Monthly Archives: October 2010

Tolstoy on Shakespeare

The following passage is from the concluding section of Tolstoy’s critical essay on Shakespeare, which is worth reading in its entirety. Having gone into considerable detail on why he finds Shakespeare wanting as an artist, Tolstoy discusses the pernicious effects of bardolatry:

If people wrote of Shakespeare that for his time he was a good writer, that he had a fairly good turn for verse, was an intelligent actor and good stage manager—even were this appreciation incorrect and somewhat exaggerated—if only it were moderately true, people of the rising generation might remain free from Shakespeare’s influence. But when every young man entering into life in our time has presented to him, as the model of moral perfection, not the religious and moral teachers of mankind, but first of all Shakespeare, concerning whom it has been decided and is handed down by learned men from generation to generation, as an incontestable truth, that he was the greatest poet, the greatest teacher of life, the young man can not remain free from this pernicious influence. When he is reading or listening to Shakespeare the question for him is no longer whether Shakespeare be good or bad, but only: In what consists that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels? And constraining himself, and distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion. He no longer believes in himself, but in what is said by the learned people whom he respects. I have experienced all this. Then reading critical examinations of the dramas and extracts from books with explanatory comments, he begins to imagine that he feels something of the nature of an artistic impression. The longer this continues, the more does his esthetical and ethical feeling become distorted. He ceases to distinguish directly and clearly what is artistic from an artificial imitation of art. But, above all, having assimilated the immoral view of life which penetrates all Shakespeare’s writings, he loses the capacity of distinguishing good from evil. And the error of extolling an insignificant, inartistic writer—not only not moral, but directly immoral—executes its destructive work.

Great art, at least for me, has nearly always been an acquired taste. Only a few of the masters — Sophocles, Euripides, Byron, Milton, Rembrandt — moved me deeply the first time I encountered them. For most of the top-tier names in literature (the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe and, yes, Shakespeare), I was underwhelmed the first time around, coming to appreciate them only after rereading, sometimes several rereadings. And what motivated me to reread books which hadn’t particularly impressed me? It’s just as Tolstoy says: the desire to find “that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels.” In that I was successful — the beauty was found, the taste was acquired — but Tolstoy poses the unsettling question of just what mechanisms effected that acquirement. “Distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion.” Is learning to love Dante really something I should feel proud of?

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Xunzi on obsession

From Section 21 of the Xunzi, Burton Watson’s translation:

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles. . . . Nowadays the feudal lords follow different theories of government and the philosophers of the hundred schools teach different doctrines. Inevitably some teach what is right and some, what is wrong; some rulers govern well and others bring about disorder. Even the ruler of a chaotic state or the follower of a pernicious doctrine will undoubtedly in all sincerity seek what is proper and try to better his condition. But he is jealous and mistaken in his understanding of the Way and hence allows other men to lead him astray. He clings to his familiar ways and is loath to hear them spoken ill of; he judges everything on the basis of his old prejudices; and when he encounters some different theory, he is loath to hear it praised. Thus he moves farther and farther away from a condition of order, and yet never ceases to believe that he is doing right. Is this not what it means to be obsessed by a small corner of truth and to fail in the search for proper ways? If one fails to use his mind, then black and white may be right before his eyes and he will not see them; thunder or drums may be sounding in his ear and he will not hear them. How much more so with a man whose mind is obsessed!

Or, as Nietzsche put it, “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!” Xunzi goes on to list various ancient Chinese philosophers who exemplified different types of blinding obsession (the primary meaning of 蔽 is to screen or conceal) — all of which are still very much with us. The specific names he lists may mean little to most of us (Mozi and Zhuangzi are the only ones with whose thought I can pretend any familiarity), but the obsessions which they represent, and which Xunzi so neatly encapsulates, are perennial.

Among the itinerant philosophers of former times there were men who were obsessed; the followers of pernicious doctrines are an example. Mozi was obsessed by utilitarian considerations and did not understand the beauties of form. Songzi was obsessed by the need to lessen desires, for he did not understand how they could be satisfied. Shenzi was obsessed with the concept of law and did not understand the part to be played by worthy men. Shen Buhai was obsessed by the power of circumstance and did not understand the role of human intelligence. Huizi was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them. Zhuangzi was obsessed by thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did not understand the importance of man. He who thinks only of utilitarian concerns will take the Way to be wholly a matter of material profit. He who thinks only of desires will take the Way to be wholly a matter of physical satisfaction. He who thinks only of law will take the Way to be wholly a matter of policy. He who thinks only of circumstance will take the Way to be wholly a matter of expedience. He who thinks only of words will take the Way to be wholly a matter of logic. He who thinks only of Heaven will take the Way to be wholly a matter of harmonizing with natural forces. These various doctrines comprehend only one small corner of the Way, but the true Way must embody constant principles and be capable of embracing all changes. A single corner of it will not suffice. These men with their limited understanding saw only one corner of the Way and, failing to understand that it was only a corner, they considered it sufficient and proceeded to expound it in engaging terms. Such men bring chaos to themselves and delusion to others.

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My colleague (the professor said)
Is most remarkably well read
And of her learning justly proud,
But not, alas, well read aloud.
Her Dante and her Goethe both
She knows — but knows as “Dante” and “Goethe,”
And eyebrows rise at cocktail parties
When she drops the name “Descartes.”
She knows her Nietzsche well, and yet she
Always used to call him “Nietzsche.”
(Having learned that wasn’t right she
Changed, and now she calls him “Nietzsche.”)
I could go on. I might portray
The way she mangles poor “Sartre”;
And others of like magnitude,
From “Euripides” to Sigmund “Freud,”
Make apt examples of her gift,
But — well, I think you get my drift.
However, just as people say,
A broken clock’s right twice a day.
Though names she doesn’t botch are few, one
She gets right is Byron’s Juan.


Filed under Language, Oddities, Poetry

Suppose everything matters

“What if nothing means anything?” Calvin asks Hobbes during one of their wagon rides through the woods. “What if nothing really matters?” Two panels later he adds, “Or suppose everything matters. Which would be worse?”

Both propositions — nihilism and its opposite — are equally frightening because they have the same practical result: the negation of the idea of relative importance. We can’t do everything, and so we need some things to be more important than others, so that we can sacrifice the less important things in order to pursue the more important ones. The idea that everything is equally important leads to the same paralysis as does nihilism: it gives us no grounds for choosing any particular course of action over any other. Without “an opposition in all things,” as Lehi puts it, “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.”

When I try to look at reality antisolipsistically — taking the stance that all points in time are equally “present” (eternalism) and all points of view are equally “I” (ekatmanism) — I find that it brings me dangerously close to the philosophically dysfunctional belief that everything is equally important because it undermines some very basic distinctions. We are accustomed to thinking of long durations as more important than short ones, for example — a distinction which evaporates if time is just another dimension and the real “duration” of everything is eternity. Eternalism tends to lead one to disregard duration entirely and focus only on quality. If one can be perfectly happy even for a few seconds, isn’t that enough, since those few seconds will never “pass” or cease to exist? This is the reasoning behind Goethe’s version of Faust’s pact with the devil:

If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.

If he can attain even a single moment of perfect happiness, Faust will consent to be damned — more than that, he positively wishes to perish. Once that perfect moment has been realized, the whole future is irrelevant; the ultimate goal has been reached, nothing can possibly add to or detract from it, and there is no call for further action of any kind.

Hölderlin expresses the same thought in the closing lines of “An die Parzen“: “Einmal lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarf’s nicht.” — Once I lived like the gods, and nothing more is required. And if that “ich” is understood as the universal Atman, the “nicht” becomes absolute: If Hölderlin (or anyone else) once lived like the gods, nothing more is required of anyone.


Filed under Philosophy

Bootstrapping the placebo effect

These are sugar pills I’m giving you. Nothing in these pills will have any direct effect on your illness or its symptoms; they have no active ingredient. In biological terms, neither if you eat are you the better; neither if you eat not are you the worse.

However, clinical trials have shown that this illness responds to placebos. A patient’s condition often improves significantly after taking sugar pills — provided that he has been lied to by the doctor and believes that the pills are actual medicine. But “actual medicine” just means something which significantly improves a patient’s condition — so these pills are real medicine, as real as any medicine can be, if and only if the patient believes they are real medicine.

So, what do you believe? Well, if you’re logical, you believe that the pills are effective iff you believe that the pills are effective. They’re the pharmacological equivalent of a Henkin sentence. If you can somehow bootstrap your belief in their effectiveness, that belief will immediately become self-justifying, saving yourself both the cost of prescription medication and the indignity of being deceived by your doctor.

But can you do it?


Filed under Psychology