Monthly Archives: August 2014

The insufficiency of mere virtue

But the injunctions “Be virtuous,” “Be courageous,” “Be great-souled,” “Be liberal” do not tell us what to do in the sense of what to aim at; they rather tell us how we should behave in the pursuit of our aim, whatever it is. But what should that aim be?

— Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics


I’ve got a good idea for a game. Like all games, it needs rules, so I’ve got several. First, you’ve got to keep the ball within bounds; there’s a line painted around the edge of the playing field, and if the ball goes over the line it’s out of bounds. You can kick the ball, but you can’t touch it with your hands. Also, you’re not allowed to hit, kick, push, or spit on the other players. No steroids are allowed. Oh, and you have to wear a regulation uniform. Jumping is permitted, as long as you don’t jump too much. Excessive jumping is frowned on. That’s about it.

I know you’re thinking I must have forgotten to mention something — like what the goal is, how to win the game. Well, your goal is to score points, and you score points — (here’s the beauty of the game design) — by following the rules. The ref watches you while you play, and for every minute spent following the rules you get a point. Points are deducted for infractions — how many depends on how serious the offense — and in the end if you have a positive number of points, you win! (This is not an inherently competitive game. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to win.) Winning — ending with a positive number of points — is the main point of the game, but of course the more points you can get, the better.

That was the original version of the game, but I found that it had a few problems — the biggest one being that it was possible to win by just standing on the field doing nothing. So I added some more “positive” scoring criteria, to encourage players to actively play well rather than taking the negative path of merely avoiding violations. In the new version of the game, you also get points for helping other players. So, for example, if one of the other players has decided to try to keep the ball in the air for a full five minutes, you can get points by helping him do that. Or if he’s decided to stand perfectly still for the whole game, you can help prop him up — but of course don’t push him! Team spirit counts, too. Enthusiastically helping other players will get you even more points. You also get points for accuracy — for making the ball go precisely wherever it is that you want it to go — and for general grace of movement. In this new, richer version of the game, obeying the rules is the bare minimum expected; most of your effort will be devoted to being accurate and graceful and helping others.


A deeply unsatisfying game, obviously. A pointless one. But notice how much more intelligible it becomes with the addition of an objective goal, however arbitrary. Tell a player that his goal is to see to it that the ball enters net A more times than it enters net B, and suddenly all his grace and accuracy and teamwork become meaningful.

As with sports, so with war. Send an army onto the field with no orders but to be brave, loyal, and self-sacrificing, and nothing will come of it. But tell them that their goal is to capture Jerusalem — or to protect it from being captured, or whatever (just about any goal will do, really) — and you create a situation in which real bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice can appear.

The goal itself doesn’t really matter. The real point is not the achievement of the ostensible goal, but rather the virtue and excellence which are manifested in its pursuit. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, “a good war hallows every cause.” The cause itself may be completely pointless — as, for example, in soccer or World War I — but it must not be thought of as pointless. Unless the participants really care about the ostensible goal, no “good war” will result.


Moving from sports and war to life in general, I find that most moral philosophy is as unsatisfactory as the imaginary game described at the beginning of this post:

Be virtuous.

In the service of what goal?


And how is happiness obtained?

By being virtuous.

So what exactly am I supposed to do?

Implied answer: Whatever strikes your fancy, so long as you do it in a virtuous way.


This can be done. A more-or-less arbitrary goal can be chosen and pursued, and the result can be a life of virtue and happiness. (It can be instructive to Google the phrases “the purpose of life is” and “he devoted his life to” — the sentences tend to end in totally different ways.) But it only works if you don’t think about it too much. The soldiers must never stumble upon the disillusioning thought, “This? Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

Phil Collins’s “welcome to the jungle” song anticipated by They Might Be Giants

I recently discovered the relatively obscure They Might Be Giants song (not included on any of their studio albums) “Welcome To The Jungle.”

While it’s obviously a nod to the much more famous Guns N’ Roses song of the same name, it doesn’t have much in common with it musically.  I guess Their “ju-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ungle” recalls Axl’s “kn-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-nees,” but that’s about it. The much more obvious musical allusion, I thought, was to Phil Collins’s soundtrack music for the Disney Tarzan film — particularly “Two Worlds,” which opens the film and serves as a “welcome to the jungle” for the infant Tarzan, his parents, and the viewer.

At around the 0:35 mark, “Welcome To The Jungle” suddenly changes styles and sounds an awful lot like the Phil Collins song — and at the same time the lyrics suddenly become decidedly more Phil-Collinsy (“Now you will be with me / put your hand in my hand …” — it could almost be a reference to one of his other songs for Tarzan). I figured this just had to be deliberate — and of course, a playful nod to Tarzan in a song called “Welcome To The Jungle” is just the sort of thing I would expect from Them.

However, “Welcome To The Jungle” was released in 1992, seven years before Tarzan came out. And while it would be completely natural for the Johns to allude to a popular Disney movie, the idea that a not-at-all-jokey Phil Collins song would secretly be an homage to an obscure TMBG track is a lot harder to swallow.


I did a search for Phil Collins and TMBG to see if there was any indication that Phil might (inexplicably) be a fan of Theirs. All I found was this comment by TMBG’s John Linnell on “You’ll Be In My Heart” — also from Tarzan:

Defending the music of Mr. Collins can be a fruitless, time-wasting effort. In the simplest terms, throughout his career I’ve been silently praying that the earth would open up and swallow him and all his works. So the pleasure I took in this ballad from the Tarzan soundtrack took me completely off guard. Something about the third and fourth chords against the melody in the chorus seems to transcend the cheap sentimentality in his music that I have found so offensive in the past. Either he made some radical breakthrough in his songwriting or I’ve gone soft in the head. Or both.

So I take it they’re not exactly good friends.

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Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Music

Chinese-style superstitions for English speakers

Most Chinese superstitions — not quite all, but easily a majority — are based on puns.

The best known of these (perhaps because it has been copied by the Japanese and Koreans) is the taboo against the number four (四, ) because it sounds similar to the word for “death” (死, ). The number is often skipped when numbering the floors in hospitals, the seat rows in planes, etc., much as 13 is in Western countries. (In Korea, the 4th floor is not skipped, but it is referred to euphemistically as “F” — so elevator buttons are labeled B, 1, 2, 3, F, 5, etc.) Sometimes this is taken to extremes. In the community where I live in Taiwan, for example, no house number ends in the digit 4. This means that the odd-numbered houses on one side of the street quickly get out of sync with the even-numbered ones on the other side — so, for example, 37 is across from 48 (for some reason, numbers beginning with 4 are okay).

Another manifestation of this is the long list of taboo gifts. A few of these are conceptual (a gift of shoes means you want the person to walk away and leave you, etc.), but most are pun-based. A clock is an inappropriate gift, for example, because 鐘 (“clock”) and 終 (“end, final” — suggesting death) are both pronounced zhōng. Shoes, umbrellas, books, and various other things are taboo gifts for similar reasons.

Of course, some superstitions have to do with good luck. A pineapple is generally considered a lucky fruit in Taiwan because the Hokkien pronunciation of 鳳梨 (“pineapple”) is similar to that of the phrase 旺來 (“prosperity is coming”). Businessmen love pineapples. Doctors, however, are expected to steer clear of them — because it would obviously be perverse for a doctor to want his business to pick up. Doctors avoid mangoes (sounds like “busy-fruit” in Chinese) for the same reason. All the Taiwanese doctors I know — even those who are otherwise quite Westernized and non-superstitious — observe these fruit taboos.

Another pun-based superstition involves hanging up a paper bearing the character 福 (“blessings, fortune”) or something similarly auspicious — but hanging it upside down. This is because 倒 (“upside down”) has the same pronunciation as 到 (“come, arrive”), so it means that blessings will come to you.

A few superstitions — not many that I know of — are based on the visual appearance of written characters. A student of mine recently installed two square air-conditioning units, one next to the other, in a wall which faced his neighbor’s house. The neighbor wouldn’t stand for it and insisted that the units be removed and reinstalled one above the other rather than side by side (at considerable expense and inconvenience to my student). The “logic” behind this bizarre demand was that two squares side by side suggest the Chinese character 哭 (“cry, weep”).


English-speaking cultures, on the other hand, have basically no pun-based superstitions that I can think of. But what if we did? What would they be? English doesn’t have nearly as many homophones and near-homophones as Chinese, but I can think of a few.

  • Rather than the fourth or the 13th, hospitals would skip the sixth (“sick-sth”) floor.
  • Authors hoping for success would have their books bound in red to ensure that they would be read from cover to cover. (The number eight would be lucky for restaurateurs for similar reasons.)
  • Pears would be auspicious fruits to eat on a date (as, it goes without saying, would be dates).
  • Important customers would no longer be literally wined and dined, for fear that it would cause them to complain more.
  • Greeting a sick person with “hello” (hell-low) would be a major faux pas. I suppose “What’s up?” (answer: heaven, the other place where dead people go) would be nearly as bad — but that connection is too meaning-dependent to be a proper Chinese-style pun-superstition.
  • Computer programmers would obviously have to steer clear of Looney Tunes memorabilia.
  • Taboo gifts would include socks, clocks, beets, batteries (especially when accompanied by a gift of a single grain of salt), boxes, and punch — all of which would send the same rather unfriendly message.
  • Crab would be considered a very unlucky thing to eat, and people born under the sign of the Crab would refer to it with some euphemism.
  • Criminals would superstitiously avoid pennies and anything else made from that most unlucky of metals.
  • Obviously, no one would dream of taking a crash course in a language before flying overseas.



Filed under Silliness, Taiwan

I’m in The Atlantic

Elders Craig Thomas (left) and William James Tychonievich (right) in American Fork, Utah, circa 1998

Note added: Now that I’ve looked past the photo and actually read the article I linked to, I can see that it’s quite negative, focusing on Mormon missionaries who had bad experiences. I should mention that my own mission experience was a very positive one. Perhaps I’ll post a bit about it one of these days.

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The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy

Pagans who were wicked by pagan standards are punished in the circle of Hell appropriate to their particular crimes. For example, Paris is punished in the second circle for crimes of lust, while Brutus is consigned to the jaws of Satan himself for treachery against his lord and benefactor. Pagans guilty of such sins as suicide and sodomy — sinful by Christian standards but not necessarily by pagan ones — are not specifically punished for them.

Pagans who lived lives of virtue (reckoning, again, by their own pagan standards), but who never had the opportunity to receive Christianity and baptism, are consigned to Limbo — which, though it is technically the first circle of Hell, is not a place of punishment. In fact, it seems to be pretty much what virtuous pagans expected after death. Their only punishment is that they now know that there is something higher — the true Paradise — but have no hope of ever attaining it.

Virtuous Hebrews who lived before Christ could be considered Christians avant la lettre (because they worshiped Jehovah, who is Christ), but they lacked explicitly Christian faith, hope, and baptism. They were consigned to Limbo with the pagans until after the Crucifixion, when Christ came to hell and liberated them. They are now in Paradise.

Note, then, that prior to the Crucifixion everyone (barring perhaps a few exceptions like Enoch and Elijah) went to Hell — either to Hades (Limbo) or Tartarus (the lower circles). This is consistent with most pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife; certainly no Greek expected to ascend to Olympus after death.

Muslims are considered Christian heretics (a view which is not historically unreasonable), and Muhammad himself is punished as such in the sixth circle of Hell. Other Muslims, though, seem more often to be judged as if they were pagans. Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin are found in Limbo with the pagan worthies. This despite the fact that, like all Muslims, they lived during the Christian era and could in theory have become Christians had they wished. (Saladin, in particular, had certainly been exposed to Christianity and rejected it; he spent his career fighting against the Crusaders.) I am not aware of any post-biblical Jews who appear in the Comedy, but Dante would perhaps have treated them similarly.

Virgil’s permanent home is in Limbo with the other virtuous pagans, but he is allowed to visit Purgatory in his capacity as Dante’s guide. Paradise, however, is closed to him.

Cato the Younger works as the gatekeeper and guardian of Purgatory. It is not evident what his ultimate fate will be, but it seems reasonable to assume that his situation is similar to that of Virgil: He is visiting Purgatory “on business,” as it were, but in the end — when Purgatory is done away with — will have to return to Limbo. (Note that he is not condemned for his famous suicide — a sin normally punished in the seventh circle of Hell — because it was not forbidden by the Stoic morality under which he lived.)

Trajan, the Roman emperor, is in Paradise, though originally he had been consigned to Limbo like any other righteous pagan. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great, saddened at the damnation of so great a man, prayed for his soul and was granted this miracle: Trajan, after all those centuries, was raised from the dead. Back in his body, he was once again free to choose Christianity and baptism, and he did so. When he died for the second time, he went to Paradise as a Christian.

Ripheus is hardly a household name, but he makes a brief (two-line) appearance in the Aeneid, where he is described as “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right.” Virgil, ever the pessimist, dryly adds that “the gods thought otherwise” — apparently unimpressed by his outstanding virtue, they allow him to be cut down like any common soldier in the sack of Troy. But according to Dante (who apparently invented the story himself), one particular God was impressed with Ripheus’s virtue and chose to reward it by granting him, centuries before the birth of Christ, a private revelation of the Christian gospel. Thus, unknown to his contemporaries, Ripheus died in the true Faith. He lived before baptism was available, but faith, hope, and charity took the place of that sacrament for him. In this he is similar to the pre-Christian Hebrews, who are also saved without baptism — and we may presume that, like them, he went first to Limbo and only later, after Christ’s harrowing of Hell, to Purgatory and Paradise.

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Aldous Huxley on the modern media

From Brave New World Revisited:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Huxley wrote this in 1958 — so I think it’s safe to say even he didn’t fully foresee how very nearly infinite that appetite would turn out to be.

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