Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
-T. S. Eliot


Post-Graduation: Now What.

I'm out of college.

My semester's project is technically over but I don't think I'm done here. And so, we relocate. That's right, people: for the continuing Step to the Block, please check


This will be a bit of a different critter, but the same idea.


Bible: Revelation

You want ironic? Here's ironic. I am reading Revelation. According to Harold Camping, the rapture is happening tomorrow (May 21). Well. Let's see where he's getting this.

Okay. So the answer looks like numerology and speculation (St. Augustine, we are no longer as irritated with you. Clearly you were not as bad as we thought you were). That's my prognosis partly because I have looked him up, and mostly because after having just read Revelation and Daniel, what I have come away with is that while God gives us insight into the future through prophecy, being made aware of what will happen in no way changes the fact that que sera, sera. I don't feel like it's worth much more of my time to go into detail on why exactly I think what Camping does is wrong, so I'm going to move on to talking about the text itself.

Ending this portion of my studies with Revelation was a good idea. Well-played, curriculum. The best part about this is that ever since I went to Patmos two summers ago (where John saw the vision and wrote Revelation) I have been wanting to go over this book again. I think Revelation was my favorite book of the Bible when I was younger, and I think it was because I thought it was like a puzzle that I would be able to solve when I was a little older and a little smarter. Turns out that getting older and smarter meant my theory on cracking the Revelation code became clearly ridiculous, and I abandoned it for more direct study of other books. But my beginning is my end (more Eliot!), and so now I am back where I started. And truly seeing it for the first time.

The portion of Revelation I'd like to focus on is in chapter 5, when the scroll in the right hand of him who sits on the throne is presented to the host of heaven. I don't normally do this, but here's the text:

1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
 6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:
   “You are worthy to take the scroll
   and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
   and with your blood you purchased for God
   persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. 

This passage strikes me. Why does John weep? He is in heaven. He is looking at God the Father on the throne. In the previous chapters he has described the splendor and profound mystery of all that he is witnessing. What does John think is so important about this scroll that he would weep at the prospect of it remaining sealed? 

The sealed scroll did indicate a contract or some sort of document of importance historically. And sealed scrolls are frequent imagery in other prophetic books, namely in the Old Testament. Perhaps John figured the scroll contained some sort of revelation from God, and was heartbroken to think that he would never hear it. But he's already in heaven receiving revelation. Again, why does he weep? 

It occurred to me upon reflection that perhaps he is not weeping because the scroll can not be opened, but because there is no one in heaven or on earth who is worthy to open it. John is looking around: he sees angels, fantastic beasts, and God himself. But where is the one who is worthy? Where is Christ?

Could he have been expecting Jesus? Was he weeping because when the time came to open the scroll, he thought he knew who would be able to but was shocked when that person did not appear? The moment that Christ appears, an elder tells John to stop weeping because the one who is worthy has arrived. I could not help but think of the angel at the tomb: "He is not here! He is risen!" How often our eyes are redirected, our misery transformed into joy when we behold the truth. 

And that is why the Lamb is worthy, after all. Christ is able to break the seven seals on the scroll because he was slain and his blood was poured out. That sacrifice was required before any would be worthy to reveal the contents of the scroll in the hand of God. 

This passage just fills me with hope. There is one who is worthy. There is one who has covered all with a sacrifice, saving us and making it possible for us to discover what God the Father has written in the scroll.

As I wrap up my study this semester, I am thankful that I can look back on past posts and see a clear progression among the texts I have covered. I don't have to evolve toward perfection as Darwin predicted. Global communism doesn't have to foster world peace. I don't have to cut myself loose from intellect or morals to become my true self. I don't have to follow my id. I don't even have to try my hardest to be a man of faith, or a man of wonder, or even follow the Tao with undivided attention. While each author I've read this semester was trying to find a way for humans to raise themselves above our often sorry state, each of their theories is inadequate when attempted on my own power. Only the Lamb is worthy. Only through Christ's sacrifice can humans experience both redemption and revelation, and only through faith in his worthiness can I ever come to terms with all of my shortcomings and failures. 

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
   be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”


Bible: Daniel

I remember feeling guilty for being good at things when I was younger. That sounds pretty dramatic, and it wasn't really as bad as all that, but I think this part of my life demonstrates an interesting phenomena in the Christian world. When people would tell me I was particularly talented in some way, it would make me uncomfortable. I remember thinking things like, "Well, you're only congratulating me because you're not a Christian." And it's not like they were admiring me for a vice or something; it would be some harmless talent, like athletics or public speaking. But even as an elementary-schooler, it became clear that the non-Christian adults I knew were more impressed by the things I could do than the adults I met at church. 

For some reason Christians get weird when other Christians are well-liked by the secular community. We want Christian recording artists to be successful, but not too successful. We want Christian actors to be admired for their skill, but don't want them to be offered too much money for a film contract. We want our fellow church members to be blessed with healthy families and thriving businesses, but we don't want things to go too well for them-- in case, you know, it starts making them sin or something. And while the concern about the secular world's charms is a valid one, I think Christians are just plain afraid to do well by any standards but their own. 

Why must we feel guilty for being awesome? While reading Daniel this week, I was struck by how God was able to use Daniel and the other noble youths simply because they were the best at everything. The Israelites that Nebuchadnezzar selected were chosen for being "both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans." (1:3-4) 

Obviously, there were only a few among the Israelites who fit this description. But of those who did, Daniel established himself as even a cut above them. Daniel was the awesomest of the awesomest. And for that he was not brought low or prone to falling into pride. Rather, God used him to protect the Israelites while they were under a foreign king, and allowed him to rise in power among the Babylonians. He was only able to achieve these things in a foreign land because his pedigree and qualifications were undebatable even to Babylonian standards. 

In fact, being so darn impressive allowed him to be even more bold in his faith than he may have been able to otherwise. He makes a deal with the eunuch in chapter 1 so that the Israelites don't have to eat the king's meat; he convinces the guard ordered to kill him to give him some time to talk with the king. He even interprets three different dreams of destruction for three different kings, and is only rewarded for his work. Rather than being quickly disposed of, Daniel is the constant while three kings come and go. He is only persecuted once, and it's because other leaders are jealous of his power, not merely because Daniel is an Israelite. 

Daniel's example demonstrates that rather than being hesitant to excel in the secular world, Christians should be striving for excellence. Using our abilities brings glory to God in many more ways than we can imagine, and perhaps we are not demonstrating true faith when we hold ourselves back simply because no other Christians are excelling in our chosen field. If Christians can hold top positions in corporations and sell millions of albums and be the most-sought psychologists, we will be able to impact the world in far greater ways than if we only compare ourselves to other Christians. 

With Daniel as my guide, I will not hide my awesomeness from the world! In whatever ways I am gifted, I will work my hardest to be the best so that my skills and effort are a testament to God's greatness. And if the world can learn to love me for my skills, I will have a better chance of showing the world how to love my God. 


John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University

This is what I am afraid will happen with the advent of online classes:

"Knowledge... never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no intercommunication, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know the, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy, three times a week, or three times a year, or once in three years, in chill lecture rooms or on a pompous anniversary." VI.9

I have already seen this in public schools. I have seen this even in private institutions where this very passage is spoken as a warning. I feel toward this phenomenon as I do toward frostbite or gangrene; I want to believe that there is a way to heal the faulty part, but in moments of despair I feel that all there is to do is sever the infected limb.

This can't happen with the education system. With the rapid development of more and more affordable and streamlined online university classes, students are buying into the idea of remote education requiring little personal effort outside compulsory biweekly posts on the course website. But if this system, built for our comfort and wallets, turns into input-output accreditation with no fostering of intellect, we will have no gentlemen.

I'm not talking about coat-tails and opening doors. Newman presents a very detailed picture of the gentleman, or the man who is "well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life--" (V.9) Still sound stuffy? The gentleman is pretty much the person who loves those around him best. If you need more clarification than that, I highly recommend you pick up the book.

My question for Newman is this: if it is best for every man to be a gentleman for the well-being of his soul, shouldn't all people attend University? And if that were the case, who would be doing all the skilled and unskilled labor to make our world go round? As the granddaughter of a blue-collar man, I believe in the power of the laboring gentleman, but education seems to be an integral part of Newman's equation. That's further complicated by the fact that he was writing in Ireland at a time when work was scarce and families were starving. Why at such a time would Newman push for a return to the university education of the gentleman? I certainly find the arguments within the book compelling now, but the historical context of this book problematizes the message for me.

Newman has me convinced: university education is constantly in danger of falling into pedantry or worse. We must be diligent teachers and students so that intellect is being fostered in the proper environment and to proper ends. But Newman hasn't quite convinced me that at a time when Ireland's people were dying by the thousands, a good university education was what the doctor ordered.


T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Choosing to only write about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock felt a little bit like choosing which pet to take with me out of a burning building. I feel like a traitor for not talking about The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday, or The Four Quartets (The latter makes me feel particularly guilty, since it is arguably my favorite poem of all time and the namesake for this blog). I will spend the next several hundred words explaining to myself why my decision is okay, mainly by attempting to make everything I've been thinking about this poem sound as cool as possible.

So. Prufrock is like, really cool.

Okay okay okay, I know I don't have to work that hard to make this poem worth talking about. So where do I begin?

Prufrock references two of Western literature's most famous texts in a way that feels neither showy nor unexplained. Yet as someone who has read both Divine Comedy and Hamlet more than once, it took me a little while before the implications of these references took hold. I think that means Eliot did it right.

A quotation from Book XXVII in Dante's Inferno prefaces the poem itself, so thinking about Dante was pretty unavoidable. While this particular Inferno passage dealt with the secrets the dead reveal when they believe no one will be able to return to the world above with information, the connection to Dante as a character that is established has interesting implications. Comparing himself in some way to Dante was not uncommon for Eliot; he dedicated The Wasteland to Ezra Pound by quoting one of Dante's descriptions of Virgil. But this allusion seems a little more involved than that.

Like Dante, Prufrock and his unknown guest are on a journey toward a woman. They both identify themselves as being middle-aged. But the similarities seem to stop there. Dante loves Beatrice. Prufrock does not love the woman or women he is meeting-- though he may long for their acceptance, he actually seems to think their life of parlor-chat and tea is exclusive and petty. Dante feels completely understood by Beatrice, and is led through dangerous situations with her guidance. Prufrock feels completely misunderstood by society women, to the point that he questions whether it is worth it to even attempt to express himself to them. Loving Beatrice saves Dante and allows him to behold Paradise; Prufrock compares the women and their mesmerizing "chamber" to mermaids who lure you underwater to your death.

Though Hamlet is often on my mind, I would not have thought to connect his interesting relationship with women to this discussion unless Eliot had nudged me in that direction. Prufrock seems to bring up the Prince of Denmark only to illustrate that rather than seeing himself as a main character in the scope of things, he perceives himself as more like Polonius; long-winded, easily used, and far less important than Hamlet himself. But a little reflection on Hamlet's own character made me realize that Prufrock is much more like Hamlet than he claims. Hamlet, like Prufrock, has a difficult time trusting women. While Hamlet struggles with hating Gertrude and Ophelia for what he sees as sexual transgressions, Prufrock harbors bitterness toward women because they can so easily and so quickly tear him down. Both men seem paralyzed with indecision, and both are aware of it and unhappy. They are also both acting. Prufrock keeps coming back to little tricks he uses to appear more respectable and hide the signs of his age. Hamlet puts on a front of insanity in order to plot his revenge against Claudius. Both men seem to believe that the facade is necessary; they seem unable to function honestly in society without their outer front.

What am I supposed to think of Prufrock? Why am I given two very different, very famous men to compare him to? I'm inclined to associate him more with Hamlet, but Prufrock rejects that label for a more minor one. Above all else, this poem makes me wonder how hard we should have to work to be understood. It seems like the world of upper-class salons and parlor discussions of fine art do not facilitate real communication or charitable behavior, and Prufrock is exasperated by it. He longs for acceptance to the point that he would rather be a crab at the bottom of the ocean than a human, connecting his desire to move amongst the women in the parlor with the freedom of a crab in the caves of mermaids-- although he may be no more than a beast, at least he won't drown.


G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

 I have had children and myths on the brain lately. It's mostly because I've been reading a lot of Plato, and Plato was concerned with the huge effect stories have on how children grow up. So when I got to the part in Orthodoxy where G. K. Chesterton writes about how children perceive magic, I was all ears.

Chesterton begins by proving that many adults wrongly attribute magical phenomena to nonexistent laws. Strangely enough, my public school 10th grade trigonometry class covered this. In a particularly philosophical moment, our teacher told us that probability mandates that there is only a 50/50 chance that the sun will rise the next day after it has set in the evening. Although it has risen for millions of mornings in a row, each sunrise occurs independently of those that come before it-- every morning, it is just as likely that the sun will not appear as it is that it will. So while adults believe that the sun must rise, it is in fact magical when it happens each day because according to probability it was just as likely not to happen at all. 

This perspective allows those things which are often mistaken as"normal" to be properly understood as magical. Repetition in nature is no longer God creating things according to an arbitrary system: Chesterton points out that perhaps each daisy in a field looks the same not because it must, but because God delights in making each one to look the same. He has not yet gotten bored with the daisy's design, which apparently adults are prone to. The obvious example here is that young children will ask to hear the same story, watch the same movie, or play the same game over and over again until they are stopped by an adult who has grown irritated. This does not indicate a lack of imagination in children-- rather, it shows that normal happenings still retain their rightful magical quality for young ones, while adults can only see magic in things that feel extraordinary.

Chesterton, the master of metaphor, says it thus: "A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door." The consistency of average door-openings is what helps us understand that magical deviation from the norm is indeed magic. But a young child is mesmerized by normalcy itself and recognizes its rightful magical quality. This is why fairy tales are an excellent medium of storytelling for children. They are just as eager to hear a story about a perfectly normal boy doing perfectly normal things as they are to hear a story about the unusual, because both are magical.

What do I conclude from all of this? First, that Chesterton's Orthodoxy sets out to prove a great many things, but clearly this section on magic and children captivated me most. Second, that though it may require little effort to tell a story that a child would be eager to hear, it takes much thought and effort to craft one that is worth their attention. I have recently felt much more respect for children's authors who achieve this, since I think it requires an appreciation for the magical repetition of life and of what is best for children to hear-- a balance that only becomes more difficult to navigate as I grow older.


Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

The cover of this book is blowing my mind right now. Here is the far-away version:

The image is a small section of Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac, which was painted some time around 1600. But here's the thing that kills me about this:

Isaac is looking straight into the eyes of the viewer. While sitting in my apartment taking a break from reading, I glanced down into my lap to find Isaac pleading with me. In his face you see the confusion, the horror, and the fear of this young son: a son who, in many ways, is living my worst nightmare. A mere rejection by those who love me is pain enough, but Isaac faced execution at the hand of his father with no notice or explanation. All of that is made known in the Biblical account of this story, and is most likely depicted faithfully in the Caravaggio. But the fact that this image in particular appears on the cover of Fear and Trembling brings a whole heap of problems to mind.

So here I am, reading this book about the man of faith. Kierkegaard tells me that Abraham lives the kind of faith that us regular folks can only hope to possess, and goes on demonstrate through the universal and resignation exactly what that faith requires. It's hard for me at first, but I begin to understand his reasoning and his project. I start to see how what he says could be true. But then I take this tea break, and when I come back to my book I am confronted anew with Isaac. All I see of Abraham are hands that resolutely grasp the knife and neck. Rather than staring into the eyes of the man of faith, who I have been so concerned with, I come face to face with his victim.

In this moment, the whole problem of this book comes crashing down on me. How can I reconcile the picture that Kierkegaard paints of Abraham's love for God and Isaac with the clear picture Caravaggio has given me?  In what Isaac thought were his final moments, he saw no love in Abraham's actions. While Abraham's case may be extreme, I can't help but wonder how it is that God could ask us to live with this sort of faith if the love we have for others could, as it did for Isaac, look like abandonment and rejection.

The obvious example that comes to mind is murder. According to what Kierkegaard identifies as the universal, God has set up ethics that indicate the system in which humans rightfully operate. As such, there are some actions that clearly go against the universal, and it is wrong for humans to commit such deeds. One such deed is murder. It goes against the universal to deliberately take the life of another human being. But Kierkegaard claims that when Abraham obeyed God and set out to sacrifice Isaac, he was able to act outside the universal because he was following God. This is faith: to do all that God asks of you without questioning it, and to absolutely believe that everything asked of you will result in immediate happiness so that you never have to hope that God will not truly demand all of you. Clear as mud? Right.

Well, now that that's settled, here's the problem I was faced with. If faith like Abraham's requires God telling you to go against the universal and therefore act outside of ethics, how can we tell when someone is doing wrong and when someone is following God? To Isaac, it must have just looked like his father had gone off the deep end. And that makes me think of those in recent years who have killed and claimed that God directed them. To us, as it did to Isaac, that makes no sense. It looks unethical. It seems to go against everything we believe about God-- why would He ask anyone to disregard His own commandment regarding murder? But Kierkegaard says that the man of faith does not stop to ask why when God commands him to step outside the universal. Rather than wonder what Isaac will think, or doubt that God would ask him to kill the child that was promised to be the first of a constellation of descendants, Abraham believes that God has Isaac's and his own immediate happiness in mind. And Abraham will kill Isaac unless God stops him.

God stops him. But the assumption I leap to is that sometimes, God doesn't stop the man of faith. That means that for all I know, those who murder or do other things I perceive as ethically wrong are just better believers than I am. When there is no other explanation than divine revelation, how according to Kierkegaard can man determine what is just? It seems like a justice system that allowed for men of faith acting outside the universal would be a justice system pandering to the criminal. Can Christians participate in justice and uphold the law if no Christian can say for certain whether a man has acted rightly by his neighbor?

Justice as a claim made by the individual seems fraught with problems; but if we were all men of faith, we would know that such a world would function just as it should because it was ordained by God. Maybe Kierkegaard would say that the reason I can't agree with him is because I am not yet a man of faith. Either way, I can't stop looking at the cover of my book.

It's bizarre that Penguin chose this small part of a painting as the cover of this text. If the focus of the cover had been the depiction of Abraham, I feel like this post would have gone in a very different direction. But Isaac's eyes are distracting and have caused me to ask the questions he must have been asking. The pairing of this early 17th century painting with a mid- 19th century text has caused this 21-st century thinker to scratch her head.


Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents

Though I had not read Civilization and Its Discontents before this week, I was vaguely familiar with it because this text has been referenced incessantly throughout my undergraduate career. It comes up during discussions of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's Hamlet, literary critical theory classes, and discussions of philosophy. I even taught a class session last spring on Freudian influence in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Did I speak authoritatively on Freud's arguments? Yes. Had I actually read more than a paragraph that was actually written by Freud? No. 

That's what education can do to you if you're not careful: suddenly you're being lectured by a student who met with a teacher who had a class in grad school taught by a professor who read a book written by someone who read Freud. This is not the main reason, but this is a huge reason I value the classical education I have received. My teachers don't simply ask me to dip my toes in the water; they take me to the place where the rock has split open and ask me to stand beneath the falls. 
All that to say, I was very glad to be finally turning the pages that the man himself wrote rather than just throwing around words like "Id" and "Superego" like I knew exactly what I was talking about. 

Here's what I ended up thinking about most: how does what Freud calls happiness line up with how other philosophers define it?

The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, which I studied last spring. There we are told that a man's unalienable rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," thus making happiness something to be freely sought on an individual basis so long as it does not interfere with another man's rights. But Freud makes it plain that he has little respect or patience for America (in Section 5 he states that "the present cultural state of America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.").  That makes me think that Freud is not thinking of American ideology when he discusses happiness.

Interestingly enough, I have been reading Plato's Phaedrus for a different class this semester. In that text, Socrates explains to Phaedrus the myth of the soul, and that each soul is made up of a charioteer who is driving one good white horse and one ill-behaved black horse. Starting to sound familiar? As I read Freud this week, Plato's ordering of the soul kept reminding me of what Freud has to say about the relationship between the Id, Ego, and Superego.

The distinctions that I draw between these two three-part souls is this: while both souls have happiness as their goal, Freud's soul can only find happiness that is available through physical pleasure in the temporal world. While Plato acknowledges that there is happiness to be had on earth, the Platonic soul is seeking a happiness that will largely come in the afterlife, where each soul struggles to become more like a god. For Freud, the body is the receptacle through which we are able to experience pleasure and thus have happiness; for Plato, the body is an obstacle which interferes with the soul's pursuit of higher happiness by demanding lesser physical pleasures.

Another important distinction seems to be that while Freud recognizes the interaction between the Id, Ego and Superego as a constant war between the conscious, the subconscious, and shame, Plato claims that the soul must exist in perfect harmony among all three parts in order to be truly happy. This requires that the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive impulses of the soul must all be kept in a delicately perfect balance, which enhances the happiness a soul is able to experience. Freud, then, believes that the soul (or internal human process) is one that is defined by war, while Plato sees the ideal soul existing in peace. 


Friedrich Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morals

I am beginning to think that reading all of these books in a row is going to set up a huge compare/contrast chart in my head where I will attempt to unify everything I've read this semester. But it's not my fault: so far, all three of the four Masters of Suspicion have collided (particularly on the subjects of the nature of man, man's instinct, and the ordering of the universe). I'm just trying to pick up the pieces.

Right now, I can't stop thinking about how differently Nietzsche's concept of instinct is from what Darwin outlines in Origin of Species. Nietzsche very strongly believes that man was like all other animals once, which seems to line up with Darwin's theory of macroevolution. However, Nietzsche believes that integral to this animal-state, man relied much more strongly on basic instincts. Nietzsche highlights the shift animals take from base instinct to relying on reason by beginning with the creatures that once lived entirely in water. As the environment changed around them, remaining in the water was no longer a viable way to survive. This means that  the organisms either simply died because their instinct's instructions weren't enough to keep them alive any more, or they somehow used reason to figure out how to survive on land. This reduction from relying on infallible instinct to the incredibly weak faculty of reason is what began the animal kingdom on the journey to "de-evolving" into humans with well-formed reasoning capacities. I call this a de-evolution because while it highlights the same changes that Darwin points out through macroevolution, Nietzsche is adding an evaluative statement to this change: it's bad. Because animals had to develop their ability to reason (which Nietzsche compares to having to rely on "your weakest and most fallible organ"), weaker humans eventually used reason to craft morality and throw the universe into the sickness of guilt and bad conscience.

So to Darwin, evolution is a gradual movement toward perfection for all of the natural world. To Nietzsche, evolution represents the force that allowed humankind to throw off the natural ordering of the universe that existed when instincts ruled the day.

I will hopefully be able to go into detail about this later, but a lot of what Nietzsche had to say appealed to me. He writes beautifully and passionately, and his arguments are convincing. So, as far as a general reaction to the book goes, I have this to say: if I were not a Christian, I think I would be a disciple of Nietzsche. Or I would worship nature. Interestingly, I think the two would go very well together.


Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto

The scope of the future as predicted by Marx and Engles is staggering. For two people who had never seen an effective historical example of Communism, these authors truncate all explanation of their theory into hard-hitting, sometimes cryptic sentences that are capable of overpowering the reader through sheer stylistic power. But I am struck by the assumptions they make, particularly about the notion of global Communism, that seem either impossible to support through fact or impossible for humans to attain. While these men are highly cynical of the bourgeoisie, they seem to have a sort of dark optimism about the future of Communism that seems illogical.

Integral to their argument is that all communities functioned through Communism in early history. The first move of individuals to possess private property and own more than their neighbors began a cycle that slowly developed the divide between a land-owning aristocracy and the proletariat. Marx and Engels provide no specific evidence, but claim with all authority that Communism is man's natural state, and was the only way that humans ever lived successfully on this planet. This is my first problem with their argument; they claim that men live best under Communism, but have never personally seen nor have they examples of a culture where this is true. Also, they state that all men lived by Communistic values, but again have no way to prove that this is the case.

At the creation of the aristocracy, Marx and Engels identify a change in human society that perpetuates itself for centuries. This causes the creation of the hated bourgeoisie and the further trampling of the proletariat labor class. This part of history is defined by conflicts between the classes and the stripping of the rights of the masses. At the time that Marx and Engels were writing (Communist Manifesto was first published in Germany in 1848), they saw themselves as sitting at a monumental turning point in history; they believed that the modern construct of society would soon collapse under the weight of the suffering of the masses.

To make sure that the masses knew what direction to take, they published The Communist Manifesto as an argument for the establishment of global Communism. Marx and Engels apparently believed that while Communism was man's natural state, it would require much work to take place in the modern world. In fact, the establishment of global Communism is something they acknowledge as a bloody and destructive process that requires the annihilation of all societal constructs, not to mention the physical destruction of all industrial institutions (factories, homes, etc.). All people who opposed the establishment of global Communism would have to be killed, since the institution of this form of government would only last so long as everyone on the planet was participating in it.

These seem like time-intensive steps that require constant maintenance. If establishing global Communism alone requires this much work, how much more difficult would it be to keep the entire globe in that state? For Marx and Engels, that doesn't seem to be a concern. They speak at length about the path to global Communism, but seem to equate this return to what they consider man's natural state to be an erasure of the entire slate of time. They seem to only be in search of returning the ordering of man and nature to the way it was in the beginning, and are not worried that history may repeat itself.

To me, that is the biggest problem with Marx and Engels' vision. While they are being pragmatic enough to acknowledge that Communism cannot work if it only exists in small pockets, they seem to be falling prey to idealism when they predict that the world could remain a Communistic society if only global Communism could be achieved. It seems to me like this development would only last until individuals once again whet their appetites for personal property; and like they themselves pointed out, even the most perfectly Communistic state can be instantly corrupted by such motivations.

Again, I am finding a sort of hopefulness that seems counterintuitive. Like Darwin, who hoped in the gradual perfection of all species and nature, Marx and Engels seem to be placing their hope in man's ability to remain perfectly unselfish once the selfishness capitalistic society encourages is eradicated. Like Darwin, Marx and Engels seem to be aware of the plight of mankind, but choose to find a source for hope within the view each develops of the world.

This is particularly ironic, since these men are among the philosophers that are most widely cited as contrasting proof that Christianity has no fact-based support. Those who most strongly criticize what is called "Christian faith" are the first to point out that literature like The Communist Manifesto and The Origin of Species rely on the honest retelling of history and the scientific exploration of man. But each of these texts places its faith in a brighter future in something that is wholly unscientific; the hope that the world will get better regardless of how inexplicable or cold the world itself may be.


Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species

I like to let authors try to convince me. Whatever it is that they're selling, I've always been the sort of reader who is willing to let them try their darndest before I pass any judgments. I have firm beliefs that don't change every time some philosopher makes a snappy turn of phrase. But I'm not a reader that tries to disprove what I'm reading as I go along, since I believe that to do so would be to brush off the arguments of an author before giving them their proper due. Particularly when facing my first four texts of the semester, I am focusing on allowing the Masters of Suspicion to do their work on me in a way that allows me to fully engage with what they are saying. I want to let the problems brought up be problems; I want to sit with the issues these men are fighting so diligently to understand.

So, without any further ado, my knowledge of Darwin before reading his Origin of Species:

Rode to the Galapagos Islands on a ship called The Beagle. Got seasick. Watched swallows.

Is responsible, along with H.L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, for the Scopes Trial and therefore a play called Inherit the Wind. Which I inexplicably had to read not once, but twice in my public school career.

Makes Christian parents of public-schooled adolescents very, very angry.

Other than these little factoids, my understanding of Darwin's general project was very basic. While I was familiar with the scope and thrust of his arguments, I had neither actually read nor deliberately studied Darwin's work; and I had certainly not done so in an environment that was not openly biased either for or against him.

The things that have struck me most deeply after reading the 500+ page Origin of Species are as follows:

-Darwin's arguments for microevolution are intuitive, convincing, and generally correct to my understanding.
I have never understood better the adaptation that occurs within a species over time. Also, it is mind-boggling to note that Darwin drew his highly sophisticated conclusions based only on observation, and was able to predict some of the principles that genetics wouldn't be able to prove until decades after his death.

-Darwin brilliantly explains the effect of man's domestication of certain plant and animal life on the rest of the planet.
His comments about livestock, pets, and crops demonstrate his idea that that mankind performs its own artificial natural selection on its surroundings that changes nature to most benefit man. He also rightly, in my opinion, points out that while we do affect nature strongly, the changes we cause happen quickly and do not last unless we maintain them; on the other hand, the changes that occur over time in nature are extremely slow to develop, lasting, and directly benefit the survival of the species experiencing the change.

-Although the book is long, it is entertaining.
I found that in order to make my deadline for this text, I had to read it much faster than I would have liked. His examples from nature (the pigeons! Let us not forget the pigeons!) were fascinating and frequent, and held my attention in most cases.

And perhaps the point that stuck with me most:
-Darwin calls his book a scientific collection of observations, but the text is a deliberately crafted rhetorical argument that poses each step as though it is a logical, scientific conclusion.
In effect, he is not merely presenting his findings and hypotheses on the properties of evolution within a species. By the end of the book, I found myself almost satisfied that Darwin had proved macroevolution to be a fact of nature, which a) I hardly noticed he was doing, and b) I don't believe could possibly be true. After thinking about how he pulled this off, this is what I found--

The chronology of the book is proof that Darwin is trying to prove a point. The book begins by analyzing the state of the parts of nature man has domesticated, and then moves backward in time to trace examples of natural selection in reverse. In this section Darwin effectively proves that microevolution is a fact of nature, and his argument is strengthened by this backward movement in time from what the reader is experiencing in the present to what the reader can understand to be true of the more recent past.

However, at this point in the book Darwin interrupts his reverse chronology with an argument for the application of the principles of microevolution to the notion of macroevolution, or the development of one species into a new species. He follows this detailed argument by jumping to paleontological evidences found in fossils-- abandoning his project of moving slowly backwards in time. He then slowly moves forward from fossil proof, moving from age to age giving evidence for the hand of macroevolution in the planet's development. The use of time in the text proves that Darwin is structuring his book around one point: that macroevolution explains the development of our planet from a single species into the complex variety we know today.

The final interesting thing I'll note about Darwin is that he strongly believes that nature is slowly moving toward perfection. With each change, be it micro- or macro-, every organism and species is closer to evolving into the perfect version of itself. I was surprised to find something so cheerfully optimistic in the pages of this book;   it didn't seem to fit with the hard-hitting, coldly scientific personality that had been constructed over the years in my head. I still believe, as I did before, that Darwin's theory of macroevolution is incorrect. But now I know personally that Darwin was a pigeon-fancying naturalist who got a lot of things right, and believed that while it was far away, man and nature would eventually achieve perfection on this earth-- a much more charitable image of the man than I originally had.