What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?

What is the meaning of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

People have a lot to say about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature. I have polled my Twitter followers, and so far they believe that I should either not form an opinion on this issue or, if I do, I should keep that opinion a secret. So I am going to take my characteristically meta move and form an opinion on the controversy surrounding it.

First, it is not clear to me on what basis this particular award is being critiqued. If the Nobel committee chose wrongly, there must be some coherent account of what it would be to choose rightly. What is the Nobel Prize in Literature supposed to do, such that it is failing to achieve it in this instance?

I doubt that many people had anything like an account of what the Nobel Literature Prize was “for” before waking up this morning and being surprised by what is objectively a left-field winner (hence I’m not expressing an opinion). Since this is the internet, of course, they are morally obligated to act as though their purely post-hoc critique is a deeply held principle for which someone — in this case, the exceptionally tempting target of Baby Boomers, who are well-known to love Bob Dylan — can be judged and shamed.

Surely there are some people who did have an opinion about what the Nobel Literature Prize should do before this morning, though. Aside from people who are objecting on the purely procedural question of whether Bob Dylan’s lyrics count as “literature,” many of the critics seem to be making a gesture toward diversity (geographic, racial, gender, etc.). The implication is that the Nobel should somehow accurately reflect a “world literature,” in which the achievements of all nations and tongues are given their due.

This would indeed be a laudable goal. It is not clear to me that it was ever the goal of the Nobel Prize, however. I believe that if we were to look into the archives, we would find one particular group hugely overrepresented: namely, Swedes. If the point of the Nobel Prize in Literature was to give a snapshot of a developing world literature, then someone should have sent the Swedish Academy a memo much earlier.

Further: is there a plausible scenario in which an institution like the Swedish Academy — regardless of the good intentions that they, as good Swedes, doubtless have — could fulfill the function of cultivating and recognizing a truly global literary canon? If not, might the time spent complaining about the arbitrary and meaningless Nobel Prize in Literature be better directed toward publicizing or creating a more meaningful prize? Or could we admit that an annual prize is never going to give us what we want?

Simulatio entis

“The true life is absent.” But we are in a simulation. Everything about our universe, rightly understood, cries out: I was created! Finitude, imperfection, the gaps in the fullness of reality — all point toward a fuller, more perfect reality of which we are only a distant echo.

Yet this reality is not completely foreign to us. We see reflections of its creative activities in our own technological advances. Our most innovative Silicon Valley visionaries participate in its awesomeness even now. We may one day participate even more fully, as the glories of technology bring us to the point of building our own simulation within what we still presume to call “reality” — inscribing us on a higher rung in the ontological hierarchy.

For there must be a hierarchy. If we can simulate a universe within the meager confines of our simulated reality, what is to say that there is not an endless chain of simulations within simulations within simulations? Each layer of simulation distances us from the fullness of being, but paradoxically connects us to that higher level. If we are a simulation, there must be a reality of which it is the simulation. And even if simulations within simulations are possible, it would be the height of absurdity to imagine that there is no “base” reality, no unsimulated fullness whose residents live a life permeated by a technological prowess inseparable from magic — nay, even omnipotence, from our ontologically impoverished perspective.

To create a simulation that can simulate itself, world without end — truly, that is the work of a god. And to think that those gods are our own possible future, to think that we are simulations not simply created by them, but created in their own image! Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

What beggars belief is the notion that the simulators would be content merely to watch. They must know, in their infinite wisdom, that we — in our pale imitation of their power and knowledge — would one day stumble upon the telltale clues of our place in the hierarchy of simulation. Indeed, why would they create our simulation if not to shepherd it to that conclusion, divinizing us in turn with the power to simulate a world of our own? But for that outcome to be sure, one of the simulators would have to become part of the program. He would have to humble himself, taking the form of a simulant, offering himself up to save us from our pitiable state.

Perhaps he would even be killed, as Plato intuited in his parable of the cave — surely the earliest form of simulation theory — but in that case our creators wouldn’t simply give up on us. They would raise him up, in an unmistakable sign of their power and glory, validating his message and inviting all who listen to join a higher level of existence.

Truly, such novel, unprecedented vistas open up from this entirely secular, materialist theory forged by smart atheists! It makes one wish urgently for a seat at Davos or Aspen, where such deep thoughts can be thunk.

Trump’s Theater of Cruelty

It has often been remarked that Trump has brought a “reality TV” feel to this election cycle. What is less noted is that he is on both sides of the reality show equation — for his supporters, he is Simon Cowell, while for his opponents, he is the hapless bad singer in the early days of an American Idol season. From one perspective, he is dishing out punishment to the losers, while from the other, he is suffering a humiliation all the more acute for his seeming lack of self-awareness.

The common denominator is cruelty, which is the true core of reality TV’s libidinal appeal. And I am not ashamed of my desire to see Trump suffer cruelty. He embodies everything I hate, and he misses no opportunity to double down on everything that is bad about him. I am no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I began positively rooting for her when the debate presented her with an opportunity to publicly humiliate him on a national stage. Republicans have been demonizing her as a castrating ice queen for decades — and I was glad to see her “lean in” and openly scoff Trump, setting him up to humiliate himself again and again.

This kind of justified hatred is something that centrist liberalism normally cannot tap into, and that is its greatest weakness, because such hatred is a deeply human instinct that can’t be bought off with tax credits or GDP increases. Yet it is an instinct that takes us to some pretty dark places — both historically and theologically. In my research for The Prince of This World (shipping any day now), I found that it led all the way to hell, which is itself presented as a theater of cruelty. Theologians from Tertullian through to Aquinas and beyond highlight the fact that one of the attractions of hell is watching the sufferings of the unrighteous.

For all eternity, the saints get to enjoy the spectacle of God’s justice, world without end. There is something disturbing about this, insofar as the Christian concept of justice drifted ever further from what we would recognize as just punishment and focused increasingly on arbitrary scapegoating. Yet even if we agreed completely with Tertullian and Aquinas’s idea of who would join Trump in the eternal fires of hell, there is a deeper problem at work. Like all spectacles, the spectacle of hell — even an “accurate” hell — is a compensation, a distraction.

By focusing on the individual exclusively, we are distracted from the fact that the same system that produces the spectacle also produces that individual. In the medieval Christian worldview, this was very literal, insofar as God predetermined that each sinner would “freely” sin. In our setting, it has frequently been pointed out that Trump is “as American as apple pie.” Indulging our personal hatred for Trump — which is, I would emphasize, completely justified — is a poor compensation for the fact that we live in a system that produces Trumps.

To take only the most obvious example, Trump would not exist if we did not allow wealthy men to stockpile money and give it to their children. Trump would not exist if we did not set up a system where a man could live his entire life without hearing the word “no,” all because of what his father did. If we could channel some of that hatred and resentment into a determined campaign to impose a punitive estate tax, so that no Trumps can ever happen again, that would be productive. But the estate tax is treated as an amoral, technocratic question of economic growth, leaving the libidinal energy of hatred to find other, more destructive venues.

Please note that I am not saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” — I think we must hate both, channeling our hatred for the player to abolish the game. System vs. individual is a false dichotomy: we can tell the system is horrible by the fact that it really does produce horrible individuals. The fact that Trump was produced by a horrible system doesn’t make him a less horrible person or somehow let him off the hook for his freely chosen, exhorbitant actions. He should be banished from the public eye for the rest of his life, and all his wealth should be seized and given to poor refugees.

At the end of the day, though, the most urgent question is not how to send the right people to hell (as my Trump example shows, that will never happen anyway). We need to abolish the system that produces these demons in the first place. And we can never do that within the liberal procedural frame that refuses to admit that the demons exist.

Fate and Fury in The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a book about fate. This is a different kind of fate from what we see in Greek mythology, which is as inexorable as it is meaningless. Here the situation is just the reverse. First, there is a clear meaning, an arc of history tending toward the Pax Romana, which will bring law, order, and eternal peace to all the world. But this fate seems strangely fragile: it requires much hands-on attention from the gods, especially at first, and ultimately the outcome is decided by the human antagonists Aeneas and Turnus after Jove makes a showy declaration of his neutrality.

There is one character who does not seem to have a fate: Dido. She is doomed, she is tragic, but her death, which is “not fated or deserved” (Fagles trans.; Latin: “nec fato, merita nec”), catches the spiritual infrastructure unawares, so that Iris has to remove her spirit from her body rather than Proserpina. This fateless status is striking because the two female goddesses whose conflict determines the course of the plot — the pro-Trojan Venus and anti-Trojan Juno — have converged on Dido, both for their own reasons. Venus is playing the long game, trying to foment enmity between the Carthaginians and the proto-Romans, while Juno sees an opportunity to ally her beloved Carthaginians with the Trojans, cutting off the independent existence of the latter. It’s as though there are too many competing fates at work here, opening up the space for Dido’s own self-destructive agency.

The conflict between two female gods ends in the suicide of their human pawn, outside the bounds of fate and merit. The fact that the chain of fate can be broken by a surplus of female agency fits with the overall pattern of the plot, where it is above all feminine rage that threatens to disrupt fate. Juno is explicitly allied with the female Furies, carrying forward Achilles’ rage in a distinctly feminine key — not only in her own person, but in the Fury with which she inspires (or possesses) the new Achilles, Turnus. The whole Latian War is narrated under the sign of the Muse of Love, another intrusion of the feminine realm into matters of geopolitics.

If we compare Dido’s unfated death with Jove’s “may the best man win” hand-washing, I begin to wonder if we are to take the entire Latian War, including its brutal outcome, as a deviation from fate. Jove declares to Juno that she can delay but not fundamentally alter fate. The war is certainly a dramatic delay, and it is one that seems gratuitous, since Latinus and his family were quite content to fulfill prophecy by marrying Lavinia off to Aeneas before Juno injected her fury.

The edifice of fate is unstable indeed if virtually the whole action of the epic of Rome’s foundation and destiny is somehow contingent, a byway on the path of fate. And lest we think that we have rejoined the stream of destiny when Aeneas finally kills Turnus, we find that fury has infected our normally impassive hero, while Turnus gets the last word with his postmortem scream of defiance — perhaps an echo of Dido’s unfated death, which left her spirit unprepared for its journey. The poem is not just about fate, then, but about the conflict of between fate and fury, with its resentful refusal to submit, to forget about the past and move into the predestined future.

Aeneas’s impulsive murder of Turnus, who was willing to surrender, is motivated by a sudden reminder of the death of Pallas — a young man whose first name doubles as an epithet for Athena (which is used in that sense in Book I). Are we to hear an echo of the Eumenides, where Athena subjects the Furies once and for all to the court of justice that supercedes the cycle of vengeance? If so, it is a botched Eumenides, where unreflective violence cuts short negotiation and deliberation and where the force of Fury remains on the loose.

The destiny of Rome is stained from the very beginning with Fury — indeed, in The Aeneid, Rome is never founded in the present-tense of the text itself. And as Fagles points out in his translator’s note, much of the poem is precisely in the present tense. The rhetorical force of this is clear — it gives the poem a certain immediacy and vividness — but I wonder if it reflects an agenda to open up the reader’s present, to restore contingency and fragility to the destiny of Rome that Augustus has supposedly founded once and for all. The Fury of a betrayed ally or a colonized subject may derail that beautiful fate once and for all, showing Rome to be less pious and dutiful than callous and cruel.

The Trouble with Thanksgiving

It is my considered opinion after 36 years of experience that Thanksgiving and Christmas are too close together. There are many reasons to complain about the timing of the two holidays — the burden of traveling twice during the most dangerous and delay-prone time of the year, for instance. What I want to focus on is the academic consequences. Put simply, the existence of Thanksgiving wreaks havoc with the academic calendar, particularly on the semester system. There is just no non-awkward way to schedule around Thanksgiving, and the existence of Thanksgiving typically prevents the occurence of a week-long Fall Break, which — let me tell you — would be nice.

I propose that we move Thanksgiving to the second Thursday of October. It is not usually snowing anywhere in the continental US by that point, whereas Thanksgiving tends to be the time of year (at least in the midwest, where the crucial hub of O’Hare is located) when you get the first big snow storms. Travel will therefore be safer and less stressful. Everyone will also be happier and calmer, knowing that they’re not staring down the barrel of another family visit within four weeks. Indeed, it would rationalize the mainstream American holiday system by providing four quarterly opportunities to travel and visit family (Christmas, Easter, any number of mid-summer get-togethers, and New Earlier Thanksgiving).

This schedule creates a natural mid-semester break. And if adopted soon, that break would occur next week. Let’s get to work. I don’t think it’s too late.