William Butler Yeats, “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors”

At the opening of the Metaphysics, Aristotle proclaims “all men naturally desire knowledge.” Is it true? I wonder if people in the Middle Ages read those words and broke into open laughter or were completely amazed anyone could believe such a thing. Maybe their shock led some them to study the Metaphysics for the rest of their lives. I suspect “knowledge” does not encompass topics such as “Did aliens originally land in Antarctica?” or “Princess Diana was killed by the same people who killed JFK.” If it does, Aristotle is absolutely correct.

But if it doesn’t—if we suspect that men naturally desire other things, which they believe knowledge may or may not aid—then a look at how knowledge itself pleases is in order. That inquiry won’t answer the question of whether Aristotle is correct or not, whether all men by nature desire to learn. It should help us understand how we can take Aristotle’s statement earnestly. Yeats declares his “Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors,” stating his respect not only for his instructors but whatever they taught. Whatever he learned must have revealed its truth in his life long after he forgot his teachers, if he had ones he could identify at all:

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors
William Butler Yeats

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

What they, the unknown instructors, undertook to do / They brought to pass. “Unknown Instructors” poses a challenge. If Yeats thinks himself informed primarily by tradition, a ubiquitous instructor, then he has learned the ways of the world and can seriously act in it. Tradition certainly causes things to pass, as it makes people its instrument. Is there room in “Unknown Instructors” for a higher notion of education? For those who may simply know better in unjust, ignorant societies or those who genuinely seek to know beyond conventional limits?

For my part, I read Yeats as crediting both traditional instruction and the incubation of more radical ideas, but leaning heavily toward the latter. The “Unknown Instructors” “undertook”—they intended and committed to their intention. Because they “undertook,” because they made themselves the grounding of a greater task, they brought forth, “brought to pass.” The present, and perhaps the future, was shaped by them. How do we know? Because Yeats, their student, is declaring himself grateful for them. He is not angry at being manipulated, he sees himself in their service, he demonstrates consciousness of a debt.

I need to say more. I have had the honor of teaching so many thoughtful and self-motivated students. I am aware of another sort of student: one who at best goes to class, gets the work done, pays lip service to education. Going to school for them is a means of getting a degree, and getting a degree is something family and society declare valuable. So I’d better take a risk and explain how an unknown instructor may actually present a valuable teaching, one that might not unfold unless one pays careful attention far after, say, a class is over.

At least for me, it is becoming clear how aware my teachers in high school and in college were of what I was trying to achieve and how many obstacles were in the way. In short, they were aware of how stupidly racist the world was and how many advantages others had. They tried to convey this to me through praise, but it didn’t take in part because they were so encouraging and helpful that I couldn’t believe the world was anything but a level playing field. Now I see what they saw—I see students looked down upon before they’ve done anything that could possibly make an impression—and I know I have to help cultivate the appropriate awareness in them. They can’t afford to be victims, as victimization is an empowering privilege for majority faction. Some of them will have to be better than the best ever were, simply to open up fields to others like them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are things you are being taught, in classrooms you find boring, which are of tremendous moment. You obviously have to be open to them. I’m so lucky I remembered those interactions, interactions where I felt I was being unnecessarily praised or that I had messed up and was receiving pity. If you go to the classroom dead set that you’re not going to remember anything from it, I honestly think you’d better think hard about how you would raise kids. You don’t have to be a perfect student, but resistance to education is very hard to square with the skillset needed to show someone how to survive, love, prosper, and give that much more.

Yeats concludes with a riddle of an image: All things hang like a drop of dew / Upon a blade of grass. The unknown instructors brought their undertaking to pass. They created a mind that was open and receptive. Now that mind sees the nature of “all things.” Being is fundamentally potential—all things, all beings, hanging like a drop of dew upon a blade of grass. But what a small image! The wet earth, the one that proves fertile, the one accompanying the dawn, is composed of lots of small drops of dew resting on grass. There will be growth, but what Yeats wants us to realize is the necessity of beauty. It’s really beautiful to admit you’ve learned something, and I can’t emphasize enough how countercultural this claim is. How many people do we run into, every day, who insist they know everything? Who can never be wrong? Who must always be told they are right and only listen for gaps in a conversation to fill? In order to truly grow, one needs to able to appreciate small, beautiful moments, like waking up and walking at dawn.

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

At once, “The Second Coming” is overblown and understated. Every generation thinks if they do not act, the world will end. Opponents are framed in stark terms, as wreckers of tradition or obstacles to progress. Anger and confusion abound as people try to figure out their true allies, but the conditions for building trust are not optimal, if at all present.

Every generation is right. The world does not need to be at war, mass extinction need not immediately threaten. This planet has been a brutal, cruel hell for millions well after the Second World War, whether they live under totalitarianism or any number of other authoritarian or authoritarian-lite regimes. Issues affecting individuals do not merely contain larger issues, but the largest. For example: if you’re on death row for crimes you did not commit, should the state of world affairs concern you? Shouldn’t the world be concerned for you—with justice, proportionality, equitable treatment, innocence at stake? If it isn’t, isn’t everything over already?

When I turn to Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” I wonder how to grapple with its assertion of an apocalypse. I wonder not just how to deal with the vision it presents, but the very fact it presents a vision. Even in an age where it feels like all could be lost, the world a fireball of war and genocide in addition to being an actual fireball, I tend to focus on specifics of one problem, maybe two at most. Those of us who try to keep up with the news, I suspect, are the same way. We may be furious about Trump’s tax returns or the exorbitant costs of health care or abuses directed at detainees. We’re not quite focused on events which in and of themselves could seal our cosmic fate, such as the falcon cannot hear the falconer:

The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

Yeats’ first stanza accelerates before suddenly stopping; to be more precise, it feels like being caught in a spiral-like motion and then dropped. Turning and turning will make some readers dizzy before any substantial details have been given. Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer takes that confusion and presents it as a product of no less than history and divinity. Yeats outlined the former in A Vision: there, I am told, history moves like gyres which you might envision overlapping. The end of one process, one spiraling motion creating a wide gyre, coincides with a small point creating the next one. I am certainly nowhere near an expert on Yeats and especially not on his ideas regarding history; I refer you to this site on Yeats’ A Vision, which I consulted to understand “gyre” better, if you want to know more.

What I do know is this: historical processes are not abstractions. They have foundations in events which affected real people and were subsequently turned into myths underpinning moral, institutional, and even psychic orders. Typically, we do not conceive eras ending in any way less than cataclysmic. The orders myths spawn result in one or a few parties consolidating power, and those parties push the myths themselves to ludicrous ends, creating room for them to pursue their naked advantage, lose their grip on reality, or both at once. Athens believed it could be a school for Greece, that its innovation and dynamism would show the greatness of its free citizenry. It ended up pursuing war against Sparta until it weakened all of the other Greek city-states, making them targets for acquisition. The Catholic Church was the only serious religious institution in Europe for a thousand years. When it proved itself utterly unwilling to accommodate demands for reform, the result was unending religious warfare and civil strife for the continent. You get the idea—how the gyre starts small, then widens, is intuitive.

Yeats goes further. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” an English devotional poem, shows what’s at stake. Herbert prays to God “O let me rise / As larks, harmoniously, / And sing this day thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.” This is almost too perfect for thinking through what Yeats targets, for Herbert sees himself as a lark finding harmony and peace in singing God’s praises. He does not see the Fall of Man as a story of original sin condemning mankind as permanently evil, but he certainly sees his current condition as pathetic. The more evil confronted and overcome, the better Herbert is, the further the lark flies. He is not a complete human being without God; he believes that to even sing praise to God requires God’s help. “With thee / Let me combine, / And feel thy victory: / For, if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”

Herbert has a complete vision where everything in his life depends on God. Pain and suffering are a means to ask God for help. The holiness involved in struggling with sin or overcoming sin also requires Godly power. Singing His praises means finding peace, but if Herbert can embrace “affliction” more directly, he can be far closer to God Himself. The falcon cannot hear the falconer—Yeats sees this theological vision as finished. Its historical moment has passed. God and the bird he commanded no longer communicate. He sits at the bottom of the gyre, whereas the bird—having used His help?—goes higher and further than ever before. Myths fall apart because myths can only say so much, but people realize a near infinite amount of needs over the ages.

God and the world increasingly separate with predictable results: Things fall apart. The old order cannot be restored, hence the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, I think, should be treated as having immediacy. We feel the world is falling apart, an era is ending. Maybe this is the end of Christian Europe, as the Sphinx, holding and hiding the question “What is Man,” reveals itself in the second stanza. But what takes precedence over the end of any specific myth is the wars, the lawlessness, the demagogues to which we bear witness. It’s the actual events, inspiring terror in a witness, which lead to the thought that the old order and promises of harmony and peace cannot be taken seriously any longer.

The immediacy of the first stanza makes it work. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned—the first stanza accelerates, such that one might miss a “ceremony of innocence,” a baptism, being drowned in blood. That detail may be thought too dramatic. Still, it’s real enough, as there are mass graves being dug and filled as we speak. A world aflame makes perfect sense after a perfunctory look at how we live, and we can only manage a perfunctory look as things fall apart ever more rapidly. Immediacy and the process of acceleration reach a sudden end with the last lines of the first stanza: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. All of a sudden, the gyre stops, as if one were to say “I want to know exactly why I lack conviction. I want to know why those who are terrible are so motivated.” The chaos of the times collapses into a moral question, one tormenting an individual.


Yeats’ apocalypse convinces because it is personal, all too personal. The end of an era is an inner turmoil as well as an external collapse. Things fall apart. What is left for the individual—and maybe the world—is a vision.

The vision is born of desperation. It may signal the advent of another age, it may be prophetic truth. Yeats starts with what he knows: a cold, frightened sweat. Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand—”surely” indicates the uncertainty, “the Second Coming” indicates the torment felt. Perhaps it would be better if the world ended right now, that all things ceased, rather than guess for any more length of time what these attendant horrors mean.

The desperation felt echoes in what Yeats tells us is the source of the vision. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight. He exclaims “The Second Coming,” surprising himself. He understood before that the world was in trouble. But is this it? The moment where everything will come to an end? This is an old thought, in a sense older than time itself. To believe, even for a moment, that this is the end is to be in dialogue with the prophets, with God made Man Himself. This is why the “vast image,” I think, is from “Spiritus Mundi”—by implication, he is asking what the spirit of the world actually is. What exactly is this moment? What led us here and why?

Yeats’ vision holds far more detail than his implicit invocation of God in the first stanza (“falconer”). He provides a location, physical description, facial description, and movement of a monster: somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. We can identify the monster as the Sphinx, whose riddle is “What is man?” The Sphinx hides the riddle, of course, because it is a monster. Similarly, all constitutions, with fairly strong opinions about “what is man” which are backed up by deadly force, do not typically countenance terribly serious discussions of the principles underlying them. We need not say anything about religion. If one takes “What is Man?” to its utmost, it not only calls for theoretical reflection but immediate action. If you truly discover who you ought to be, you must act on it. An age will end at great cost and another will be born at great cost.

Again, the question is hiding. This is critical: people are trying to answer the question to its utmost without realizing what they’re doing. They’re creating titanic orders and monuments and mass graves all at once in its service. Yeats’ details about the Sphinx reveal it to be an extension of the first stanza. He repeats its location, “desert:” the violence which kills has left a barren land. God created by parting the waters, but there is not a drop to be found. He mentions its “lion” body, which can only speak to violence and pride. It cannot attempt the fully human despite a human head. “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” references both the centre cannot hold and the worst are full of passionate intensity. The sun has ceased being a source of life and is only an energy of death. It is no longer a “centre.” In like manner, society has given way, and men’s purposes are blank and pitiless. Without any semblance of a moral order, how can trust even be conceived? Recall that they do not know they act in the service of “what is man” even operating under organization. Finally, there’s the motion of the beast, slow but oblivious. It pays no attention to the life around it, the “indignant desert birds.”

It just marches, as if it will become something. It is pure resentment. The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle—before the present, collapsing era, there were other modes and orders. The Sphinx itself we know from Ancient Greece. Whatever those modes and orders were, they were eclipsed—not completed—by Christianity. With the end of the age coming, one could say the older questions, the older concerns are back. Of course, they are not back alone. They are in a monstrous guise, having a monstrous effect on the lives of others. They are only what is recognizable in the midst of chaos.

One might say a monster holding a permanent question, i.e. “What is Man,” meeting Christianity, merely signifies the end of the Christian era. But that does not do justice to the world Yeats has painted. The world burns: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? The moment creating the next era can be described as the present era exhausting itself, revealing unknowingly the power of the era previous. But the future? That may be none of the above. The Sphinx is a monster which will give birth to a god. This myth hasn’t been written yet. All we know is that what is present and previous is rearranging, realigning. We see, but we’re caught in the midst of it. We can only witness.

Emily Dickinson, “There is no Frigate like a Book” (1263)

I can’t stress enough one lesson I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again, my whole life. You can read so much so well, carefully considering the author’s most subtle points, bringing them into dialogue with the rich poetry and prose of other thinkers, illustrating all these amazing thoughts through memorable teaching and highly crafted writing, adding your own contribution for the ages. You can read so much so well, be an incredible scholar, teacher, writer, and—I daresay—thinker, and still be a complete fucking idiot.

I don’t say this out of any particular anger at anyone, not even myself. I mean, if I were to be angry at myself, I might get to be “an incredible scholar, teacher, writer” and “thinker” according to the person who wrote the above paragraph, and that’s quite a few compliments I definitely don’t deserve.

What’s gnawing on my mind is this concern: Do books really make us wiser? They don’t necessarily stop conspiracy theories or genocide. In some cases, a literary surface of high class and higher thoughts has advanced some of the cruelest, most senseless causes the world has ever seen. With more experienced readers or academics, issues which require especial sensitivity can be reduced to complicated jargon or become games over who is correct about the most trivial point.

I can’t explain to you what exactly makes someone wise. I can say this. Some people who I consider wise (you can feel free to inhale an entire salt shaker here) have used books in specific ways, even if they themselves hate reading. Those ways are worth reflecting on, I believe:

There is no Frigate like a Book (1263)
Emily Dickinson

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul 

Dickinson’s poem has a surface of the “Books can take you anywhere!” sort, the kind of thing we tell children to avoid buying them a Nintendo Switch. In recent years, I’ve become more enamored by cornball rhetoric employed by parents and teachers, but I still don’t like that line. Books helped Florence and Paris come that much more to life when I visited, but Florence and Paris would have rocked no matter what.

Books are effort. I think one reason why my drafts for published papers don’t quite measure up to my other writing and teaching is that I can’t yet properly express the intellectual labor involved in unpacking meaning or identifying problems in the first place. Showing that strain isn’t just important, it isn’t just what a scholar does. Reading essentially is that strain. Dickinson speaks to this while indulging a fantastic simile: There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away. A book isn’t a flying carpet or a teleporter. It’s like a frigate, which could refer to any light craft, but typically designates a warship. What kind of work is reading? It’s like sailing against the ocean for days or weeks. It entails knowing how to respond to trying circumstances in order to stay on course, make good time, or even defeat an enemy.

That almost sounds insane the way I’ve put it. Who reads a book to defeat an enemy? All those guys on Reddit saying “I studied the blade” while posting memes nonstop? But I’m thinking about the times I could credibly say a book spoke to me. I’d write out a line or passage from it and think about experiences or thoughts I had and how they compared. I was trying to identify what I valued, and in the process, I may have identified a problem I hadn’t seen before. Going to different lands isn’t a result of the book alone—it depends on the reader.

Dickinson’s next lines have an earthy power, but do not imply the movement from continent to continent that the frigate does. “A Page / Of prancing Poetry” far surpasses “Coursers”—like frigates, these could be horses known for swiftness, or they could be warhorses. Poetry also is born of struggle, no matter how fancy or “prancing” it is. Again, I think agency is being passed to the reader here. If frigates entail knowing how to sail, coursers entail horsemanship. Dickinson establishes that there is some sort of skill involved in reading, and I do believe this is true, but I don’t know someone advertising themselves as someone who will teach you how to read is anything other than a grift. There’s a process and skill that needs to be respected with regard to reading well, sure. There are people who are much better to read with than others. But as a close-reader who has trained others in how to practice this “art,” I don’t advertise myself that way. I much prefer to say there are things in which I’m actively interested—I have a set of moral and intellectual priorities, not only a skill with a certain type of rhetoric—and that reading well is just one part of developing a sensitivity to the world around me, the impact and aspirations of the past, and what is entailed in envisioning a better future.

For her part, Dickinson, while I’m having grand thoughts about reading inspired by her, tightens the circle of the poem. She initially likened books to expensive, elaborate craft. Then she described them as being like a horse. She ends with a much more meager—to use her word, “frugal,” image: This Traverse may the poorest take / Without oppress of Toll / How frugal is the Chariot / Which bears the human soul. This is a far cry from the “Books can take you anywhere you want to be!” rhetoric. The Chariot is “frugal;” what’s being avoided is a mere toll; the human soul can’t really do any better than this. Books aren’t just struggle, they aren’t just work and skill—they’re also necessary.

In other words, if I ask “Why don’t books make a better world?” I’m asking the wrong question. The question is really how reading, used well, may help us make the choices we need to make. If that question is valid, another follows immediately: since reading won’t always help, in what ways can reading badly or reading the wrong things make the world worse? All we have are words. When people say there is no need for reading, that only experience and action matter, what they’re really saying is only one set of experiences and actions matter—their own. They have words they do not want challenged. When people read widely to expand their consciousness and are still blind to the problems others face, that means they’re doing the right thing but not enough of it. All we have are words, and words tell us they’re not enough by giving us more words.

The Weakerthans, “Utilities”

In the history of ideas, utility looms large. You’re probably familiar with “utilitarianism,” the greatest good for the greatest number, an idea used not only as an ethical theory but as a means of making the United Kingdom dramatically more democratic.

In my studies, the concept of utility occurs in far more instances than just “utilitarianism.” When Descartes speaks of mastering nature or Bacon speaks of the relief of man’s estate, the idea is that knowledge should serve practical ends, advancing science and technology. That’s utility, placed against theoretical ends such as a more humanistic or religious set of inquiries. In Xenophon, if I remember correctly, someone asks Socrates if sickness can ever be good. Socrates replies with whether it is better to be at a battle or be sick so that one avoids the fighting.

It seems “Is this useful?” is a low but powerful response to claims on behalf of noble or religious causes. I’d go further. Genuinely wise people do not sound like they’ve only read books and have never talked to another human being. You need to know the low in order to engage the high; the practical is how one can even conceive the theoretical. With the right perspective, questions about utility are really questions about whether we are rational animals, knowing creatures who love to learn. If knowledge is good for us, it makes itself useful, no?


“Utilities” begins with a state of self-neglect. One can’t even be useful to oneself. [I feel like] today doesn’t like me isn’t much of an excuse for anything. Our narrator refuses to engage the “taste” in the air, the smell of the sink, or the car that might not be able to move.

I’ve been in states of mind like this for so long that when I’m happier—like I am now—it’s hard to for me to recognize that I have these terrible habits which I’d better get rid of. Some things change when I’m happier—there’s more cleaning and cleanliness, more organization and accomplishment, far more sensitivity. But creating a situation where there is a pronounced tendency for bad habits to fall away and good habits to replace them? Nowadays I believe that requires a Batcave, Alfred, and the whole computing power of Wayne Enterprises, if not the demonic resurrection pit of Ra’s Al Ghul. I don’t know if there are revelatory moments which, primarily of themselves, facilitate processes of change. I do know that structure and support help.

All the same, I not only feel happier now, but I feel like I’m taking better care without having full knowledge of what I’m doing. Which brings me to the problem these lines contain: I just wish I were a toothbrush or a solder gun / Make me something somebody can use. I want to feel useful, but that often depends on other another person seeing me as useful, like they see “a toothbrush” or “solder gun.” This is no way to become more useful or build self-esteem, we solemnly nod, yet every single one of us can testify it works to a degree. It’s as if there is a moment which will cause things to steadily get better. That moment involves being loved, and our fantasies about being love or in love aren’t complete nonsense. Not being loved really hurts, to say the least.

How emotionally independent can we possibly be? The second and third stanzas of “Utilities” describe a movement, as it sounds like the narrator pokes around in his basement (the corners of the basements of the world) and then leaves the house and goes outside (got a face full of ominous weather / smirking smile of a high pressure ridge). In the basement, he’s musing about wishes, as if he were rummaging through the basement looking through family memories, i.e. photos lying yellow and curled. Outside, he’s speaking the language of failed relationships: Got more faults than the state of California / And the heart is a badly built bridge. There are multiple sources of love and multiple types of wishes and desires concerning those sources. The feeling I get, listening to this, is that our narrator is overwhelmed. There are too many wishes, too many boxes of photos, too many abandoned electronics, too many faults. It sounds intuitive to say that he could really use some help getting started, even if the other person brings an additional basement full of old photos and useless electronics. “Utilities” ends with a plea; it doesn’t end with redemption, just the hint things could get better. The narrator got up and saw the miserable condition he lives in. He went outside and acknowledged his faults. We hope Make this something somebody can use is something he not only applies to his situation, but can apply to himself. (Clever: “this,” replacing “me,” means the song itself, if found useful, proves his utility.) One thing I’ve learned in my years is that one cannot possibly have too much support.


“Utilities” does ask for love. There’s no getting around the urgency of this request, voiced earlier in the song: Make me something somebody can use. While I feel supported right now, I don’t expressly have that kind of love in my life, and I think I should speak to why I might be happier, more useful, and yet not feel as needed.

When I was preparing to teach Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity” last week, I stared at this passage quite a bit:

Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without. He chooses it. It is his very being and, as such, does not imply the idea of unhappiness. If this choice is considered as useless, it is because there exists no absolute value before the passion of man, outside of it, in relation to which one might distinguish the useless from the useful. The word “useful” has not yet received a meaning on the level of description where Being and Nothingness is situated. It can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up.

I thought “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being” was solid for introducing the students to Existentialism. You choose some “lack of being” in order to reconstitute your being. I think I used the example of giving up what you’re really into in middle school (guns) so that you can find social approval (someone to date).

What I didn’t talk about but made a bunch of notes on was how this implies a point prior both to happiness and utility. You’re trying to figure out what your happiness would consist in; you’re not unhappy or happy. And to speak of utility in relation to being sounds really out of place. Useful with regard to what?

So am I happier because I am in touch with the truth of my being? Please. I think I’m happier because I got a gold rank in Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends’ autochess mode. I do believe that our desire to be useful, though, is not necessarily fundamental. If questions about utility are about the value of knowledge, then there’s an infinite number of ways to be happy. One need only know them.

The Weakerthans, “Pamphleteer”

“Pamphleteer” opens quietly, a rapidly moving guitar getting louder, until drums crash in. Then, with a full sound, three big, anthemic chords ascending, followed by three big, anthemic chords descending.

Some notes later, a more ambiguous resolution to the phrase.

The song as a whole is told from the viewpoint of a guy trying to, you know, overthrow capitalism. (This sounds far more plausible and desirable than when I first heard this song, to be honest.) He’s got his pamphlets and stands on the street corner, trying to confront the businessmen walking by during rush hour. To say they ignore him would be an understatement: Facing rush hour faces turned around / I clutch my stack of paper, press one to a chest / Then watch it swoop and stutter to the ground.

I don’t want to play at being a sociologist or anthropologist through song lyrics. But I can say there are moral phenomena at play, sometimes, for which we don’t have words because they’re so harsh. For example, take the current President. He openly takes and uses bribes, self-deals, covers for the worst regimes, undermines the law and the spirit of the law. We all know this. What we haven’t come to terms with is that “hypocrisy” isn’t the right word for when he accuses his political opponents of the same, they prove innocent, and a not insignificant part of his base still cheers for him and repeats his lies. That’s not “hypocrisy”—that’s a symptom of white supremacy. He’s allowed to commit crimes and get away with them because he’s a white man of a certain standing, that standing dictated by his wealth. For that part of his base, he’s demonstrating racial “superiority” by openly flouting the law, lying about other people, and getting cheered on by them. It’s that ugly and that’s why we don’t really have a term for it. If we actually put in the time it takes to think through and come up with a term for this phenomenon, we’ll go insane.

In the case of ignoring the pamphleteer, “ignoring” is also not the correct term. The businessmen are a herd. They’ve accepted capitalism as the only reality. They’re not even bothering to imagine a different system and will not hear anything else. Those who think of entrepreneurs as a dynamic, innovative bunch really should try to come to terms with the culture of knowing current prices, market valuation, and a bunch of rumors about who’s-moving-what for the sake of trading and literally knowing nothing else. You can say this fulfills some kind of productive function when all is said and done, but honestly, it isn’t hard to see how this sort of behavior could lend itself to approval of authoritarians.

Our pamphleteer is a bit crazy, but he’s honest about how awkward his daily encounters are. Not only do his pamphlets fall, being blown away, but he sees his own failures, his own weary self, in every mirrored window. He knows he doesn’t come across as someone who immediately commands respect. He’s aware he gesticulates weirdly and wildly: How I don’t know what I should do / With my hands when I talk to you. He’s worried that his passion is not causing a revolution, far from it: How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath / How causes dance away from me.

The honesty isn’t just admirable. It allows the pamphleteer to tie together two threads in his own words, both of which directly bear on how we conceive politics. The first is politics as religion. This the pamphleteer embraces—he’s more than willing to be like a Jehovah’s Witness on a street corner, he takes whether he can get converts to his cause personally, his invocation of The Communist Manifesto‘s “specter” sounds less like theory and more like hope based in a providential dispensation. I don’t think I need to say too much, regarding the current state of America, about politics being religion. If you need help envisioning this, consider watching, um, some business news.

But there’s another way of conceiving of one’s passion for politics. Isn’t it a lot like wanting to be loved? Seeing your dignity reflected in acceptance by another? A close read of the lyrics reveals a number of places where the pamphleteer sounds like he’s lost someone and wants to win them back. Examples: Why do I still see you in every mirrored window / In all that I could never overcome? and How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath and, of course The rhetoric and treason of saying that I’ll miss you / Of saying “Hey, well maybe you should stay.” The trouble with talking about politics and being personally loved nowadays is that one has to deal with the topic of “incels,” radicals who believe they are entitled to being loved, pushing themselves to hateful and angry extremes.

I believe we can dismiss “incels” as a serious topic, ironically enough, because their complaints about “love” are really complaints about others not being subordinate. They feel they’re entitled to something and they intend to collect. When this is frustrated, they get angry. Weirdly, that incels are too concerned with power places them outside politics for the sake of this discussion. What’s relevant to us is the portrait of the pamphleteer. Yeah, this guy is a little crazy. He wants converts. He wants to be loved for what he does. He’s trying to convey what he thinks—and he might be 100% right about—is a greater truth. And he’s stuck alone on a street corner, unable to communicate despite throwing his energies into writing the right words.

It’s that idea which makes politics such an infuriating mix to deal with: the idea that minds can change because of the right words. That’s what links politics to religion and love—a brain screaming something like “maybe if I say the right thing?” Yet attempts to understand politics get even worse when we stray away from words and try to describe political phenomena purely empirically, through results or actions alone. I get that some people are uncomfortable with saying political philosophy, for example, is purely talk. If we accept that in a negative way, it’s dismissive of political philosophy. If we accept it in a positive way, it smuggles in values precisely where there should be a hard look at how things actually work or a robust debate about values. I believe there is something else at stake here, though. Treating political phenomena as talk, as this attempt to get the “magic words” politics, religion, and love are all searching for, lets us see what people really want and how they regard others. In other words, there’s an authenticity here that’s foundational, independent of most sets of values. Deny it and we can’t have good things.

Our pamphleteer sings “I am your pamphleteer” over and over as the song fades into nothingness. I used to think he was steeling himself for the next day of rejection, declaring who he thinks he is in order to find courage. That may be true, but it’s too cynical, especially when facing the possibility that he’s probably entirely correct about the way we live now. This might be helpful: the more you know yourself, the more it may be the case you can be lost in this world which only wants to hear affirmation of itself. You’ll doubt yourself, you’ll feel like nothing’s working, you’ll still try. You’ll have integrity. There’s an answer to what force on earth could be / Weaker than the feeble strength / Of one, and that answer is that identity is not a force. It’s something far more important, potentially far more valuable.