Thoughts on Class Conflict and Meritocracy

Chesterton, “Slum Novelists and the Slums,” in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism–that is, selective despotism–is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

The notion that all political belonging is predicated upon the conflict between classes comes to us originally not from Marx, but from Machiavelli. That order at the level of the whole—the city, state, empire, whatever—emerges from irresolvable conflict on the ground is one of the first lessons of modern political philosophy, and so too is the understanding of politics as a means for reconciling this conflict. The modern ruler is not the first principle from which the being of the political body flows, but rather a glorified judge. One can see how the liberal state follows quite neatly from this rewriting of the ontology of the body politic.

If you think liberalism is bad, you might decry this overturning of classical political ontology. Perhaps you wish for an ideal state ruled by a righteous monarch, to whom all subjects turn in awe and reverence as sunflowers to the dawn. But from a different perspective—such as that adopted by Hobbes and later, by Marx—even in such a scenario, the deference of the subjects is precisely what authorizes the ruler: the ruler has authority only inasmuch as that authority is recognized and legitimized by the ruled, whether through reverence or fear. In other words, a la Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right): “The state is an abstrac­tion. The people alone is what is concrete….Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.”

This new vision of the state as a site of ongoing struggle makes it impossible for aristocrats and their fellow travelers to maintain their traditional detached antipathy toward the lower classes. In the modern state, classes are rivals—and being locked in a struggle means having to pay attention to the strategies and goals of your adversary. Machiavelli recognized with a keener eye than any other that this class conflict is productive: the tumult that arises from this permanent antagonism, when mediated by the legal and judicial institutions of the state, results in stability at the level of the state (Nassim Taleb, I believe, would call this “antifragility”) and a kind of harmony between classes as they negotiate (however noisily) their conflicting interests. Class conflict can never be overcome, but it can be managed well or poorly by a governor. The former promotes flourishing; the latter, decadence and decline.

If class conflict is necessary for political flourishing, then abrogating it might be a bad idea. This is precisely what is sought in “meritocracy.” Meritocracy is far more than a heuristic for leadership-selection: it is a story a community tells about itself, a strategy for political self-understanding. At its heart, it is the eternal aristocratic myth dressed up for a new, knowledge- and technique-obsessed civilization: it is a way of reading backwards the story of how the privileged achieved the good things they have, and why they are deserving of them. It is, in essence, a way of neutralizing class antagonism. A community that collectively repeats the story of meritocracy begins to believe that just as those at the top earned their place there, whether by wit or industry, so too are those at the bottom deserving of their place on account of their lack. Like Chesterton’s “rational despotism,” the myth of meritocracy holds that prestige and privilege follow from natural superiority—and since those who are not naturally superior could never perform at the same capacity as the meritocratic victors, there’s no use in contesting the position of one’s superiors. Victory would only end in disappointment and failure; struggle would be futile.

Classes that are not in conflict are castes. Meritocracy seeks the reestablishment of rigid formal hierarchies without the fear of dispossession by those at the bottom.

The Blessed and the Doomed

There are two kinds of people in this world: the blessed and the doomed. The blessed are those before whom hardships retreat like cowardly enemies, whose path through the world is lit by the light of goodness and is easy on the feet; the lot of the doomed, on the other hand, is always to suffer, to fail, to be excluded, to be crushed by hardship. The individuals within each kind are marked as such from birth: the doomed always know they are doomed, the blessed that they are blessed. The blessed may fall from their blessedness—spontaneously, undeliberately, by no fault of their own—and join the doomed, though this is uncommon. The doomed, however, are always doomed.

Most of the doomed learn to make decisions based on the knowledge of their doom. They do not dream, or hope, or strive for something beyond doom, or feel jealous of the blessed: they keep their eyes fixed on their feet, so to speak, and live one arduous day to the next while weathering the pain that comes with being one of the doomed. Virtue for the doomed means learning to suffer as painlessly as possible, to avoid thinking of a better, more blessed life, or of any end to their doom aside from their inevitable death. But some of the doomed—because they are either too stupid or too cowardly to face certain undeniable facts of their existence—spend their lives fruitlessly wishing to transcend the kind to which they belong, that of the doomed: they hope to become one of the blessed, to spend their days in the sunshine of goodness and to walk with the lightness and ease of those who live on the other side of the veil. These hopes become a source of immense sorrow for these poor dreamers of the doomed because they are implacable: the doomed are always doomed.

The blessed, on their part, are of two minds about the doomed. Some of them believe the best course of action is to be honest, to remind the doomed that they are doomed and that things will never be easy or good for them. Though some of them use this as an opportunity for cruelty, many of the blessed believe this honesty to be an act of mercy for the doomed, so that they will not forget that they are doomed and begin to dream of someday becoming blessed. Others of the blessed, however, believe it is unkind to remind the doomed that they are doomed, and think that however untrue it may be it is best to tell beautiful stories that give the doomed hope for a better life. Some of them even believe the blessed should convince the doomed that they are not in fact doomed, but are actually blessed, only they do not know it yet. All of them, however, know deep down that the doomed cannot ever become one of the blessed: the doomed are always doomed.

For the most part, the blessed and the doomed live out their lives parallel to, but largely separate from one another. The blessed who fall into doom may continue to live among the blessed, but the advent of their newfound doom will often make this difficult for them: they will watch with confusion while the rest of their former fellows walking with lightness and ease, and dream of someday returning to blessedness. This will not happen because they are doomed, and their wishing will cause them pain and sorrow. So too do the dreamers of the doomed occasionally enter into the halls of the blessed, lured by their beautiful stories about the possibility of entering into blessedness. However, no matter how long they spend among the blessed, their paths will never be lit by the light of goodness, and walking will never be easy on the feet. They will wonder why the world never seems to be quite like the beautiful stories they have heard from the blessed. And the blessed will continue to tell their tales, and the dreamers of the doomed will continue to believe them—but they will never become blessed, no matter how long they walk the halls and live the life and repeat the stories of the blessed. This is because they are doomed, and the doomed are always doomed.

Crisis and Opportunity

John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 2002:

We have arrived at a stage of history when we must begin thinking about thinking itself. This is something as different from philosophy as it is from psychoanalysis. At the end of an age we must engage in a radical rethinking of “Progress,” of history, of “Science,” of the limitations of our knowledge, of our place in the universe.

Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”, 1954:

With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear.

D. S. Carne-Ross, “The Center of Resistance,” 1979:

[T]he loss or radical fracture of tradition need not mean that the past has been lost. Rather, it has been dislocated. Where there was once an orderly territory there is now a kind of chaos. A fertile chaos, if we choose to make it so, for if whole regions have become almost inaccessible, others may lie invitingly open. With the collapse of so much that stood massively but obstructively in the foreground, we can now see beyond the ruins to the more distant past which paradoxically has come to seem closer to us.

Arendt again, immediately following the previous passage:

But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored traditionand the loss of this security occurred several hundred years agothe whole dimension of the past has also been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lostwould mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.

Guy Davenport, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” 1974:

All of this is part of what [Charles] Olson meant by saying that we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We hang religious pictures in museums, honoring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. We have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony. Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analyzing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp.


Vision, memory, attention: these are other words for “world.” Crisis breaks the patterns of things, offering both the opportunity of a world and the danger of retreat. God grant us the wisdom to choose rightlyand the courage to follow through.

Reflections on Pestilence and Sacrifice


I’ve stopped counting the days. Early in the time of lockdown, I fancied that keeping tally of passing sunsets would allow for a purposeful task, however arbitrary, against the despair produced by feeling the world disintegrate. I hoped this would be something like a squirrel’s happy accumulation of acorns before a harsh winter; in reality, it felt more like scratching lines in the wall of a prison cell. So I gave it up.

But it’s been something like a fortnight, perhaps a month. The police have eliminated all public expressions of conviviality—parks, tennis courts, and lakefront beaches have been blocked off for weeks—and corporations have stepped in to deliver endless superficial mantras about solidarity and hope “in these challenging times.” I try to remind myself that it is temporary—maybe. In the warm, floral spring breeze one can catch the occasional scent of endlessness, the dismal sense that the lively public world is gone forever and fleshy human togetherness has been permanently replaced by stilted video-conferences and texting. The springtime has never felt emptier of hope.

Early on in the plague-time, I took a week off of work. During this period, and before the forced closure of the public world, I wrote about the loveliness of the lockdown: how the cessation of American normalcy had allowed us a glimpse of a way of living less predicated on restless money-making, more centered around delighting in leisure and the splendor of creation. (I still, from time to time, feel this.) But I was also scared. The virus was sweeping rapidly through the country while every authority in the country either actively downplayed the threat (“it’s contained,” “it’s just the flu,” “the bigger problem is racism”) or simply said nothing while making no apparent preparations. The delusional optimism of the former is inexcusable: prudent governance, as far as I can tell, operates on a heuristic of pessimism. But the latter, I think, were simply afraid, and they have my sympathy. Who wouldn’t be horrified into immobility by the idea having to make decisions for the sake of an entire city or state as a poorly-understood pandemic hurtles unstoppably toward you?

Since then, I’ve returned to work. The readjustment has been surreal: the bookstore, once a bustling hub of activity, has been closed to the public and converted into a shipping operation. The display tables—once so carefully tended to, garden-like—have become storage areas, covered in chaotic, unpoetical stacks of books. Masked coworkers bustle through the stacks, hunting for mailordered titles while carrying out an absurd, comical dance of attempting six feet of distance from one another. It’s great, of course, to have the certainty of income during a time when such a thing is increasingly scarce. But it’s also deeply weird to feel like my job—structurally an entry-level retail position, even if it feels more meaningful than that—is now on the “front line” of a global crisis.

Which is why I’ve found all of this forced optimistic sloganeering increasingly intolerable. The slogans serve an exclusively therapeutic function for those who face none of the danger. It means nothing to repeat “We’re all in this together!” as someone whose most pressing anxiety is whether you’ll get too annoyed at your spouse and kids while working from home at your reasonably-well-paying job with full benefitsand then to do nothing else. This recent article in the Atlantic says what’s been so desperately needed to be said for so long now: that “front line” workers—nurses, of course, but also grocery store clerks, Amazon delivery drivers, Target employees, and so forth—are not heroes, but victims. This is true—but there are victims, and there are victims. These people are not victims in the judicial sense, the harmed party of a crime for whom we demand justice. They are victims in the religious sense: they are the blessed ones whom we praise on their walk to the slaughter-bench, the offering we give to satiate the hungry gods of our economy. For victims of a crime, we demand recompense, that the world be set right on account of their undeserved suffering. The holy suffering of the sacrificial victim, however, is what sets the world right—and for this, we offer only praise and thanksgiving.

At the end of a revealing monologue in Camus’ “The Plague,” the ex-militant Tarrou declares: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” To praise the sacrifice of others with no concern for how we might do them justice is to join forces with the plague. If we are going to emerge from this crisis with any shred of our dignity, we need to think hard about what we have to do to avoid crafting such a nefarious alliance.

Paradise, Indeed


The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.

My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.

Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”

Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.

I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.

And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.

Good Friday

Today all bread lies unrisen,
all form lies devoid of its shape;
beer is just water and barley,
wine remains locked in the grape—

today the sun is just fire,
a meaningless nexus of heat;
the foundations loosed from the waters,
the land overcome with the sea—

today the cosmos is static,
creation is ground to a halt;
but all in advance of the third day,
the triumph the heavens exalt.

The Loveliness of Lockdown

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Update 3/30: I wrote this one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the closure of the entire Chicago lakefront, due to what she saw as inadequate social distancing and a flouting of the city’s stay-at-home order. I recognize the wisdom in this decision, and the needhowever unfortunatefor making sacrifices like this in times like these. But I also stand by what I saw that day: hundreds of people embracing the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the world while keeping space between one another. And beyond this, a faint glimmer of a different—a better and less cruel—way of living.


It’s day five of shelter-in-place in Illinois. Signs hang in the windows of neighborhood hair salons, record stores, book shops: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” Restaurants and cafes remain in a liminal state between open and closed: through the windows one can glimpse empty dining rooms and kitchen workers standing around in hair nets, waiting for the take-out orders they are still legally permitted to fulfill. But the decline in business has not brought a sense of emptiness. The noise of car traffic, now conspicuously absent from neighborhood streets, has been replaced by spring birdsong. Neighborhood parks are peppered with young people playing sports at a responsible distance—tennis, frisbee, kickball—while joggers pass the occasional bookworm enjoying the sunshine on a bench. Near the lake, couples with children play hide and seek amid the trees of Jackson Park and Promontory Point, while those assumedly childless walk their dogs nearby. Lockdown, it turns out, is lovely.

Reality is a kaleidoscope that lockdown has turned. The usual patterns of things have been gently disrupted—and we, in our adaptability and ingenuity, are already finding a footing in our new, unstable conditions. In this cessation of frantic economic activity that usually defines American public life, we catch a glimpse of another possible world: one where our activity is motivated not by blunt necessity or desperate moneymaking, but by relishing in the world and in our togetherness with those whose lives are entangled enough with ours to be part of our quarantine. However temporary it may turn out to be, the suspension of the brutal economization of life that constitutes American “normalcy” has made it possible to imagine a way of living centered on simple delight and human togetherness, and not only for the classes capable of paying for it.

I recognize the possible naivete of my optimism here, that I’m seeing the response of the materially comfortable to a challenge they can easily weather while the poor and precarious suffer all the more. I don’t doubt this is the case. I am surely blind to the real suffering this lockdown is causing just outside the periphery of my vision. Lord knows how many layoffs will result in evictions, themselves resulting in despair, hopelessness, and worse. But these are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from the anaesthetization of harsh American materialism.

Everything is topsy-turvy in plague time. And positioned as we are at the beginning of this chaotic and rapidly shifting development, we have no idea what shape the future may eventually take. The situation, then, is excellent. Nothing is going to change on its own accord: the plague does not determine a set of changes, but it does provide an opening. May we have the courage to seize this opportunity and to sow loveliness and delight where others would seek to reconstitute—or intensify—its barbarity.

Forgiveness—Christian, and Otherwise,/0/default.jpg

This is based on a talk I gave on March 8, 2020 as part of a Lenten program at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.

In January of 2018, I went to Albuquerque to sit with my father in a hospital while he died. To say my dad and I weren’t close is an understatement: we’d cut ties when I was twelve, and rebuilt them for a time in my early twenties only to have them quickly fall apart again. His life had since become a mystery to me, but I knew that heart problems had him in and out of the hospital for years. So when the call came from Sunny, his girlfriend of nearly two decades who hadn’t spoken to me since I was a preteen, I knew the situation was serious. I took a brief leave from my obligations and boarded a plane for New Mexico.

My dad was an interesting guy: a jazz musician (tenor sax, primarily, though he knew his way around the trumpet and flute), and an accomplished photographer. He was a very lapsed Catholic who, like my mother, had long before I was born given up on the tradition of his family, but out of a sense of duty he continued to bring us to the occasional Easter or Christmas Mass. He loved jokes—puns especially—and had a gift for charming strangers. He also had a history of heroin addiction, infidelity, conspiracism, and cruelty. My mother was his fourth wife. His first fled his chaos for the safety of an asylum; the second left under much quieter circumstances; he abandoned the third and their young daughter after a few years together. I don’t know how he hid his addiction from my mom for so long. But once she found out, she packed my brother in her Volkswagen Rabbit and fled their Washington, DC apartment for her dad’s house in Memphis. My dad kicked junk, followed her to Tennessee, and begged her to forgive him—and thankfully, for my sake at least, she did. But he was never able to leave his other demons behind. So after two more kids and almost a decade of enduring his philandering, abuse, and unnecessary jail time for arguing speeding tickets, she packed my sister and me in a car and set off for Florida, leaving him behind for good.

So we’d long had a rocky relationship, and at some point in my mid-teens he became completely estranged. In the few years leading up to his death, though, my dad had made a seemingly earnest effort to reconnect with my sister, brother, and me. (Quite understandably, the other kids he’d left scattered around the country wanted nothing to do with him.) The effort quickly collapsed and he developed an open, vicious hostility toward my siblings, inspiring them to cut their losses and totally sever their ties. I remained the only one still vaguely willing to deal with him. But in the meantime, the fog of mystery settled back over his life—he was in Texas, he owned a home in Memphis, he was suddenly in Albuquerque—and I lost track of him for a year or two before the call came.

His heart had given him trouble for decades, but in 2017 his health took a catastrophic turn. He was only 73. For years he’d been suffering from congestive heart failure, and when a major heart operation he underwent that spring failed to bring him back to full strength, he remained so sick and frail that a fall he took in a hotel lobby landed him in the hospital for three weeks. He’d been on oxygen for months and was convinced that moving from the muddy, low river valley of Memphis to the high desert of Albuquerque had made his already difficult breathing even harder. His condition had been deteriorating rapidly, and after a few weeks of denial he finally agreed to be checked into the hospital again in hopes getting patched up and sent back to Memphis, away from the high altitude.

This is where I found him, frail and weary, surrounded by a jungle of tubes and beeping monitors, his broad shoulders and musician’s hands reduced to a skeletal parody of their former strength. Enough of a spark remained, however, to rekindle all the old family hostilities. My brother, in a burst of filial piety, began packing for the drive from Memphis to Albuquerque, but my dad utterly refused to see him. My sister, on the other hand, seemed almost happy to hear of his suffering: she said she felt nothing—no sadness, hatred, or pity—but her voice betrayed a whisper of excitement, as if she believed he was finally getting what he deserved. Dad didn’t care to talk to her either way.

I spent two days talking my dad into letting my siblings call him on the phone, to make one last connection before it became impossible. He finally agreed. During his brief call, my brother managed to achieve some peace: he told my dad that he loved him, and that he forgave him. His heart clearly wasn’t in it, but he did what he thought needed to be done. My sister, on the other hand, called only after dad’s renal failure had left him unable to speak, and through a waterfall of tears she released decades of resentment on him. He was so debilitated that he likely couldn’t even understand what she was saying. But she said what she needed to say, and that was that.

After three days by his side, I got my dad settled into a hospice facility and flew back to Maryland. He died two days later. I was devastated. But as the weeks passed, the sorrow began to fade, and those days and nights in Albuquerque opened themselves up for reflection. As a dutiful student of philosophy, I had long been habituated to using the stuff of experience as fodder for moral speculation. Runaway trolleys and imaginary axe-murderers always struck me as ridiculous: if moral philosophy didn’t help make sense of life as it’s lived—if it functioned only for deriving supposed laws from hypothetical edge cases—it was of no use to me. So after the paperwork got signed, cremation arrangements were made, and the poignancy of the shock began to dull, I began to wonder.

My siblings’ resentment of my father was, in a certain sense, entirely rational: he had harmed them immeasurably, often deliberately. This kind of treatment is impossible to bear from a stranger; how much more, then, when it comes from someone responsible for your very existence? It made perfect sense that the hurt they felt would beget anger. Why, then, couldn’t I shake the sense that this account, however reasonable, was wrong? There was some crucial principle we were all missing that could have helped us overcome our animosity and frustration toward one another, that could have granted some sense of unity to our fragmented family—something, I suspected, like forgiveness. I turned to the books.

I began, as one does, at the beginning: in this case, with the beginning of Western literature, in the epics of Homer. Toward the end of the Iliad, after ten years of bloody battle between the Trojans and Achaeans, King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy encampment on the shore of his kingdom to beg for the return of his son Hector’s now-desecrated body. Priam is devastated by grief: he has lost his son, who was not just the bravest warrior of the Trojans but also a loving and devoted father, husband, and son. But so too is the Achaean prince Achilles, whose grief over the death of his brother-in-arms Patroclus led him to kill Hector, refuse him a proper burial, and ultimately to abuse his body by dragging it continuously around Patroclus’s funeral bier for nine consecutive days. Priam, guided by the god Hermes, sneaks into Achilles’s tent under cover of night and wakes Achilles by kissing his hands. As soon as he realizes what is happening, Achilles jolts awake, and Priam immediately makes a desperate plea for the return of his son’s corpse that concludes with an appeal to both pity and piety:

Honour then the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me
remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;
I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;
I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.

What happens next is subtle but noteworthy:

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him
gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled
at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor
and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again
for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

Achilles establishes distance from Priam, and the two men, sitting next to one another, weep privately for their own personal losses. This continues for some time, and Achilles finally breaks the silence with a speech about fate and the irrelevance of human tears in swaying the decision-making of Zeus. The two finally agree on a temporary truce between their respective armies and an exchange of bodies; after the respective funerals, however, the hostilities will continue. Zeus deals out the fortunes of men, whether glorious or terrible; fate controls all, the slaughter must continue, reconciliation is an impossibility. Neither man could dream of crying for the other. There is no forgiveness here.

But Homer is a poet, a bard of the triumphs and failures of heroes. He’s not a philosopher, not the type to subject experience to questioning, to puzzle over the mysteries of life to inch closer to understanding. So I left him behind and looked to Aristotle and the later Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, our earliest examples of systematic ethical philosophy. Looking again to these writers I noticed a theme: forgiveness is understood in terms of “withdrawing one’s anger,” and the arguments for it are by definition egoistic, concerned with the good only of the one who is doing this withdrawing. Here are a few examples.

In book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the earliest written treatise on ethical philosophy, Aristotle describes a quality he calls megalopsychia, or “greatness of soul.” A great-souled person has acquired all the other virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, generosity, and so forth—and has achieved thereby a nobility of spirit that sets them apart from others in their community. They have a sense of self-importance derived, Aristotle believes, from being genuinely more worthy than others: “If the great-souled person is in fact worthy of the greatest things, he will be best; for it is always the better person who is worthy of greater, and the best of what is greatest.” In this respect, they are the ultimate ethical exemplar, our living and breathing model for what a good life looks like.

The great-of-soul are marked by an attitude of lenience toward their inferiors, those of less nobility, stature, or virtue:

Nor does [the great-souled person] remember past wrongs; for great-souled people do not store things up, especially a memory of wrongs done them, but rather overlook them.

But this great-souled person’s refusal to hold grudges is not a sign of compassion toward the less fortunate. Rather, his seeming charity toward others is simply a reflection of his own nobility of soul, a way to glorify his wealth of virtue. Because greatness of soul demands honor, here Aristotle segues into a discussion of the “virtue pertaining to honor,” he calls being “good-tempered.” Here we see perhaps our clearest elaboration of forgiveness as simply a withdrawal of anger:

For being good-tempered means being unperturbed and not being carried away by one’s feelings but being angry in the way, in the circumstances, and for the length of time the correct prescription lays down; but he seems to err more towards deficiency, since the mild person tends not to look for revenge but rather to be lenient to them.

Aiming for an attitude of tolerant mildness seemed like the right direction: hot tempers are definitely a cause of familial entanglement in hostility and resentment, especially in mine. But tolerance, however mutual, is not enough to meet the demands that even functional families put on one another. Children can be irritating, even disappointing to their parents, and vice versa. The skill of forced leniency can and should be a part of a family toolkit, but a family member who feels merely tolerated by the others is scarcely in a position to flourish, and likely to feel hurt or resentful. And while status-based elitism might be helpful for giving structure to a city or country, it is unlikely to help a family: a son who wins great honors outside the walls of the home should still honor his father and mother.

The Epicureans and Stoics had even less to offer than Aristotle. These philosophies are fundamentally therapeutic, set toward the ultimate goal of achieving ataraxia or tranquility, a freedom from mental disturbances and physical pain. They are also explicitly egoistic, holding that the only actions with any moral significance occur in relation to oneself. Where Stoicism is entirely world-denying, holding that one’s moral disposition is the only thing of importance and happiness is ultimately a choice, Epicureanism is hedonistic, regarding physical pleasure as the highest good of human existence and urging moderation. In neither of these doctrines is there much room for moral duties toward others that don’t primarily entail the self.

Epictetus is the perhaps the greatest articulator of Stoicism, and in his writing we see the egoistic dimension of Aristotle’s conception of virtue as the moral design of the self taken to its most extreme conclusion:

One who has had fever, even when it has left him, is not in the same condition of health as before, unless indeed his cure is complete. Something of the same sort is true also of diseases of the mind. Behind, there remains a legacy of traces and blisters: and unless these are effectually erased, subsequent blows on the same spot will produce no longer mere blisters, but sores. If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend its increase.

Anger is ultimately a decision: when we feel angry, we are deciding that anger is a good way to feel. And if anger is to be avoided, it is not out of concern for the well-being of others, but rather that anger destabilizes the proper functioning of the soul, which is to exercise its reason. Hostility, then, is wrong primarily because it is irrational, not because it is harmful to others. And because it is our duty as thinking beings to be maximally rational, we should avoid being angry.

Epicurus, on the other hand, left very little writing behind and we receive his philosophy mostly by way of his disciple Lucretius. And though neither of them had much to say about forgiveness as such, here is Lucretius’ view of the attitude one should take toward the suffering of others:

It’s sweet, when winds blow wild on open seas,
to watch from land your neighbor’s vast travail,
not that men’s miseries bring us dear delight,
but that to see what ills we’re spared is sweet;
sweet, too, to watch the cruel contest of war
ranging the field when you need share no danger.

So this doesn’t tell us much about forgiveness per se. But the implied attitudes toward the suffering of other people and the primacy of one’s own mental tranquility tells us, I think, all we need to know.

Having been disappointed by Greece, I turned my attention to the East. The Buddhist tradition endorses a similar understanding of the need for withdrawing one’s anger for the sake of one’s own spiritual health. Here we find echoed the doctrines of 1) the self as the principal object of ethical attention, and 2) self-purification as the ultimate goal of reflection. Entanglements with the world and with others get in the way of the individual’s journey toward enlightenment. If one is to be lenient toward the wrongdoing of others, it is simply because the karmic order of the world demands this kind of flexibility in order to be properly maintained. Thus, we read in the Dhammapada:

1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
2. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.
3. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.
4. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

The goal here is a kind of system equilibrium at both the level of the whole and the level of the individual ego. My goal is to make the world have less hate in it, but the only way to do this is to have less hate in me. The specificity and particularity of another person disappears altogether, subsumed into a system which one maintains like a rock garden.

At this point in my studies, I felt exasperated. The only philosophical justification for forgiveness, it seemed, had to do with a reflective concern for one’s own condition, not for that of another. I complained to a friend—a devout Catholic—that my search for the philosophical origins of forgiveness have come to naught and received a puzzled look. “You haven’t looked in the Bible?” he asked incredulously. In response, all I could say was that it seemed too easy. I didn’t really know what I meant by this except that I had always been suspicious of Christianity as being somehow too good to be true, that it papered over the real ugliness of the world with a happy message about hope and love. As far as I could tell, we were alone in a universe that was slowly dying of its own accord, and all we could do in the meantime is stitch together beautiful stories of various kinds to build a shelter for ourselves from the cold indifference of the cosmos—but the indifference of the cosmos is what is real, not the stories we tell. Religion was cowardice, retreat; courage demanded facing the facts, owning up to the meaninglessness of things. And the central doctrines of Christianity, of course, were just so implausible: God and man at the same time? What could be crazier?

But then my friend suggested the Gospel of St. Luke. If you’ve been raised in a Christian tradition, you probably take a familiarity with the Gospel stories for granted. My lack of religious upbringing had meant that all I knew of Christianity was the Christmas story and a few other utterly decontextualized tropes: “turn the other cheek” and the like. And though I had developed an interest in religious thinking as a complement to my studies of philosophy, I never actually opened the Good Book to see what was inside.

What I found in Luke was something completely new—something that as far as I can tell, never comes up in the history of ethical thinking before the Gospels. The first comes in the passages following the beatitudes, and is likely familiar to anyone reading this:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

love our enemies would have registered as self-evidently absurd. They might insist that we avoid having our souls poisoned by grudges, but the idea that we should love people who harm us would be ridiculous to them.

Here, Jesus tells us to love our enemies; later, he shows us what it means. Let’s look to another passage in Luke, this time from Jesus’s crucifixion:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Again: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Hanging on the cross, in the process of being tortured and executed, Christ looks down onto the people responsible for his death and prays to God to forgive them. He is not ridding himself of anger to achieve spiritual tranquility; he is not trying to restore the karmic balance of the universe; he is not trying to showcase his own virtue. His concern, in the midst of his execution, is for the good of those who have wronged him. And it is entirely for their sake that he utters his prayer of forgiveness.

I didn’t immediately recognize the significance of what I had discovered in these passages. I went back to my friend and complained again that my mission had failed: I hadn’t found any evidence for what I was looking for anywhere but in the Gospels! What was I supposed to do with that? I was a philosopher, not a Christian. If the brilliant philosophers had completely overlooked something that only appeared later in the Bible, what was I supposed to do? After a few months of reflecting, and struggling, and fighting against the obvious like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, I understood that what I had found was a little hole in the structure of things. And it was through this tiny gap that God came rushing into my life.

So, to conclude, let me venture a few remarks about what I think the Gospel accounts imply for us, and what we simply couldn’t find in philosophy. What Christianity demands of us—what is modeled for us by Christ forgiving his executors as he hangs bleeding on the cross—is decidedly not an egoistic form of forgiveness, one that privileges the tranquility of our spirit over all other things. Christ does not want us to do good out of an urge to protect ourselves. Rather, he gives a new light to the world and tells us to look clearly at one another and to love what we see, in full knowledge of the other’s sinfulness. We are also challenged to see ourselves in this new light, to see the depths of our own wretchedness, and to know that help is always available. This is, I suspect, something of what Christ means when he commands us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The thing that made the entire universe and each and every one of us in it loves us, all of us, and because he wants us to find and to love him, he came into our world to suffer at the hands of his own creation. He died on the cross so that we might finally understand what it means to love. He knew what we would do to him and came here anyway, out of love—and when we betrayed him, he nonetheless granted us forgiveness. Perhaps nobody has better articulated what I am really trying to say than St. Jerome: “Jesus was born in a dungheap because he knew that’s where he’d find us.” Thanks be to God.

On “Europeana”

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Patrik Ouředník’s “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” is the best novel about the Twentieth Century. Let me explain.

I qualify “about” because the best novel of the Twentieth Century is obviously Ulysses. (I haven’t read Ulysses, but enough people whose opinions I trust have told me that it is the best, so I take this to be true.) But Ulysses was written in the innocent adolescence of a new age—the one cracked open by machine manufacturing, the invention of the automobile and airplane, and the second founding of America with the settlement of the Civil War—when such a magisterial, imaginative, synthetic work full of style and possibility was still conceivable. After the two-phase internal collapse of Western civilization with the War to End All Wars followed by World War II, such an endeavor became self-evidently ridiculous: as the details of the otherworldly barbarity with which the German Sonderkommandos and the Red Army collaborated to turn Poland into a hellscape of human sacrifice slowly became available to the world’s reading public, it became immediately and undeniably incumbent upon any thinking person to stare the facts in the face and figure out what the hell happened. (Adorno’s famous remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz is silly if understood to be true for all time, but it was surely a sensible way to think in 1955.)

Ouředník’s book does precisely this. It is assembled entirely out of dry, factual statements about a wide variety of events and developments taking place between 1914 and 1999—the formation and beliefs of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the creation of barbie dolls and the dawn of the consumer society, the dawn of New Age spirituality and the sexual revolution, painstakingly accurate descriptions of most of the century’s philosophical and theoretical schools, and above all the twin horrors of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism in Russia—held in parataxis as skillful as Solomon’s. But unlike Solomon, Ouředník never declares all to be vanity, nor does he need to: he suspends judgment and lets the century speak for itself in all its insanity, terror, and, on occasion, genuine hilarity. And in contrast to the 800-some pages of Joyce’s tome, “Europeana” is a slim volume of scarcely 100 pages, containing what lesser historians would require a thousand to adequately cover.

Consider one representative passage:

In 1907 a Frenchman crossed the English Channel in a powered aircraft and in 1910 a Peruvian flew over the Italian Alps in a powered aircraft in and in 1911 the Italians used a powered aircraft in the war against Turkey and in 1914 aircraft designers figured out where to lace machine guns so that aircraft could fire at each other and in 1915 they figured out how to drop bombs from aircraft, and in 1945 the Americans invented the atom bomb and dropped it on a city called Hiroshima.

At no point does Ouředník break from this “objective” voice to say that such a development is bad. Instead, he simply reports the consequences of the nuclear blast: alongside the gruesome image of “the school children who survived the explosion picked maggots out of patients’ wounds with chopsticks,” he tells us that “[p]eople who survived the explosion and the atomic diseases scared other members of the population because they looked like lepers and behaved like madmen,” which in its naïve truthfulness contains a jet black humor. And then he lets us know about the thinking of the age, characterizing the disputes of anti-atomic idealists and pro-bomb realists:

Afterwards a lot of people thought it had been gratuitous brutality to drop an atom bomb at the very end of the war, but military strategists said that if the Americans had not dropped it, someone else would have, because it had to be tried out at least once in real conditions in order to create a balance of terror as a guarantee against the outbreak of a third world war.

For anyone with eyes to see, the judgment passes itself.

Of course, it is inaccurate to call Ouředník’s book a “novel.” There is nothing fictitious about it, and in a more serious age we would consider this a new genre of experimental historiography much more fertile and interesting than most of the options currently on the table. Only on precisely two occasions does Ouředník allow himself miniscule poetic flourishes, made all the more poignant by their rarity: “And young people looked toward the future and the wind ruffled the ears of corn and the sun rose on the horizon.” The author’s commitment to objectivity demonstrates how any optimism about “the arc of history” dissolves in the acid bath of brutal, overwhelming facticity that is the Twentieth Century. The constant deluge of insane details occasionally grants the reading a dreamlike quality, much akin to reading a science fiction novel, just before the reality of what he is reporting comes crashing down. “And the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that smoking and alcohol soil the blood,” he tells us, “and they refused to eat black pudding and blood sausage and refused blood transfusions because the mixing of blood contradicted divine ordinances, just like the consumption of blood sausage or alcohol or extramarital sex.” Silly enough, and yet another contribution to the laundry list of kooky new religions that emerged in the primordial soup of the late 19th century. But in the next sentence, the hammer falls: “And they refused to enlist in the army and said that they belonged to the Kingdom of God and worldly matters were no concern of theirs, and many of them died in the concentration camps in Germany and the Soviet Union because their attitude subverted the revolutionary ideal and propagated asocial and counterrevolutionary ideas in society.”

The Twentieth Century was an age of contradictions: it matched childish, naïve optimism about the possibility of human freedom—from God, from morality, from the Earth, from responsibility to one another, from all internal and external limitations placed on the human animal—with a rapid and gleeful development of techniques and technologies of barbarity that makes Caligula’s Rome look utopian by comparison. “Europeana” is a gift because it clarifies for us the fact that practically nothing from the period can be clarified, and reminds us that many of the learn’d experts who try to do so would have been (if they weren’t already, in reality) willing architects of the century’s most grotesque and dehumanizing innovations.