Tag Archives: hannah arendt

Wired for Goodness

29 May

The notion that genes play a strong role in our fates is not a popular one. Such a worldview risks seeming fatalistic, and has been an inspiration for any number of racist or otherwise unsavory views. Perhaps, however, it is none of those things, and Nicholas Christakis’s Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society makes just this case. Over the course of 400 pages, Christakis takes his readers on a thoroughly entertaining tour through a wide range of data sets, from the natural experiments that emerge from utopian communes and survivors of shipwrecks on deserted islands to the interactions of elephants and monkeys and any number of other species that exhibit social behavior. His book is an accessible yet scholarly tour de force, clearly a labor of love built over many years. It is also a deliberate effort to rescue an understanding of who humans are from a view that everything about us is a socially construct.

Christakis works hard to show that not only are we a complicated mix of nature and nurture, but that this is no cause for concern. Humans have a defined social suite, a blueprint, that establishes our parameters of social interaction, and the handful of cultures around the world that escape it are shaped by extreme conditions, the exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, the most defining trait of this human social suite is its flexibility. While there is some human adaptation to different environments, humans instead are genetically equipped to work collectively and innovate to find the resources they need to thrive everywhere from dense rainforests to the Arctic, from a nomadic lifestyle to apartment living in a metropolis. We have evolved to be social, evolved to be flexible, and evolved in ways that allow us to build cultures that reward cooperation in spite of the self-interested impulses that could tear it all apart. Something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that humans first need to find basic necessities like food and shelter before they worry about something like self-actualization, gets it all backwards. The need for self-actualization is wired into human DNA, more a reason for our ability to meet those basic needs than it is an outgrowth of them.

Christakis’s work leads to an endorsement of the dual-inheritance theory: culture can affect genes, and only species with the genes for culture (those whose generations overlap and who live in groups) can develop this feedback loop. Cultures evolve, drift, and go through processes not unlike natural selection as they rise and fall. This is why human societies have drifted toward monogamy (which draws down male testosterone and makes us dudes more content to settle instead of endlessly rutting about) as they become more sedentary and grow. It explains why people develop friendships and cultivate them over time. It may even be why the gods of large urban societies tend to hand down rules for a social order while the gods of hunter-gatherers are much more capricious and participate directly in the natural world. Blueprint doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it offers tools to move toward them.

Christakis knows his optimism about evolutionary sociology is a controversial take. He leaves no doubt that people can and have abused certain notions of scientific understanding of human nature for racist or eugenicist ends. He argues, however, that their crimes are no less heinous, and on the balance perhaps less damaging, than the ravages of the Stalins and Maos and any number of other less catastrophic but still toxic individuals who believed humans were strictly the product of cultural circumstances and thought they could wipe away the cultures they didn’t like. Perhaps more ambitiously, he has some faith that the social suite is so tightly interconnected with our understanding of what life should be that we’ll be able to check the worst excesses and impulses to use AI or genetic modification in what most humans would consider natural ways. He makes a case for clear-eyed understanding of what genes can and cannot do as a saner path forward than blanket fears of acknowledging advances in understanding may bring about. On this, we can probably agree; the open question is whether the natural human instinct to resist more extreme forms of genetic engineering can act quickly enough to stop a few people with the power to do great damage.

We have evolved to be good, and slowly, surely, continue to do so. Christakis’s work has parallels to the question of theodicy, of how an all-powerful God can let bad things happen in the world; he introduces the parallel concept of sociodicy, which turns this conundrum on its head asks how we manage to more or less live together well despite having such supposedly self-interested, base desires. A whirlwind tour of political philosophy in the final chapter jives well with my own Answer to Everything, as it points to the shortcomings of beliefs that humans are irredeemably broken and also rejects easy cultural fixes to all our problems. It gives new ammunition to those of us who’d like to believe we can build a society we like; our sense that, for all the claim of ruin, we still have right around us the foundational tools for something resembling goodness.

This worldview fits well with an Aristotelian notion that we can slowly, haltingly, observe the world around us and understand it better, and come to a sense of who we are and what we can become if we align lives toward a broader goal, some sense of what it means to live a life of human flourishing. It fits the John Wesley Powell mindset of a science that discovers hope in its ability to offer ways forward through its slow experimentation and refinement of past theories. It also makes me think of Hannah Arendt, who rejected the title of “philosopher” in favor of “social theorist” because she recognized that an understanding of what humans are is useless without considering how they interact with one another. Science, Arendt argues in The Human Condition, has alienated humans from the world, but perhaps, in the end, it can help to show the way back.

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The Darkest Roots of Civilization

6 May

I concluded my last post with two lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ve never read the thing, but it was one of those passages I once saw someone else quote somewhere that I felt compelled to copy down for my own later use. Here is the passage in full. Pimlico, for the curious, is a district of London that, when Chesterton wrote around the turn of the 20th century, was a downtrodden corner of the city. Neighboring Chelsea was (and still is) a high-income district.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

For what it’s worth, it seems some people came to love Pimlico. It was the home base for the Labour Party as it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the home base of the Free French during the Second World War, and became home to many MPs, including Winston Churchill. Like much of London, it is now home to some fabulously expensive real estate, though it also retains a substantial public housing development, Churchill Gardens.

Granted, Pimlico has the perk of sitting a stone’s throw from Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Not every town or neighborhood that qualifies as a “desperate thing” has such convenient neighbors. But there are more roads to greatness than through proximity to power, and communities are more than their median incomes. For that matter, people may have very different ideas of what exactly constitutes desperation.

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s Catholic apologetics in other contexts, this is one spot where his use of religious language adds a necessary dimension to his point. Rootedness really is in many ways a sacred act: while I’m always one to caution against the worship of temporal things, commitment to place goes deeper than commitment to so many of the other obligations that can come along in a life. Jobs come and go, institutions and beliefs evolve and undergo some drastic shifts, people are vital but mortal and equipped with agency that can lead them in any number of ways. But while their characters can change, cities and towns and neighborhoods almost always stay.

Relative permanence allows a place to develop a history: a language about itself, or a smattering of languages all feeding in to one sprawling, complex narrative. They may all be radically different, but they all share a place, and that is enough to give it a sense of direction through time. And people in these places can write themselves into these histories, whether as Chesterton’s worshipers pursuing greatness or simply as people who are content in a place where they can contribute in small ways. It starts with a commitment and grows from there, from a little community up to a civilization, with all the splendor and horror and contradictions that these human constructs entail.

Not everyone falls for places the way some of us do. We all have our objects of worship, and I don’t begrudge many others for theirs, especially if they are clear-eyed as to the limitations of these objects of affection. For me, though, the foundations of human possibility, of Hannah Arendt’s new beginnings, seem best grounded in a place. So let us all give a little more love to our Pimlicos: they need not rise up to be Florence, but they can be better versions of themselves, and that, for now, is enough.

Waiting on Miracles

25 Dec

Greetings from the tail end of my annual whirlwind Christmas tour. As usual, it included the raucous, loving excess of Maloney Christmas in Chicago, the still quiet of Schuettler Christmas on a snowless plain in Wisconsin, and a small blended gathering back home in Duluth. I had designs of putting out a short Christmas story on this blog, but this time of year is always horrid for diligent writing effort, and while I’ll continue to plug along on the story, it’s far from ready.

This holiday is exhausting, and I enjoy the travel rush and have relatively few people to buy for. For whatever reason, organizing myself for the whole giving and receiving side of Christmas gets harder with time. As someone who leads a largely secular existence, I have some questions about what this holiday really offers for the non-churched aside from an excuse for rampant commercialism, over-the-top decorations, and a lot of corny nostalgia that I have less patience for every year. That leaves me with some great parties and family reunions, but I don’t think there’s any need to confine those to late December. Something, clearly, is missing.

So, to find some meaning behind what this all means for me, I’ll settle for a quote from the woman I’ve been quoting a lot lately, because somehow a Jew who never had kids can best encapsulate Christmas:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion of Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Merry Christmas.

An Epigraph

29 Nov

If the series of stories I wrote on this blog were to be made into a novel, this quote would go at the start of it:

The life span of man running inevitably toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction were it not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The follow-up post I wrote to that fictional collection noted that the thrust of its contents were rarely if ever reactions to recent happenings in my life. They were the results of nearly a decade’s worth of thought and experience and experimentation that slowly marinated into the state in which they appeared on this blog. But the most recent evolution within that thought, however, centered somehow around the sentiment expressed in this quote.

The notion of beginning anew has undergirded this whole blog since it first got off the ground. It’s inherent in the idea of a cycle, and at times this blog has had posts that reference explicit new beginnings or resets in my life. As I age, I find a new appreciation for a fluid life; one that does not fit into easy boxes, and one that knows that people evolve in gradual ways, and that there is no such thing as a fixed way of being. While I’ve always thought this, I’ve come to embrace that sentiment as being somewhere near the very core of who I am. And more than ever, I’m finding successful ways to make sure I don’t fall into ruts of routine and give most every day the sense of immediacy it deserves.

At the end of 2017, I wrote a blog post on my frustrations with that particular year. I expressed impatience, and made a hockey metaphor: I was running a mindless cycle in a corner that looked good but wasn’t producing anything in the way of chances. That offensive zone cycle continued for much of 2018, and while I still might be waiting for the perfect shot a little too often, the cycle now has purpose. I’m setting up some good looks, and a barrage of shots may be just around the corner. My writing life played no small role in that process, and will pile up the assists when the goals start to come.

Even as 2018 comes to a close with all the usual trappings of holiday season tradition, I’m at a point of many beginnings. A new political cycle, some shifts in my workplace that could presage some big things, a new possible side venture, and a new hockey season: my activity level might finally near a place where I’m content with my efforts. Well, maybe. Here’s to those new beginnings, the cycle refreshed yet again.

Good Journalism, 4/26/18

26 Apr

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.

A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.

On the Intellectual World

25 Jan

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.