Saturday, April 7, 2018


Nightingale, circa 1st Century CE. Roman garden wall fresco, (detail) House of the Golden Bracelet—Garden Room, Pompeii


The only philosophical
question left,
a French writer said,
is whether to kill yourself.

But that is the question of youth.
In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

Middle age asks two questions:
How much time left? and
How to spend what wakefulness
remains? Now I look out the window,

and the deep magnolia
gives two answers:
the morning light
glistening in the crown,

and the wreath of shadow.
And the layered wind
does not rustle youth’s
To be or not to be. Each leaf

silvers Hamlet’s forgotten reply:
Let be. It’s too late to renounce
the privilege of surprise;
centuries, it seems,

since my father told me
not to worry about the universe.
“That’s Aldebaran,” he pointed
to an amber star.

When the universe shall ask
the final question, I too
will point: Aldebaran.
Great light seen only in the dark.

~ Oriana

I hope that my steady readers will forgive my posting and reposting this poem. It is a personal favorite of mine, a poem where I grow “older and wiser,” renouncing suicide and accepting “the privilege of surprise” — and life’s mix of the wonderful and the terrible, with everything in between. And one must know the dark to appreciate the light.

Toward the end of play, Hamlet attains that acceptance; he no longer ironizes about everything, but recognizes the infinite complexity of things. No philosophy, no clever words, can ever “tame” the wilderness of life. We can only surrender to it; not yielding to despair is already a triumph.

Dali: Tree of Life 


Harold Bloom states that it’s impossible to generalize about Hamlet: the play is so complex that any statement about it can be met with “Yes, but” counterargument. TS Eliot notoriously called Hamlet “an aesthetic failure” (a term vastly more applicable to Eliot’s own attempts at drama). Still, Bloom singles out one person who “got Hamlet right”: Nietzsche, who saw the prince “not as the man who thinks too much but rather as the man who thinks too well:

~ The Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not the cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no — true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man. ~

Bloom continues: “There is no ‘real’ Hamlet as there is no ‘real’ Shakespeare: the character, like the writer, is a reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we needs must see ourselves.”

And it could be argued that Nietzsche’s Hamlet reflects Nietzsche, the philosopher, the hyperintellectual who was disgusted by much that he saw in the world — for instance, it’s a little-known fact that Nietzsche detested anti-Semitism. But taking violent action, say killing an anti-Semite, would just augment the chain of evil.

Does Nietzsche’s answer to the mystery of Hamlet resolve once and for all what the play is about? No, the play is too complex to be “resolved.” But it’s also fascinating enough to keep us thinking and finding new facets of the world and ourselves in it.

19th-century program notes for the play

~ “Rhodri Lewis’s absorbing and original Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness is the first major reinterpretation of the play in some time. Lewis is clearly impatient with how critics have previously understood Hamlet. He argues that it is wrong to impose “the retrojection of Romantic, Freudian, or any other kinds of individuality onto a period in which they would scarcely have been comprehensible.”

Scraping away all these layers of critical varnish exposes for Lewis a much bleaker play than the one familiar to modern readers and playgoers:

    Hamlet is not thus a model of nascent subjectivity, the first modern man, a dramatic laboratory for the invention of the human, or even a study of the frustrations attendant upon sixteenth-century princely dispossession. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

[Lewis’s Hamlet] doesn’t so much delay in taking revenge as discover that he isn’t all that motivated to act on behalf of a father who failed to secure his succession.

It gets worse. Lewis’s Hamlet is “a thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-deceit. He feints at profundity but is unwilling and unable to journey beyond his own fears, blind spots, and preoccupations.” At least Claudius knows what sort of game he is playing; Hamlet, “unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others.” “For all Claudius’s dishonesty,” and “for all Polonius’s self-serving lucubration,” Lewis concludes, “the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him.” And Hamlet’s thoughts on the workings of providence are the “summa of his bullshit.”

It would be foolish trying to defend Hamlet by quoting his most famous soliloquy, since its words, stitched together out of empty pieties that he should critique but merely recycles, “comprise another study in superficial humanism, made up of commonplaces and sententiae divorced from the contexts that make them meaningful.” “To be or not to be” “sounds terrific,” but “it designedly does not make sense.” Nor should we take Hamlet’s talk of suicide seriously, since he is just “posturing.” Hamlet “pretends to engage” with the “prospect of self-murder because he is attracted to the image of himself disdaining the world, and because he has no intention of following through on the deed.”

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be as lame a drama critic as he is a historian, poet, and philosopher. By mocking Polonius’s response to the actors, Hamlet tries to distract us from his own “undercooked theorizing.” But we shouldn’t be misled; neither Polonius nor Hamlet “fully knows what he is talking about, though both are determined to conduct themselves as if they do.” The two are “high-born philistines whose pushiness and culturally deep pockets compel the professional artists to hear them out.”

Why have earlier critics failed to see Hamlet in this way? It’s tempting to blame Shakespeare for not signaling his intentions clearly enough. But Lewis, I imagine, is more likely to shift the blame to our collective refusal to register the ways in which the play turns on Shakespeare’s own rejection of humanism. So as not to misrepresent his book’s central argument, and to give a sense of how passionately it is expressed, I’ll quote at length:

    ~ Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn…. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham…. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honor, virtue, and expediency need them to be. ~

The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: “Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.”

The absence of any moral certainties means that it’s a “kill or be killed” world, and the most impressive chapter in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness establishes how the language of predation saturates the play. Lewis’s brilliant analysis here gives fresh meaning to long-familiar if half-understood phrases, including the “enseamed” marital bed, “Bait of falsehood,” “A cry of players,” “We coted them on the way,” “Start not so wildly,” “I am tame, sir,” “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers,” and “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Thirty years ago this analysis might have been the basis of an important, if localized, study—but that sort of book could never find a major publisher today. Here, it becomes a clever way of establishing what for Lewis is the play’s bass line:

    Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of hunting—one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey. 

It would have been bold enough to claim that Shakespeare wrote a play about the rot at the heart of sixteenth-century humanism. But for Lewis this turns out to be symptomatic of something larger, a crisis experienced not just by literature’s most famous character, but by Shakespeare himself, who “came to find humanist moral philosophy deficient in the face of human experience as he observed it.” For the Shakespeare of Hamlet, “humankind is bound in ignorance of itself.” We are told that “Shakespeare’s target is not Hamlet, or not just Hamlet. Instead, he sets himself against Boethius, against Cicero, against the conventions of humanism in the philosophical and religious round.” And Shakespeare apparently sets himself against God too:

    There is no divine author scripting human affairs; no list of approved parts for humankind to play; no heavenly audience passing judgment on human performances. 

Lewis dodges the question of what triggered Shakespeare’s profound disillusionment, declaring it to be “beyond the scope of this book.” We are left to wonder if Shakespeare ever overcame his despair, and whether in his late and seemingly redemptive plays he was merely faking it. We are also left in the dark about Lewis’s own turn against a humanist tradition in which he is so steeped; most scholars with this much Latin and Greek end up celebrating humanist culture, not exposing it as fraudulent.

Another question that the book doesn’t clearly answer is whether this is a story about a bad student—Hamlet—who merely regurgitates half-digested scraps of a Renaissance humanist education he doesn’t fully grasp, or whether he is a true product of that humanist tradition and conveys its arguments accurately, arguments that are revealed to be shallow and self-serving. Was Shakespeare—who never attended a university yet knew his Seneca and Tacitus—ever this invested in classical humanism, as Lewis wants us to believe? I’m not persuaded by his claim that Hamlet likely speaks his most famous soliloquy while holding a copy of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations.

I searched in vain while reading this book for what drove this grim argument—before finding a provisional answer in “Hamlet: Then and Now,” a short essay that Lewis recently posted on the Princeton University Press website. He argues there that Shakespeare

    offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald J. Trump … but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

If I understand Lewis correctly, we have paid a steep political price for failing to heed Shakespeare’s warning in Hamlet that the world has always been amoral and predatory.


Our political situation has altered with dizzying speed of late. Somehow, we collectively absorb these changes, even if many of us refuse to reconcile ourselves to them. But resistance to change is even fiercer when it comes to radical reinterpretations of our favorite works of art, and Lewis and his antihumanist approach to Hamlet, though it suits our moment, will, I suspect, win over very few adherents, at least in the short term.

Lewis’s Hamlet is not mine. The difference in our approaches and conclusions may simply be generational. But I admire his relentless questioning of underexamined beliefs that have long guided our reading of Hamlet and, if he is right, have been instrumental in leading us into the political mire in which we now find ourselves.

Eugéne Delacroix, Hamlet and his father's ghost, 1843


I think there are layers upon layers of meaning in Hamlet. One of them is the son's resentment at mother's remarriage — a fairly universal sentiment in step children (a father's remarriage is also likely to stir up resentment). We need not see anything Freudian about it — it's just the remarriage, the step-parent being a kind of intruder and usurper.

In this case, the step-father is a usurper in more ways than just emotional. Here we come to the  layers of political and moral meaning, and this is what makes Hamlet so interesting in our own political and moral moment of history. Claudius as Trump? More like Putin, I think, willing to assassinate anyone who's a threat to his hold on power. Hamlet is revolted at the general immortality around him (the illegitimate king, the assassinations, the spying), but doesn't have enough clarity to propose remedies, even as simple as saying, “I should be the king, and I would rule justly, serving the needs of the people rather than just my own.” Hamlet presents no positive vision of the correct moral order.

But then we shouldn't be too hard on him: he knows that Claudius is out to kill him, the legitimate heir to the throne and thus his greatest immediate political rival.

 I agree that each generation will see Hamlet differently. Is Hamlet depressed, a hyperintellectual paralyzed by overthinking? Or is he simply a victim of the revenge mentality of his times: kill or be killed? Fortunately, we don't have to impose a particular "meaning" on Hamlet to enjoy the wonderful scenes and language.

Nor is Hamlet entirely devoid of wisdom, as Lewis seems to suggest. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is his parting message. To see that any situation is more complex than the way it first appears is a sign of maturity.

Finally, as various writers have pointed out, ours is not really the time when Hamlet is especially relevant — unless in post-Soviet Russia. In the US, we live at a time of King Lear.

Hamlet and Ophelia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Note the decoration presenting Adam and Eve and the Tree. The snake is Claudius (in a crown).

Charles: Note that Adam and Eve are robed. 


Sure enough! That might indicate the royal couple, perhaps Gertrude and Hamlet Sr (i.e. the former king and Hamlet's father). 

Hyacinth: I like this image and "Shakespeare's profound disillusionment." 


This is not the only play in which a very bitter view of the world shows. But then, it could be argued that it's just realism. 


At first I did not find Lewis' argument compelling, thinking he is seeing Hamlet through the lens of our own times, rewriting it, as we all must, in terms of our own experience. Shakespeare is not Nietzsche, not Sartre, not an existentialist philosopher, but a man of his own place and time. Then I thought of those times — when a moral order was "collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions." He lived in Tudor England, where the late king, under pressure to secure an heir, and to act on his own will, severed ties with, and outlawed, the Church that for centuries had held power not only over individual souls, but over kings and empires. It didn't work out in terms of securing the succession, but it revolutionized the old order, made the state and church one entity, with secular concerns overriding doctrinal ones.

And all of Europe was also in the middle of the Reformation, and it's own desperate struggles and persecutions. Shakespeare was familiar with the Elizabethan court, splendid — and full of plots, intrigues, spies, counterspies, fears of threats to the crown...a potential minefield of dangers, including accusations, denunciations, arrests, imprisonment, execution . . . or, more simply, assassination of any real or perceived enemies to the crown. In this world morality serves expediency. This is already a modern world, where it can be said nothing is either good or bad “but thinking makes it so.”

I do not think Hamlet is full of “bullshit,” but the ideas he mulls over are ones that no longer have authority or hold true, or can be guides to action. He is not really unable to act, in fact he acts quickly and impulsively — killing Polonius, jumping into the grave to fight Laertes. And he has no trouble writing the letter for the execution of poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I think the issue is that the ideas he mulls over, for instance, in his most famous soliloquy, are now as hollow and useless a guide for action as the platitudes of Polonius.

The dilemma Hamlet faces is very like those faced by the royals of his times — Henry must break all the bonds of marriage, killing wives he can't otherwise remove and replace in his desperation for an heir, and then his daughter refuses any marriage as a threat to her power and her state, and eventually, having avoided it as long as possible, has her own sister executed, because she threatens that state. This is a world where the “unnatural” has become commonplace.


Bravo! Yes, Hamlet’s Denmark (and the Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s true concern) are incredibly “rotten” — though the future generations will not judge our times kindly either, assuming the moral evolution of culture will continue.

But bravo mainly for pointing out that Hamlet kills quite a few people. We adore him so much because of his eloquence that his ruthless killing has gone almost uncommented on. As Lewis points out, it is a “kill-or-be-killed world” — but we can’t help being modern, and seeing it as thoroughly immoral and heartless. Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mere puppets, need to be executed? Can Hamlet’s cruelty toward Ophelia really be justified? Or is it too much to expect him to heroically rise against his corrupt, murderous milieu and be morally superior to it? He is, after all, a product of that milieu. 

Yes: Hamlet actually does a lot of killing. That should give a pause to all of us, but especially to those who accuse him of being passive, a slacker who avoids taking action. He does take action — and, omg, the results . . . 

One could argue that princes behaved that way for centuries, and royalty and assassination were almost synonyms. That Hamlet is in fact a killer is not surprising in that light — only that he philosophizes in between. 

Yes, each generation sees Hamlet differently, according to its own central concerns and values. One wonderful thing about masterpieces is that there can be so many interpretations, adding to the mystery and richness. 

~ "Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of “normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.

It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order.

At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. As Nicholas Eberstadt points out in his powerful essay “Our Miserable 21st Century,” in the current issue of Commentary, between 1948 and 2000 the U.S. economy grew at a per-capita rate of about 2.3 percent a year.

But then around 2000, something shifted. In this century, per-capita growth has been less than 1 percent a year on average, and even since 2009 it’s been only 1.1 percent a year. If the U.S. had been able to maintain postwar 20th-century growth rates into this century, U.S. per-capita G.D.P. would be over 20 percent higher than it is today.

For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. If Americans were working at the same rates they were when this century started, over 10 million more people would have jobs. As Eberstadt puts it, “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.”

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18.

In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.

The Eberstadt piece confirms one thought: The central task for many of us now is not to resist Donald Trump. He’ll seal his own fate. It’s to figure out how to replace him — how to respond to the slow growth and social disaffection that gave rise to him with some radically different policy mix." ~


But can we just push for growth, or do we need a different, sustainable vision? By some estimates, the earth would be OK with 2 billion humans. Fortunately, the overall birthrate has been declining even in many of the developing countries. Mexico, for instance, is down to 2.2, with a corresponding drop in poverty.

As for long-term predictions, whether rosy or dark, those usually become material for humor — even if it’s a sad kind of humor. In mid-twentieth century, people kept wondering about the wonders that the year 2000 would bring. Space exploration would be well underway, cancer and other diseases long conquered, famine and genocide only history. Then, in 2001, on 9/11, we learned the hard way about the rise of religious fanaticism. The article discusses other examples, not as drastic, of how certain things have deteriorated rather than improved.

But I immediately hasten to add that in other areas there has been progress. Sometimes progress is rapid, and sometimes painfully slow. But the very fact that we can finally discuss “Medicare for all” — that those words are being pronounced — is a start in that direction. Likewise with renewable energy. The hope I feel is cautious, and there are times I too despair — and then remember that humans can be very resourceful when the need becomes great enough. This is still a better time to be alive than any time in the past. 


An afterthought: in some ways, it’s almost always “the best of times and the worst of times.” The famous lines of Matthew Arnold remain universal:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Nevertheless, nevertheless . . . somehow we inch forward. Now and then, to steal from Yehuda Amichai, we even fly a little.

an abandoned 19th century stairway — not a word about location, but my guess is "industrial," since it was first posted on "Steampunk tendencies”

Charles: Favorite image by far.


~ “Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organizing heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust.

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

Every major work on material inequality in the 21st century owes a debt to Sen. But his own writings treat material inequality as though the moral frameworks and social relationships that mediate economic exchanges matter. Famine is the nadir of material deprivation. But it seldom occurs – Sen argues – for lack of food. To understand why a people goes hungry, look not for catastrophic crop failure; look rather for malfunctions of the moral economy that moderates competing demands upon a scarce commodity. Material inequality of the most egregious kind is the problem here. But piecemeal modifications to the machinery of production and distribution will not solve it. The relationships between different members of the economy must be put right. Only then will there be enough to go around.

In Sen’s work, the two critiques of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus. The separation between the two critiques of capitalism is real, but transcending the divide is possible, and not only at some esoteric remove. Sen’s is a singular mind, but his work has a widespread following, not least in provinces of modern life where the predominance of utilitarian thinking is most pronounced. In economics curricula and in the schools of public policy, in internationalist secretariats and in humanitarian NGOs, there too Sen has created a niche for thinking that crosses boundaries otherwise rigidly observed.

Economic rationality harbors a hidden politics whose implementation damaged the moral economies that groups of people built up to govern their own lives, frustrating the achievement of its stated aims. In commercial societies, individuals pursue economic ends within agreed social and moral frameworks. The social and moral frameworks are neither superfluous nor inhibiting. They are the coefficients of durable growth.

Moral economies are not neutral, given, unvarying or universal. They are contested and evolving. Each person is more than a cold calculator of rational utility. Societies aren’t just engines of prosperity. The challenge is to make non-economic norms affecting market conduct legible, to bring the moral economies amid which market economies and administrative states function into focus. Thinking that bifurcates moral on the one hand and material on the other is inhibiting. But such thinking is not natural and inevitable, it is mutable and contingent – learned and apt to be unlearned.

Sen was not alone in seeing this. The American economist Kenneth Arrow was his most important interlocutor, connecting Sen in turn with the tradition of moral critique associated with R H Tawney and Karl Polanyi. Each was determined to re-integrate economics into frameworks of moral relationship and social choice. But Sen saw more clearly than any of them how this could be achieved. He realized that at earlier moments in modern political economy this separation of our moral lives from our material concerns had been inconceivable. Utilitarianism had blown in like a weather front around 1800, trailing extremes of moral fervor and calculating zeal in its wake. Sen sensed this climate of opinion changing, and set about cultivating ameliorative ideas and approaches eradicated by its onset once again.

There have been two critiques of capitalism, but there should be only one. Amartya Sen is the new century’s first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.” ~

from Wiki:

~ “Sen’s interest in famine stemmed from personal experience. As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, in which three million people perished. This staggering loss of life was unnecessary, Sen later concluded. He presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless laborers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the means to buy food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. 

In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution, which led to starvation. His capabilities approach focuses on positive freedom, a person's actual ability to be or do something, rather than on negative freedom approaches, which are common in economics and simply focuses on non-interference. In the Bengal famine, rural laborers' negative freedom to buy food was not affected. However, they still starved because they were not positively free to do anything, they did not have the functioning of nourishment, nor the capability to escape morbidity.

In 1999, Sen further advanced and redefined the capability approach in his book Development as Freedom. Sen argues that development should be viewed as an effort to advance the real freedoms that individuals enjoy, rather than simply focusing on metrics such as GDP or income-per-capita. Sen was inspired by violent acts he had witnessed as a child leading up to the Partition of India in 1947. On one morning, a Muslim laborer named Kader Mia stumbled through the rear gate of Sen's family home, bleeding from a knife wound in his back. Because of his extreme poverty, he had come to Sen's primarily Hindu neighborhood searching for work; his choices were the starvation of his family or the risk of death in coming to the neighborhood. The price of Kader Mia's economic unfreedom was his death. This experience led Sen to begin thinking about economic unfreedom from a young age.

Sen is an atheist and holds that this can be associated with one of the atheist schools in Hinduism, the Lokayata. He noted:

In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religion-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philosopher, wrote this rather great book called Sarvadarshansamgraha, which discussed all the religious schools of thought within the Hindu structure. The first chapter is “Atheism” — a very strong presentation of the argument in favor of atheism and materialism.” ~

Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative… of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or a quick one out of it…They made a great many other wise and humane regulations…”
~ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist dares to ask for “more”
Dickens really knew how to pierce the reader's heart. The scene of little Oliver asking for more food (meaning “gruel”) is unforgettable. But something else also occurred to me: because of his era, Dickens didn't dare write about the sexual abuse of children. I'm sure it was very common.


~ “How did modern freedom in the West come about? Samuel Moyn, in his review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, gives us this summary: “There was a time before the individual: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom. “They failed to notice,” Siedentop comments mordantly, “that the ancient family began as a veritable church.”

Neither Jesus nor Paul—the revolutionary whose influence Siedentop credits most—was committed to political change or institutional reform in this world, which both thought was ending soon. Their depreciation of worldly accomplishment sundered their commitment to the moral value of human beings—including those Jesus calls “the least of these”—from any truly political vision. If the founders of Christianity made individuals matter, and matter equally, it was not for the sake of a new set of beliefs about the social order, let alone a new liberal politics.

Siedentop notes Paul’s “imagery of casting off the shackles of slavery, a potent image in a world where slavery remained such a basic institution.” But he fails to mention that Paul relied on that image only in describing what Christianity would achieve for the soul after death. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul counseled followers to dutifully accept the shackles of the body in this life. “The offer of dignity through belief in Christ did not openly challenge patriarchy or servitude,” Siedentop later acknowledges, but it didn’t challenge patriarchy or servitude implicitly either.

There is a major difficulty for anyone, including Siedentop, who tells a Christian story of liberalism’s origins. They must explain how, against its original purposes, the Gospel’s message was brought down to earth, applied right now to radically new aims and institutions that Jesus and Paul would not have accepted. The reversal is stark: from a refusal of the relevance of Christian moral beliefs’ to politics to a revolution in this-worldly assumptions about the subordination of individuals to hierarchy. You need an argument to show how this happened. Siedentop doesn’t really have one. He just knows the reversal occurred.

Siedentop plausibly suggests that hopes of imminent redemption had to be given up in exchange for indefinite expectation, which came about thanks to figures such as St. Augustine. But when he comes to the problem of institutionalization, Siedentop constantly substitutes conclusion for explanation. “A moral revolution was under way,” he writes. “The rhetoric of the Christian people was undermining a whole conception of society.” Sure, but how? “By the end of the tenth century Christian moral intuitions were giving rise to a new sensibility.” That this occurred is the problem demanding a solution, not the solution itself.

At best Siedentop’s narrative repeats the shortcomings of the introduction to Democracy in America, where Tocqueville makes vague allusions to the slow work of Christianity in equalizing men, neglecting the vast chasm that separated the moral equality of Christians from the political equality of modern doctrine. So Inventing the Individual mostly amounts to an argument that, after Jesus’s message, it just took a while for liberalism to complete its metamorphosis and come out of its Christian shell. At least Tocqueville could rely on the claim that God’s providence unfolds in mysterious ways. We cannot.

 . . . The richest entry comes from Gauchet, the French thinker who also founded his career on the revival of nineteenth-century liberalism and, in The Disenchantment of the World (1985), specifically took up how and why Christianity birthed individualism.

For Gauchet, the secret lies in monotheism’s unique approach to God’s transcendence, which made the divine so otherworldly that man became more autonomous in consequence. Christianity in particular severed the monotheistic promise from terrestrial fulfillment in the Promised Land and inscribed it “in the soul’s inner recesses,” a step that, as Gauchet puts it, “[intensified] divine exteriority in relation to creation.”

 The same revolution that alienated individuals in relation to the world inadvertently prepared their independence from the divine and deprived politics of any sacred meaning. Siedentop observes that, as a matter of the history of language, the “individual” emerged more or less simultaneously with the “state.” Gauchet insists this is no accident, since the early modern kings who founded the absolutist state completed the long-term transition whereby secular political authority no longer incarnates the divine—that only Jesus could do—but represents the will of individuals. The social contract was thus born as authority in politics ultimately needed to come from the ground up, rather than heaven down.” ~ Samuel Moyn


~ “It seems to me that an obvious distinction between Christianity and even other monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam is that Christianity aims to substitute the "Holy Spirit" for the letter of the law. Judaism and Islam are religions where there was never intended to be a distinction between political and religious authority. They come with detailed codes of law and behavior meant to govern all aspects of life. Christianity, from the outset, called for a kind of internalization of the law, a substitution of inner virtue and pious belief for public obedience to laws and norms. Traditional Judaism and Islam are much more indifferent to what one believes “in one's heart,” so long as one abides by the religious law.

It is that abdication from any attempt to comprehensive legislation of the outer realm that distinguishes Christianity and makes possible the later separation of Church and State and the existence of the State as an autonomous body. The groundwork for liberalism can, then, later be laid by thinkers such as Hobbes, who imagine the State as a bulwark against, inter alia, religious wars. People can believe what they want, but the State has supreme authority over their bodily lives. It is not such a long step from here to the idea that the State is indifferent to individual's private beliefs and can tolerate a diversity of belief systems so long as those individuals are good, law-abiding citizens.” ~

Cleansing the Temple by Marcantonio Raimondi (about 1480 - about 1534)

I think best illumination comes from Richter’s comment: Christianity did not attempt to create the kind of religious law that governed every detail of life (Calvin went a long way in that direction, but his experiment didn’t last.) Observance (“the law”) simply wasn’t the essence of Christianity. Following the spirit was more important (at least theoretically). Unfortunately, stirring up fear of an external enemy (never mind “Love thy enemy”) seems to always work against the essence of Christianity.

Of course modern Judaism (Conservative and Reform) is not obsessed with minute observance and is classified with liberal religions, up there with liberal Protestantism.
And it could be argued that the roots of Jesus' liberalism are of course Judaic. He represented one of the more liberal sects at the time, opposing the oppressive Sabbath rules, for instance (“Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath”).

Basically it's never just one man out of nowhere, but a certain cumulative movement toward a different orientation, and then a quantum leap, with one or two charismatic leaders (some argue that Rabbi Hillel was a great teacher who preached the new, human-centered consciousness). What practically ruins Jesus for me was his apocalyptic prophecies. If he'd just stuck to ethics, we’d have a more pleasant and possibly kinder, more compassionate world.

* *

~ “Re: the rampage shooting at Youtube headquarters: We see here the difference between a rampage shooting with a handgun and a rampage shooting with an AR-15. Four people were shot, including the shooter. Three survived. The fatality was the shooter.

Handguns require more skill and shooter accuracy. If the barrel end of a handgun moves 2 mm away from the center of target, you might miss the target by several inches. A 2 mm movement at the end of a long barrel, you may still be on a close target. Short barrels amplify inaccuracy.

And recoil recovery is harder with a handgun. After every shot, you have to retrain a weapon, which is already more difficult to shoot accurately, even if you have lots of time to aim.

The AR was designed specifically to absorb recoil while minimizing muzzle rise. It was designed to send a large volume of fire, quickly and accurately, because it was designed to kill as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible.

And that is why assault rifles are in a completely different class of lethality than other small arms. Four injured, instead of 17 deceased. Assault rifles are especially deadly.”

~ John Willis


The Sahara has grown by 10 percent since 1920. Below is the satellite-derived image of the Sahara:


The part about making ourselves unhappy really hit home in a retroactive way: I remember when I used to make myself unhappy. To paraphrase Plath, I did it exceptionally well. And it's hard or even impossible for an unhappy person to make others happy. Here is Ebert's wisdom:

~ Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find out.

~ Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

"The only question ever is what to do here and now. It’s never what to do always everywhere." ~ Jeremy Sherman


A while back, distinctly before the “Me Too” movement, I posted on Facebook about a Polish-American priest who slapped me across the buttocks and said, “Just marry a nice Polish boy!” I was 17 years old, only a month in the US, and I didn't know what to think. I quickly walked away, but frankly, I was shocked by this behavior, on the part of any man, but especially a priest. I was beginning to notice that American nuns and priests, and American Catholicism in general, were quite different than what I left behind — not a fraction as repressed, which was good, but also shallow somehow, devoid of what I recognized as piety.

I remember this incident very vividly — the last thing I'd expect during a brief social interaction with a priest — in public, too, though I guess that was lucky for me, since that's as far as he went. Years later I also met a lascivious monk who started stroking my arm (I was in short sleeves) — with my husband standing right next to me! He was obviously delighted by the softness of my skin and stopped talking to us, just kind of grunted. Oh well, they are sexually starved — I'm not trying to excuse this, just understand.

This brings me back to the medieval cult of virginity and the whole phenomenon of how things that are sacred in one era may appear ridiculous in another era.

The Middle Ages assumed that virginity was saintly — in both men and women. Medieval Christians never questioned the high status of virginity — they didn’t think it needed defending. After all, Jesus was a virgin (can we know for sure? Could he have had gay sex with John, “the beloved disciple”? But back then, people would have never asked such blasphemous questions.)

And Mary of course had to be life-long virgin. Never mind that the Gospels clearly stated in several places that Jesus had brothers and sisters. My catechism nun told us that “brothers and sisters” actually meant “cousins.” That was a moment of great importance for me: I instantly knew that was a lie. “Brothers and sisters” does NOT mean “cousins.” Degrees of kinship were even more important back then than they are now; probably all human languages have words that clearly differentiate siblings from cousins.

So, the church lied about Mary’s virginity — I saw that instantly. What else might be a lie? A lot of things — but it was a journey of decades to “deconstruct” all those crazy made-up ideas presented to us as literal facts.

Meanwhile, the church imposed enormous suffering on men and women who tried to remain life-long virgins — promising them a reward in heaven and calling nuns the brides of Christ (there was no such theologically dignified solution for monks) while depriving them of the fulfillment of human love. Another problem was all kinds of sexual pathologies (the more you suppress, the more you obsess), and of course hypocrisy and the torment of guilt over even “lusting in your heart.”

Monks Fishing; Walter Dendy Sadler, 1880


Vitamin D travels through the bloodstream to the liver, where it’s turned into 25-hydroxycholecalciferol (25(OH)D or calcidiol). This is a prohormone or precursor for the vitamin D hormone. The vitamin D prohormone travels through the bloodstream to the kidneys, where it’s turned into the active form, 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol (1,25(OH)2 D3 or calcitriol). 1,25(OH)2 D3 is the active vitamin D hormone. It is released back into the bloodstream where it then regulates how your body uses calcium and phosphorus.

The following figure shows the conversion process in the body. Some controversy has arisen over whether vitamin D2 is as active as vitamin D3 when it’s ingested, but the consensus is that D3 is two or three times as potent in raising the level of 25-hydroxycholecalciferol.

Although the kidneys produce most of the calcitriol that ends up in the blood, there is some evidence that the conversion of 25(OH)D3 into 1,25(OH)2D3 may occur in other tissues in the human body. The production of calcitriol in these tissues is low in comparison to the kidney, and calcitriol made in these tissues is probably not released back into the serum. This calcitriol acts within the tissue where it’s made:

Cells of the immune system (macrophages, dendritic cells)
Colon (large intestine)
Endothelial cells (inner lining of blood vessels)
Parathyroid glands

How vitamin D works

The best understood role for calcitriol is in the control of how your body uses calcium and phosphorus to make strong bones. However, research is showing that many organs and systems in your body may also need active vitamin D. The intestine and bones rely on the kidneys to make and ship calcitriol to them. Other organs may be able to make small amounts of calcitriol on their own.

Active vitamin D works by entering cells and attaching to a protein called the vitamin D receptor, located in the nucleus of cells, where the genetic material is located. This combination of calcitriol and its receptor stimulates the cell to make proteins that regulate the way the body works.

For example, some of the proteins produced in response to calcitriol in the intestine help transport calcium across the intestine and into the bloodstream, greatly increasing the absorption of calcium from the diet. The vitamin D receptor is found in several cells that are critical for controlling the metabolism of calcium, phosphorus, and bone: intestinal cells, bone cells, kidney cells, and parathyroid gland cells.

Vitamin D receptors also are present in most other tissues, including the brain, heart, skin, ovary and testicle, prostate gland, and breast, as well as the cells of the immune system, including white blood cells and other key immune cells.

Brief summary from another source:

Vitamin D has multiple roles in the body, helping to:

Maintain the health of bones and teeth
Support the health of the immune system, brain and nervous system
Regulate insulin levels and aid diabetes management
Support lung function and cardiovascular health
Influence the expression of genes involved in cancer development.


This is just anecdotal, and I don't know how much value it has — but I had psoriasis for quite a few years, the scaly plaques of skin in patches at various spots. I also had pitting of the fingernails, like someone had used a punch to put little dots all over the nails. A doctor told me that was a sign of the psoriasis and would not go away. Because I was found deficient in vitamin D my doctor had me taking daily supplements. After several years, and I emphasize, years, both the psoriasis and the pitting were gone. None of my other medications had changed in that time period. Not a real scientific trial, but I really think it was the D.


Psoriasis is auto-immune, and Vitamin D helps normalize the immune system. Need we say more?


ending on humor:

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