Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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A Thanks of Sorts to Katie Nolan and Felicia Day

1. Didn’t watch all of Bill Simmons’ interview with Katie Nolan – turned it off once they started the incessant apologia for the Patriots.

Still. Think I learned from the first half-hour. If the blog ends up going anywhere, I’ll have to credit Ms. Nolan. For the last few months, I’ve been doing everything but blogging. It’s weird to confess this, because I didn’t stop writing, editing, or reading. My paper journal is packed with poems, musings, and rants. I have been trying to completely rewrite old blog entries, throwing some away entirely (process is ongoing). Lots of reading: a few papers on Plato, books on art history, critical essays attended for the sake of style and form in my own writing. This has been done while job hunting, while working, while revising dissertation.

I cannot say I have had pride or even any particular joy in all this. I do not want to think through what has been done well, what not so well. Quite a bit has not been done well. It felt like a slog, moving from one obstacle to the next. I still don’t know if I’m improving or not. Writing is throwing messages in a bottle and learning not to care if you get a letter back.

What I quit on, without realizing it, was the idea that this blog could go anywhere. That is no small disappointment to harbor. It spreads to every other area in one’s life like the plague.

2. Ms. Nolan describes how she got started in media. Blogging on sports and pop culture happened 6 times a day while working a bartending job. Eventually, a bigger site wanted to use her voice for more exposure. She got a larger audience, a bit more money, but a lot more responsibility. That responsibility turned to making videos daily for the site, which conflicted with the bartending job. Nolan’s story is that she would get back from work in the early hours of the morning, write jokes for the video she intended to shoot, go to bed and film the video in the time that was left before work. I don’t think she needs to say anything about the amount of pay involved and how it corresponded with the amount of work she did.

I can’t say that her story – she’s got her own show now – is inspiring. It pushes me to work harder, to try and blog daily, but I can’t say that I’m excited or that I expect anything good to happen. Rather, I’m merely in the position of not quitting just yet. Her advice for making it in media is to get into a routine of doing something daily, to feel like you have to produce content.

The funny thing is that for a blog of this sort, I have no idea what that even means. I don’t want to be on tv, I don’t want to be recognizable. Celebrity is scary: you lose privacy. You lose, as Bill Simmons notes in the same interview, the right to make mistakes. A major reason why I wasn’t thrilled the last few months about throwing more resources into the blog is that I have to get years upon years of writing to be acceptable. A lot of what I’ve written here is unreadable: they’re notes on a scratch pad. At times good notes, but not a coherent narrative.

There’s too much to do, and I’m not sure what I want out of it.

3. I guess if anything comes of this blog, it might have to do with another influence. A long time ago, Josh shared with me this awesome interview with Felicia Day. I’ve found myself reading it over and over, partly because of the independent streak that pulses through her answers. Partly also because of how impressive it is to use media no one else has quite figured out to be genuinely entertaining, expressive, and speak to a culture otherwise ignored. Those who can’t figure it out, typically companies that are behemoths, can only stereotype or ignore your work. I think that shows pretty clearly if you read the interview.

I don’t want to pride myself on doing anything new or clever. What is most impressive about Ms. Day is how well she engages her particular audience. I originally got into blogging because I thought it was possible to contribute something thoughtful each day that one could carry throughout the day and muse on. The intent was always to put readers in touch with others. To avoid overuse of my own voice, to give my readers the ability to say without irony that they read and read about Yeats, Dickinson, Auden, Plato, Xenophon, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Kay Ryan, Sappho, and many others. I have to recommit fully to that purpose, because the garbage flowing in my Facebook feed has more intellectual guises. Social media’s net impact on the Internet has been to make it more narcissistic – yes, I realize that such a thing is near impossible.

I can’t say I lack an ego. I will not lie and say I’m humble in any way. I’m struggling to be honest about what merits having pride.

Plato, “Cleitophon”

Plato, “Cleitophon” (trans. W.R.M. Lamb; below, citations and quotes are from Clifford Orwin’s translation. Numbers in parentheses without an author are section numbers from the dialogue.)

You may choose to read the Cleitophon, by far the shortest of Plato’s dialogues. It should take 10-20 minutes to read, and its subject is refreshingly direct: Could Socrates teach justice? The same question, in a more modern, universal guise: Can philosophy make people ethical?

You may wonder why you have not heard of the dialogue. Clifford Orwin relates that its very brevity, as well as featuring “an unanswered blame of Socrates,” led critics of some years past to doubt it as genuine. However, “today its authenticity is generally conceded, although some scholars do view it as unfinished” (Orwin 117).

The Cleitophon, therefore, is in disrepute because it might be incomplete, it is short, and Socrates is blamed. None of these complaints tell us if the dialogue has any value, if it helps reconstruct a picture of concerns related to Platonic thought or Plato’s world. Rather, the silent assumption is that we possess that picture already. This is not so problematic for the skeptics who produce evidence against the Cleitophon as having any serious standing. They certainly pay careful attention to Plato. It does not help the blindness of those inclined to dismiss the dialogue before they have even encountered it.


Socrates has exactly three sentences in the whole work. He begins the dialogue speaking about Cleitophon in the third person. I imagine him doing so loudly, teasingly, and deliberately in order to attract the latter’s attention:

Cleitophon, the son of Aristonymos, as someone was just telling us, was conversing with Lysias and criticized spending time with Socrates, while he could not praise too highly the company of Thrasymachos. (406)

Socrates’ contribution to the drama of the dialogue, um, is to start drama. He claims someone told us – not just him, but his companions – that Cleitophon spoke badly about him to Lysias. Spending time with Socrates was wasteful, according to the hearsay marking him a clumsy talker behind people’s backs. In fact, he apparently continued, saying that time was better spent with Thrasymachos, a sophist who contended “justice was the interest of the stronger,” thus lending argumentative strength to tyrants everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this arouses indignation on Cleitophon’s part. He tells Socrates that he has heard wrong, as Socrates was praised for some things, blamed for others. He takes especial pains to show himself reasonable compared to Socrates. “It is plain you [Socrates] are holding this [hearsay] against me, for all that you pretend that you couldn’t care less.” Now that Cleitophon and Socrates are alone, he will show Socrates how he has been “misinformed,” going through the various arguments he used with Lysias so that Socrates ceases to have a low opinion of him (406).

The dialogue began with a taunt by Socrates, the sort of thing one might see in the schoolyard. Cleitophon’s own concern centers on his being thought reasonable. He wants, in other words, what every teenager wants: to be taken seriously, to be deserving of authority. Cleitophon was a politician in Athens, a member of a faction that proved itself able to be well-regarded under both the democracy and oligarchy. Lest one think they were marked by prudence and moderation, it should be noted that one of the senior members was Anytus, an accuser of Socrates (Orwin 119-120).

I am disposed to think Cleitophon’s adolescent behavior the heart of the dialogue. One might think this a silly observation on my part, deserving of no more attention. Cleitophon was a politician. He is the only one in the Republic who strictly identifies the just with the legal, never changing his stance (Orwin 119). He argues in the present dialogue that Socrates is wonderful for those who have not been exhorted to justice, but for one who has already been so exhorted, Socrates is “almost even a stumbling block in the way of… arriving at the goal of virtue and becoming a happy man” (410e, last sentence of the dialogue). Surely Cleitophon is a serious person with serious complaints!

Usually, we are under the stress of deciphering what Socrates’ playfulness means. But Socrates’ last words in the dialogue turn it over entirely to Cleitophon and his zeal:

Why, it would be shameful indeed, when you are so eager to benefit me, not to submit to it. For clearly, once I have learned the bad and good points, I will practice and pursue the one and shun the other with all my might. (407a)


Cleitophon eagerly continues after Socrates “submits.” He ultimately argues that Socrates’ value is dubious; one notes four distinct parts in what follows. The details below are given so as to highlight the most important aspects of each part:

  • 407a-e: Cleitophon repeats a purported speech by Socrates, addressed to Athens as a whole. Cleitophon’s Socrates says that Athenians are obsessed with hoarding wealth, which they know they have to give to their children anyway. Neither they nor their children care to find teachers of justice, though they find teachers of every other exercise or study. A complete education for Athenians lacks any sense of justice, and as a result Athens as a whole is unmusical: “brother strives with brother and city with city, clashing without measure and discordantly, and in the heat of war do and suffer the utmost.” Cleitophon’s Socrates goes further, saying that injustice is not done involuntarily. Implicitly, virtue is knowledge, and education can combat the ignorance that is injustice.
  • 407e-408b: After the speech of “Socrates” comes a short interlude where Cleitophon makes monstrous statements. He first claims Socrates taught “that those who exercise their bodies while neglecting their souls… are neglecting that which rules while concerning themselves with that which is ruled.” This certainly seems fair. But then he says that Socrates said “that whatever someone does not know to make use of, better that he relinquish the use of it.” This leads to Cleitophon attempting to ascribe to Socrates thoughts like these, which he himself finds praiseworthy: if one “does not know how to make use of a soul, it’s better for him to keep his soul at rest and not to live than to live.” Or, if he should choose to live, he should “pass his life as a slave [rather] than as a free man and… hand over the rudder of his thought, as of a ship, to another, who has learned the art of piloting human beings.” Somehow, I don’t think Socrates ever said or meant that, and I willingly note that Socrates said many preposterous, shocking things. This section rests on Cleitophon holding tight to the notion that statesmanship is an art, the art “of judging and justice.” As a body of knowledge, it would teach people how to live exactly, and anyone who didn’t know it, by definition, wouldn’t know how to live. Before, in the previous section, Cleitophon’s “Socrates” kept his focus on the lack of fraternity and hateful obsession with wealth injustice caused.
  • 408b-410a: Cleitophon tells the story of a fight he picked, imitating the manner of Socrates, with those he says are Socrates’ disciples. He claims to have won. Cleitophon asks them, after a convoluted prompt, what art has to do with the virtue of the soul. After being told this is justice, he pushes for what it is exactly a just man produces, i.e. what good justice is. One disciple begins to argue that what justice gives is oneness of mind among those truly capable of being friends. This answer has a certain similarity to the exhortation of Cleitophon’s prior “Socrates,” who mourns the loss of fraternity among Athenians. However, the disciple eventually contends that oneness of mind must be that of knowledge, not of mere opinion, thus destroying any potential civic benefit and bringing the argument full circle. If justice is oneness of mind, and oneness of mind depends on knowledge, then the question remains what specific art, what specific branch of knowledge, constitutes justice.
  • 410a-e (end): He says he questioned Socrates, but Socrates contradicted himself. First, justice was helping friends and harming enemies, but then “it appeared the just man never harms anyone, for in all matters he acts for the benefit of all.” What exactly, who exactly, justice is good for – this perplexes Cleitophon, and Socrates is not forthcoming with an answer. Perhaps Socrates does not know it, but he says he thinks Socrates actually knows and will not share it with him. Thus, he must spend his time with Thrasymachos. But if Socrates is willing to share, showing the proper training of the soul and not merely exhorting him to be just, then Cleitophon would be pleased. He believes knowing exactly what justice is would make him more virtuous, a happy man.


The four parts of Cleitophon’s speech to Socrates focus on a number of issues, as you can see. It is difficult to assess them all at once. It is even more difficult to understand how all of them bear exactly on the value of philosophy. In Plato’s shortest dialogue, one still feels like there is too much to sort through.

The summaries I gave for each section above are for highlighting the most interesting lines and ideas. However, one element which gives the argument a more formal continuity is lacking. To wit: Cleitophon places an enormous stress on knowledge and art (this is certainly visible above), constantly comparing what is done for the body with what is done for the soul (this, not at all).

That constant comparison – you do this for the body, why do you not do likewise for the soul – tends to grate on one’s nerves when reading the dialogue. It takes extended reflection on who Cleitophon is to understand why this comes up so often in his speech.

Michael Davis, whose commentary on the Cleitophon I highly recommend, finds that Cleitophon feels left out from the Socratic clique (Davis 159-160). At the outset of the dialogue, he thinks Socrates has something specific against him. As he continues talking, it is very clear that he is not in the Socratic circle, and he openly says that Socrates hides the nature of justice from him. I cannot help but feel that this is more schoolyard behavior, that we are meant to see something fundamentally immature about Cleitophon. Given that a member of his faction pushes for nothing less than the execution of Socrates, this is a dark joke indeed.

We must start from a different angle than we have been proceeding. Let us consider what seems most mature about Cleitophon, namely, his earnestness about justice. He wants a principle that dictates exactly what justice is, making the soul better, providing rulers with the knowledge they need to rule well. Regarding that principle, Thrasymachos sets forth a basis: “justice is the interest of the stronger.” However, his thinking and Cleitophon’s diverge. The city’s laws, properly obeyed, create a powerful citizenry, as Cleitophon’s Socratic speech attests. But his talk throughout the dialogue that bears his name is filled with references to Book 1 of the Republic. He has already watched Socrates take Thrasymachos apart rhetorically. There is a good beyond a powerful citizenry; justice produces something more than what obedience to laws produces. This good must exist because Socrates defeated Thrasymachos, no matter how much Cleitophon resents it.


Cleitophon’s earnestness must not be dismissed because of his association with Thrasymachos. All of us want a principle that dictates exactly what is just. We resent others for not sharing our opinions about justice; we admire those who fight and die for what we believe. Yet, we know Cleitophon belonged to a faction that was more shady than steadfast. Did Socrates’ exhortation to justice provoke a greater failure? In pushing Cleitophon to be more just, did he cause him to worship power only?

For Cleitophon, questions concerning knowledge and art, soul and body, justice and education all center on one thing: the relation between ruler and ruled. He twists Socrates’ words and ideas in unusual ways. Socrates himself professes knowledge of ignorance. Does that mean Socrates should kill himself or submit to rule of another, as he does not know how to use his own soul? Cleitophon basically argues that in the second section of his argument, outlined above. The reality of power is fundamental for Cleitophon, as whatever justice is, it concerns rule. Rulers employ justice and make the city better. Cleitophon is power-hungry, sure, but there’s something else in his character: like every teenager we know, he thinks himself wholly in the right. That he seeks knowledge of how he is right, whether from Thrasymachos or Socrates, is more proof for himself that he is right.

Ultimately, it is something closer to Thrasymachos’ teaching which corrupts Cleitophon. Thrasymachos, to be sure, cannot be blamed. Cleitophon insists that the just is the legal, and in the Republic, is adamant that if the rulers believe something to be their advantage, that is just simply. Thrasymachos will have none of that nonsense: real rulers know their advantage. Cleitophon’s moral earnestness turns into whining and resentment, as he does not care for knowledge. He wants to be thought someone who cares for knowledge. I am inadverently making him sound evil, but that is not really the case. Most of us are in school because we want the grades and the degree.

Again, I cannot recommend too highly Davis’ reflection on the Cleitophon. We know that “What is justice?” admits no practical answer. So let’s say Cleitophon really, truly cares for whatever knowledge comprises justice. He’s going to have to confront a very hard truth, one which few of us have the moral maturity for. Justice isn’t a virtue except in an unjust world; virtue depends on the existence of vice. To be a just person is continual, incomplete work. To have an understanding of justice means throwing away the idea that it can be reduced to a principle or a strict body of knowledge. It means grappling with all the opinions one considers unjust, and wondering what truth they reflect. It means trying to understand what each of us means by justice, knowing there is no answer that satisfies (Davis 172).


Davis, Michael. The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Orwin, Clifford. “On the Cleitophon.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 117-131.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Cleitophon,” translated by Clifford Orwin. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 111-116. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Basho, “Here, where a thousand captains swore”

“Here, where a thousand captains swore”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Here, where a thousand
captains swore grand conquest…
tall grass their monument


Mocking the irony of wanting to conquer others for fame and fortune – that’s easy. Our narrator looks out at a battlefield and sees what is: tall grass covering the bodies of the ambitious. Unless one was insane, one could not miss how a combination of planning and spirit – nearly the sum total of our so-called higher faculties, what makes us distinctly human – buried itself.

Any serious reflection starts not with casting aside figures like Napoleon or Genghis Khan, but understanding that all of us want to best others. Admirers of conquerors and tyrants exist always, and as problematic as they are, they can’t be faulted for dishonesty. A thousand captains, leaders of men, each made credible in the eyes of many through honors, virtues, and stories shared then and now. These captains gathered together and swore fealty in order to procure a greater victory. All those honors, virtues, and stories of each were united in loyalty, in combined strength.

Basho’s reflection is impersonal. A little imagination reveals that some of the people we most admire may be subject to the same critique. Attacking our own selves, strangely enough, is the easy part. Basho wants our attention to turn to our virtues and ideals. Conquerors and tyrants loom large in the imagination of some because they impose their will on the world. To what degree is virtue an imposition of will on the world?

There is no small solace in the fact that many do not mind tall grass as a monument. People sacrifice for each other every day. They sacrifice for causes they think will bring about a greater good. The funny thing is how the zeal of those most admirable entails moderation of a sort. Not entirely virtue, not entirely what is good for all, in order to sacrifice well. Whereas either to die for virtue purely, or for one’s own aggrandizement, seem to be two sides of the same coin. The reality of tall grass as a monument is the reality of the earthly.

Basho, “Lady Butterfly”

“Lady Butterfly…”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Lady Butterfly
perfumes her wings
by floating over this orchid


All that happens: a butterfly floats for a moment above an orchid. Our narrator sets forth a few details of his choosing. The butterfly’s wings are infused with scent from the flower; it hovers over it, remaining some distance away; the flower is specifically an orchid. There are other translations of this poem which do not see the butterfly’s gender as an issue.

Whether or not we are dealing with “Lady Butterfly,” the personification remains an open question. One can say the butterfly is personified in the pleasure it takes from beautification. It lingers in the scent, taking on the property of another object in order to beautify itself and receive pleasure. Perhaps this is the most human of behaviors, as it becomes confident not through grasping the object itself but through imitating an aspect of it. I wonder, on this line of thought, if “orchid” is meant to be much more specific than “butterfly.” Does the butterfly remotely understand the flower from which it takes?

But personification may be a narrative imposition. It could be the case that butterflies are genuinely pleased by the scent of the orchid itself, wanting it for pleasures specific to themselves. The Greek kosmos not only means “universe,” but also “ornament.” Wearing what is appropriate for oneself speaks one’s precise place. To that end, the gentleness of the exchange might be the heart of the poem. The orchid gives off a scent, the butterfly embraces it. It will spread that scent with its own power. Both orchid and butterfly will be united, yet in this image, neither will have even touched the other.

Kobayashi Issa, “Yellow Autumn Moon”

Yellow Autumn Moon
Kobayashi Issa (tr. unknown)

Yellow autumn moon…
unimpressed the scarecrow stands
simply looking bored


The bright moon faintly illumines the changed hues of trees, the subtle outlines of clouds, the slight motion of water. Under it bores like me are simply sleeping, lovers exchange knowing glances, the reverent still pray, the lustful enter dens of iniquity.

The fullness of life stretches toward night; the moon witnesses this, making it just visible enough. Yet Issa has us imagine a scarecrow in a field, bored with that moon, maybe sourly looking on it all.

I’m tempted to imagine the scarecrow as a specific example of the headline “old man yells at cloud.” People who mutter to themselves things like “caught in that sensual music all neglect / monuments of unaging intellect” are more interested in being permanent and useful than enjoying life themselves. Scarecrows are certainly both, as they merely mimic the human to protect crops. It is easy to hold in contempt what one might most want to protect.

The translator’s word for describing the scarecrow’s gaze is “bored.” What makes the moon majestic is its softly lighting a living world. The scarecrow finds itself “unimpressed” with humanity, which needs a point at rest, a celestial witness, to imbue its activity with a touch of divinity. He does not blame the moon for this, but cannot give it any credit either. The scarecrow is at work, always.

Rae Armantrout, “The Difficulty”

The Difficulty (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

This film, like many others,
claims we’ll enjoy life
now that we’ve come through

difficulties, dangers
so incredibly condensed
that they must be over.

If the hardship
was undergone by others,
we identified with them

and, if the danger was survived
by simpler life forms,
they’re included in this moment

when the credits roll
and we don’t know
where to stand


Not only film, but nearly all literature, all myth, promise happiness for enduring obstacles “so incredibly condensed that they must be over.” A sense of who we are, who we ought to be, comes to us through stories which of their very nature cannot possibly encompass the whole of our experience. We believe that if we truly become virtuous or moral, we will never stray nor do wrong, despite knowing there are situations where the only possible choices are justly characterized as desperate. We’ll be happy because we’ve overcome and learned everything from such experience – as if things still couldn’t collapse.

That, at any rate, is what I get from Armantrout’s first two stanzas, which establish the setting. The singular difficulty of her title has not been revealed yet. She lets the film continue with its claim: dangers and difficulties have been overcome, thus we are in a better position to enjoy life. My comment above speaks to the problem of actually being part of heroic stories. However, it may be the case we can learn a pleasant, beneficial truth by merely being the audience of such a tale.

In many cases, we identify with those who’ve undergone hardship. Sometimes, we’re watching “film” of ourselves in our head, but Armantrout puts that discussion aside for now. She instead switches focus to a strange detail:

if the danger was survived
by simpler life forms,
they’re included in this moment

“Simpler life forms” jars. They survived the danger as much as we did or those with whom we identified. But do they matter in the same way “we” do? Children and animals do not have our intellectual framework; they cannot understand what we learned! That’s just the problem, though: what we learned stemmed directly from the result. Not just that there were difficulties, not just that they were dealt with well or badly, but that they in the end fell away.

We don’t know where to stand when the credits roll because the result dictated whatever we learned. We were children, we are animals, after all. The difficulty is this: if we say we have truly learned from experience, that we can be happy in the final analysis, we are more than human and still couldn’t stand in the picture. Happiness is contingent unless one could completely deny human desire, avoid the consequences of bad relationships, be totally self-sufficient. The happiest human life is rational, but that is meant in a comparative sense. A rational human being probably wouldn’t need to be inspired by every movie he saw (*gulp*).

Kay Ryan, “The Obsoletion of a Language”

The Obsoletion of a Language (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.


We knew it would happen, we knew a language would become useless. Perhaps it was one of the unspoken laws between us.

Still, knowledge did not prepare us for its suddenness. “Words become a chewing:” our appetites continue, but we’re eating our words, and they’re unsatisfying. “Chewing action of the jaws and mouth” attests to this. Our words mean to communicate, and there is one other who could hear them, but they fall on deaf ears.

Two lovers constructed their own realm, as all lovers do. When love ceased to be, the rituals of love were not preserved in the language of that place. Rather, distrust and skepticism filled what was taken with the best of intentions before. Two things stand out for me: first, this poem is more puzzling than heartbreaking. This is one of the things lovers leave us with, whether we were the ones who broke off the relationship or not. Why don’t certain words work anymore? Did we somehow change?

Second, something formal remains. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” The laws, perhaps unsaid, make one wonder if they were in the language of the lovers. My thought is they actually are, as a painful truth could have been communicated, although not adequately understood, during the relationship. To be sure, there is no magic language of romance that can bring ex-lovers back. But there is a way to more objectively understand the history of what was, of who we were and are.

Sappho, “Tomorrow you had better…”

Note: Apologies for the lack of posting. I’m going to try to post every other day, at least. I had forgotten that, whether I like it or not, I’m in the business of producing media.

“Tomorrow you had better…”

Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Tomorrow you had better

Use your soft hands,
Dica, to tear off
dill shoots, to cap
your lovely curls

She who wears flowers
attracts the happy
Graces: they turn
back from a bare head


A peculiar harshness attends the making of beauty. Dica, with her “soft hands” and “lovely curls,” probably possesses a pleasant mien already.

Yet a strong admonishment begins this fragment. Dica “had better” tear off dill shoots and wear them on her bare head. The motherly commands nothing less than pious force. If flowers are not worn, “the happy Graces” do not come. Dica, in the narrator’s eyes, is not beautiful enough. It is very easy in this translation to see why people fight with their parents over matters of tone. The gravest insults are only a few words away.

Still, even “mom” recognizes Dica’s natural beauty. Dill shoots, strictly speaking, are rather plain. If we are speaking of the flowers of fennel and thyme, those are very delicate, fine flowers. Dica is easily seen for who she is. The happy Graces do not want her to tremble in fear, but to rejoice in her being part of greater beauty. Perhaps they even see her as one of them.

On a Passage from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”

“The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming. Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland. – I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…”

– Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols

Dear Fred:

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, my plan was to read “The Free Spirit” section of Beyond Good and Evil as I was, um, really free. Went to work, slept a bit, sat in a convenience store under dull fluorescent lighting watching people buy cigarettes and liquor.

With that remarkable schedule, I confess I still didn’t get to your book, so I instead dug up a thought of yours I had put down 10 years ago.

I think I remember my state of mind then. It’s a lot like mine now. I’ve never felt, as some in the humanities do, that too many people study science and not enough the liberal arts. I’ve only worried, as I think many worry, that there’s a cult which pretends to worship science, but in reality wants to savage anyone who disagrees with them. That cult goes out of its way to kick people who study the humanities while they’re down, treating the transmission and preservation of knowledge as a given. It goes out of its way to become unnecessarily angry and petty about issues that don’t even concern it. For example, note the moralistic intonations of certain people when the topic of becoming a professor in the liberal arts emerges.

It’s a strange game. It feels like a lot of people are trying to prove everyone else wrong about life so that way they can say they’re right. It’s like they’re trying to shut down the fact that the world is a diversity of voices. You can’t help but feel that something human, genuinely democratic, maybe even spiritual is being lost in the name of a pseudo-utilitarianism. The barbarians now have the rhetoric of science and modernity and progress with which to attack people who want to think for themselves.

On that note, I want to thank you for your thoughts in Daybreak.  I’m nowhere close to finishing it, and at times, your reading of the history of thought is obscure to me. But what stands out is how personally you advocate for independent thought. The future isn’t about cleverness or knowledge in the abstract. It isn’t about thinking we have all the answers and devoting ourselves to that.

Weirdly enough, for someone who is called a nihilist by so many, you seem to be advocating for a moral rebirth. One that isn’t afraid to walk a tightrope between eternity and uncertainty. I get the impression that you want us to reconceive both notions. Eternity should be seen as the eternal recurrence, more or less. That things happened a certain way in the past and will happen again means that we can imitate the best of humanity previous or learn from our mistakes. Uncertainty lies in our very approach to the world. We fail to understand how our desires make themselves felt as moral, even rational, certainties, but we know we can ask everyone else how they know something. As a result, we get fanatically certain about the most dubious things, all the while immersing ourselves in doubt and skepticism about everything and everyone else. A little more honesty about what we want and we might be less blinded by “truth” and more humane to those around us.

That, at any rate, is my “take” on the matter. I don’t think you’re aware that this is “take” season, where various Internet commentators have offered their opinions on a variety of subjects. Here’s one by a user who think the transportation company Uber’s violation of the law is comparable to Rosa Parks’ fight for civil rights. I readily submit that my “take” on your thought is of similar quality. Maybe you do love nihilism and fascism and the like.

In any case, the thought that’s been torturing me the last couple of months goes like this: What could I possibly teach that is of worth to another person? When tutoring, improving skills happens. It’s nearly impossible not to find language to which a student can relate. That can translate into being more confident in the classroom, answering questions the teacher poses, answering prompts from a relevant perspective. Reading, responding, and writing can be improved over time, through repeated sessions of getting a student to talk and feel comfortable with the task at hand.

None of that, though, is the maturity to try to see what it’s like to seek knowledge, or, on a related note, find serious people without fancy titles or positions. No amount of improving academic skills replaces the probity, the will to curiosity, that comes from wanting to make sense of this life in which we live. I don’t think most of the students I’ve ever met have ever cared for such a mundane topic. Most of them want insight akin to a panacea, or the status that comes from being the best, or the grades simply. That last is not so depressing when contrasted with the ephemerality and artificiality of what the most ambitious want.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed. I spent most of today unpacking freight and stocking liquor. I failed to read seriously anything of any significance. I am afraid to call my best friends – the ones who understand my perspective, and are no slouches as knowers and thinkers – and work through what I’m seeing in my life with them. I don’t want to bother them when I don’t know if I’m attentive enough, when I don’t know that I’m not seeking a panacea myself.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed, because I’m in doubt about what it produces. People who know me know that I’m a nervous, awkward person. When you castigate your time for a sort of slavishness, citing “a harsh Helot condition” caused by “the tremendous extent of science,” I find it very hard to join the critique. Partly because I think you are consciously exaggerating – this ties into my discussion above. However, I do not really know what “fuller, richer, deeper natures” there are, and what education could do for them:

The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming.

Again, the problem I’m having is what good we can produce for another. Your discussion helps a bit: for a certain nature, a certain education is necessary, and we have lost it. Something about a cultish scientism – I don’t want to call it science, not at all – makes all of us incredibly unfree, even as we think we’re free in putting others down.

Fair enough. I should quit while I’m ahead, I suspect, and just say that freedom attends the mindful. You go on in a way that throws me under the bus. I know I will never be a first-rate scholar; for me, it is a struggle to be an average student, to do something solid but unspectactular. Does that make me one of the “presumptuous journeymen” or “fragments of humanity,” or should I not console myself with even ranking that high?

Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland.

It does look like you are taking a direct shot at my approach to the humanities. In your defense, you are not doing so for the sake of promoting fascism or Nazi supermen or philosophers that found religions or anything like that. You seem to be worried that people like me are more New Age guru than scholar, that we water down the humanities to make them relatable while science and anything that sounds scientific simply teaches. The difficulty in the liberal arts is getting to the hard questions. Someone like me doesn’t really try to do so, no matter how much I say otherwise. With the emphasis on accessibility, I’m just offering students what might be a swim in their own opinions. “Grand politics” are a testament to our lack of thoughtfulness; we have large scale ambitions as we don’t understand how to live our lives without domination of another or utopian visions.

I will only say this, and it is really not aimed at you. Let’s say I was an actual scholar and not a hack. Someone truly adept in languages, not only knowledgeable of history but with good instincts for how to reconstruct a portrait of a time or person. Someone who could really write, conveying the difficulties I encounter in reading or thinking through something without belaboring them. Would that mean I would necessarily bring into focus the hard questions? Could I even do such a thing, with that skillset alone?

I will say that what impresses and confuses me is the freedom you celebrate. It is both serious and playful, religious and irreligious at once:

I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…

“I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion:” I take this in the vein of The Case of Wagner – you are rejecting the Reich and political solutions that propose happiness. Cheerfulness comes while watching what one thinks is one’s age come to an end. Every generation thinks they are in the midst of the end of the world. Maybe one guy wrote “my life was the same as my father’s, and his father before him,” but we never read that guy. Either Athens is collapsing, or Rome is. The Church is rising to its height, converting Emperors, or being torn apart along with the European continent. Morals are always falling apart; Charles II is living at what seems to be pagan excess after years of Puritan dominance in England. And there’s always violence – men hurting other men for their invisible objects, always – and it could be cataclysmic if recognized as such. Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in until the town lie beaten flat.

To be a hermit, relaxing from or with “how profound a seriousness,” is to understand that we only work with images. We’re stuck in our own heads. It doesn’t mean we’re powerless, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth. I think it means we can enjoy a distance from some of the most powerful and most ill-evidenced assertions. There are moral issues, serious ones that have a profound impact. When not pressed urgently, we have to find our way to them. Nowadays, what has my attention is the pacifistic brush with which many thinkers paint the life of the mind. At work is a refocusing of ambition, where “do no harm” makes perfect sense as a basis for humanism. The truly human work is to relax and find good cheer while sorting the contents of one’s mind. That may sound New Agey, but that’s the spiritual instinct of a reflective, rational animal.


Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1129)

for Paula Gardner

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1129)
Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —


Cats jumping wildly at a moving laser-pointer: that’s how we are when we first learn to read. It’s so much fun to see that the little squiggles on the page can be said aloud. We’re announcing loudly what’s on signs the car passes by, or priding ourselves on the medal for going through more books than anyone else in class. Later, we make notes on larger texts and difficult essays, trying to remember what they say for the test. Rarely, we may try to relate to a character or interpret a book as a whole. Those few attempts might be a major part of our lives – think of how many people say they wish they had the loyalty of Ruth in the Bible, or are devastated for Anna Karenina – and yet we could have no serious conception of how or why we read. We extract meaning from stories upon which we build our lives while having no clue what we’re doing.

To be sure, there are more conscientious readers of literature. They work to understand the issues an author explores and connect the dots. They put authors and their works in dialogue with one another. Tolstoy’s spirituality can be contrasted with Dostoyevsky’s orthodoxy; Graham Greene’s moral complexity cannot exist in the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves Tolkien inhabits. This is all well and good, but there is a trap. One tends to reconstruct voices which fail utterly at challenging one. We read into authors ideas we’re comfortable with. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” someone once said.

A peculiar phenomenon limited to a small set of texts brings forth a similar situation. It may be the case in less liberal ages – ages far more restrictive of speech – one had to hide one’s more radical opinions. For example, if you endorsed a more secular, representative government against notions of kingship, you might place the word “God” every other sentence when crafting your political writings. Or if you thought the future was a republic of scientists, you might write a strange, apparently incomplete work of fiction where sailors come upon a New Atlantis which wants them to witness their technological marvels and curious religious pluralism. Political esotericism makes perfect sense, now that we have the benefit of hindsight. There are always going to be scholars who doubt its existence, but one does not hide messages for consensus. The goal was to reach the minds who would create the future.

What is much, much stranger is another sort of esoteric writing, a subset of the group above. Jonathan Swift once noted that modern esotericism was like the spider: from the foulest was spun the most beautiful. That characterizes thinkers like Locke and Bacon, who dwell on the reality of power so as to arrange orders where we can live and think freely. Ancient esotericism, though, was like the bee: from the sweetness of flowers flowed ever so much more sweetness. Both Xenophon and Plutarch declare at times that they will not speak of unpleasant things when writing. It’s up to us to imagine those things for ourselves, to reconstruct the pleasures and pains of another world.


I cannot say with certainty that Dickinson has a project which encompasses all of her poetry. I do think her themes, her verse, and her life itself are radical enough.  At times, it looks like she has something she wants to say which will force us to reconsider everything. In “This is my letter to the World” (J441), she hints at this larger something:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

“The simple News that Nature told” is what the speaker has put in a letter to the world. This is quite stunning: Nature, which mankind has witnessed and investigated for thousands of years, has news? The speaker continues pleading with her countrymen, whom she obviously distrusts. She hopes they judge tenderly, she implores them to be sweet. But they have not been sweet. They have never written, and their distance from the “tender Majesty” of Nature could not be clearer.

I have not finished reading all of Dickinson, but I suspect her larger concern starts with a proposition such as this: Perhaps the world is eros. That desire and beauty, as Yeats says, put “the young in one another’s arms” – that’s the easy problem, the easy confrontation. More complex is when desire and beauty involve religion, where “safe in their alabaster chambers… sleep the meek members of the resurrection” (J216). Some pride themselves on the afterlife, thinking they have devoted all their desires to earning it. In the end, they can be said to have a portion of eternity in this life, as all else moves and eventually perishes while they sleep. The irony lies in how what happens while they are in the grave too literally is the Biblical promise. Their entombment has meaning when contrasted with dropping Diadems and surrendering Doges; their coffins are just as royal, with “rafter of satin.” However, the wisdom of justice as we understand it, the justice we pray for, does not impress the natural, perhaps created, world: “Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — Ah, what sagacity perished here!”

One might counter Dickinson’s suggestiveness by saying that eternity is not had in the grave, but only after the Second Coming. One might go further and argue that justice as we understand it cannot be the issue, only justice as God understands it. In any case, it seems to me that Dickinson is concerned with the orientation and intensity of our desires. The world is erotic in her telling, but she is alone. Her loneliness emerges emphatically in her poetry, over and over. I have yet to fix my interpretation of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288), but I always took it to be the speaker talking to herself.

At least in my own thinking, I hold that for Dickinson this question remains most prominent: What does it mean to be alone in a completely erotic world?


“Tell all the truth but tell it slant:” Christ Himself says to be wise as serpents, but surely this command of Dickinson’s cannot be applied to preaching the Gospel. What, exactly, is “all the truth?” Dickinson avoids answering this, continuing instead with geometric imagery. The “slant” we are to tell is completed by “Success in Circuit.” If we are careful in telling the truth, if we avoid hammering at certain issues, we will communicate truly without offense. Our audience might even consider something differently.

“Slant” and “Circuit” turn from geometric shapes into nothing less than the sun. The allusion is as Platonic as one could possibly get: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Dickinson herself says she has read widely in English poetry, but I cannot tell if she has spent much time with Plato’s Republic. Still, the idea there is this: there are unseen forms which are the truth of our world. “The form of red” is the truth of red, the answer to “what is red?”, in the same way that mathematics determines its objects. The quest for the forms is undertaken by the philosopher, who in the story immediately following the introduction of forms, ascends from a cave of artificial light and shadow puppetry to the surface, where the sun makes things visible.

Whatever the truth is, it has a “superb surprise.” One is telling “all the truth” in order to do some good, not to hurt anyone. Whatever that surprise is, it is “too bright for our infirm Delight.” “Infirm” is key: we’re inflexible. We’ve made a decision on what makes us happy. We want to work with the illusions that are useful and sometimes meaningful. The whole history of ideas, as I see it, is taking care to respect other people’s opinions about justice while bringing them to realize something more. “Infirm” carries a darkness upon which the truth all too easily focuses. To be a completely conventional human being is to be dictated completely by the dead.


“All the truth” remains the fundamental issue. It is our liberation from opinions we hold as true simply because they are old. But that liberation does not imply having the absolute truth oneself. If one knows that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, one does not necessarily know it happens to be precisely the opposite unless one knows a lot about physics and astronomy. There may be universal laws of which we remain purposefully ignorant, but to be more knowledgeable does not entail realizing those laws.

So in one sense, “all the truth” isn’t really “all the truth.” It’s the truth about oneself – it’s self-knowledge – which we want others to have. This brings about a further complication. Is it actually knowledge to know how many ways we can delude ourselves, or what rhetoric can entrance us? Is knowledge of our lack of self-knowledge a science? In Plato’s Gorgias, where Gorgias declares that rhetoric enables men to rule and makes them free, Socrates ends up calling rhetoric a pseudoscience, the false art of punitive justice. To put it cynically, self-knowledge can consist somewhat in our declaring ourselves not to be something while spewing hate toward that something. Xenophon understands the figure of Socrates by comparing and contrasting him with the figures of the best political leader (Cyrus), the gentleman (Ischomachus), and the purely ambitious (Xenophon himself).

There is a deeper sort of self-knowledge, where others’ choices do not have to punished for one’s own sake. The “truth’s superb surprise,” on this reading, consists precisely in telling the truth slant and completing the circuit. The risk is that even such subtlety will be too bright:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One must treat one’s audience like children scared of lightning. It seems pretty awful to imply people do not have the moral maturity to hear what they consider blasphemy. To be fair, I never thought books that hide a message to be terribly elitist, nor do I think this poem such. The problem is the risk of making “every man” blind.

That risk comes about this way. On an individual level, we can correct each other. We can be hurt and forgive and improve, or choose to walk away entirely. Moral communication occurs at a personal level, and it is risky there, but the stakes need not be life or death. When we’re talking about works that will reach a mass audience, there cannot be that sort of communication visibly. What results on a mass scale is a reaction, and crowds will be provoked one way or another, because there are certain things we must believe in, or civilization is doomed. It sounds almost like conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that mobs have existed and still exist, and that the power of the mob comes directly from the power of conventionality. Once something is declared “our way,” a perceived attack on it is an attack on us. This cannot be discarded as easily as one would like. Without a sense of a larger identity, without knowing who are friends or who are enemies, no one can fight on behalf of another.

It still is remarkable, in my opinion, that so many have been able to contribute to this indefinite, indeterminate thing called “humanity” over the years. Oftentimes, they don’t do it by fighting, but through sacrifice, even the sacrifice of measured speech. The hope is that the truth will dazzle gradually, whatever it is. “Whatever,” to be sure, is the wrong word. For “all the truth,” in the last analysis, is simply “all.” To speak carefully is to stress one’s own voice, one’s own sensitivity. Personal knowledge is the only knowledge we have.

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