War for what it was, a use of force by a country that consumed 25 percent of the world's petrol to protect its access to cheap oil. The message to them was this: We have everything and if you try to take it away from us we will kill you. It was not a message I could dispute.
We allied ourselves with some of the most despotic regimes in the region during the war, including the Syrians, who sponsor an array of terrorist groups. Damascus demanded $3 billion as the price for sending its troops to support the war effort. The morning the invasion began, I traveled with a Marine detachment past the Syrian soldiers. They were drinking tea. They waved us forward. None of them ever saw any fighting. We did not see Syrian soldiers again until they were passed through our lines after the combat was over so they, and our other Arab allies, could "liberate" Kuwait City. The ecological devastation to the region, the fact that Saddam Hussein remained in power to slaughter thousands of Shiites who rebelled with our encouragement against his regime and then were abandoned by us to their fate, the gross corruption and despotism of the Kuwaiti rulers, who did not move back to Kuwait City until their opulent palaces were refurbished, were minor footnotes to a stage-managed tale of triumph. As in most conflicts, the war, as presented to the public, was fantasy.

When those who commit crimes do so in the name of a cause, they often come to terms with the crimes through an ersatz moral relativism. Facts are trimmed, used, and become as interchangeable as opinions. The Muslims may say the Serbs shelled the marketplace in Sarajevo while the Serbs may say that the Muslims fired shells on their own citizens there to garner international support. Both opinions, if one sits in a cafe in Belgrade, may be valid. Both the facts and the opinions become a celebration of ignorance, and more ominously, a refusal to discredit the cause that has eaten away at one's moral conscience.

Destruction of honest inquiry, the notion that one fact is as good as the next, is one of the most disturbing consequences of war. The prosecution of war entails lying, often on a massive scale--something most governments engage in but especially when under the duress of war. The Serbs who were eventually able to admit that atrocities were carried out in their name explained away the crimes by saying that everyone did this in war. The same was true among the elite and the military in El Salvador. All could match an atrocity carried out by our side with an atrocity carried out by the enemy. Atrocity canceled out atrocity.

Hannah Arendt noted this attitude in Germany after World War II, calling it "nihilistic relativism." She believed it was a legacy of Nazi propaganda, which, unlike that of non-totalitarian states, was based on the concept that all facts could and would be altered and all Nazi lies should be made to appear true. Reality became a conglomerate of changing circumstances and slogans that could be true one day and false the next.

Illusions punctuate our lives, blinding us to our own inconsistencies and repeated moral failings. But in wartime these illusions are compounded. The cause, the protection of the nation, the fight to "liberate Kuwait" or wage "a war on terrorism," justifies the means. We dismantle our moral universe to serve the cause of war. And once it is dismantled it is nearly impossible to put it back together. It is very hard for most of us to see the justice of the other side, to admit that we too bear guilt. When we are asked to choose between truth and contentment, most of us pick contentment.
In these pages, I feel that Hedges touches all the problems that define my personal struggle to exist in society as a moral individual, somebody with real moral integrity.  His rhetoric comes from physical battlefields, where people kill and dismember each other in the flesh, but it applies also to metaphorical battlefields, where fanatics wage "culture wars" to kill and dismember the souls of people whose existence makes them uncomfortable (for reasons that are usually specious).  I grew up rather close to the Christian fascism that Hedges mentions, hearing a lot of talk as a youth about my duty to wage war with the devil--and "the world" (meaning people with no affinity for the particular brand of fascism I was meant to identify with the will and cause of God).  I was told that the devil would use "the world" to destroy me, that I had to band together with God's faithful to resist him--with money, labor, votes, whatever God's generals wanted.

As a trusting kid, I gave those generals everything they asked.  I took my marching orders, and I went to the battlefront (or "the mission field," as it is also called).  There I saw everything Hedges describes--less immediately and awfully revolting, but revolting nonetheless.  I saw that "the world" were mostly just people like me--fools following orders, idiots trying their best to make sense of the mess that is human society, and (yes) a few malicious criminals playing the fools against the idiots to get power and swag. I saw people condemned to hell-on-earth by God.  I saw them redeemed by the devil (and "the world").  I saw families ruined by specious "defenses of marriage" (which somehow required me to attack all the intimate human relationships that God's generals disliked, for reasons that amount to nothing objectively defensible: I know this because I tried to defend them--to good people, to myself, with words and deeds of integrity, words and deeds I could not and cannot find).  The immediate outcome of this experience was that I became alienated from Christian fanaticism.  The long-term outcome is that I am permanently alienated from human society on the large scale.  I mistrust all institutions too big to treat me, and individual people like me, as having more than statistical significance.

My experiences with religion led me to disaffiliate with organized churches on the large scale.  I can join small groups of people doing work I believe in.  I cannot and will not join a world-wide church (or movement).  I do not believe in world-wide movements as offering on balance more reward than risk, more good than evil.  I also disaffiliate with political movements on the large scale.  I will support politicians to whom I might matter as an individual.  I will not support factions (Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, communist or fascist).  There is a certain amount of calm that comes with this resolution of mine, a resolution that has some integrity.  But that calm is undercut by the realization that worldwide movements exist and use me, even when I wish to depart from them permanently and absolutely.  I am too weak still to take the road trodden by Diogenes of Sinope, and others whose attitude toward society (in the collective) I admire.  I aspire to be a good person--not a good Mormon, or a good Christian, or a good American, or a good capitalist, or a good global citizen (unless that is something I do by refusing to recognize any meaningful collective as acting for all people everywhere).

To the extent that I do participate still in society at large, I recognize that I am complicit in all kinds of political crime (that Hedges writes about in his book) and religious thuggery (that I write about on this blog).  I don't believe there is any way to exist in society at large without leaving a messy footprint, unfortunately.  I try to balance the evil I cause (when I must rely on large corporations in society) with good (that I do with small groups of people close to me), but I fear it is not enough (and never will be).  I have at last come to the place where the lines of the lyric poet Theognis (425-8 Gerber; Bible-readers should compare this with Ecclesiastes 4:3) make sense to me--become something I might think, feel, and say for myself:
Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
    μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου,
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
    καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.
This brings me to my other citations from Hedges:
It has been rare in every war I have covered to find a reporter who did not take sides. I believed--and still do--that in Bosnia and El Salvador, there were victims and oppressors in the conflict. But along with this acknowledgement comes for many a disturbing need to portray the side they back in their own self-image. The leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the rebels in El Salvador, the African National Congress, the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, or the opposition in Serbia were all endowed with the qualities they did not possess. The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that moral choice is not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less immoral (p. 144).

"I, too, belong to this species," J. Glenn Gray wrote. "I am ashamed not only of my own deeds, not only of my nation's deeds, but of human deeds as well. I am ashamed to be a man" (p. 176).

To be a human being, it seems to me, is to be a dangerous animal. We need certain things in order to live.  To put it simply, we need death. Something must always die so that we may live, and the inevitable outcome of that reality is that we create evil. We embody evil. It is not something separable from our entity. It is precisely the same, in purely material terms, as the good we embody. If I am not careful, my love (of humanity, of God, of justice, of family and friends) becomes hatred (of humans unlike me, of others' gods or the devil, of injustice, of my tribe's enemies).  Even if I am impassive, resisting the transformation of love into hatred, others must still die so that I (or the collective I associate with) may live.  Plants, animals, bugs, ecosystems, and other people.  They will all die to support me, sooner or later, until it is my turn to die for them.  That is Nature's way (or God's or the devil's or whatever: they are all the same to me).

The moral dilemma in all this mess, as Niebuhr recognizes, is not to find good and maximize it.  It is to find evil and make it as small as possible--without eliminating it entirely, because that would destroy humanity.  God and the devil are really the same, it turns out.  We cannot have one without the other.  Love implies--creates, demands, is even--hatred, or at least indifference.  This remains true even when we deliberately set out to love all things.  "I love all things, including all those things that just died because I wanted to go on living."  We might feel justified in such love.  It might improve our quality of life.  But it does not change the reality that that life is built from death, death in which we remain complicit as long as we live.

If you are not the sort of person to care about this kind of thing, on an emotional level anyway, that is fine.  I have always felt somewhat guilty for existing, I confess.  I was inclined to read Theognis, even before I had learned to feel the pessimism and cynicism he expresses so eloquently.  I felt the evil of man early in my heart, and my experience in the world has confirmed my fear that human good is also evil.  I still love humanity--and myself, too.  I just cannot join the choruses of people working to fight terror (politically), to defend marriage (socially and religiously), to educate us all in the one true path to virtue, etc.  I believe that all such endeavors are fundamentally evil, and that that evil compounds awfully as movements gain traction in society--spreading from small groups to large factions like a deadly plague.  I hate it when people find me with some cause, political or economic or social or religious (they are all the same), and invite me to join the mob.  "Solidarity!" They cry.  "Let's all get in this together!"  My soul abhors this, the wild abandon with which we throw ourselves into the latest lemming charge--as though the past never happened, as though we know nothing of our condition as social animals (and indeed, many of us are clueless, naive in a way that is cute when we aren't heavily armed and full of deadly moral conviction).

"What keeps this misanthrope in society?" the reader might legitimately wonder.  "Is he a hypocrite as well as a miserable wretch?"  I stay for many reasons.  My family.  My friends.  Inertia.  My aptitudes and frailty (I have no love for death, no Stoic conviction as strong as that of Cato the Younger, and I lack the means to survive without civilization).  There is also art:
All great works of art find their full force in those moments when the conventions of the world are stripped away and we confront our weakness, vulnerability, and mortality. For learning, in the end, meant little to writers like Shakespeare unless it translated into human experience.

"As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary," Proust wrote. "It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place" (p. 91).

I love life, even though it is sometimes an awful thing.  I love it, though its fabric is woven with death.  I do not desire life without end, life without death, heaven without hell, etc., for I know now that such a thing is impossible (for gods as well as men: I speak here of the life and death known to men, of course, not some life and death too remote from our experience to mean anything to us).  I desire merely to paint the best little portrait I can with the life I have, a life made of death, a life that some will legitimately hate or ignore, though I love it.  I desire to make my life and death a work of art, something that points to realities beyond me that I will never fully comprehend (realities that we point to vaguely with words like love, virtue, integrity, health, work, and even divinity or justice).  I don't want to force others to live my life.  I don't want the death that builds my life to arise in conditions where it is unwanted (though I know beings have died unwilling to keep me alive thus far, and they will do so again: still I will that my life be built of willing deaths, and I will that my own death find me eager for it; I want to give myself back to the world as ransom for all that I have taken from it). So I remain a man among men, an active participant in society, even though I can never again embrace any society (anytime, anywhere) as purely good (or just or fair or divine, etc.).

I love the process of making mistakes, even though these are sometimes catastrophic, and then struggling to overcome them.  I love combining the thoughts of other writers with my own personal experience, and then seeing what comes out--even when that is not always what I want or expect.  I love striving for virtue, even when I fail to achieve it, sometimes even when I see good reason to deem it unachievable (in certain domains).  I see how this love of mine is similar to the alcoholic's love of whiskey.  Let him die of his poison, and I will die of mine.  I wish us both happy, but not so bent on happiness that we die killing one another.  Better to die doing what we love than to waste time trying to convince the other to be like us.  He isn't, and he never will be.  Let him be, and make art of your own life, not his.  Muérete jodido, como quieras, sin joder al mundo entero, como haría un santo o un demonio.