Envy and Covetousness

In poor and humble homes, in cottages,
In hardship and disaster, hearts are joined
More lastingly and truly than where ease
And opulence with envy are combined,
In regal courts and splendid palaces,
Where cunning and conspiracy you find,
Where fellow-feeling long extinct has been,
Where there’s no friendship that is genuine.

–Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso CANTO XLIV, 1

Ariosto here observes that it is among the wealthy and powerful where envy is found, not among the poor. Indeed, those who preach the gospel of envy are always the right and powerful—those looking to gain and maintain political power. I grew up working lower-middle classed, and most of the people I knew and was related to were the working poor. I never heard any of them spontaneously express envy of the rich, but I have heard them express gratitude toward those who hired them, who signed their paychecks. It’s only among the relatively wealthy (or those on generational welfare) who I’ve heard express envy. And the envious wealthy in turn project their own feelings on the poor, who they’ve never known nor met nor intent to ever actually get near enough to really know them.

The resentful longing for what others have primarily seems to be a trait of those who already have a great deal. This is perhaps not surprising, since that longing can be expressed in three ways: as greed, as covetousness, or destructively.

If it’s expressed destructively, the person will likely seek to destroy the goods, property, or relationships that person has. It’s the attitude that if I can’t have it, nobody can have it. This is what you seen when protestors against “greed,” free markets, and free trade riot and destroy businesses.

If it’s expressed as greed, the person will likely act to get similar things as those they envy. I would also expect that the “longing” for what others have is less resentful when it leads to a desire to acquire similar things to what others have. At its most positive, people build businesses and contribute to society through mutual exchange; at its most negative you have scammers and white collar crime.

And then there is covetousness.

“In coveting is evil’s root” (Chretien de Troyes, Eric and Enide, Ruth Harwood Cline, tr. line 2935).

Consider this line in light of the commandment that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife or goods.” Indeed, without the sin of covetousness, there would be no need for “Thou shalt not steal” nor “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I would venture to guess that there would also be no need for “Thou shalt not murder,” either. When one covets what others have, one wants precisely that thing that they have, and not just something like it. Coveting results in theft, adultery, and even murder, as well as resentment, which incidentally gives rise to redistributionary economic and political theories, giving rise to taxation, the welfare state, and the various forms of socialism, especially communism. When one covets, one can even learn to hate the good for being good.

As noted above, if one wants the kinds of things others have, one is typically compelled to work hard to get those things, to provide others with goods and services. This attitude is the very basis of capitalism. But if one wants the exact thing someone else has, one is guilty of the sin of covetousness, which leads to theft, adultery, and any number of other sins. We have typically failed to differentiate between these two attitudes toward what others have. That too, it seems to me, is a great sin as well — for then we cannot tell the difference between good and evil.

The problem is that people do not differentiate among these different responses to envy. Some responses to envy have positive social outcomes and thus are moral; other responses to envy foster resentment and have negative social outcomes and thus are immoral. Wanting to destroy what others have because they have it is immoral. Wanting to have the exact things others have and taking it from them (or having a third party take it from them for you) is immoral. If you are destructive or covetous, you have bad character. There is not and can never be virtue in these attitudes and the actions they provoke.

 

 

Good, Bad, and Evil…and Education

An engineer who is good at building bridges is a good engineer. The steel he uses must be of high enough quality to do the job – it must be good steel. When building begins on the bridge, it can only be done in good weather. A good engineer is good at being an engineer. Good steel is steel that can be depended on to do the job at hand (being dependable to do the job at hand is also a feature of being a good engineer). Good weather is weather that provides favorable conditions for what work the person wants to do – in this definition, rain is good weather for a farmer, but bad for our engineer. A good person is thus a person who is good at being a person. We must work at being good – ethics is work. But ethics is not necessarily what works. One has to keep in mind the end at which one aims. We need an idea of proper ends, a proper target at which to aim. The proper end of our engineer is obvious: to build a bridge that will span the gulf at hand and remain intact. He must design and build a bridge that does the work of a bridge.

From the example above, we can now distinguish between bad and evil. A bad engineer is one who is not able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge. An evil engineer is one who is able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge but who chooses instead to design a bridge that will not do the proper work of a bridge. For the bad engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge is incidental to his inability to design a good bridge. The bad engineer is bad because he is ignorant. He would build a good bridge if he could. For the evil engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge comes about because he chose to make a bad bridge so that it would cause destruction. The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to.

When education experts choose to use teaching methods like the look-say method of teaching reading, when it is well-established that it does not and never has worked, over using phonics, which we know is the best way to learn how to read, then which one of these categories do you think America’s educators fall into? And what about our choice not to teach children foreign languages when we know they can learn them –- before they reach puberty? Or using the “tally” method to teach “comprehension” (it does the opposite, and we know it does)? Isn’t it time that we started providing our students a good education, rather than the one we have been providing them which has failed both them and this country?

I Will Never “Give Back” to My Community (but I Will Give)

There are few concepts I dislike more than “giving back.” I dislike it because underlying it is a false premise and because it undermines the very virtue of giving.

“Giving back” is a term that has bothered me for a while, but a recent report on local news about a woman who volunteered at the children’s hospital really drove it home for me when the reporter described what she was doing as “giving back.”

First, the false premise. If I am “giving back” that means that I have more than I should. When I give a cashier $20 for something that costs $17.70, the cashier will be giving back $2.30 in change. The cashier, momentarily, has more money than (s)he should, which is why the money is given back. The idea of “giving back” to the community thus implies that the one giving back has taken more than he or she should have. This would properly describe a thief making reparations, but it should not describe acts of generosity. One only gives back under the conditions of a zero sum game. The thief thus properly is giving back if he has to give back what he took. For the same reason, politicians can be properly understood to be giving back if any money ever leaves their hands. They are playing a zero sum game, so they necessarily are giving back if they donate money to anyone.

But people participating in the private sector, in the profit-making economy, are playing a positive sum game. That means they are creating wealth and value in the world. Others benefit as much — often more — than do the business owners themselves from their activities. So when a person starts a business in a community, that person is benefiting that community, creating value in that community and creating wealth (through jobs and creating something of value people want) for that community. Having taken nothing, that person has nothing whatsoever to give back.

The absurdity of the concept of “giving back” is demonstrated quite strongly with the woman volunteering at the children’s hospital. For her to give back, she had to have taken something from the children to give back. This woman has taken nothing; she has done nothing but give.

And that leads me to my second point. When you say that woman is “giving back,” you are making her generosity less virtuous. You are saying the recipients deserve her time and money. She owes it to those children to volunteer to try to make their lives better, more fun. Her generosity comes from her not owing anyone anything, but choosing to give anyway.

A business owner who opens a business in a community is thus benefiting that community by his mere presence in that community. He is providing jobs and goods and/or services, creating value and creating wealth. The community is already better off because of what he is doing as a business owner. He has taken from no one to get what he has gotten; what he has gotten is a poor reflection of the value he created, value he necessarily shared in creating through voluntary trades with others. He does not owe the community anything. He provided goods and/or services that community needed; he provided jobs that community needed. The community in turn rewarded him, making him wealthy enough to have enough excess that he is capable, if he wants, to be philanthropic.

If we consider the fact that no market exchange can or will happen unless both people are better off — unless more value is created — it makes sense to understand that extra value each gives the other as a gift as well. The business owner has been giving to the community by simply having a successful business. The community members have been giving to the business owner because he offers them the gifts of increased value in goods and services they want.

So the business owner does not give back when he is generous. He is giving. Anyone who gives to others, whether they are a business owner or a current or former employee, is giving, is being generous, because they have participated in a positive sum game, and from the benefit they have given, give more from the benefit they have received.

And that is why I consider the term “giving back” as a way of saying “giving” not just objectionable, but downright odious.

Taxation is NOT Generosity

It is unethical to use taxation to be generous, as happens when we are taxed to help others –- which means we are not actually being generous.

Why is it acceptable for a large group of people (like a government) to do something it would be illegal for an individual to do? I cannot force people to give me money so I can give it to other people whom I prefer to have the money, under threat of taking them by force and locking them up in my basement. But a government can do just that –- it just replaces the basement with prison.

How easy it is to be generous with other peoples’ money! And what is worse, when government is generous with your money, you do not feel obliged to help others –- why give when it is taken from you? So now people are acting less generous and charitable than they would otherwise (more heavily taxed Europe is less individually generous than are Americans). And money that could have been used to either lower prices of goods (making them cheaper for the poor to buy), hire more people (including the people “helped” by the government), or buy things that would have resulted in other businesses having to make more product, resulting in a need for more hiring, is taken away, filtered through people who are overpaid do an hour of work for eight hours at work, so that the poor get a very minuscule portion of the money anyway.

The latter problem could be solved with a simple negative income tax or basic income guarantee that neither rewards people for not working nor punishes people for getting even a minimum wage job replacing all forms of welfare. If we’re going to have welfare, it ought to be the least disruptive and least penalizing for doing well. The larger problem of being generous with other people’s money requires a change in overall philosophy in the country at large, and in Washington in particular. While that is more difficult, it can be done with a strong bully pulpit. Only when someone important publicly and consistently talks about moral government (one which doesn’t initiate force to get things done) will it get realized in the world.

Taxation

If I were to approach someone and tell them that if they did not give me some money, that I would take them by force and lock them in my basement, I would be arrested for extortion. If they refused to pay and I followed through on my threat, I would be guilty of kidnapping. It is unjust for me, a private individual, to earn my money in such a way, even if I then turned around and gave that money to the poor. Which is why it is both immoral and illegal in every society.

But if the government approaches someone and tells them that if they do not give the government their money, that it would take them by force and lock them in jail, it is called taxation. If they refuse to pay and the government follows through on its threat, it is called arrest and imprisonment. This is considered by many to be a just and proper way for the government to make its money.

Why is something that is unjust for an individual to do to another just for one group to do to others, so long as that first group is larger, stronger, and called a government? If something is unjust and immoral for an individual, then it is unjust and immoral for a group, even if that group calls itself a government. A change in terminology does not justify unjust behavior. Theft is theft, no matter if you call it by its proper names of theft and extortion, or by the evasive term taxation. To tax is to steal. And that is what any government does whenever it taxes. A free and just society is based on the concept of free trade. Free trade is based on the premise that “if you do something good for me, I’ll do something good for you.” The opposite of free trade is extortion, or “unless you do something good for me, I’ll do something bad to you.” Any government or society based on free trade is just. Any government or society based on extortion is unjust.

Whenever the concept that taxation is theft is brought up, the response is always that the government has to make money somehow. Which is true. But so do I. Yet this is clearly not enough for me to engage in extortion. So why is it a legitimate reason for the government to do so? Anything immoral for an individual is immoral for a group, whether they call themselves a gang or a government. Anything illegal for a private individual or group should be illegal for the government. It is no better than anyone else simply because it is called a government. It does not know more, is not wiser, it is not more intelligent. And even if they did have these attributes, that would still not give government the right to steal – which is the right to take away another’s rights to their life, liberty, and property – a right nobody ever has, least of all in a free, civilized society.

A Story of Emergence

Suppose you were a conscious amino acid. The material world consists, for you, of fellow biochemicals, and you know too that you are made up of atoms, and that those atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. You go about your business, acting as an individual amino acid, sometimes joining into larger groups (proteins), and then separating out from them. You wander around your society of biochemicals, imagining that this is all there is.

And then one day, a nucleic acid comes to you and tells you that you are part of this larger entity, that your mind is not entirely your own, but that there is this thing out there, this “cell” of which you are a part, that comes in and influences your actions. All that you thought were your choices or merely random events is in fact run by this higher intelligence known as the “cell.” It is not that you don’t have choices — you can be in this or that part of the cell, you may attach yourself to a tRNA, to a protein, to a short polypeptide, etc. — but you are now informed that there is a greater purpose involved, that you are part of this larger cell, and that your actions help to keep this cell alive.

Now, from the point of view of the amino acid, the cell will seem, in relation to you, “immaterial.” It will make no sense from your material point of view. It will seem very strange indeed. You may believe in the cell, or not (and be an atheist). There will be discussions among your fellow biochemicals regarding the nature of the cell. Is it material? That is, if it even exists. The “cell” theory does seem to make a lot of things make more sense — but it is nonetheless troubling. If it is not material in the same sense as a biochemical, is it really material? From our more complex, emergent human perspective, the cell seems to be just as material as as its constituent biochemicals. While, on the other hand, our “mind” appears to be just as immaterial as the cell is to the biochemical.

Let me tell a short story of emergence.

In the beginning was pure information, or pure energy. Information is inform, yet gives form. It is the foundation of all things. (In the beginning (archae) was the word (logos).)

As the universe expanded and cooled, that pure energy crystallized out into quantum particle-waves. It became more material.

Some of those quantum particle-waves combined to form emergent atoms with greater complexity. These atoms were more material than their constituent particle-waves.

Some of those atoms combined to form chemicals (more material than atoms) — and some of those chemicals were able to interact in complex cycles to give rise to cells with emergent complexity. These cells were more material than their constituent chemicals.

Some cells were able to develop complex interactions such that multicellular organisms were able to emerge, giving rise to greater complexity and more complex interactions. These multicellular organisms were even more material than their constituent cells.

One species of animal evolved a highly complex brain with an emergent intelligence. This brain resulted in more complex social behaviors, the evolution of language, and the emergence of complex culture and religion. It was so complex that it was able to contemplate itself and the universe (thus, the universe became complex enough to become self-aware, to be able to contemplate itself). It seems that there will soon be 10 billion members of that species, with brains so complex that the minding function of that brain has given rise to the appearance of permanence (the same way that while each of the lower levels that constitute it are in fact always in flux, always in time, they nonetheless gain more appearance of permanency). This species has more time and more time experience, more material being, than do all the levels below it that constitute it (there is a nested hierarchy — a new Great Chain of Being). And that mind is much more material than the brain that gave rise to it.

Humans are not the end of the line. New levels of complexity have emerged in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. And there will be fewer examples of those more complex levels that emerge (the same way that there is more energy than quantum particle-waves, more particle-waves than atoms, more atoms than chemicals, more chemicals than cells, more cells than organisms, and more organisms than humans). The emergentist evolutionary world view thus gives you emergence of tue universe to God — who is the most complex, highest level of emergence, with the most time. Thus, God is also the most material.

This story derives from Darwinian evolutionary theory, combined with information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and fractal geometry, the theory of emergence, and self-organization theory. This combination is able to give rise to both ethics and God.

Fear and Injustice

How often do we fail to do something because of fear? How often do we allow injustices to continue because of fear?

Think about all of the people being accused of sexual harassment. Think about how many of them preyed on others for decades because their victims wouldn’t say something out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing a job, fear of not getting a job, fear of what people would think of them.

Of course, much of the time the people who are most aware of the problems in society are aware of those problems precisely because of the jobs they have. If they were to let people know about the underlying corruption, the way people actually behave, the way money is wasted, the way people are treated, they would be fired–and likely find themselves unable to get another job in that fields. Or, sometimes, in any field (you don’t want to be known as the person who roots out corruption in a society permeated with corruption).

If you want to know the degree to which public education is corrupt, ask a public school teacher. Actually, that won’t do you any good, because they won’t say anything because they are afraid they’ll lose their jobs. Better, ask a former school teacher, who has no intention of ever working in public education again.

The laws “protecting” whistle-blowers are useless. Government whistle-blowers just get accused of being traitors. When that whistle-blower is a police officer reporting on the corruption among the police, he can find himself an unfortunate victim of an unsolvable crime. When that whistle-blower is an employee of a corporation, that person had better be independently wealthy, as they will have a very hard time getting a new job. Our prisons are full of such whistle-blowers, who suddenly find they violated some piece of legislation that primarily exists to protect business and government from whistle-blowers.

And just try to report something to the EEOC or some similar government entity supposedly designed to protect workers. How often is something not found, when you know the business was screwing you over?

This then gets into something other than fear. This gets into the fact that bureaucracies make you feel helpless. If you overcome your fear, you will find yourself essentially helpless in the face of the bureaucracies that are supposed to be helping you.

To return to the issue of fear, there are also a number of social issues we simply cannot deal with because of the fear of political correctness. It is impossible to criticize certain people for certain things for fear of being labeled a sexist or a racist or a homophobe or such. If you criticize something–say, a lack of trust–that is found primarily in a certain group–say, among the poor–you will likely find yourself accused of racism because of your accuser’s perception that the poor are mostly minorities (which isn’t actually true). You will likely be accused of saying all the poor are untrusting or even untrustworthy (although you didn’t), or of saying that this or that minority group is inherently untrusting or untrustworthy (although you didn’t). As a result, people learn not to even make cultural or subcultural criticisms because you’ll find people overapplying what you said to make you look bad. From fear, we won’t criticize anyone’s ethics or morals.

Of course, if you cannot say anything out of fear, fear is preventing you from changing the world. Is this, perhaps, the point? We are allowing injustices to continue because of fear. We fear what people will say, what people will think; we fear losing our jobs, or being unable to get a new one. We live in a culture of fear–and we’re deathly afraid to say so.

An Information Ontology

I do not ascribe to a materialist ontology nor an idealist one, but rather, an ontology of information. In other words, I take the following from John 1:1 seriously:

en arche hn o logos
“the foundation of all things is information”

Admittedly, this is a definition that comes about in light of information theory — but if you truly understand both what information is, and all the meanings of logos, you can see that “information” is a good translation of “logos.” Certainly a far, far, far, far, far better choice than “word,” which is such a peripheral meaning of logos as to be almost completely inaccurate. When we “Logos,” we communicate information one to another, process that information, and pass on that information. All things are information at different levels of complexity — information processors, which all communicate different kinds of information at different levels. For biological organisms, the vehicle of communication tends to be chemical, though also photons and sound waves. Humans communicate using more complex information-carriers, particularly through grammatical, syntactical language. If we look at the ways to define information — as a noun, it is that which is without form; as a verb, it is that which gives form to another. Thus, pure information is that which is without form, which gives form.

“The foundation of all things was information, and the information was 1) to the advantage of 2) at, near, by 3) to, towards, with, with regard to (the word translated as “with”) God, and God was information.”

That is the most literal translation of John 1:1 I can render. The story of the universe is one of foundation on information, and the increasing complexity of that information over time in the universe. Atoms have less complex forms of information than do chemicals and especially chemical cycles and systems. Biology is a set of highly complex chemical systems. The human brain is a highly complex neural system in complex interaction with other humans through complex social systems. That information is communicated through language, which itself must be highly complex in order to communicate most efficiently. God is the most complex of the universe, and thus has all the information. This is how God is both the Alpha (the inform information that gives form at the beginning of the universe) and the Omega (the most complex, most informed).

All the other theories I use in my philosophy — evolutionary theory, game theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, emergence theory, etc. — explain the ways in which information interacts to create more complex things and how those complex things engage in complex interactions. Information theory is the foundation of all these things. Information is the foundation of all things.

No Regrets

Aphorism 341 — from Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom”

The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life you will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question is each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

* * * * *
When I first encountered this aphorism, it was in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it became associated forever in my mind with part of part 10 of “The Intoxicated Song”:

Did you ever say Yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said Yes to all woes as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love;
if ever you wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: ‘You please me, happiness, instant, moment!’ then you wanted everything to return!
you wanted everything anew, everything eternal, everything chained, entwined together, everything in love, O that is how you loved the world,
you everlasting men, loved it eternally and for all time: and you say even to woe: ‘Go, but return!’ For all joy wants – eternity!

The typical scholar would first point out that the aphorism from The Gay Science is a response to Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324), and that the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra was in response to Goethe’s Faust, and Faust’s inability to want one moment twice. But these things are not what I want to focus on. At least, not right away. I wish instead to discuss how these two passages came together for me, to affect me as they did.
* * * * *
While aphorism 341 gives us the demon’s offer, it is the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra that gave me the reason why I should accept it. I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1995, in the summer after I had finished the classes for my Master’s degree in biology. All I had to do was do the research for my thesis, and write and defend my thesis. Instead, I moved an hour and a half away from the campus to live with my parents. While living with them, a friend of mine got me a job as a security guard, which I thought was a great idea, because it would give me the time to read and write – I was starting to become increasingly interested in writing fiction and reading philosophy. Nietzsche in particular. Thus I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra while guarding a coal mine entrance. And it is here that I encountered this question: was I living my life in such a way that I would want to live it over and over? And further: Was I living such a life that I would want the moment I was living in to eternally return to me? Was I so happy with my life, with who I was, that I would want to become the person I was at that moment? In other words, did I have any regrets? And was I living my life at that moment in such a way that I would want to relive it, to come back to that moment? And what of other moments, future moments? Every decision I would make, every action I would take, were they going to be decisions and actions I would want to repeat? I was working as a security guard at a coal mine, and I had finished two years of graduate classes in molecular biology, a field I had grown bored with. Was I living a life I would want to live over again?

The thought crushed me. Under the weight of such a thought, I collapsed – not once, but twice. I had two nervous breakdowns – one in the summer, the other in the winter, almost six months later. The first while I was working as a security guard, the second after they fired me for applying for another job. I could not take the weight of this thought, that I should be living life in such a way that I would want to relive that life. I would not want to relive the life I was living at the time. It was a terrible life, filled with psychological pain I would not talk to anybody about – and I was getting a degree in a field that I enjoyed learning new things in, but did not actually like doing, and I was working at a job that I felt at the time to be degrading. I had a college degree in recombinant gene technology! How could I be working as a security guard at a coal mine in rural Kentucky? I had to make a change. The first change I made was to get a job as a substitute teacher, so I could at least do something with my education. And that caused me to get fired from the job I felt to be degrading. My world was out of control. And then my grandfather and my uncle both had strokes. There was nothing I could do. The world was out of my control.

One of the things Nietzsche is trying to do with aphorism 341 is get us to affirm the possibility that the world is completely determined, that everything that will happen will happen in a predetermined way, because of the way Newtonian physics saw the world. The world was determined because of its past. If that was the case (we now know, through chaos theory, that it is not – the past is postdictable, but the future is not predictable any further out than the weather is), we could either despair, or we could affirm it and find joy in it. The demon’s offer is an offering of a completely determined world. Your life would turn out the same way over and over, for eternity. And there was nothing you could do about it. If you came to realize that you lived in a world that you could not control, that would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what you did – that, in fact, everything you did was itself determined, and would turn out the way it would turn out, no matter what – how would you react? One could argue that you would react the way you were determined to act, but this is a thought experiment. And history has shown us how people have reacted to this idea. The Romantics and the Existentialists both rebelled against the idea, and tried to assert human freedom despite our living in a deterministic world. The German philosopher Kant even went so far as to say that there were two worlds: one of Newtonian determinism, the other of human freedom. Nietzsche chose instead to affirm the Newtonian world. If that was the way the world was, we should rejoice in it, not despair. What, after all, could we do about it? So why not rejoice in the world as it is?

As it turns out, the world is not how Newton, the Romantics, Kant, and the Existentialists thought it was. Chaos theory shows us that the world is both determined and free, simultaneously. Thus, freedom of choice is real. But that does not negate the fact that we do live in a world full of things that happen that are outside of our ability to affect or change. If my grandfather and my uncle both have strokes, what can I do about it? Nothing. No more than a doctor could directly do anything about their having strokes. And I was not even a doctor. But at the time, I could not see that. I raged against the universe: Why couldn’t I do something? How dare the universe present me with anything that I could not affect! But dare it did, and there was nothing I could do about it. The world around me was doing what it was going to do, and there was little I could do to change it. The world was crushing me every bit as much as the greatest weight.

After the school year was over, I decided to put my life back into my own hands. At the same time, I came to realize that I could not control everything. And I became reconciled to that thought. Most of the world was outside of my direct control. And that was okay. What was in my control was how I would react to the world, and what I did with my own life. So I moved back to Bowling Green, lived with some friends, worked odd jobs over the summer, realized as I was working on two novel manuscripts that I wanted to write fiction for the rest of my life, looked into English graduate programs, realized I needed at least a minor in English, and signed up for a full load of English classes that Fall, deciding at the same time that I was not going to finish my thesis for my master’s in biology. And I made all of these decisions knowing I would not ever regret having made a single one of them.
* * * * *
To affirm your life as it is, you have to live it without regrets. To regret something is to say that you wish what happened had happened differently than it did. And that means that you wish that everything that had happened subsequent to that action had happened differently. Take a look again at the section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To will your greatest moments, you have to have willed everything that happened up to that point. To reach the point you are now at, everything that happened to you had to have happened to you exactly the way it did, at the time it did, with all of the ramifications, or else you would not be at the point you are at now. To say that you regret any part of your life is to say that you wish that your life were other than what it is. To regret any part of your past is to admit to self-hatred, to self-loathing. So you need to ask yourself what I asked myself: is your life one that you would want to relive it, so that you could come back to the present moment, or even some moment from your past? And are you living life in such a way that you would want to relive it? Or are you one of those people that Schopenhauer said would not wish to relive their lives?

I made my decision. I wanted to live a life I would want to repeat. I wanted to live such a life that the very thought of reliving it brought me joy. I wanted moments that I would want to repeat forever into eternity. I could not imagine working in a molecular biology lab forever into eternity. Lab work bored me, and the thought of being bored forever was much too great a weight. But I was doing something that I could imagine doing over and over, for all of eternity. I was writing. I loved writing – the very process of writing, the creation of characters and the weaving of stories, developing pictures and ideas in words. And when I finished my first novel manuscript, it brought me such joy and clarity as to what it was I should be doing with my life that there was little question as to what I should be doing with the rest of my life. I should be writing. I have loved reading from a very young age – whether it be science or literature. I had loved nature so much, science seemed an obvious choice. But now it became clear that I love the word even more. I loved reading fiction, reading philosophy, reading everything. I still loved reading about molecular biology, but that was all. I had been told that I was good at explaining complex ideas in simple ways – and I brought that to my writing. I was taking creative writing classes to help me with my fiction, and I was applying to graduate schools in creative writing so further help me with my fiction. And I had, in one of my undergraduate short story writing classes written a short story that I was immensely proud of. It was a story I knew was the best thing I had ever written, and, as I continued to write, it became clear that it was a benchmark I would need to work on reaching again. That story was one of those moments of joy – it was a moment of creation I wanted to relive. And each new short story was an attempt to repeat what I had experienced in creating that story. It did not matter that it was several years before I could write another story that good. And it did not matter if I ever wrote another one that good. I had done it once, and that moment made it worth repeating my life. It was at that moment that I regretted nothing in my life – nothing that had ever happened to me, good and bad, nothing that I had ever done, thought, or had not done. Everything was affirmed in that one moment of creation.
* * * * *
To say that I do not regret anything in my life, anything that ever happened to me, is not to say that I live my life without learning from it. To refuse to regret anything from one’s life is different from recognizing that one has made poor decisions in the past that one can then learn from, and not repeat in the future. What this does prevent one from doing is worrying over something that happened in the past. There are no more “I wish I’d never done that.” Instead, there is “Well, I did it, and I have seen the repercussions from it, and I don’t want to do that again in the future.” The first one is negative, the second one is positive. The first one denies the value of the experience. The second one affirms the value of the experience – and properly treats it as a learning experience.

Yet, when I have told people that I regret nothing from my life, I have gotten looks of terror. I do not exaggerate. People have looked at me as if I were some terrible, terrifying monster. How could you not have any regrets? Do you not have a conscience? Of course I have a conscience. This is not an issue of conscience. This is an issue of what attitude one has toward one’s life – which is to say that it is an issue of what attitude one has toward life. Do you affirm or deny life? Your life? Do you live a life of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would have it? Or do you live a life of quiet joy? I choose joy over desperation. When faced with such a person, how would you expect them to react? I am no monster, but having once been the person they now are, I can understand why they may misunderstand and think that someone who lives a life with no regrets could be a monster. People are filled with awe at both the awesome and the awful. I claim to be neither, but I do understand how someone who does not know me can think of me as being potentially awful for living a life of no regrets.
* * * * *
There is a correlation to having no personal regrets, and that is not regretting another person’s past. My decision to drop out of graduate school in molecular biology to pursue graduate programs in English and in Arts and Humanities is one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. My decision to major in recombinant gene technology and minor in chemistry and do two years of graduate classes in molecular biology is equally important and positive. I could not have done any of the things I have done, thought the things I have thought, done the scholarship I have done, or written the stories or poems I have written if it were not for the education I have received in biology and chemistry. Every decision I have made in regards to my education have been good decisions, they have been exactly what I needed to make me who I have become. How do I know this? Because I did have this education, and I have become the person I have become. Had I made any change – any change – I would not now be the person I am right now. And I would not want that. However, my own father cannot see this.

I have had several discussions with my father about this issue. He has asked me if I regretted not getting my Master’s in molecular biology. And I have told him that I do not. He has claimed that I wasted my time doing biology when I could have been concentrating on what I am now doing. Which is ridiculous on the face of it. I could not have decided to go into the arts and humanities until the crisis that led me to start writing as much as I was. Further, the first novel manuscript was based on an idea I developed in molecular biology – so I would not have even started, let alone finished (and, later, destroyed) the manuscript that put me on the path to writing fiction in the first place. Everything had to happen exactly as it happened in order for me to be in the exact place I am at the present time. For him to say that I should have done something different is the same as him saying that he wishes that I was a different person than I am. To object to someone doing something in the past is to object to who that person is. Remember that the next time you say that someone should have done this or that different. You are objecting to that person being who they are. What we should do instead is discuss past episodes as learning experiences. We should only criticize those we love for not learning from their past mistakes (though in my case, I reject the idea that what I did was even a mistake). If that person has clearly learned from what they did, then there should be no criticism. In my case, it would be just to criticize my dropping out of graduate school the first time if I repeated that pattern in getting my MA in English, or if it seemed as though I were going to not finish my dissertation for my PhD. It is ridiculous to criticize someone for dropping out of graduate school seven years before when they have 323 pages of a dissertation sitting on a dresser in the house. The product is there to look at. How can you wonder if what is clearly almost done will get finished? And there are several more reasons why this is a ridiculous complaint, aside from my having already finished a Master’s thesis before: I am a completely different person now than I was seven years ago, and I am doing a completely different kind of project for my dissertation, in a completely different field of study. In other words, there is almost nothing similar to compare.

What my father cannot seem to understand is that I am a completely different person now than I was when I dropped out of a graduate program in molecular biology, and he cannot understand the fact that I do not regret any of the decisions that I made, and that I would make those same exact decisions over again if I could somehow go back in time and change them. Of course, to say that I have no regrets and that I would not go back in time to change anything is to say exactly the same thing.
* * * * *
In aphorism 341 of The Joyful Wisdom (also known as The Gay Science), Nietzsche gives us in the demon’s offer a chance to affirm life as such through affirming our lives in particular. In other words, he asks us how we would react if a demon should offer us eternal recurrence. How would you respond? Would you be crushed by the idea? Would you curse the demon? Or has there ever been something in your life so wonderful that you would want to repeat your life in every detail so you could relive that moment – and become the person you are at the moment of the offering – over and over again? For those who would reject the offer – thus accepting Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324) – Nietzsche has nothing more to say. But for those who would accept it, Nietzsche offers, “Incipit tragoedia” and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the further development of the tragic, recursive geometry of time introduced in the demon’s offer – an offer which Oedipus accepted at the end of “Oedipus tyrannus,” providing the model for the tragic view of time. Only those who can say “Yes” to the offer are ready to hear what is to follow – Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera shows the consequences of this Schopenhauerean rejection, with the fictional example of Mirek (the individual) and the nonfiction example of communist Czechoslovakia (the country/society/culture) of attempting to erase their pasts – the most active rejection of Nietzsche’s demon’s offer one can undertake. Mirek thought he could control his destiny by erasing (forgetting) his past – just as the Communists thought they could do the same for the destiny of Communism. He wanted to “destroy his own hated youth” just as the people of Bohemia “rebelled against their own youth” (18), resulting in Prague Spring, which, as a “bad memory” is not even remembered, having been “carefully erased from the country’s memory” (19).

By attempting to erase people “from the country’s memory,” the Communists showed us how dangerous is the desire to forge, to erase our memory and our youth. But this is only a natural response, as Schopenhauer recognized, when he said “perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again,” since “everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception,” and “as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small” (WWPI, 324). But, natural as this response may be, we can see that it is also a tragic response, resulting in people being imprisoned or killed and erased from photographs and history books. Those who would refuse to go through it again are saying No to their lives – and if they are in power, this No-saying can turn deadly.

Unless we affirm our lives, whether that be our own individual lives, or the life (history) of a nation or a people, the consequences can be tragic. This is, in one sense, ironic, considering that Oedipus’ life is precisely terrible and, therefore, tragic, because Oedipus, in the end, would have accepted the demon’s offer, knowing full well what that would entail. This is what makes Oedipus both wonderful and terrible, truly awe-ful. But at the same time, this is what makes one’s life beautiful, this affirmation, as it now gains a certain depth – of time. Since it is unlikely one is going to actually encounter such a demon, one can take this idea metaphorically, and chose memory over forgetting. Of course, this too is tragic, though perhaps a considerably less bloody tragedy, at least for people other than oneself, as we see with Hölderlin’s idea of tragedy being connected to memory, with memory’s failure over time. As Dennis Schmidt points out in On Germans and Other Greeks, in discussing Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion for Hölderlin, “A separation in time cannot be overcome . . . since such a separation is the province only of the past. . . . Separation in time can only be suffered” (131).

The problem with forgetting is that it is “absolute injustice and absolute solace at the same time” (Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 130) – and often the former is used in hopes it will lead to the latter. But both of these point to precisely why forgetting is tragic – it is an attempt by a finite creature to attain infinity (the absolute). In attempting to forget, we attempt to overstep our bounds, as defined by physis (we are a remembering being, and as such, we overstep out bounds by trying to make ourselves forget – we try to make ourselves other than human). The attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. And it is the attempt to deny ourselves.
* * * * *
Heraclitus says that “to God all things are beautiful and good and just, though men suppose that some are just and others unjust.” Do you understand what this means? The affirmation of your life also means the affirmation of all of life – of everything that ever happened in the world. If your life as it is could not be where it now is without everything that happened in it, then this is equally true of everything in the world – even of the universe. Think about it: everything had to have happened exactly as it did in the world in order for you to have even been born. Thus, to affirm your own existence, you have to – to take an extreme example – affirm the existence of Hitler and the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust. That does not mean you have to like, approve, or promote such behavior – but it does mean you have to recognize that the world as a whole – all things – are beautiful and good and just. If you have ever had a great moment you would want to experience once more, then you have affirmed the existence of Hitler. And rather than denying what he did, or pretending that what he did was another generation’s fault or problem, we have to come to terms with what happened, and learn from it, and learn how to avoid something like it happening again. We have to also come to recognize all the good that came out of what happened. Good? you ask? If you cannot see the good, you are refusing to look hard enough – and you are negating your very existence, and the beauty of life itself. In other words, we have to do something eminently Christian: we have to forgive Hitler. That’s right, we have to forgive him. For only in forgiving him can we heal ourselves. Only in forgiving him can we affirm our lives, our existence, and life itself.
* * * * *
In an odd sort of way, many will find it easier to forgive Hitler than to forgive those closest to them – those we have to forgive the most. Our lives are full of resentment toward others – and the easier our lives have been, it seems the more resentment we build up against others. Especially those closest to us. People just barely surviving do not have the luxury of resentment — they actually have to live physically. Resentment is a luxury. It comes from idleness and boredom. And there is nothing more destructive to ourselves than resentment. With it we separate ourselves from others, especially those closest to us, and barricade ourselves not just from them, but from others. We sever social bonds, and in severing such bonds, we sever ourselves from much happiness. We are a social species, and our bonds of family and friends are so very important to us for us to live healthy lives. Resentment cuts those bonds. Resentment only makes us bleed – it does little if any harm to those we resent. Resentment is the knife we use to cut ourselves, to watch ourselves bleed. It fogs our sight as the blood runs in our eyes. We stumble and fall, and then blame those we resent.

Resentment is the world’s greatest poison. A slow poison eating away at our lives, at our selves, killing us slowly. Do you think that your slow dying will harm those you resent? Why hurt yourself to harm others? But if you are not big enough to avoid resentment, you are not big enough to refuse to harm others, you are certainly not big enough to forgive. And thus your life is poisoned, and the lives of everyone around you is poisoned. Almost every sin against others comes directly from the sin of resentment. Hatred, including self-hatred, and all the self-destructive things that come with it, and racism, theft, lying, true sadism, true masochism – all of these have their sources in resentment. Let go of your resentment – affirm life – these are the same things, the same things that will make life not just worth living, but a true joy.

Enemies

Several years ago I went to a talk at the Dallas Philosopher’s Forum, and the speaker spoke about enemies — why we make them, and why we keep them. Around that time I also finished reading Lee Harris’ “Civilization and Its Enemies,” which talks about the existence of enemies, and the consequences for a society that denies their existence (in short: they don’t last long). The speaker at the DPF was a psychologist, and claimed that making enemies was learned, and had no biological context at all. This both ignores the fact that all social animals treat members of the same species, but different groups, as enemies, as well as ignores the fact that if the idea of having enemies is merely learned, then it begs the question of how such an idea could have come about in the first place. The only explanation could be that it just came out of nothing at all, or perhaps that it comes about when people got together into groups. Of course, this accepts the completely discredited anthropological theories of Rousseau — but his ideas are unfortunately still believed by most liberals, either overtly or implicitly.

Enemies came about when the first creature defended its territory against another. This goes as far back at least to the lobe-finned fish, from which evolved all the land vertebrates — amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Modern-day male gobies are brightly colored in order to advertise to other gobies that they are healthy, in order to avoid a fight with other male gobies. But when you have two equally-matched gobies, you will get a fight. But the bright colors — and the dances of the gobies — are much more often used in a ritualistic manner, to avoid violence. This prevents the gobies from getting hurt, while maintaining their territories. And when used with females, it allows the females access to the males so that breeding can occur. Thus, this ritual both avoids violence, and allows for breeding. It is no coincidence that the colors and the dances of the gobies are beautiful.

What we can learn from this is that enemies came first, and then the ability to deflect enemies through ritual came later. It also shows that the concept of an enemy has its origins in or most ancient of ancestors. But the ability to avoid violence among enemies also evolved only shortly after. Only when we acknowledge these facts will we be able to do something about the problem.

The ancient Greeks understood that ritual was needed in order to create great cities and cultures. How else can you get over 100,000 people to live together, except you create some sorts of bonds among them beyond those of the family? Thus, the Greeks creates athletics — competition — in order to maintain order. By deflecting the need to have an enemy onto a ritual scapegoat — an opposing player or team from the one you are rooting for — you both fulfill our need to have an enemy, while deflecting that need into something less destructive, and in fact downright productive. The Greeks too invented the Olympics, maintaining peaceful competition among the city-states.

Here in the United States, sports manages to do the same thing. If you live in Dallas, you can support the Dallas sports teams. Thus, if Dallas plays, say, Pittsburgh, in football, then the Dallas fan can ritualistically hate Pittsburgh, the enemy. But when the game is over, the hatred is over too. The hatred occurred in a safe play space, and is appropriate only within that play-space of the watching of the game. Before the game, or when the game is over, nobody from Dallas is hating Pittsburgh, or fighting with people who are. Thus, a country of almost 300 million people is able to live together, cooperating and competing with each other. Now, this is still not a perfect system — it works very well in the U.S., but it is not uncommon for English soccer fans as a game to yell to German soccer fans that it was they, the British, who won the war. And soccer fans are infamous for getting into fights with fans of the opposing team. This is a general breakdown of the ritual system, and needs to be repaired to make sure it continues to perform its proper function. But still, World Cup Soccer and the Olympics have helped to maintain a certain level of peace among nations. We may find that hard to believe, with what has happened in the West in the 20th Century, and even now with the War on Terror, but the fact of the matter is that as a percentage of deaths in the West by war, the West is a far, far less violent place than any tribal situation — tribes in South America and New Guinea typically lose 40-60% of their young men a year to war. The West only lost 2% of the same population throughout the 20th century. This is in no small part due to the civilizing effects of athletics.

The worst thing that could happen, then, would be for our sports to become politicized. For when sports becomes politicized, the unifying ritual itself breaks down. Indeed, the politicization of sports in any way should be considered the canary in the coalmine–if and when it happens, the society is in danger of increasing political violence.