Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Dalai Lama Reincarnation: Who Gets to Decide?

March 23, 2015

imagesTibet has had 14 Dalai Lamas. Heretofore, when one died, the leading lamas went out to find a small child who is deemed to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama. But the current one (Tenzin Gyatso) now says he may not be reincarnated.

China disagrees, considering this something for its government to decide. Ruling Tibet by repression, China has always ferociously demonized the Dalai Lama (who left Tibet in 1959); and, when he dies, plans to dredge up some pliant toady as his supposed reincarnation (something China imagines will help solve its Tibet problem). This is what led the current Dalai Lama to get off the reincarnation train. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said.

China’s satrap governor of Tibet declared that in saying such things, the Dalai Lama is “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism.” It is good to know that China’s rulers are so protective of such religious values; instructing the Dalai Lama himself on how to be a good Buddhist. And here we thought the Communist regime was a bunch of atheists.

images-1In fact, China actually has an official in charge of religious matters, Zhu Weiqun. It was he who insisted that Dalai Lama reincarnation is a governmental decision.

If you think we have over-mighty government in America, just imagine a government that claims the prerogative of regulating one’s reincarnation. We are fortunate to be living in a free country where reincarnation is still a private matter. I sure don’t want some government bureaucrat telling me who, if anyone, will inhabit my soul in my next life.

They might have me come back as a religious nut!

Embellishing Reality: Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, and Frank Robinson’s Moon Walk

March 11, 2015

imagesRecently news personalities Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and VA Secretary McDonald, have been assailed for embellishing the truth about some war zone experiences. Now I wish to set my own record straight.

Previously I had submitted poems to a local publication, Up The River. A brief biography was required. Here’s what I sent:

Unknown-1“Frank S. Robinson is a former New York State administrative law judge and author of seven books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine, and The Case for Rational Optimism. He writes the ‘Rational Optimist’ blog and is married to the poet Therese Broderick. In 1969, he was the first man to walk on the Moon.”

That last claim is one I have made from time to time. It is an exaggeration. I have never walked on the Moon, and wish to apologize now for saying so.

images-2People think memory works like a video recorder. It does not, as these cases illustrate. What the brain records is only a general idea of an episode; when called upon to remember, it fills in the details by basically making them up. And with each act of remembrance, it changes a little, so over the years the distortion can become significant. Writing an autobiographical memoir showed me how this had happened to some of my own memories, when I consulted things I had written down closer to the events in question.

So Brian Williams went from remembering being near a helicopter under fire to remembering being in one. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, that’s very understandable and doesn’t make him a bad person.

images-1I might similarly claim that my memory of watching the first Moon walk on TV evolved into a memory of doing it. But frankly that would be disingenuous. The truth – which I must finally reveal – is that the government faked the whole thing. I apologize to anyone who may have been misled.

“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.



* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

February 17, 2015

images-2The concept of happiness has eternally bedeviled thinkers. Nothing is more important, but defining and understanding it is a conundrum. Cass Sunstein reviewed two recent attempts in the New York Review of Books.

Sunstein is a prominent law professor who served President Obama on how government might actually improve lives. images-1Whenever I encounter his name, I can’t help thinking “Cass Sunscreen;” and when I hear the word “sunscreen” I think “Cass.” This amuses me; makes me happy.

Happiness theoreticians see two very distinct aspects to it. One is experiential – how you feel while experiencing life from moment to moment. The other is evaluative – how you feel about your life as a whole. Obviously they can diverge dramatically. Suffering a toothache won’t change a feeling that life is good; enjoying a cookie won’t change a belief that your life stinks.

One of the books Sunstein reviewed is Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. A key insight concerns the salience of how you focus your attention – how much something affects your happiness depends on how much importance you give it. images-4And Dolan thinks the experiential aspect – how one actually feels during an experience – trumps the evaluative aspect. However, your experienced feelings are greatly influenced by the larger picture of how you see your life as a whole, and how the experience fits into it.

The evaluative aspect has traditionally been seen as worthier, emphasizing a “life well lived” of value and purpose (the Greeks’ eudaimonia), as opposed to mere animalistic pleasure or pain, associated with hedonism. UnknownAs John Stuart Mill famously queried, is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied? But “better” in what sense? This gets us back to the conundrum of what happiness really means. Dolan is on to something in suggesting that whether it’s hedonic or grounded in loftier conceptualization, what really matters is how you feel at a given moment; and a life is just a whole lot of moments. Thus Dolan says people should trust their actual experiences over their desires or beliefs. (Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness showed we are very bad at anticipating how fulfilling our desires will actually affect how we feel.)

images-5Sunstein notes that marriage generally gives people a big boost, but that tails off over time. While newlyweds focus on the marriage, later “even happily married people are less likely to think, with surprise and delight, about the fact that they are married.” Well, I actually still do. I had a hard time with the ladies, and then a very difficult twelve-year relationship. That history so shapes my psyche that I do have a permanent and continuing sense of surprise and delight at my marriage, even after 26 years. This isn’t just in the background of my consciousness, but something very much in the foreground, upon which I continuously focus. Maybe even obsessively.

My wife

My wife

But giving it such great importance does make it a big component of my happiness. Contrariwise, I try not to focus on unpleasant things, at least not until I have to.* Like death (which, paradoxically, loving life so much makes worse). But brooding about it will do me no good, so I don’t. Thus I’m truly following Dolan’s prescription: allocating my focus so as to sustain positive feelings.

Happiness studies show that most people have a built-in set-point that’s somewhat impervious to life’s vicissitudes. A good or bad episode might move the needle temporarily, but it tends to go back. Thus our ability to adapt to adversity is greater than we realize (exemplified by Viktor Frankl in the concentration camp). My own needle is set way toward the happiness end. (I did literally write the book on optimism!) Even during that long pain-filled relationship, I still felt good about life. But it sure helps now to have a fantastic wife.

However, Sunstein disputes Dolan’s central assumption that “happiness is all that matters in the end.” imagesHe says people often do something not because it makes them happy but because they see it as the right thing to do; there are “activities that we pursue for their own sake, not our own.” I found this part of Sunstein’s essay bizarre, clueless about elementary human psychology. Surely feeling that you’re doing something that’s right or worthwhile enhances happiness. Perhaps, indeed, there’s no such thing as pure altruism, and good deeds are done only because doing them makes one feel better than not doing them (if only to avoid guilt). This could be true even for someone giving his life for others – he might not want to live with himself if he didn’t. That may be stretching the point, but Sunstein is denying the obvious – that the only thing that can matter in the cosmos is the feelings of beings capable of feeling, since every other consideration ultimately comes down to that. imagesAnd how human actions affect such feelings is the only ultimate basis for evaluating them.

(For an elaboration of the latter point, click here.)


*That applies to my personal life, but not the world. I don’t shut out unpleasant news, but strive to understand world reality.

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

February 9, 2015

UnknownWas America founded as a Christian nation? Robert Boston* equates that view of history with the creationist view of biology – both being equally uncontaminated by facts.

The Constitution never mentions Christ – nor even God. It mentions religion just twice: in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and in Article VI barring any religious test for office. Mighty odd if they were setting up a “Christian nation.”

In fact, as Boston points out in his book Taking Liberties, the founders wrote the First Amendment with no thought of Christians versus non-Christians. Unknown-2Rather, their concern was to protect Christians from each other! The “Christian nation” idea would have made no sense to them in a milieu dominated by conflicts among Christian sects: Roger Williams exiled from Massachusetts for annoying the reigning Puritans; Quakers hanged on Boston Common; Virginia preachers jailed for promoting the wrong kind of Christianity; and, before that, Tyndale burned at the stake for publishing the Bible in English, and Europe’s Thirty Years War with mass slaughter of Christians by Christians. “Enough!” they said. The America they created would be different – in fact, unique in world annals till then. They were not anti-religious but very much anti religious persecution. That’s what the First Amendment was written to prevent.

It’s a supreme irony that while religious zealots view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as some kind of thumb in their eyes, a crime against religion, in fact it’s the best thing that ever happened for religion in America. It’s often debated why religion remains so strong in America while dying throughout Europe. Some say it’s due to Europe’s cushier welfare state versus U.S. “harshness.” That’s nonsense – those differences are marginal. The bigger difference is that whereas state-backed religion in Europe has stultified and grown irrelevant to people’s lives, America’s constitutional secularism has forced religious sects to compete for congregants by staying relevant.

images-1As Boston says, while people basing their politics on religion invoke what they deem universal truths, not even all Christians agree about such alleged truths – as evidenced, again, by all the Christians massacred throughout history over such disagreements. But such differences of opinion are “kind of the point of America,” Boston writes. We “built a framework that allows us to disagree, yet still live together in peace.”

The book’s key theme is that U.S. fundamentalist Christians exploit claims of religious freedom for what are really efforts to preach to captive audiences (like school kids) and force their religion on others, often by resort to deception and lies. Boston wonders if they’ve actually lost faith in their faith – in their ability to spread their message because it’s such a good message. Certainly fundamentalists have ample means for doing that. But is their message so inherently weak that they must resort to coercive and deceptive means to spread it?

If you want to believe in God, believe you’re going to Heaven and I’m going to Hell, I don’t agree, but I get it. But what I never can get is why people with such beliefs so often have felt a mission to torture and exterminate those believing differently. That’s exactly what ISIS is doing. If you really believe in an omnipotent God, why would he need you to deal with heretics? Why wouldn’t his own arrangements amply and appropriately sort out such problems, with no need for human intermeddling?

Unknown-3Just like most people, I believe my own dogmas are true and right. But the one dogma I hold above all others is the libertarian principle against forcing others to think or act as I would prefer.

* Boston works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He also collects ancient coins and has bought them from me for many years.

How Big is a Googolplex?

December 30, 2014

K.C. Cole is an award-winning science writer, whose 1998 book The Universe and the Teacup—The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, I typically found at a used book sale. UnknownMy wife chided me that it could now have only antiquarian interest. But I figured mathematics can’t have changed that much in 16 years. Two and two still make four, no?

The book broadly (and somewhat poetically) talks about the intersection between mathematics and life. It has some good stuff. One chapter discusses how goofy our risk perceptions can be. People worry about pesticide residues on fruit (annual U.S. death toll: zero) but not going for a drive (death toll: 30,000). Similarly, those terrified of child abduction drive kids to school – exposing them to the vastly greater auto accident risk. (All this echoed the “Freedom from Fear” chapter in my own very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

However, not only did I also find some things I disagreed with, but some major bloopers.

Unknown-1Cole brings up one of my favorite paradoxes: “This sentence is false.” It contradicts itself. If the sentence is true, that means it’s false, so it can’t be true; but if it’s not, then it is true. However, Cole concludes this is no more paradoxical than the conflict between an American who thinks June is a summer month and an Australian who calls it winter. But that paradox is resolved with just a little more information. No additional information will resolve “this sentence is false.”

imagesAnd how about this: “Those of us reared on Euclid swallowed without thinking all those axioms about the obviousness of such propositions as: two parallel lines never meet. Yet one only needs to look at the lines of longitude – which are parallel at the equator – to see that they do.” Hello? That’s non-Euclidean geometry! Euclid’s geometry applies only to flat surfaces, not curved ones (like the Earth’s).*

Then Cole says a googolplex is “a googol multiplied by itself a hundred times.” I’m no award-winning science writer, but even I knew this is wrong. (To confirm that, I googled it, of course.)

Unknown-2A googol is the number 10 to the hundredth power; i.e., 10 multiplied by itself a hundred times; i.e., 1 followed by 100 zeroes. A googolplex (contrary to Cole) is the number 10 to the googol power; i.e., 1 followed by a googol zeroes.

These are very big numbers. Cole observes that we have trouble grasping how much bigger a billion is than a million, or a trillion than a billion. A billion is 1 followed by nine zeroes; a trillion by 12 zeroes; a quadrillion by 15 zeroes, and so on, for every three zeroes, through quintillion, sextillion, septillion, etc., each a thousand times bigger than the last. But we run out of those “illion” names long before reaching the end of all hundred zeroes in a googol.

Unknown-3(NOTE: The following has been modified, from what I originally posted, based upon helpful comments from my friend Professor Judy Halstead).

Now, I asked myself, might Cole’s definition of a googolplex – a googol to the hundredth power – actually equal (the correct) 10 to the googol power? I didn’t think so, but how can one do this math? Not on a calculator! Too many zeroes. Indeed, there literally would not be enough space in the Universe for all the zeroes. But one can do it using exponents. (Since I don’t know how exponents might be displayed on your screen, I will use the notation “10^100″ to stand for ten to the hundredth power).

Ten to the googol power (a true googolplex) can be written as 10^(10^100). Cole’s false googolplex, a googol to the hundredth power, would be (10^100)^100. images-1To multiply a googol by itself once, you add the superscripts; 100+100=200; that is, you get a number with 200 zeroes. Twice, and it’s 300 zeroes. So a googol to the hundredth power would be 1 followed by 10,000 zeroes. And that, of course, is way less than 1 followed by a googol zeroes!


By the way, yes, Google was named for googol, to evoke the vastness of the information accessible. But they inadvertently (?) got the spelling wrong!

images-2When my daughter Elizabeth was eight, I explained googol to her. She was fascinated. Then she asked if the Universe would last a googol years.

Not a simple question. So I answered, “possibly.”

“Well,” she said, “if I’m eight now, then I’ll be a googol and eight.”

Now there’s an optimist for you.

* In fairness, Cole later does discuss non-Euclidean geometry.




Ebola: God’s Punishment for Homosexuality?

December 16, 2014

Unknown-1Recently the Liberian Council of Churches met, with over 100 participants, to discuss Ebola. They unanimously resolved “That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism [sic], etc.) that continue to penetrate our society.”

The “God is angry” trope, punishing nations with otherwise seemingly natural phenomena, is very common. UnknownPat Robertson similarly declared that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of America for abortion, and Haiti’s earthquake for Satanism. But homosexuality is the “sin” of choice for such pronouncements. Is God really as obsessed with such matters as the preachers are?

It’s silly in so many ways it might seem gratuitous to enumerate them. But I will. How can any earthlings (let alone Pat Robertson) presume to read God’s mind? Who’s to say that a natural disaster isn’t, well, natural? If God so hates gays, why make so many of them?* Why are these punishments for “sins” so poorly targeted (like crushing just New Orleans), rarely singling out the individual “sinners?” (AIDS might be the lone exception.) In fact, it isn’t homosexuality or abortion per se that’s supposedly being punished but, rather, the country’s toleration of them. America today might be “guilty” of tolerating gays. But Liberia? I don’t think so.

And is homosexuality – or, rather, merely tolerating it – such a great sin that it incurs God’s special wrath? I mean, come on. images-1Even if you really really hate homosexuality, surely there are worse crimes. Would God punish Liberians over gay sex – but not over Charles Taylor‘s horrors? And you didn’t see him punishing Germany for Nazism. (True, some cities were incinerated, but that wasn’t God’s doing, it was allied bombing.)

Anyway, why punish nations with hurricanes or diseases when God still wields the ultimate stick: eternal damnation? People who really piss him off burn in Hell forever. You’d think that would fill the bill. What’s the point of gilding the lily with plagues or bad weather?

Enough. Obviously, all the babble about Godly punishment reveals more about the babblers than about God. So blinded are those babblers by their obsessions with their favorite “sins,” they can’t see the looniness of their pronouncements. If there were a God he’d be, like, LOL.

Or maybe he’d afflict them with plagues. Now that would truly be divine punishment.images

* Yes, they are made that way, and (except perhaps for certain lesbians) it’s not a choice. Homophobes might say that even so, the behavior is a choice. But what heterosexual would accept a need to abstain from heterosexual behavior? The only moral objection to gay sex is the Bible’s condemnation. The Bible also warmly endorses slavery.

“Edge of Tomorrow” – Groundhog Day All Over Again

November 14, 2014

images-4The space invaders have already conquered Europe. Humans hope to stop them with a reprise of the D-Day landings – complete with paratroopers (though using bungee cords rather than ‘chutes).

Major Cage (played by Tom Cruise*) is an effete PR officer who, before D-Day, meets with the commanding general – and is brusquely told he’ll be sent into combat. Why? It’s never explained.

Just one of the things that don’t make sense in this 2014 sci-fi action movie, Edge of Tomorrow. images-1Another is that any aliens capable of reaching Earth would be so technologically advanced that our battling them would be ridiculous (more so using a WWII playbook). (Am I too didactic?)

Cage is a pussy who tries to squirm out of his reassignment. But next thing you know, he wakes up in handcuffs, demoted to a combat unit en route to the D-Day beach, where they’re all killed in minutes.

End of story? No, Cage wakes up again in handcuffs. Seems he’d gotten a splash of some special alien blood that puts him in a time loop, reliving the previous day over and over. He soon teams up with Rita, a hero woman warrior; and with each repeat of the sequence (often via her killing him to reset the loop), learning from his mistakes, he ups their game.

UnknownHow is this not a total rip-off of Groundhog Day?

By the way, the title, Edge of Tomorrow, just lays there. Its “tag-line” – Live. Die. Repeat – would have made a far better title. But what do I know? I’m no highly paid Hollywood marketing maven.

Cage and Rita realize that the alien “soldiers” (good special effects on those weirdies!) are mere extensions of the “omega,” a central mind thingie whose destruction would be a coup de grace. Isn’t it always something like that? The human commanders don’t get it; maybe they haven’t viewed enough of these movies, such as Pacific Rim (see my review. We watch them in order to provide you with droll reviews like this. I hope you appreciate it.)

Anyhow, Cage and Rita set out to find and kill the omega; with each death and resurrection, Cage gets closer to the goal. Then an unsought blood transfusion ends his ability to loop back. So now he has one last chance to complete the mission, the hard way.

Unknown-1The logic of all this seemed shaky – especially with the omega being able to “control time” (whatever that might actually mean). If you play with time, you get tangled up. Furthermore (and typically for such flicks – see my recent review of Transcendence), most of the denouement was shrouded in darkness, punctuated by a lot of shooting, explosions, and sound effects. I had little idea what was going on. (I later googled a plot summary to find out.)

My wife and I had a disagreement. She thought the problem was with our TV, and that had we seen the film in a theater, all would have been clear. Nonsense, said I. What do you think? (One critic did call the final sequence “visually murky.”)

The Omega (best I could tell)

The Omega (best I could tell)

Anyway (spoiler alert), the omega gets whacked (with hand grenades, I kid you not), and its army melts away. Cage gets a fresh dose of alien blood, dies, and loops back again to the previous day – this time into a world wherein the aliens’ defeat is already being celebrated. images-6Huh? Wouldn’t that not have happened yet – ?

A triumphalist news announcement breathlessly declares that Russian and Chinese troops are sweeping across Europe.

That’s nice,” I said to my wife. I wonder if the film-makers put in that line with a sense of irony. Seems doubtful.

*I’m no fan of Cruise, who fronts for Scientology – a crypto “religion” not only having doctrines sillier than the usual, but a ruthless predator upon hapless victims in its clutches – scarier than any of Cruise’s movies.images-5

Engineering marvels

September 27, 2014

UnknownA modern 777 jetliner is an absolute marvel of engineering. Yet (unlike on smaller planes) the overhead bins are almost, but not quite, deep enough for standard carry-ons to go in wheels-first. And almost, but not quite, wide enough to fit three lengthwise. So you can only get two in a bin. A tiny modification to their design could have increased the bins’ capacity by 50%.

I used to have a fax machine which required fax paper rolls, which was fine; the rolls were cheap, lasted almost forever, and were a snap to change. Finally it broke and I had to replace it, and found that ones like that are no longer made. Now they’re all “plain paper” fax machines. 'Are you sure that hitting it with a baseball bat will work?'Which sounds great – except that they require these ridiculously bulky cartridges containing rolls of what looks like carbon paper in them, that are quite costly, don’t last very long, and are a royal pain-in-the-butt to change, if you can even manage to figure out how to do it correctly. Moreover, after laying in a supply of these godawful cartridges, I thought to get hold of a back-up fax machine that appeared to take the same ones, only to find that in fact, the cartridge for the second machine is actually a tiny bit different and not interchangeable.

Technological progress – you gotta love it. God bless our engineering geniuses.

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,265 other followers