December 06 2014


My recent review of Citizenfour, the new documentary about Edward Snowden, is now available.  I conclude,

During the Cold War, it was easy for us to look at the Stasi, East Germany’s national security agency, and see the evil of totalitarianism. It’s harder for us, conservatives and liberals alike, to look in the mirror. Sure, we still have powerful checks against totalitarianism, but could our fear of terrorism erode our democratic traditions? Could we develop our own kinder, gentler version of authoritarian capitalism? Or am I another libertarian paranoiac?

I do worry that we’re increasingly willing to sell our freedom for security and prosperity. I worry especially about my fellow citizens who shrug their shoulders and says, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so what do I care if the NSA is watching?” But when I see a 29-year-old who forsakes his security for freedom, I remember that some things can’t be sold.


October 29 2014

Image Skins

There’s a famous passage in Plato’s Phaedrus where Socrates tells the story of the origin of writing. The Egyptian Theuth invents written symbols and presents them to King Thamus.

“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."

Today I read a review of The Falling Sky, a new anthropological book about shamanism, in which a shaman, talking of the spirit’s words (i.e., the xapiri’s words), says:

I do not possess old books in which my ancestors’ words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me…. They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them…. They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will still be as new and strong as they are now.

“Image skins made from dead trees” is a wonderful description of books.

I also read a review today of a new book of philosophical history called Philosophy Between the Lines: A History of Esoteric Writing by Arthur Melzer. The reviewer says:

Melzer's book performs an additional service by distinguishing the variety of goals pursued by esoteric writers. He thereby helps clear up some of the confusion created by Strauss's decision to title his account of the subject, Persecution and the Art of Writing, a decision that has led many to wonder why esoteric writing would be needed in places where one could speak one's mind openly. Melzer shows that while self-defense is the commonest reason for adopting esoteric modes of communication, it is far from the only one. Some philosophers choose to communicate esoterically to protect delicate social practices and institutions from what they perceive as dangerous truths, rather than to protect themselves from persecution. Others do so for pedagogical reasons, from a desire to write in a way that forces abler readers to work out truths for themselves, as Plato seems to do in his dialogues.

September 24 2014

The Trip to Italy

Here is my review of The Trip to Italy.  As obvious as it sounds, the movie - like its predecessor - is about traveling.  I say in the review:

Though a desire to see the sites and have new experiences is often what gets us on the road, the essence of travel is about chatting with your companions, eating strange foods, ogling locals, getting drunk and finding a bed. As Coogan and Brydon whisk off in their Mini Cooper into the rolling hills of Piedmont, they talk big about putting on some Italian opera but end up listening exclusively to Alanis Morissette.

Yet travel opens wider those little cracks we already have in our souls. Outside our everyday routines, faced with the layers of history, we’re compelled to wonder, as Coogan and Brydon do, about who we really are and what our legacy will be, and that space of wonder puts the possibility of new life into play.


May 21 2014

The Wind Rises

Here is my review of Miyazaki's latest masterpiece.  I conclude:

Our imaginations are used to picturing evil, the source of our suffering, as something monstrous and foreign. If we grow out of such cartoonish conceptions (we often never do), we tend to picture evil as something “banal,” to use Hannah Arendt’s word to describe how normal people thoughtlessly carry out the most heinous crimes. But Miyazaki’s vision of evil goes beyond the monstrous and the banal. It’s close to that of Socrates or the Buddha. On this view, evil is our own ignorance about the great order that sustains us, and every human action is to be regarded with compassion.

The title of The Wind Rises comes from a line by the great French poet Paul Valéry, “Le vent se lève! … il faut tenter de vivre!” (“The wind is rising! . . . we must try to live!”). The wind in Miyazaki’s movie symbolizes not just Jiro’s desire to fly but all human aspiration to transcend our condition. This fundamental aspiration is beautiful, irresistible and ultimately the source of misery. Has Miyazaki turned away from the suffering of the world, even inflicted it, in order to make his majestic works? C’est la vie, as the French also say.

It’s often remarked that Miyazaki’s movies are important for children to see because they show a more complex picture of good and evil than what they’re used to. They’re just as important for adults. To see the world through his eyes, with such understanding and compassion, is to feel the wind rising, is to know in our bones that we must try to live.


January 16 2014

Some Favorite Titles

I love book titles.  Does everybody?  My guess is that book lovers, in particular, love titles, because book lovers love not only reading books but having books on their shelves.  A good title fills the reader's mind with all sorts of wonderful possibilities.  Here are some titles that I'm particularly fond of.

Treatise of the Gold Lion
Dreams and How to Control Them
The Psychoanalysis of Fire
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary
The Man Who Was Thursday
The Thousand and One Nights
The Sand Reckoner

The Sand Reckoner, by the way, is by Archimedes.  It's about how many grains of sand could fit in the universe.  Fewer than you might think.

January 10 2014

James on Philosophical Writing

I am getting impatient with the awful abstract rigmarole in which our philosophers obscure the truth.  It will be fatal.  It revives the palmy days of Hegelianism.  It means utter relaxation of intellectual duty, and God will smite it.  If there's anything he hates, it is that kind of oozy writing.

- William James, Letters of Williams James, II, 237

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