Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

for Gordon Schochet

A certain kind of person likes to label things “great” or “important” and not bother to explain why. I worry I am becoming that kind of person, as teaching means assuming the value of what one teaches.

So I would like to take the time to establish that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has a particular importance, i.e. that of a founding document. This may feel to some of you to be an exercise in pedantry. Who cares what is considered a “founding document?” That’s history nerd talk, up there with “ranking the Presidents” in terms of generating useless opinions.

But let’s say you’re generating a syllabus for a class on American Politics. You’re planning on starting with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, maybe touching on the Federalist before getting into the Bill of Rights, then speaking about the Civil War, Progressivism, Race and Civil Rights each on separate days. What you prioritize doesn’t just “impact” students, whatever that means. What you pick, in what order you teach it, and how you teach it sets the conversation the students and you have. It sets the tone for how they talk to each other and elsewhere. Those who want to continue with the field build their syllabi from what they’ve covered previously. If “Letter from Birmingham Jail” received a cursory look years ago, it more than likely will receive a cursory look years later. If it fits all too neatly into a narrative where one’s classroom is indistinguishable from a slightly more somber 4th of July party, that’s a lasting failure on our part as educators.

I propose teaching the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail on the same day. What is crucial for students to realize is the incredible ignorance, hate, and violence the United States has employed in denying its own citizens their full rights. How does a political culture whose central tenet is a declaration of equality—a declaration of “unalienable Rights”—advance so much hostility toward the existence of other people? It is crucial for students to see the universal appeal of these documents as being in direct conflict with any coincidence between their feelings of comfort and their sense of having rights. Rights and equality aren’t about our comfort: they’re about whether people can be treated with dignity and trusted to share in the privileges and responsibilities of society.


The Gettysburg Address, with its invocation that “all men are created equal” is a “proposition,” brings the weight of history to bear on Jefferson’s “truth” held “self-evident.” America actually existed for fourscore and seven years, and the rhetoric of the Declaration failed to bring forth people of Enlightenment. Instead, America produced genocidal maniacs who launched wars of expansion and annihilation against the first nations. The Union understood itself as Manifest Destiny, and this bloody callousness seems to have been a point of agreement for all Americans. It is almost strange that slavery should have been so contentious, given the inhumanity on display. But “all men are created equal” isn’t a challenge or a prophecy for a nation. It’s just a few words which every basic speaker of English can understand. In order for words to have meaning—in order for American citizens to understand themselves as having the least bit of sanity—those words have to have some truth.

In my not-so-short life, I have unfortunately encountered some white Americans who are deeply proud of their whiteness. I’m not talking about being proud of winning WW2 or putting a man on the moon, being part of an America that did amazing things. No, these people, who are not neo-Nazis or extremists, literally think that their skin color is a good thing which rightly entitles them. (I think what absolutely stunned me once was when I heard overt bragging about privilege. I could not believe that one would believe oneself justified and another deserving of suffering because of skin pigmentation.) It’s about all they’ve thought—it’s not hard to see they haven’t thought much else. They see other people as almost exclusively defined by their race, but if asked about race itself, will declare with incredulity that they have never really thought about it or they don’t see color.

In short, America’s inequality isn’t only a threat to democratic practice. It’s the mark of insanity. Why on earth would you want to believe yourself superior because of how you looked? Even extremely beautiful people pride themselves on their regimen or their personality or whatever. But when it comes to whiteness, such rules don’t apply: something about whiteness has made itself key to our perceptions of “normal” and “good,” and one tragedy is that this is being passed down as we speak.

I believe Lincoln was trying to address that insanity when implying that equality was the work for which we, the “living,” should “be dedicated.” Proclaiming equality self-evident was a bit of a trap: bigots and idiots would always see what they want to see, justify what they want to justify, taking no additional effort. But if you have to prove “all men are created equal,” you have to make the effort to see inequality and injustice. You have to see others as worthy of rights and ask yourself what you can do for them. This is the “new birth of freedom,” the spirit which brought forth the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

The spirit, which after the failure of Reconstruction and the fascism of Jim Crow, finds testimony in the work and lives of the Birmingham protestors. Jefferson wrote the Declaration in order to justify a war; Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address in order to fully win the peace. Neither speaks directly to a nearly unfathomable reality—to be treated for generations in your own country like you don’t deserve, you don’t belong. To be considered only worthy of humiliation. To have to endure beatings in the hope that the rights to which you are legally entitled will be affirmed. MLK:

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is continuous with Lincoln’s “be dedicated,” but one man’s rhetoric is another man’s reality. In this case, the reality of winning one’s rights entails realizing and grasping that one’s own country holds an exceptional viciousness. That viciousness does not limit itself to the brutality used against protestors. Note how change happens: one has to endure violence, hope that it is documented and reported, hope that such documentation and reportage finds sympathetic people, and then hope that those people will want to help change things. It’s not exactly a war MLK is fighting. But something about trying to make the United States live up to its founding principles is of a magnitude I cannot articulate. I can only point to it, wondering how much more subtle and observant I need to be to have anything like moral wisdom.


As a founding document, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” not only shows the vast difference between those who are privileged and those who should have rights, but it also indirectly engages the framers in dialogue about what they misunderstood. The universality of the Gettysburg Address—”any nation so conceived and so dedicated”—speaks to a failure of the framers’ imagination. I imagine Lincoln was not exactly happy during the war that the founding generation didn’t take a stronger stand against slavery. Didn’t they realize, if they were successful in building a republic, that people would emulate them? Didn’t they realize might pass on their worst habits, their original sin?

When MLK speaks of “natural law” & “human personality,” he draws on a moral tradition and psychological insight that the Founders purposefully and badly neglected:

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…. Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

I am cutting out MLK’s references to Buber and Tillich for the sake of brevity, but also because “natural law” poses a unique challenge to the American enterprise. It can be considered a challenge which traditionalists want to use to overturn all phenomena they consider “modern.” There are a number who want to use “natural law” to deny women rights, argue all technology is unsound, and attack the foundations of classical liberalism. They want everyone to share their fundamentalist views of religion, views which have made them suspect to others in their own religion.

A more serious challenge, the one I’d like students to consider, is that “natural law” implies that human rationality can be put to moral ends. Reason does not merely exist to serve “ambition” or secure “property;” it is not simply an instrument of appetites. The question of “natural law” implies that Madison is wrong when he says that if there were a deliberative body made of men like Socrates, they would act like any other deliberate body—stupidly and competitively and viciously.

The Founders, like the men who brought modern science into existence, had to deal with a world where moral and religious rhetoric were horribly corrupt. There were people who would speak of humanity, the rational animal, and the moral law while at the same time supporting the massacre of factions they didn’t like. Perhaps, one can say, this was endemic to the Continent with its unending religious warfare. Fine—the Founders didn’t want to bring that here, per Jefferson’s First Inaugural. They wanted a republic markedly more secular. I don’t think their decision was too rash or indefensible. Rather, it lacked a certain subtlety, a subtlety that only a Socrates might address in the rarest of circumstances. It lacked any real awareness of how belief in America might work, what myths might govern the American people. More damning: the Founders failed to legitimize the talk by which we might uplift “human personality” and learn to recognize each other’s humanity. The Founding ended up leaving that sort of thing to the spirit of the First Amendment, by which we all “know” that Nazi speech is protected speech.

I do not believe that “natural law” is any serious solution to flaws in the framers’ design. I do believe there is more to American citizenship than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need to truly appreciate our diversity, celebrate it, and better know what we stand for while affirming each other. A society organized under a secular government needs more serious talk of morals, not less. Not moralism or bullying of marginalized groups, but a genuine confrontation of the values we think we have. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but a guideline that’s been useful to me in practice: You know you’re doing something right when different people feel affirmed around you.


It is MLK’s optimism that, for some, will make “Letter” unquestionably a Founding document. It is an optimism of which I remain unconvinced:

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer…. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“One day the South will recognize its real heroes”—this I wish were true, but I don’t think it is. What we see in the United States at the present moment is the full convergence of media and identity. The reality TV President—old, rich, ignorant, crude and buffoonish—is in a way how his supporters see themselves. They become him as they defend him, no matter what lofty intellectual or rhetorical heights they began from. This convergence of media and identity occurs because there is no serious check on American selfishness. Having tens of billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, is clearly wrong. But we romanticize this tyranny, calling it “job creation” and celebrating “innovation.” In like manner, the world functions as a mirror to most Americans. They only feel assured if they see themselves everywhere.

Diversity is ongoing, difficult work. I myself would celebrate the values of a “Judaeo Christian heritage” by merely practicing the values over against shouting notice of the “heritage.” In order to drink of the “great wells of democracy” at the present moment, one must demand just treatment for minorities, especially Muslims and non-citizens. One needs to be acutely conscious of the bullying and savage treatment of trans people. Heroism does not speak for itself: bigots want the remarkable actions and lives of others to be ignored. They create conditions by which isolation and loneliness can be inflicted on anyone. I do not see how the heroism of the past can be truly celebrated unless we learn to celebrate each other. I do not understand how America might become a loving, thoughtful society over against the superficial and crass one I live within now. I do know a hard look at what rights entail, the necessity of serious moral reasoning, and an indefatigable optimism make MLK a true Founding figure, one who should be read with the utmost reverence and care.

Raymond Carver, “Hummingbird”

Maybe I’m naive, but loving relationships seem like hard work, requiring a combination of thoughtfulness, awareness, and sacrifice not easily obtained, let alone found.

I guess that’s why I’m still not entirely comfortable with love poetry. I’ll read those poems and think about what the poet means by “love,” but poems of the carpe diem subgenre or ones that depict loving and being loved as a space where nothing could ever go wrong don’t feel entirely honest to me.

Raymond Carver’s “Hummingbird,” though, sounds absolutely perfect. It begins with an imperative—Suppose—through which lover and beloved can forge a shared space from imagination and memory. It continues, detailing a strange ritual that seems to be the product of a religion with one devotee, maybe two at most:

Raymond Carver

for Tess

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you. 

Suppose I say summer, / write the word “hummingbird:” the image presented is cloying but relatable. If you’ve listened to a song you really like and found yourself singing the lyrics involuntarily, you understand what’s happening with “summer” being spoken. The poet is in such a good mood that the mood speaks.

Thus begins a ritual. Speech becomes writing, but he doesn’t write “summer.” He writes “hummingbird,” an animal almost lighter than air feeding on summer’s nectar. It isn’t enough, apparently, to recall a mood or memory. Something has to live and buzz within that mood or memory.

That, I believe, is the significance of the ritual. Speech moves to writing, writing moves to action: [I write the word “hummingbird,”] put it in an envelope, / take it down the hill to the box. The action is twofold, as the “hummingbird” is enclosed, then given as invitation. Enclosure and invitation are a nontraditional way of evoking “soul,” a being we hold to be enclosed within our bodies and to which we hope others would accept our invitation.

The ritual points to what is living within. Just as summer lived within him, the hummingbird lives within their memories of summer, the space created by the one word letter/poem lives and breathes. To that end, Carver’s “down the hill” is not a throwaway phrase. It’s a descent, a hint that what matters is this earthly life, the days then and the days now—this is heaven.

His poem is not simply carpe diem, but one which wants to show how lovely past experiences can build into a loving present. When you open / my letter you will recall / those days and how much, just how much, I love you.

I think it’s believable and beautiful enough, but part of me is skeptical. I’m used to people in love fighting about money, struggling to relate to each other, arguing about each other’s ambitions. This excerpt from the opening of Jennifer Chang’s “About Trees” had me thinking about love, growth, and pain:

What I would say about certain trees

is that to master love one must be devastated by it.
Certain trees know.

A poem has nothing to do with fact,
though both are made things.
I explain that certain trees know
certain facts, but what poems.

To master love one must be devastated by it—this, Chang tells us, is written all over certain trees.

Certain trees know. I confess that I personally don’t. I’ve been hurt and humiliated, lost in self-doubt and wishful thinking for months, sometimes years. I don’t know that I was devastated, but I was barren. It’d be hard for me to say I was of use, if I was someone something good could grow from. Still, I wouldn’t say I was “devastated”—that seems to be loss and pain on an entirely different scale.

Trees master love, but they can wear the signs of their devastation. If I think of Carver’s poem, there isn’t a trace of mastery of love in this sense. I wouldn’t say “Hummingbird” is born of privilege, though it can speak to a privileged set of circumstances. What of a love that wrestles so intimately with grief? Does it demand a different language? A poem has nothing to do with fact, though both are made things.

Maybe it’s that gap—the fact that love has to speak both joy and loss—that means we need both “Hummingbird” and “About Trees.” Maybe only trees themselves, who live wearing their past, can bridge that gap. But not language itself, our artifacts of love. I explain that certain trees know certain facts, but what poems.

Maggie Rogers, “Light On”

1 Maybe the scariest thing about abandonment is how comfortable we are with it.

2 I can’t prove it, of course, but “Light On” sounds an awful lot like two people ghosting each other and calling it a relationship.

3 It’s such a difficult notion to wrap one’s head around, despite the fact a number of us have done “ghosting-like” or “ghosting-lite” things. It’s so difficult to understand despite the fact we see it every day.

4 What makes ghosting singularly awful is the way shutting down all communication is used. Two people share their deepest concerns and vulnerabilities. Then one just disappears with everything that was said, refusing to reach out, listen, or respond. You’re stuck. You wonder at the betrayal—could you be worth so little you’re not worth hearing? You ransack every memory and thought you ever had, searching for whatever least thing made you unlovable.

5 I must confess I’ve cut off or neglected communication myself. I will say it was abundantly clear in those situations I wasn’t worth spit. There are more ways of belittling and bullying than those which resemble ghosting. Still, my experience rebounds: the dehumanization involved in ghosting is all too obvious and terrifying to me.

6 “Terror.” It’s a weird word to use absent physical violence. It needs to be explored and given its proper context. People who aren’t monsters do horrible things to each other.

7 Would you believe me now / If I told you I got caught up in a wave? I can’t imagine having a partner and being so distrustful of them that their feelings of dislocation and lacking control simply do not get heard. I don’t understand why anyone would want a partner if they didn’t want to practice any sensitivity. That’s where this song starts, though. And it’s real and relatable enough. Would you hear me out / If I told you I was terrified for days?

8 “Terror.” A not insignificant number of people have partners, but no friends or ability to make friends. They understand the people around them primarily in terms of utility. To be sure, friendship is a difficult, uncertain enterprise, with emotions involved not unlike a relationship.

A not insignificant number of people can’t make the least sense of their own family, and haven’t realized that a partner… well.

9 A failing, miserable relationship feels terrible to most of us. Your feelings aren’t acknowledged—how long were you never really there? Thought I was gonna break / Oh, I couldn’t stop it / Tried to slow it all down / Crying in the bathroom. All that’s left is to save face. Had to figure it out / With everyone around me saying / “You must be so happy now.” If you can present the appearance you’re happy, maybe others will know you’re lovable. Maybe things will get better.

10 The preceding has primarily focused on one half of the relationship. How is the other feeling and faring? The chorus indicates that a horrible cycle has been occurring for a while: If you keep reaching out / Then I’ll keep coming back. The other is certainly acting in an awful manner, but things are complicated. Someone in this dynamic gets frustrated with not being heard, leaves, then comes back. This happens regularly, so much so it seems inevitable: If you leave the light on / Then I’ll leave the light on / And I am finding out / There’s just no other way. It’s not just a dysfunctional cycle, but one centered around a false stoicism: If you’re gone for good / Then I’m okay with that. I don’t know much, but I know you can’t develop emotionally around fake strength.

11 Should we treat both halves of the relationship as equally culpable, given the chorus? That question doesn’t seem to have a good answer. A better starting point is probably this: Maybe the scariest thing about abandonment is how comfortable we are with it.

12 Lyrics beyond the chorus: And do you believe me now / That I always had the best intentions, babe? / Always wanted to stay. Abandonment is a misguided attempt to prove ourselves to each other. It’s a terrible language, dependent on exploiting each other’s vulnerabilities. Can you feel me now / That I’m vulnerable in oh-so many ways? Someone outside this cycle might be quick to judge everyone within it. They might dismiss the feelings involved, saying they’re not established upon anything real. That judgment would be very wrong: all the feelings and needs are most certainly real. But how do you teach–how do you learn–that appreciation, not abuse, of our vulnerabilities makes us human? That you’re not more human because you can hide your feelings and pretend someone else doesn’t exist?

Notes on Craft: Francis Bacon, “Of Delays”

I want my writing in 2020 to demonstrate far more attentiveness to craft. How do writers create sentences their readers want to quote? How do they give them images and scenes they want to remember and revisit? Why does my writing suck?

I mean, attention to craft shouldn’t collapse into insecurity, but the moment I ask “Why does this paragraph work?” of a famous essay, I see so many factors at play that I should have thought about, didn’t think about, maybe never will think about because all I do is smash a keyboard with my face and call it writing.

It’s probably important to remember that the great mystery of writing isn’t creativity. It’s the number of things which are borrowed of which we aren’t remotely conscious. It really is incredible we can speak to each other across the ages, because so much expression depends on colloquialism, idiom, social norms, what’s on tv, the climate, the weather, how everyone regards a specific politician, etc. So much expression depends on a specific consciousness of the present. A writer borrows some of the elements constituting that consciousness, often without realizing what she’s doing, and somehow that turns into effective—maybe even lasting—communication.

I guess that’s one reason why it’s important to just get the words down first, then worry about the result later. Today, though, I want to look at an example of prose that is extremely well-made and precise, perhaps even overwrought. My professors used to gush about Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume as superior craftsmen of English prose. I can’t say I shared their tastes, and I’d like to understand what I missed when I read them the first time. Enter Francis Bacon’s “Of Delays.” It’s simply a paragraph or two in a group of Essays (1625) we can assume are for gentlemen—people with titles, wealth, and power seeking more for their name. I’d like to know why anyone would write about “delays.” How could that be a significant topic? I’d also like to understand Bacon’s toolkit as a writer, and how it differs from our contemporary kit. What does he do that we do not do? What does he do that we may consider bad form?

“Of Delays” begins with a maxim. It draws its readers in with something pithy and quotable that sounds like common sense: Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall. Already I have an assignment: can I start a blog post or essay like this? Bacon’s first sentence demonstrates his subtlety, as his target is patience. Whereas I would write some trash like “Is patience bad or good? Depends,” Bacon introduces patience the way our parents and mentors introduce it to us. If you cultivate it as a virtue, you can beat luck. You can master this life, getting value out of any number of situations just by waiting. If you wait for true love or work for years to build an educated self, you are exercising patience, playing the long game against fortune.

Bacon doesn’t guarantee you’ll beat the market every time. He means that long term, waiting will produce in most situations. That sounds reasonable, until you realize what you can lose by waiting: And again, it is sometimes like Sibylla’s offer; which at first offereth the commodity at full, then consumeth part and part, and still holdeth up the price. The second sentence devastates the notion that patience alone will get us what we need. The Sibyl’s offer was a set of 9 books, some containing prophecies. It was offered to Tarquin, who initially balked at the price. She burned 3 books. He balked again; she burned 3 more books. He ended up paying full price for the last 3 volumes, which were instructions on how to worship the gods. It’s a great story about what religion promises to offer, but that sly joke is separable from the immensity of what was lost. If you exercise patience for the sake of a few pennies–really, patience for patience’s sake–could you lose out on a future you want? Of course: that’s why we’re intense about finding someone to love, oftentimes too intense and too hasty.

Bacon can refer his readers to a witty story not bereft of gravity or complexity in one sentence. Some might say “the death of the humanities” has made this sort of thing impossible nowadays, but I’d say it’s better form to walk your reader through what you think essential. Nothing would be lost if Bacon told the story in its entirety in this paragraph, or if he told a version that suited his purposes. Bacon’s audience knows a certain number of books and shares similar concerns–a story about ancient Rome speaks to the schoolboy and the statesman. For myself, I want a diversity of readers with different areas of expertise. The time I spend telling a story to make a concept vivid or walking through my premises and fundamental assumptions is time well-spent.

The fourth sentence feels to me the heart of his short essay, but it is built to a strange way: “For occasion (as it is in the common verse) turneth a bald noddle, after she hath presented her locks in front, and no hold taken; or at least turneth the handle of the bottle first to be received, and after the belly, which is hard to clasp. There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things.” The fourth sentence, There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things, links the opening of the essay about fortune and satisfaction with the other half, about danger. Without this sentence, the essay falls apart. It looks to me like Bacon wanted people to declare wisdom as timely action or decision-making. The roughly central position of this statement is the smallest indicator of its importance.

You may wonder how declaring timely actions or decisions wise is controversial. A brief glance at the third sentence can help: there, the “common verse” describes trying to take hold of a woman, and Bacon himself describes trying to take hold of a bottle. The timely actions and decisions, the “greater wisdom,” can entail mere satisfaction of appetites, e.g. lust and drink. The violence and sexism implicit in the “common verse” is reprehensible, regardless of what “gentlemen” in Bacon’s time think. There is more to say. Is there another concept of wisdom other than “knowing when to do something?” There’s Aristotle’s “contemplative life,” wherein someone loves knowledge and wisdom and receives their happiness through the act of “contemplating.” If this sounds too good to be true, there are indications that Aristotle himself might have his doubts. Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a 24-27, tr. Joe Sachs: “…at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability, and it is reasonable that the way of life of those who have knowledge is more pleasant than that of those who are seeking it.” Strictly speaking, philosophy is love of wisdom, not possession of wisdom—Socrates is famous for defending his knowledge of ignorance. Aristotle makes it sound like the philosopher is continuously pleased by what little he does know and not at all tormented and pained by what he does not know. With that disclaimer, I will say that premodern times, especially with monastic communities alive and well, took “contemplation” seriously. Leo Paul de Alvarez, one of my teachers at the University of Dallas, made a strong case in a talk once that Aristotle’s “contemplative life” transforms all the other virtues he enumerated and discussed, making them all the more powerful and beautiful. That makes sense to me–bring some degree of thoughtfulness into any area of your life, and you get that much more out of it.

There is surely no greater wisdom than well to time the beginnings and onsets of things is a statement that patience is a suspect virtue and the contemplative life is not a worthy goal. Again, this statement ties half of Bacon’s essay to the other half. We have spoken of fortune, the possibility of missing something marvelous, the crude satisfaction of appetites. But what concerns Bacon after he declares what is “greater wisdom” is danger: Dangers are no more light, if they once seem light; and more dangers have deceived men than forced them. In other words, patience and contemplation can lead one to underestimate how bad things could possibly be. I might think that with time, I can overcome anything, so I let a sickness get out of hand. I might be too busy “contemplating” and forget that the people around me have feelings that need to be addressed.

In fact, one might say that patience and contemplation–“delays”–are the opposite of wakefulness: Nay, it were better to meet some dangers half way, though they come nothing near, than to keep too long a watch upon their approaches; for if a man watch too long, it is odds he will fall asleep. Bacon’s emphasis on danger sounds eminently sensible, until you realize what exactly he’s asking. Is wisdom really meant to tell you the exact time you should do something? That’s insane: what you’d have to do, to avoid danger completely, is have a command of science so thorough that you would virtually stand outside of time. Then you would use the knowledge science gives you… to avoid a low speed fender bender in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart.

I want to be clear that there are a number of people studying Early Modernity who think they can recover premodern traditions and use them to challenge the way we live now. To be really blunt, they think they can point to a world without technology as perfectly sensible. I’m sympathetic with how they read, and I appreciate their ability to see how figures like Bacon see themselves. I flatly reject their quiet romanticizing of the world before modernity & their uncritical approach to what they consider traditional religion. When we are wondering what Bacon means and criticizing the direction his thought can take, we need to try to imagine how he sees his age. Sure, Bacon rejects the contemplative life and traditional notions of wisdom and virtue. Is that because he really wants a supermarket with air conditioning, or because the old ways have become hopelessly corrupt?

The demand that wisdom be practical is not wholly alien to philosophy. Socrates did use his trial and execution as an opportunity. For myself, I like to think that I’m thinking about how to avoid our worst possible outcomes and get value out of situations which are not ideal. “Danger,” then, is at least as important an area of thought as virtue or happiness.

Still. Something for us is not quite intuitive about demanding wisdom be timely. Bacon indulges martial imagery to more fully illustrate his point: On the other side, to be deceived with too long shadows (as some have been when the moon was low and shone on their enemies’ back), and so to shoot off before the time; or to teach dangers to come on, by over early buckling towards them; is another extreme. Demanding wisdom be timely, in essence, is demanding wisdom win wars. If wisdom is about making the right move at the right time, then that’s the logical consequence. Aristotle in the Ethics is very clear that the contemplative life stands apart from that of a politician or warrior. You could say the contemplative life is emphatically not martial. Xenophon, discoursing on how a general would know an action’s success, tells him to offer up sacrifices and pray.

Bacon chooses the examples he illustrates his ideas with very carefully. I can do more of this as a writer, but it depends on the topic. For this line-by-line reading of “Of Delays,” it is proving far more useful to me and to you to spell everything out. Bacon’s prose in this essay lacks any sense that it is actually spoken by a person who lived and had experiences worth talking about. That’s intentional–he wants you to hone in on how he parodies Aristotle’s use of the “mean” in the Ethics–but it also takes away the sense of urgency he more than likely feels in reorienting philosophy. For myself, I want readers to reconstruct what I have to work with: a sense of abandonment as I try to figure out what to do with memories I cherish from relationships long gone. A sense of neglect as I wonder if I’m only talking to myself. A sense of shame as there’s so much to improve and apologize for. A sense of amazement at how privileged some others are. A sense of wonder at how finely constructed some words or images can be. I wouldn’t say Bacon was a “privileged” writer in the sense we use it today, but he was Lord Chancellor for His Britannic Majesty James the First. Machiavelli does speak of the high and the low, implying that those of us in a lowly position see what has been placed higher with a particular clarity. I wonder.

“Of Delays” concludes with an especially subversive note. Bacon feels he has made his argument, it seems, so he puts forth what might seem to some a provocation: The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion (as we said) must ever be well weighed; and generally it is good to commit the beginnings of all great actions to Argos with his hundred eyes, and the ends to Briareus with his hundred hands; first to watch, and then to speed. He has made his case against contemplation and patience principally on avoiding danger, but he sums it up as if one was picking fruit, say from the Tree of Knowledge. That’s daring enough, but he goes further: one is to commit to having the hundred eyes of Argos or a hundred hands like Briareus. These are not Greek gods–these are monsters, notable only for their power. “First to watch, then to speed” is an endorsement that whomever is reading should not be unafraid of having and using power.

Bacon might tell me “Well, if they can follow what I’ve said carefully, why shouldn’t they have power?” I would be tempted to respond to him with a dril tweet, maybe the one about not ever having to hand things to ISIL. I do think that students shouldn’t be afraid of using knowledge or making serious judgments. They should be given opportunities to lead and make mistakes. And they shouldn’t be lectured about what they’re doing wrong all throughout. But I don’t think Bacon and I see eye-to-eye here. He doesn’t seem as interested in what species of courage they would hold, or what kind of mentor would advise and work with mistakes. His rhetoric comes dangerously close to unleashing something: For the helmet of Pluto, which maketh the politic man go invisible, is secrecy in the counsel and celerity in the execution. For when things are once come to the execution, there is no secrecy comparable to celerity; like the motion of a bullet in the air, which flieth so swift as it outruns the eye. Bacon wants those who have read him and take power to act without delay. You’ll notice his language is an early echo of the Federalist: Hamilton, in Federalist 70, writes of the “secrecy” and “dispatch” of the executive. It may be true that republics and democracies, governments devoted to rights and the progress of science and society, need someone who executes the laws quickly and well and acts against illiberal threats quickly and well. But I think those of us living on Planet Earth in 2020 can see exactly what has been unleashed. Not the specific President or the Presidency of the United States itself, but the idea that power is essentially unaccountable. A rejection of contemplation and patience implies that hesitation–trying to think through “Is this right?” before doing anything–is a problem. As I can say, in my own inarticulate, muddled way: no.

Horizon Zero Dawn: “Honor the Fallen”

“We whisper reconciliation, but forget how the old king’s priests sang the words and blessed the killing.” —Mournful Namman, from Horizon Zero Dawn‘s side quest “Honor the Fallen”

It is difficult to do justice to how true to life Horizon Zero Dawn is. The idea of “doing justice” to a video game meant to generate millions of dollars in sales, a game centered around a story about killer robots, sounds absurd to be fair. But it’s so clear to me after completing the game that those who made it wanted to say something credible to their kids about growing up in this crazy world. It’s clear to me they succeeded. So I believe a few remarks about an unusual sidequest are in order.

I understand that some of you reading this blog think of video games as diversions where candy is crushed, Pac-Man eats dots, or there’s a set of Legos that’s infinite. The idea that our best talent has decided not to write novels or screenplays, but takes their knowledge about Moby-Dick or Homer and uses it to create a mythology for a fully immersive and discoverable game world can be a bit shocking. I urge you to get over yourselves fast. There’s a good chance that the few things which survive this age may be video games, which can serve as first-rate social commentary while providing ideas about what the future might look like. Grand Theft Auto IV was about how the feuds of the Old World are only turned more extravagant and deadly by the promise of the New. Skyrim was unsparing in critiquing the resentment underlying white nationalism while focusing on how messianic figures enable social change. For the last few weeks, I’ve been completely taken in by Horizon Zero Dawn‘s earnestness about hard moral lessons—how to stand up for yourself in a world of fascists who are open about war crimes and genocide when it suits them. How to stand up in this world, be there for others, and stay compassionate despite those in power indulging a fantasy of “kill them all, let God sort them out.”

One might argue with me thus: “Congratulations. You found every superhero movie ever made. Now get back to work.” I’m not sure how to respond to this, as I’m not entirely sure where I want to go as a scholar. I do think mass media can shed light on uncomfortable truths, especially as the United States indulges oligarchy and nostalgia in its more established institutions. The dystopic storylines of a number of games are filled with illustrations of corrupt power and delusional principles. Surprisingly enough, there’s typically also a real sympathy for what it means to believe. I guess that’s not so surprising when you’re asking people to consider an imaginary world as relevant to their own moral formation, but I don’t think we should be too cynical about such moments, for reasons you’ll see below.

“Honor the Fallen” is a sidequest where your character comes across a priest of a state-established religion who has been dealing with requests for reparations. Make no mistake, the reparations are very much owed. The religion joined the state in waging war against nearly every other people, enslaving some, sacrificing others, raiding and destroying what they couldn’t take in order to cater to a sense of superiority. In the cutscene below, you can see the priest, one Namman, introduce himself by addressing your character’s grief. Your character is grieving, but not for reasons he could know:

Around the 50 second mark, Namman voices a sentiment in which all religions should be able to share. He wants those who wish to express their grief at losses his religion and people caused to be able to express that grief: “These people seek to honor their loved, their lost. With their own voices, not mouthing Carja rituals to Carja stone.” He is sympathetic to those of other races and religions and sees the legitimacy of his religion in the development of a genuine universality. He blames an obsession with “tradition” for getting in the way of what was “right.” Your character’s job is to defeat robots who are preventing them from getting to areas they can grieve, as well as deal with one old, fanatical priest who thinks the slaughter before was indeed godly and righteous.

This is so incredibly radical that I’m blown away it got made. I deal with reactionaries who loudly proclaim that there have never been any sexual predators among the clergy. I hear all the time that talk about reparations is radical even as the news shows video daily of people of color or people with disabilities being executed by law enforcement. A few I know are arguing that Santa Claus is a moral necessity (I don’t even know where to start with that one). Here, in a video game, is a priest seeing the task of religion as enabling all to grieve, as openness to the pain of others. A lot of people in America see religion as strictness and tradition for strictness and tradition’s sake. They don’t want to hear anything that sounds like culpability; what matters to them is that as God commands, they follow, they command and are followed. There are many they do not want to see in their neighborhoods or at church. They would dismiss Namman, the fictional priest in the game, as a hopeless “progressive,” as if God Himself couldn’t envision a better future. What’s stunning that this picture of religion, where religion only belongs to traditionalists or fundamentalists, is shared by the majority of news outlets. Mainstream churches, temples, mosques, etc. are near invisible in coverage compared to, say, some small church trying to get a book burning going.

Namman is clear what is at stake if the individuals are not allowed to grieve. Religion can be thought a public space where pain can be expressed. If people are not allowed to express their pain, their stories go unheard. Exclusion can be a form of dehumanization, but when it comes to a state-run religion, it absolutely is. One need not stretch the imagination to see how much this situation parallels life in America.

Horizon Zero Dawn goes further. It doesn’t blink at how exploitative a culture which indulged slavery is, even when slavery has been ended. Skip to 1:06 in the video below and listen to Brageld’s story, if you want:

Brageld wants to get into the shrine because his lover, who was a slave, crafted a statue of the king who eventually ordered him to his death. He wants to see the handiwork, as terrible as it may be, because it’s his lover’s work. His wish may not strike one as the most intuitive; for those of us living in a stratified society, it’s really hard to imagine that all some people have left of their ancestors are the things they were forced to build. I hope you will take this moment to reflect on the history of the White House, which was built in large part by slave labor, and to ask yourself why the hell Georgetown University ever dared to sell slaves.

Brageld’s wish to express his grief should be considered an opportunity for a religion. The Carja, who killed his lover, can welcome him and make a greater society possible. However, Brageld isn’t being let into the shrine. A priest most unlike Namman, one Jahamin, calls the shrine his “retreat.” Jahamin, in preventing Brageld from entering the shrine, proves himself obsessed with purity. “Defile,” “debasement,” “corrupt,” “false,” “shame”—these are all terms he uses while rendering no specific accusation against Brageld. Horizon Zero Dawn proves itself attuned to how the rhetoric of white supremacy works. It demonstrates how racism can take a deep hold in religion and stay there even after an ultranationalist moment has passed.

Your character forces Jahamin to be specific and gets only old man rants. Once upon a time, things were great and pure. Now things have changed and are awful. You can see the rants start at around 3:10 in the above video. Your character can only marvel at how Jahamin dismisses the actual atrocities, the actual history, as she confronts him with it. Religion is used as “alternative facts” to allow the old priest a “safe space.” He’s allowed to be angry and throw a tantrum while others are not even allowed to say they miss someone. There is no way to argue with this logic—it can only be confronted and shamed. One thing I found notable is how his talk, like that of some I know, moves from political matters to religious ones in the blink of an eye. You could say that’s because the religion is of the state, but what sticks out besides “purity” is his complaint that the Carja are “weak.” The link between politics and religion for him is the military, the nationalism. Without nationalism, he doesn’t have a religion.

It’s no surprise, then, that he has to bully others—that some traditionalists are more committed to bullying others than prayer or service—in order to feel religious. Religion for them is the feeling of personal strength emanating from a sense of cosmic order. It isn’t struggle with doubt or belief, it isn’t attempting to do what’s right, it isn’t a look at how other people practice spirituality or achieve authenticity. It’s a sense of cosmic order in the most literal, brutal sense: our stormtroopers are destroying everything, so God must be with us, with me. It’s completely deranged, and what’s notable is that this critique is coming from a video game, alongside a picture of how religion could work in a more authentic vein. People could be allowed to cry and say they’re sorry.

You get the priest to leave the shrine no matter what you pick—he’s a fanatic but a coward. People with his views did form a splinter state to the west.

There are two other encounters in “Honor the Fallen,” but I want to focus on one which engages the intensely personal guilt that brings many of us to religion in the first place. Rea, when freed with her friend, ran as quickly across a dangerous swamp as possible. She assumed her friend was behind her, but the friend was killed in that swamp. Skip to 19:06 in the video below to hear her story:

The storytelling in those few lines is intense, and I can imagine some gamers pressing X rapidly to skip past the dialogue and get the mission rewards quickly. Rea clearly feels enormously guilty—she may have, while running, thought “she’ll be fine,” which is a dangerous form of denial. She may have not thought of her friend at all.

Either way, she’s haunted now. She dreams of finding a bracelet her friend had that contains seeds and letting the seeds sprout in the jungle. She feels the only way to rectify her lack of thought for her friend is to proclaim herself dead-in-life but her friend as truly alive, always growing. Even then, the grief hits her harder: she exclaims “oh!” while saying this, realizing how alone she is. Not only did she lose her friend, but her inability to think of her when she was most needed makes her wonder, I guess, if she ever deserved a friend.

The game leaves off there. The grief which seeks expression in religion transcends conventional notions of religion. It can’t be bounded by what other people say or think, because we don’t even realize what we’ve lost or are experiencing. Given that Horizon Zero Dawn is about man-made apocalypse, the outstanding question is what grief as affirming looks like. How do we build when we’re capable of and culpable for so much destruction? In the face of such a question, it’s religion’s openness, not defensiveness, that matters most.