Ora Et Labora
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uncertain notes on certainty, re: wittgenstein

On Certainty, a sinuous, monotonous, and indeed, somewhat uncertain collection of notes assembled towards the end of Wittgenstein’s life, centers around the question of whether we can truly be said to have knowledge, or certainty, of the external world around us. Specifically, what does it mean (or does it mean anything?) to say, when confronted by a tall, woody perennial in the garden, “I know that this is a tree.” We must ask, says Wittgenstein, whether it makes any sense to doubt it, and if so, on what conditions the doubt of such a statement would be reasonable.

Wittgenstein spends very little time on what it means to perceive, but focuses instead on the structure of statements about certainty, knowledge, and perception. I am reminded of D.B. Hart’s statement in The Experience of God that the postmoderns attempted to reduce all ontology to a mere examination of the grammar of predication; this is certainly what Wittgenstein does as he attempts to position statements of certainty in the various “language-games” (as he calls linguistic contexts) in which they are used. For example, in the context of philosophy, it might make sense to say “I know that this is a tree,” as Wittgenstein does here, as an illustration in a discussion of epistemology. In another context (or without context), it might mean something entirely different, or in fact nothing at all.

Wittgenstein concludes that certainty is not so much impossible, as irrelevant. To say “I know” is to describe an internal state of affairs in the mind: it carries with it no capacity for proof. In fact, it hardly even carries with it a reliable claim about the state of one’s mind, plagued as we are by a penchant for insouciantly shallow self-analysis. “What is the proof that I know something? Most certainly not my saying I know it” (487). Nevertheless, statements of knowledge are inevitable, and while to philosophers epistemology might be logically prior to any given statement of knowledge, Wittgenstein notes that this isn’t at all consistent with life. He gives the example of a child learning the meaning of words: the child will learn to identify the aforementioned tree as a “tree” far before the question of whether he “knows” that it’s a tree ever presents itself.

Statements such as “I know that this is a tree” – these make sense in a particular language game, in a particular context; a context in which it can be reasonably said that I have no grounds to doubt my own eyesight, and my own knowledge of what is referred to as a “tree” or a “hand” or whatever it is that I claim knowledge of. Our ability to make claims about knowledge in this way are fundamental, he concludes, beyond rational justification or falsifiability. When investigating any truth claim, we must ask, on what grounds do we hold the truth claim? On what grounds can I, holding up my hand in front of my face, say that I believe this is a hand? “And here one would still have to say what are complelling grounds … ‘I know that this is a hand’ – And what is a hand? – ‘Well, this, for example’” (266-268). Here we see that these sorts of claims are fundamental, tautological in their structure, not so much certain or uncertain as beyond the reach of the language-game of the epistemologists. They have meaning in their structure, in their place in a particular sort of conversation, but outside of that, seem to have hardly any meaning at all.

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the dangerous game of causality

While reading D. B. Hart’s essay “The Origin of the Specious,” I came across this sentence, which captures well the dangers of oversimplification: “when one begins to touch upon matters of a more abstract frame or of a more cosmic scope—say, God, the history of religion, the nature of morality, social evolution, historical determinism, ultimate purpose, and so on—then it is often the case that the only valuable answers will prove no less complex and daunting than the questions that have prompted them. At that point the journalist’s otherwise commendable passion to establish ‘the real story’ becomes more a hindrance than an aid to understanding.”

Intellectual and cultural conservatives, and I count myself one of them, love to speculate about causation. We stand in a tradition of pontification about how one idea led to another, and then another, and before you know it, Robespierre was chopping off people’s heads. In the classical education of my youth, figures like Francis Schaeffer and Richard Weaver drew long shadows over the study of art and philosophy. Behind a great deal of study lay the scarcely concealed ambition to discover where it all went awry. I must confess, in my nostalgia for the umbrageous ruins of a noble civilization now heaped with the opprobriums of modernity, that I feel a great deal of sympathy for this sort of thing. And yet it is also my duty to reflect on the epistemological ills to which this this perception of the past is liable.

In Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave”, he describes slaves chained, gazing for a lifetime at the wall opposite them in the eponymous cavern; a wall illumined by flickering firelight, and interrupted only by the shadows cast by those moving behind them. In such a world, they imagine that the shadows are identical with their corporeal causes, and when one among them is dragged forcibly out into the sunlight, treat him and his mad reports of physical reality with contempt, and even seek to kill him, upon his return.

This parable has proven apropos to nearly every conceivable narrative of intellectual or spiritual photisis, and it proves applicable to our topic of over-simplifying causation as well. A facile defense of the “discovery of original sin” style of intellectual history is that, while of course it is not meant to explain the entirety of the story, it nevertheless stands as a “simplification of the truth, but the truth nonetheless.” On the contrary, the shadows in the cave are not merely an “oversimplification of reality,” they are a lie, and to remain esconced comfortably among them is positively inimical to the discovery of truth. As Plato says, regarding the pity that the free man now feels towards his previous compatriots, “Would he not say with Homer, ‘Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?’” Better to be blind, than to think the shadows truth: they are a perversion of reality, despite their origin in the light. Causation by the truth does not imply the inherence of the truth in the thing caused.

For our purposes, the shadows in the cave are the ‘just-so’ stories that we tell ourselves about the past, and particularly about the causation of historical events and movements by ideas. In the telling of such stories, twin dangers appear; a Scylla and Charybdis, if you will. Firstly, the greater the explanatory power of the “real story” that we seek to get at (for example, Weaver’s attribution to nominalism all the evils of the modern west), the more likely it is to be in error, because of the simple complexity of causation. Any diligent student of history will understand the futility of monocausal explanations, and will note the lack of epistemological self-reflection required to seek for them. Secondly, as conservatives, a great deal of our eagerness to explain the causes for our age lies in the desire to pass judgment on it. Passing judgment through the assertion of purported causation is simply the genetic fallacy in its most classical form.

I must clarify that I am not here attempting to censure the passing of judgment in itself, nor am I condemning the historian’s urge to trace from one point to another the various causes of events for the edification of posterity. Livy and his famous preface may sleep easily. What I decry is the justification of over-simplified, or ‘monocausal’ metanarratives on the basis that over-simplification is not the same thing as error. Such metanarratives lead their advocates on a futile witch-hunt against anything which might be influenced by what they believe to have identified as the original intellectual sin. Perhaps a person has fallen prey to the belief that Augustine introduced Greek philosphy to the Church, and in so doing plunged Christianity down a slippery slope which could only lead to the secularism of the modern west. Besides the ghastly ignorance of philosophical history which such a view betrays, it leads those infected by it, when presented by a new idea for their understanding and evaluation, to carefully attempt to discern whether the idea evinces any similarity to or causation by ‘Greek philosophy’ (however this is defined), and to embrace or dismiss it on these asinine grounds, rather than on its own terms. I could repeat this example with any number of metanarratives, some more and less coherent, and the structure of my objection would be the same, and the greater the explanatory power of the metanarrative, the worse the effects become.

Before I conclude this short exercise in disapproval, I think that some speculation would not be inappropriate as to why we conservatives fall prey so easily to this variety of intellectual laziness. We hope to find in the past, with Livy, noble things to emulate, and “evil things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” This is entirely healthy. But, like Hart’s journalists, we are anxious to come upon “the real story,” that illusive yet puissant puzzle piece that will satiate our hunger for a straightforward explanation, and provide an easy rubric for judgment. The feeling of vindication by the past over one’s intellectual foes is satisfying, as I know from personal experience. Yet we conservatives also have a penchant for talking about “the higher things,” —grand aspirations as to what one might find in the light outside our flickering grotto, and a breathtaking optimism as to our ability to ascend to those dazzling heights—which is to say, those things which are above all least capable of simple explanation. The more complex and beautiful the idea, the sharper and more deadly the blade of explanation becomes, and thus in our human aptitude for the genetic fallacy, we are liable to meet a tragic end.

Postscript: In the prose above, I at various places absuse the English language to a degree perhaps galling to the reader, but of great amusement to myself. May those of an editorial mind forgive my linguistic mirth, and be satisfied that I know this already, and do not require help in discerning, for example, the phrase “puissant puzzle piece” to be less than the mot juste.

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2022 Book List

I’ve been inspired by various others on my Twitter feed to make something of a proposed book list for myself in 2022. I historically do not follow these sorts of lists very well at all, and in fact this list says far more about what I’m thinking about right now, than it does about what I will actually read this year, but perhaps in doing it I’ll give myself a little motivation. I’m sure I won’t read everything on this list, and I’m sure I’ll read many things that aren’t on this list, but everyone must start somewhere.

Modern theology:

  • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology
  • Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
  • D.B. Hart, The Experience of God
  • N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God
  • N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
  • Thomas Hopko The Orthodox Faith (4 vols.)
  • Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good
  • Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation

Ancient Theology:

  • Augustine, The City of God

    • I’ve read this through at least three times now, but I feel like I need to read it again, expecially the last half, because modern right-wing ideologues are really confused about the difference between the city of man and the city of God and I need to remind myself of sanity.
  • Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism

  • Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection

  • Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eumenius (if I really feel like it)

  • Origen, De Principiis

  • Gregory Palamas, The Triads

  • The Cloud of Unknowing


  • Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (5 vols.)
  • Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
  • D.G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History


  • John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Via Sua
    • I’ve read this before, but it’s been a while, and I feel I’d get more out of it by reading it again
  • Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
  • Wittgenstein, On Certainty
  • Kierkegaard, Various Selections
    • I like Kierkegaard, but I don’t know what specifically of him I want to read this year, and I’m certainly not going to read through the entirety of his selected works that I have on my shelf.


  • Whatever my wife and brother-in-law makes me read. Heh.
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The Only Valuable Answers

I suppose it would sound somewhat bigoted of me to say that one should generally be suspcious of jouranlists with an appetite for “large ideas,” but I intend no insult. Large ideas are not necessarily worthwhile pursuits and journalism is none the poorer for being, on the whole, inimical to them. The journalist’s chief vocation is to elucidate, to simplify, to synopsize, to reduce a story to its most elementary logic — all of which is very admirable where matters of plain fact are at issue. But when one begins to touch upon matters of a more abstract frame or of a more cosmic scope — say, God, the history of religion, the nature of morality, social evolution, historical determinism, ultimate purpose, and so on — then it is often the case that the only valuable answers will prove no less complex and daunting than the questions that have prompted them. At that point the journalist’s otherwise commendable passion to establish “the real story” becomes more a hindrance than an aid to understanding.

— D.B. Hart “The Origin of the Specious” (The Dream Child’s Progress, pg. 43)

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more musings on being a conservative

What does it mean to be a conservative, culturally, spritually, or theologically? (I leave aside completely and intentionally the question of classifying political conservatism today).

Growing up, I was taught that conservatism was an arrangement of oneself with respect to the past, a recognition that the past’s collective wisdom was larger than any single present’s wisdom, the belief that the best way forward was to perpetutate what we had been taught by our ancestors, at least insofar as it was righteous.

If I was taught that conservatism was a perspective of appreciation towards the past, as I’ve grown older, it seems that conservatism is rather a state of war towards the present. And not merely a state of war, but a rejection of peace, when offered. Peace is compromise, apostasy. Conservatism seems to be, rather than a love of the past, a statement of monocausal narratives for why the present is so bad. For example, Richard Weaver blaming western civilization’s downfall from an assumed 10-11th century peak on nominalism. Or Francis Schaffer’s analysis that western civilization is a slow train wreck stemming from Thomas Aquinas’ supposed separation of nature and grace, of the fall of man’s mind and his soul. Equipped with a narrative for why western civilization has been on an inevitable downhill path since basically the dawn of time, the conservative’s task becomes to identifiy these monocausal liberalizing tendencies in the modern world, and to blame everything on them.

Abortion? Damn nominalists at it again.

To some degree I jest, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a measure of truth to my frustration. Today many conservatives reject other Christians who are concerned with racial or economic justice as being “compromised,” but it’s unclear what exactly they’ve compromised on. Economic or racial injustice has certainly never been a conservative value. Perhaps a cynic would disagree with me here and say that they are, but I trust the good faith of my fellow Christians that they are not. So what exactly is being compromised? On Twitter, for example, I’ve seen a lot people saying that David French is “compromised,” but he hasn’t compromised on any specific doctrinal issue. From what I can tell, the main source of his “compromise” seems to be his belief that the identification of Trump’s secular right with evangelicalism is a greater danger to the Church than the “left.” Whether or not you agree with French, you must admit that the definition of “compromise” as the abandonment of, or even lack of focus on, a particular downfall narrative is sloppy at best.

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freedom of speech inside the prison

What line was crossed when Amazon Web Services removed Parler from their servers, after stating that Parler had demonstrated an inability to police content on its platform that incited violence?

I want to offer a few reflections, and what I believe social media censorship does and doesn’t represent. I care deeply about free speech, and also about digital technology as a medium for communicating that speech. I also care deeply about the polarization in our society and rifts between people that I daily see, rifts that I believe result from sloppy, wild, generalized language. So I don’t want to write an article about how “western civilization is crumbling and it’s all their fault.” It doesn’t mean that western civilization isn’t crumbling (or, perhaps, crumbled years ago, and is already lying beneath several layers of dirt), and that this unfortunate set of circumstances can’t be attributed to the actions and words of certain people throughout history, but swing about with generalizations and you’re bound to hit a few fine corinthian columns along with the barbarians. So I don’t want to attribute the actions of Amazon and Twitter to a particular political party, however much I think the issue of free speech is a political one. I want to make a point about how we users behave, and how we got here.

In theory, Amazon removed Parler from its servers because Parler demonstrated an inability to keep people from “inciting violence” on its platform, a platform that utilized Amazon hardware to spread its message. This raises a few interesting questions about the nature of “incitement.” Incitement of violence — not the reporting, nor the actual commission, of violence — was the stated reason for Parler’s removal. And Parler did not do the inciting — people on its platform did. When Amazon removed Parler, then, there are a few possible reasons that might come to mind, assuming of course that it was speaking in good faith about why it did so (and of course, I have no reason to believe it was in fact speaking in good faith, but that is a matter for another time): firstly, that Amazon considered that standing by while Parler stood by while yet others incited yet others to commit what it, Amazon, considered to be morally reprehensible actions. This is quite a few layers of moral indirection, but it is at least similar to the idea that “the only thing required for evil to triumph is for a good man to do nothing.” On its face, I find nothing objectionable about this, and so will pass on. Secondly, perhaps because Amazon found the actions taken at the capital to be morally reprehensible, as should we all, and because they felt that they were in a position to do something about it, they banned what they believed to be a significant player in the rise of the far-right. Briefly put, perhaps they banned Parler either because they thought that they themselves were implicated in the actions of Parler’s users because they happened over Amazon’s network, or perhaps they banned Paler because, whether they thought themselves implicated or not, they chose to remove from the world a force which they believed to be evil.

Of course I happen to think that Amazon did neither of these things, and that they banned Parler in order to cozy up to the political party which had recently won a major election in a world superpower, and thus acted for exactly the same reasons for which Blizzard acted when they banned a player from their game for criticizing China. But that’s not the point — the point is the principle of the thing, because it’s the principle of the thing that we use when we make laws.

Both of the reasons that I listed above are, I would argue, entirely legitimate. Amazon owns hardware, and they contract with other companies who rent that hardware. If they then choose to end that contract because they do not agree with how those companies are using their hardware, then they should have every right to do so. While I am neither privy nor knowledgable about the contract which Parler actually signed with Amazon, on its face I would hope that we can agree that Amazon’s right of choice over how to use its own hardware extends fairly easily from our notion of property rights.

And this brings up the principal point which I would like to address here: property rights. Social media companies have built their empire on a false promise, the promise that they are simply providing ground for you to build on. They are selling fake property rights, pointing off at some ground and telling you to build your house on it, to grow food there, to stake your livelihood on it, when in fact the entire thing is just an optical illusion and you’re living on a pancake held up by a turtle paid off by impersonal interests living thousands of miles away from your and your neighbors.

This doesn’t make people at social media companies evil. It doesn’t make Amazon wrong (remember, in principle, not in reality). Maybe there’s a hidden agenda behind it all, maybe there’s not; I’m arguing that it doesn’t matter. The real problem is that you think you own a house but you’ve been living in Mark Zuckerberg’s basement all along. Is a big deal when he kicks you out? Maybe, because you’re now cold and starving and digging around in the garbage bins outside McDonalds, but it’s not your rights that have been threatened, just your comfort. It’s not censorship and free speech that’s fundamentally at issue, it’s property.

Free speech isn’t being threatened by Twitter now. Free speech was threatened when we created a Twitter account without reading the terms and conditions, and thought of our profile as a piece of our property. Free speech was threatened when we started building all our digital infrastructure on only a few companies. Free speech was threatened when we believed the marketing propaganda and thought that social media was about expressing ourselves on other people’s hardware.

Our speech isn’t free because we locked it up and threw away the key. Prisons aren’t free speech zones, and Amazon servers aren’t either.

I don’t have any glib solution to this problem. I don’t have any answers but I hope I’m asking the right questions, and I hope you’ll ask them with me. I think that owning your own hardware is important. I think that open-source, free software is important. I think that having intellectual and physical ownership over what you do is important, which is why we should do less things with computers, and more of what we do should be built ourselves.

Ownership — physical and intellectual — matters more than we realize. We’ve built an entire society on delegating nearly every requirement for life, including speech, to others, and now we must reap the consequences. I don’t know what a solution looks like, especially because I’m a software developer by trade. It’s easy to for me to advocate for open source software, and managing your own hardware. I worked on a bootloader for x86 architectures over Christmas. I study operating system and compiler development in my spare time. I write a lot of my own tools, because I enjoy it. I built this website. I’m working on setting up on my own server infrastructure in my basement, once I own it. I build my own computers from parts. I use Arch Linux. None of these things are causes to boast, or make me special — any intelligent person who finds these sorts of things interesting and spends enough time on self-education can easily do the same. But at the same time, many people don’t enjoy this, and it’s not feasible for them to take this kind of control over their technology.

I’m also kind of a hypocrite because I have a Twitter account and I watch a lot of Youtube. I want to stop but I don’t because Mark Zuckerberg’s basement has a big TV and heated floors and surely the whole McDonalds’s dumpsters business won’t happen to little old me after all.

I’ll keep reading and writing about this, and perhaps I will become wiser.

Ora Et Labora

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Ramblings on Epistemic Conservatism

The last few years should have finally laid to rest the idea of progress, but, I am ashamed to report, it is still doing as well as ever. Knowledge is inseparable from sensation, said the empiricists, and forever secured in the popular mind the idea that by increasing the number of exeperiences we are exposed to, by expanding the data points available to us, we will become wiser, that is, better able to discern between what is true and what is false, between fact and hearsay. And yet there is more division now about the basics of human life than ever before. What even constitutes a good human life? What measure of success should we apply to our lives? Do we know better the answer to these questions than in the past? Everyone says that we do, but no one can agree, so on aggregate, what progress is there? A society in which everyone smugly knows better than everyone else, actually knows nothing at all.

The old is/ought problem rears its head at every turn. It is virtually impossible to get from an account of what is to how one ought to behave, or what is right and wrong, without some sort of presupposed, undergirding system to interpret the facts presented to us. And when, in our information age, there is such a great quantity of facts that the context is impossible to find? The facts recede into darkness, and no interpretation of them can be found.

Perhaps this desire for complete knowledge, complete integration of all facts, is laudable. Perhaps there is something in it reminciscent of God, in whom all things cohere. But it is not human. No human can take up the divine mantel of coherence. We humans can judge only a few things at a time.

What I’m then presenting is an epistemic argument for conservatism. We know nothing. The (human) choices are nihilism or conservatism. I believe the information age has made it clear that the third choice, pressing boldly on into the future confident that we will eventually gain the ability to discern meaning in the noise, while perhaps laudable, is also laughable in the same way every utopian vision is.

I grew up, more or less, with the idea that conservatism is valuable because we know better than the moderns, because we have the knowledge of the past. In the war of the two truths, the past had won. Christian fundamentalism had a similar forward-facing model, in which the good of the past was presented rather as a stick to spank the future with. I sympathize with this point of view, because like many people, I like to think that I have all my intellectual ducks in a row, and that I’m better than others at herding them across the busy streets of modernity. But that doesn’t make it a particularly defensible position. It assumes that the knowledge of the past was something we knew “immediately,” for sure. On the contrary, the knowledge of the past doesn’t even exist, except to the degree that it represents the shared experiences of our ancestors. We have a duty to follow because we know nothing. Not because we know better, because we know nothing. So we take the duties that have given to us, and the burdens we carry, and the precepts of our forefathers, and carry them forward, adding to them a bit with our own experience. That is what it means to be human, and what it means to know.

“The progressives are wrong because they have departed from the truth.” I’d like to rephrase that. The progressives are wrong because they, in their pride, believed that the truth was fundamentally knowable outside of human ways of approaching it. Truth is a wonderful thing, but in itself, completely unknowable to mediate beings, and so as a result, the only thing to do is press forward doing human things. Don’t be a conservative because you know the teaching of the past to be true in itself: you don’t know what is true, you know only your own mediate state, and so the most human truth you have is what you have been given, what your fathers have imparted to you. Discovering what we can, passing it along, ackowledging our place, raising children, farming, giving birth, dying. This is the truth that we have: the life that we have been given. That life takes place in a history, and we ought to respect that history as our only real source of truth, because it is, and what is, is good.

To know truth is simply to live, for what is is true, and to live is to float in the stream of the past. Don’t try to get out of the stream, or you will die, just try to swim a little better than the man behind you, and day by day you will get a little further. This is what you were created for.

Welcome to the valley of the shadow of death, child. No one here knows the way out, but a path has been past down to us from our ancestors. It is your duty to walk it, so that the sunrise, in whatever manifestation it chooses, will meet you ready, and walking. Honor your father and mother, that you may live long in the land.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet, have believed.

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Aurelius, Books 9-12, Selections

9.1 Again, one who pursues pleasure as good and tries to avoid pain as an evil is acting irreverently; for it is inevitable that such a person must often find fault with universal nature for assigning something to good people or bad which is contrary to their deserts, because it is so often the case that the bad devote themselves to pleasure and secure the things that give rise to it whilst the good encounter pain and what gives rise to that.

9.1 (later) … And when I say that universal nature employs these things in a neutral manner, I mean that, through the natural sequence of cause and effect, they happen indifferently to all that comes into being and whose existence is consequent upon a primeval impulse of providence, by which it set out from a first beginning to create the present order of things, having conceived certain principles of all that was to be, and assigned powers to generate the necessary substances and transformations and successions.

9.17 For the stone thrown into the air, it is no bad things to fall down again, as it was no good thing to rise up.

9.20 The wrongdoing of another should be left with its author.

9.35 Loss is nothing other than change; and change is the delight of universal nature, according to whose will all things come to pass.

10.2 Observe what your nature requires of you, in so far as you are merely governed by physical nature, and then do it and accede willingly, if your nature as a living creature will suffer no impairment. Next you must observe what you nature as a living creature requires of you, and accept that fully, if your nature as a rational living creature will suffer no impairment. Now every rational being is, by virtue of its rationality, also a social being. So apply these rules, and trouble yourself no further.

10.6 Whether there are merely atoms or a universal nature, let it be postulated first that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature, let it be postulated first that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature, and secondly, that I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself. If I keep those thoughts in mind, I shall never, in so far as I am a part, be discontented with anything allotted to me from the whole, for nothing which benefits the whole brings harm to the part. For the whole contains nothing that is not to its own good, and while this is a characteristic that all natures share in common, universal nature has this further characteristic, that there is no cause outside itself which could compel it to generate anything harmful to itself. If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pas; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself, I will never act against the common interest, but rather, I will take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to it. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow-citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him.

10.14 To nature who bestows all things and takes them all back, a person of true culture and modesty will say: ‘Give what it please you to give, and take what it please you to take’; and say so in no defiant spirit, but as one who only obeys her designs and thinks nothing but good of her.

10.24 What does my governing faculty mean to me, and what use am I presently making of it, and to what end am I employing it? Is it devoid of reason? Is it detached and severed from sociability? Or is it so fused and blended with my poor flesh as to move at one with it?

10.29 As you engage in each particular action, stop and ask yourself this question: Is death something terrible because I would be deprived of this?

10.38 Remember that the power that pulls our strings is that which is hidden within us: that is the source of our action, and our life, and that, if one may say so, is the person himself. When picturing its nature, never confuse it with the fleshly vessel that encloses it or these organs molded around us; for these are mere instruments like an axe, differing only in this, that they are attached to us as part of ourselves. For in truth, these parts are of no more value without the cause that set them to work or brings them to rest than the shuttle to the weaver, or the pen to the writer, or the whip to the charioteer.

11.1 …Rather, in every part of the whole, and wherever its end overtakes it, it realizes what it has proposed to itself fully and completely, so that it can say, ‘All that is mine, I have.’ …

11.18 Summary of the 9 rules for life

  1. Consider how you stand in relation to others, and consider that nature is the power that governs the whole, and that lower things (like yourself) exist for the sake of the higher.
  2. Consider what kind of person others are, above all, in what compulsions they are subject to because of their opinions, and what pride they take in their acts.
  3. If other people are acting rightly, there is no reason for you to be angry or perturbed of spirit, but if they are acting wrongly, it is involuntary or because of ignorance, so you still should not be angry.
  4. Remember that you for your part are just as great a sinner as they.
  5. You cannot even be certain that what they are doing is wrong, because knowing what is right or wrong for someone else requires an enormous amount of context that many times you are not privy to.
  6. When you are annoyed beyond measure and losing all patience, remember that human life lasts but a moment, and that in a short while we shall all have been laid to rest.
  7. It is not people’s actions that trouble us, because those are the decisions of their governing faculties, but rather the opinions that our governing faculties form of their actions. So stop making judgments of others that end in only harming yourself. The only actions of which you should be ashamed are your own.
  8. The anger and distress we feel at other people acting badly give us more suffering than the things that the other people did in the first place.
  9. Kindness is invincible, if it’s genuine. If you can’t change someone, say nothing, but if you have the opportunity to correct someone gently and without sarcasm or public reproach, do so.
  10. Extra credit! (or in MA’s words, “if you will, accept this tenth gift from Apollo”), it’s foolish to expect the bad not to wrong, because that’s to wish the impossible. But to expect that they should do wrong to others, but to expect them to exempt you, is “senseless and tyrannical.”

12.7 Consider what you should be like in both body and soul when death overtakes you, and the brevity of life, and the abyss of time that yawns behind it and before it, and the fragility of everything material.

12.32 … “Imagine nothing to be of any great moment apart from this, that you should act as your own nature directs, and love what universal nature brings.”


  • In 9.1 MA condemns of those who “avoid pain as an evil.” By describing pain in such terms, it rather seems that he is sidestepping the problem of evil by saying that pain is not actually evil; it is merely the conflict of one’s will with the will of universal nature. By accepting what universal nature has set out for us, we can refuse to treat our misfortunes as pain. As helpful as this is psychologically in coping with pain, I’m not sure at what point this kind of argument, qua ethical argument, is simply callous, or at least so prima facie. “The suffering of one who’s parent was killed during the Holocaust is not actually real, it is merely them being irreverent by perturbing themselves over the assignments of universal nature.” This is not a convincing or helpful statement, it seems, at least emotionally. But perhaps such emotions are merely the work of the lower appetites? Perhaps I’m overthinking it and MA is not trying to make an ethical statement at all, or perhaps he would see such ethical concerns, separated from the brute fact of universal nature, as useless? He says later (see next quote), that universal nature created “both opposites.” There seems to be a strange Manicheanism about all this.
  • In 9.17 we seem to see more of this “nothing is actually good or evil, only our relationship to it,” sort of thing. Yet clearly he believes evil to exist, because the entire point of his book is to show the reader that acting and being well is better than acting selfishly, or cruelly, or in some other evil way.
  • In 10.6 I suppose I get my answer to the previous two questions. Marcus Aurelius leans into the problem of evil completely and concludes that evil doesn’t exist at all — it’s only our relationship to the world. Pain and suffering aren’t the result of evil, merely the result of a flawed relationship to the “will” (by which MA really just means “what exists”) of universal nature. Once we learn to accept that we are a part of a whole which by definition can contain nothing that is not to its own good, then by definition whatever is is good for me, since I am a part of the whole. At this first this seems to be quite an unconvincing argument, but as I think about it more, it’s not that different than the classical definition of evil as the privation of good. Properly speaking, of course evil doesn’t exist, it’s just a relationship to the good (if we define negation as a relationship). It doesn’t seem a great philosophical stretch to say that “our evil” (that is to say, either evil that we commit, actions against the common good, or evil that we receive in the form of pain and suffering) is simply a relationship that we have to the good, which is “what is.” Good is, quite literally, “all that is.” After all, evil isn’t, so what other choice do we have? As far as Christian theology goes, this makes sense so far, but then insert “God” for “universal nature” as seems to be appropriate when reading MA and I get quite confused again. If evil doesn’t exist, and the “evil” that we either commit or receive comes simply through a flawed relationship to nature, why would God bother with sending his Son to die? I thought there wasn’t anything to fix? Creation isn’t flawed after all, it’s just our perspective in it. Maybe we can bring the two together by saying that sin, the corruption of the image of God in us, is what gives us the flawed relationship to nature that causes both the commission and reception of evil. The “existence” of “evil” in this sense isn’t really a flaw in nature but it is a flaw “in us” (somehow? I mean, aren’t we parts of nature? So how can we bring pain and suffering on ourselves through our delusion, as MA seems to be suggesting?), and that flaw “in us” is what Christ solves through his incarnation. Our sin isn’t really “evil” in itself (remember! Evil can’t exist by definition!) it’s just “bad for us” and so part of good, which is all that is, is God’s decree that Christ redeem us. Perhaps the story of redemption is a temporal manifestation of the fact that evil can’t actually exist, since God exists outside of time. Ok, I think I’ve gone far enough down this speculative road for now.
  • In 10.29 MA asks “Is death something terrible because I would be deprived of this?” I feel that really this is at the psychological root of attraction to Stoic philosophy. I think some people would answer this question “no.” I am not one of those people, and so deeply appreciate Stoicism, without much emotional turmoil.
  • I don’t understand 11.21’s argument for attending to the common good at all. It seems to say that “most people don’t hold the same opinions, except for those that relate to the common good, and so you should concern yourself with the common good so that way you can be consistent throughout your life.” (What world do you live in? People agree about the common good? Maybe he means this in some kind of the same sense in which Aristotle said in his Ethics that everyone wants to be happy, and that therefore happiness is the end of ethics?)
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Aurelius, Book 8, Selections

8.10 Regret is a kind of self-reproach for having let something useful pass you by. Now the good is necessarily a useful thing, and something that a truly good person should make his special concern; but no such person would feel regret at having let a pleasure pass him by; so pleasure should be regarded as neither useful nor good.

8.14 With everyone you meet, begin at once by asking yourself, ‘What ideas does this person hold on human goods and ills?’ For if he holds particular views on pleasure and pain and the causes of each, and no reputation and disrepute, and life and death, it will not seem extraordinary or strange to me if he acts in some particular way, and I shall remember that he is constrained to act as he does.

8.16 Remember that to change your mind and follow somebody who puts you on the right course is nonetheless a free action; for it is your own action, effected in accordance with your own impulse and judgement, and, indeed, your own reason.

8.27 We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

8.47 If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement on it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment.

8.48 …By virtue of this, a mind free from passions is a mighty citadel; for man has no stronghold more secure to which he can retreat and remain unassailable ever after. One who has failed to see this is merely ignorant, but one who has seen it and fails to take refuge is beyond the aid of fortune.

8.55 Taken generally, evil does no harm to the universe, and in each particular case, it does no harm to another, but only to the person who has been granted the power to be delivered from it as soon as he himself makes that choice.

8.59 Human beings are here for the sake of one another; either instruct them, then, or put up with them.


  • In 8.10 MA delivers a kind of syllogism on pleasure vs. the good, showing that the passing by of pleasure is not worth feeling regret over, because no “truly good person” would feel concern at the passing of pleasure, and therefore pleasure is not “useful.” This seems to be a circular argument because I would have to accept either 1) that no truly good person is the sort of person to feel regret at the passing of pleasure, as MA defines both “pleasure” and “regret,” or 2) that pleasure is neither good nor useful, and that this is why it follows that no truly good person would feel regret over the passing of a pleasure. Either way it seems that though presented as a syllogism this is really just a tautological observation following from prior assumptions about the nature of both pleasure and regret.
  • In 8.14, as elsewhere, MA rationalizes the “good” person’s frustration with those who are not good by reminding the reader that such people are “constrained” in their actions by their beliefs. This seems odd, given that it would seem that the entire point of MA’s work is to persuade the reader that their actions are not, in fact, constrained, but that they can choose whatever they like, retiring into the citadel of their mind and thus freeing themselves from the constraint of enslavement to the passions. But perhaps this is itself just what MA is getting at. Because a couple of paragraphs later he says that “Remember that to change your mind and follow somebody who puts you on the right course is nonetheless a free action.” From this I gather that MA views our actions as in some measure determined by our beliefs, but our beliefs to be in some measure the result of free will (and thus ends up sounding much like Jonathan Edwards). Nevertheless the juxtaposition of the unwise man being “constrained” in his unwise actions (and therefore not really “choosing” evil in way in which a good man “chooses” good), and the wise man who chooses good as is proper to his nature, is a strange one, and makes me think that I don’t really understand very well how MA thinks of the will.
  • In 8.48 a man who understands MA’s thesis about the citadel of the mind, but does not follow it, it “beyond the aid of fortune.” Is “fortune” here a figure of speech or something more substantive about the way the world works? I can’t help but think of the Catholic distinction between those who are outside the Church due to ignorance, and those who reject the Church’s teaching while knowing it to be the truth.
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RSB, 4

First of all, love the Lord God with all your whole heart, your whole soul and all you strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Then the following: You are not to kill, not to commit adultery; you are not to steal nor to covet; you are not to bear false witness. You must honor everyone, and never do to another what you do not want done to yourself.

Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing.

Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue.

Do not repay one bad turn with another. Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently. Love your enemies. If people curse you, do not curse them back but bless them instead. Endure persecution for the sake of justice.

You must not be proud, nor given to wine. Refrain from too much eating or sleeping, and from laziness. Do not grumble or speak ill of others.

Place your hope in God alone. If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge. Live in fear of judgement day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be. As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father. Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech. Prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.

Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer and change from these evil ways in the future. Do not gratify the promptings of the flesh; hate the urgings of self-will. Obey the orders of the abbot unreservedly, even if his own conduct — which God forbid — be at odds with what he says. Remember the teaching of the Lord: Do what they say, not what they do.

Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so. Live by God’s commandments every day; treasure chasitity, harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling; shun arrogance; Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone make peace with him before the sun goes down.

And finally never lose hope in God’s mercy.

These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. When we have used them without ceasing day and night and have returned them on judgement day, our wages will be the reward the Lord has promised; What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love him.

The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is in the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

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Aurelius, Book 7, Selections

7.3 …Keep in mind that a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he has set his heart on.

7.16 Our governing faculty never disturbs its own peace; I mean, it never arouses fear in itself, or desire. But if someone else can arouse fear in it or cause it pain, let him do so, for on its own accounts it will not exercise its judgement in such a way as to deliver itself to such feelings. Let the body take care, if it can, that it should suffer no hurt; and let the soul, which can come to know pain and distress, speak out if it suffers any such thing; but that which judges these matters overall will suffer nothing at all, for it is not its way to make such a judgement. In itself the governing faculty wants for nothing, unless it creates the want for itself, and likewise, it is not subject to disturbance or hindrance, unless it disturbs or hinders itself.

7.28 Retire into yourself. The rational governing faculty is of such a nature that it finds it contentment in its own just conduct and the serenity that it gains from it.

7.29 Wipe out impression. No longer allow your passions to pull you around like a puppet. Confine your attention to the present time. Learn to recognize what is happening to yourself or another. Divide and analyse every given object into the material and the causal. Give thought to your last hour. Let the wrong committed by another remain where it first arose.

7.64 …And remember this too, that many disagreeable things are really just the same as pain although we do not perceive them to be, such as drowsiness, or the oppression that we feel in hot weather, or loss of appetite. So when something like this is beginning to distress you, say to yourself, ‘You are giving way to pain.’

7.65 See that you never feel towards misanthropes as such people feel towards the human race.

7.75 Universal nature set out to create a universe; and now it is either the case that all that comes to be does so as a necessary consequence of that, or else even the most important things, to which the governing faculty of the universe directs its own efforts, like outside the rule of reason. Remember this, and you will face many a trouble with a calmer mind.


  • In 7.75 does MA mean “reason” to be something like “pondering” or “judgement,” since it seems not be an attribute of the “governing faculty of the universe,” and is set against “necessary consequence”? On the contrary, might not God, the governing faculty of the universe, have something analogous to our “reason,” as MA means it here?

  • In 7.64 MA separates pain from the governing intellect, saying that “neither in so far as it is rational nor in so far as it is concerned for the common good does pain cause it any harm.” This seems very far separated from how we talk about emotional pain these days. Drawing a dividing line between the highest part of the soul (whatever it is to be called), and the emotions, appetites, thoughts, or “impression” as MA says in my translation, used to be a common and essential feature of philosophical psychology. But defining our identity as nothing more than the sum of our thoughts or emotions seems to be common now. Perhaps dangerous? See also 7.33.

  • MA alternates between speaking of ‘god’ or ‘the gods’ as personal beings who have plans for us, or who take care of us (cf. 7.70) yet other times (esp. when speaking of death) takes a more pantheistic view of what we would probably call the divine, the “governing faculty of the universe,” (7.75) which is truly eternal and “necessary” (as separate from rational or individual). ‘The gods’ do not pervade all things but the governing faculty of the universe does, and it’s that force which we are absorbed into or continue in after death, and for MA this provides meaning for life and death. At what point does this become identical to the way some modern atheists talk about “Life” in a semi-divine way?

  • 7.28 “Retire into yourself.” MA (along with other writers of a similar vein) talk about the actions of the governing faculty in a passive sense. The governing faculty separates itself from the appetites like a tired party guest departing for its home and a quiet cup of tea. Yet in practice “retiring into yourself” and separating your identity from pain and appetite is perhaps the most mentally exhausting work possible. Do eastern writers speak the same way? I know that in strains of Buddhism I’ve read about meditation is often spoken of in very active terms, but I don’t know enough to compare or contrast.

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Bland Centrism

It’s difficult to uphold the rights, values, desires, and hopes of one group without seeming to undervalue the same attributes of other groups, especially if those groups have traditionally held each other in opposition. No example should be more apropos than the public conversation surrounding the Trump administration, on both sides, that it is difficult to separate the rhetoric of populism from the simple cultivation of animosity. “You are valued and important,” and “you are better than your enemies” are two different, yet apparently inseparable, notions in political conversation. And not just political conversation; they appeal to to man’s most basic sin, pride.

Centrists are stuck, it seems, with the blandest rhetoric imaginable. Great rhetoric, like any other great art, is defined by stark contrasts, alternating gentle and martial timbres, deep shade and bright glory, and the eternal conflict of good and evil. By writing about how “the other side is not so bad as you might think,” you may not stir up much trouble, but you run the danger of not stirring up much at all. You risk becoming the Haydn quartets of political discourse; not worth hating, not worth listening to.

Centrism must come from a place of non-centrism, a place of strong beliefs and stark contrasts between right and wrong, and only become centrist with respect to some particular conversation, as it were, accidentally.

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Blog Introduction

My intention for this blog is for it to be a reading journal. Perhaps I’ll occasionally write about other things.

Once I had larger aspirations for it, and there are number of articles which I once write for it, which perhaps I will someday put up in an archive. For now, they are available amongst the old blog’s code at its Github repository

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