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


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.


The reason I do what I will do.

The title of this blog springs from the following T.S. Eliot quotation, found in one of the final passages of his Little Gidding (Of Four Quartets fame):

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.

When I started wondering how to label this project, I turned to this particular poem without knowing what I would find. It's because Little Gidding, one of my favorite poems of all time, has become my anthem to the passage of time and the unending search for the things I will never find. Most of all, it reminds me to keep looking--and keep looking with wonder-- for wisdom and meaning without any promise of finding what I think I want. 

This poem identifies a cycle that returns each of us to the place from which we began. This cycle is filled with smaller cycles; smaller regenerations, smaller endings and beginnings that follow each other without ceasing. As I thought about how each ending is also a beginning, my eyes turned to my graduation peeking over the horizon. In many ways, this semester is one such ending-- one that is also unquestionably a beginning, though of what I can't see now. 

The books I will be reflecting on in this space have been chosen to acknowledge this very cycle. I begin with the Masters of Suspicion: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud. I will be challenged to look at the world through their eyes and take part in their confusions and frustrations with the ordering, meaning, and purpose of our planet. But all the doubt and pain that will come of that project will be followed closely by those whom our curriculum calls "The Good Guys:" Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Eliot, Newman, Lewis. And after that? A far-cast look into the past with books that look far ahead to the future: the Bible's Daniel and Revelation

This semester's reading will take me far from my literary home and into the minds of men who are approached with much trepidation by the Christian community. I am preparing to enter, upon graduation, a world where it is Marx, Hume, and Nietzsche-- not Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes-- who are hailed as the greatest philosophers this world has ever known. By looking deeply into the minds of these men, I am coming face to face with the cynicism and hopelessness that so characterize the modern world.

But this is, remember, a cycle; and so I am brought back in the end to the philosophy of those who need not look only into the works of man for the meaning of the universe. After plumbing the depths, I'm not allowed to stay there-- the great cloud of witnesses, those who have fought darkness with more power and eloquence than I could ever muster, will point my gaze upward once again. 

And most appropriately, the Bible is the final text I will study as an undergraduate. I will end not with what man thinks will come of this world, but what man has received through divine revelation as the certain future of this bitter earth. And with this final breath of certainty and eternity, I will make both an end and a beginning: the end of my days as a student at Biola, and the beginning of my unknown days in the wider world. 

So that's part of why the Eliot quote (oh-so-far away now that this post is getting longer) stuck out to me. The other reason, though, is because it reminded me of how I feel about starting this blog. Eliot is pointing out that everything we do-- particularly everything we we write-- is both a beginning and an end. Whatever I choose to do or express represents my final decision after weighing all other options; it is an end of a process. But that ending heralds the birth of a new accountability I am held to by the outward expression of my choices. And my action? He compares it to stepping up to the executioner's block or into a fire. That's pretty serious. And even though these images speak of death, Eliot also assures us that "that is where we start." Again, a beginning and an end. 

I see this blog as a step toward the executioner's block. My thoughts are now open to public scrutiny. I have chosen to publish posts about the books I read, which is both the end of my indecision and the start of my life as a blogger. I have taken action, and it has led me to the death of my private pre-class notes. But this destruction has given me a new place to start from, and even though I can't say where this will take me, I know I'm glad for another beginning. 



I have been reading very good books for three and a half years, and have been taking very careful notes the whole time. So I have seven identical spiral-bound notebooks in the corner of my top bookshelf-- each one a storage unit containing thoughts and passages I want to remember. 

Since that has apparently worked so well for me, it's time to cut it out. I've been told that's how ruts are made, and after I was finished being miffed I realized it's true. I have to do something else. 

There is no notebook for this semester. There is only this little blog where I will write about what I read. I hope this will keep me accountable for what I say, since anyone could find and read these posts if they wanted to [unlike my notebooks, which have been for British eyes only]. And by moving this aspect of my academic life into the blogosphere, I hope to practice more diligently the art of synthesizing and conveying thoughts in a way that my notebooks never facilitated. 

I like to write. I like to write, and I am aware that writing could be part of the rest of my life. So I will practice. I will practice, and I will hope that this blogging thing will end up being more than just practice.