Cal and I discuss our year at the halfway point and reflect. We also dive into books we are reading, want to read and our goals as we look to the end of the year. Enjoy!
Friedrich Nietzsche towers infamously in our collective memories for stating that, “God is dead.” The quote is largely taken out of context by most nonetheless there is an air of reservation for many to approach this great philosopher with that stigma attached to his work(s). At the beginning of the 2019, I was given a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a gift and a challenge from Cal. As I read Nietzsche, it was like going deep into a cave. There were times of confusion, anxiety and an overwhelming sense of being out of my comfort zone. I also felt a deep connection to Zarathustra’s teachings and inspiration to undertake challenges. Like we’ve stated before, the books you read come at a cost but Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzche deserves a place in your library despite the challenges it will bring.
Zarathustra is a shaman that comes down from solitude high from a mountain to teach mankind to the state of “overman”, which is humanism/self-reliance in its’ refined form. The book is split up into four parts filled with speeches as Zarathustra progresses on his journey to teach mankind. Essentially, Zarathustra is a wandering prophet proclaiming that this life has meaning not the afterlife. Part one of the book was by far my favorite. It is filled with sections like: On War and Warriors, On the Thousand and One Goals, On Love of the Neighbor and many others. You can clearly see Nietzsche’s philosophy echo in these passages. There are many great antidotes on living a more self-reliant and driven life as well scattered throughout the book. He goes onto to say later in part one, “But the worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods. You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame: how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!” The book in the beginning flows like The Sermon on the Mount or at least has the same structure in my opinion. The baseline knowledge that I have of Nietzche’s life, I know he suffered greatly. It is evident in his work as well. Zarathustra makes a point of what suffering did to him by the end, “It was suffering and incapacity that created all after-worlds this and that brief madness of bliss which is experienced only by those who suffer most deeply… Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body.” Perhaps Zarathustra is a bit mystic but I found myself drawn to the teachings of pushing yourself, finding meaning through suffering and being self-reliant when called upon and challenged.
Part two of the Thus Spoke Zarathustra continues similar to part one with the wandering evangelist preaching to whoever will listen. Nietzsche addresses creation and the creator in a great quote, “Creation- that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s growing light. But that the creator may be, suffering is needed and much change. Indeed, there must be much bitter dying in your life, you creators. To be the child who is newly born, the creator must also want to be the mother who gives birth and the pangs of the birth-giver.” Such a true statement about the creative process, the pain, the struggle and the final beautiful product. We experience with the death of those close to us: beautiful writings, speeches and songs often flow from the abyss of suffering. It will only continue to be a fact of life as we grow. Thoughts of religion flow from this particular part of the book as well, “Thus spoke the devil to me once: ‘God too has his hell: that is his love of man.’ And most recently I heard him say this: ‘God is dead; God died of his pity for man.” A bit morbid as quotes go but powerful nonetheless, you can feel Zarathustra’s pulpit shake as he implores mankind to listen. One of the more fascinating sections of the second part is On the Tarantulas. It is such an interesting and applicable chapter for modern society, “Revenge sits on your soul: wherever you bite, black scabs grow; your poison makes the soul whirl with revenge. Thus I speak to you in a parable- you who make souls whirl, you preachers of equality. To me you are the tarantulas, and secretly vengeful. But I shall bring your secrets to light…” You wonder if we have any tarantulas crawling amongst us in today’s world? After further reflection, there is a lot of great topics set forth in part two. Zarathustra reflects on the passage of time, “O you visions and apparitions of my youth! O all you glances of love, you divine moments! How quickly you died. Today I recall you like dead friends. From you, my dearest friends among the dead, a sweet scent comes to me, loosening heart and tears.” What a sad, beautiful statement he makes. We all deal with this painful experience of the passage of time on some level whether we like it or not.
Part three and four descend further perhaps as Nietzsche descended towards the end of his life since this book was split up and published in different manuscripts. There is still so many great ideas put forth. I didn’t expect to enjoy Thus Spoke Zarathustra as much as I did. There is never going to be a stop to pursuing being a better man, “Indeed, to look down upon myself and even upon my stars, that alone I should call my peak; that has remained for me as my ultimate peak.” Zarathustra challenges us all to push the limits and to be brave, “Courage is the best slayer: courage slays even pity. But pity is the deepest abyss: as deeply as man sees into life, he also sees into suffering.” There’s plenty to reflect on based on the quotes I have laid out but to wrap it all up there is a spot on warning to all of us, “Sex, the lust to rule, selfishness: these three have so far been best cursed and worst reputed and lied about: these three I will weigh humanly well.”
Friedrich Nietzsche deserves your attention, handle his work with care but it certainly has a place in every man’s library. His call to action, self-reliance and realism is much needed in our lives. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is challenging but rewarding endeavor. It took me a long time to chew through it, I have discovered a deep appreciation and reverence for the great philosophers. Perhaps, like Icarus, Nietzsche flew too close to the sun searching for answers but gave us all an absolute masterpiece in the process. Don’t be afraid of the intimidating mustache or the stoic look of his portraits give him a real chance and you will not regret it.
Written by Michael McPhail
Painting of Zarathustra
Cal and I discuss and reflect on the books we journeyed through in 2018 along with reading goals for 2019.
McPhail and Wilkerson
Thomas J. Jackson in many ways is the archetype of Southern honor, bravery, faith and leadership. Growing up in the Deep South, I’ve seen portraits and paintings of Jackson in pastor’s offices, boardrooms of lawyers, bankers, insurance agents and in various homes throughout my life. There is a certain admiration even reverence for Stonewall Jackson just as an overall consensus. Even on a larger scale, he is known and respected all over the world by many Civil War buffs. I, shamefully, had never read anything in detail about Stonewall until I finally picked up S.C. Gwynne’s masterpiece Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. The book has to be one of the largest biographies I have ever read but by the end, it left me wanting to know more about not only Stonewall but all the other larger than life men that fought for both sides in the Civil War. S.C. Gwynne breaks down the book into several bite sized chapters that can be consumed in manageable sittings. I had little to no background in Civil War history other than the baseline knowledge from high school and college, after completing this book I feel well versed or at least knowledgeable enough to have a good conversation on the topic.
The Civil War was a stage for men like Thomas J. Jackson to reinvent their legacies. He went from a relatively obscure and unpopular college professor in Virginia plagued with health issues to a revered national icon. Similarly, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman went from failed businessmen to heroes. Jackson opposed the war, “In the months leading up to the war Jackson had remained a confirmed Unionist. He opposed secession. Though he was a slave owner, he held no strident, pro slavery views.” Jackson like many at the time held loyalty to his state first, the State of Virginia. He also remained distant national politics but understand the debates raging over slavery. After Lincoln’s election in December 20th of 1860, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas all seceded. Governor John Letcher’s rejection of Lincoln’s orders to send Virginians to fight against the seceded Southern States prompted the state’s convention to leave the Union and repel the Northern aggressors from their homeland on April 17th 1860 thus solidifying what side Jackson would fight for. The former professor of VMI was initially appointed to be an engineer until the intervention of Governor John Letcher, he was chosen to be a colonel over the Virginia volunteers. Gwyene notes that Jackon’s appearance wasn’t impressive at first take, “He was, in fact, the opposite of anyone’s idea of what a leader was supposed to look like, and his somber, uncourtly, and undashing manner did nothing to change that impression.” He was known for being obsessed with duty and detail along with taking his faith very seriously. The author points it out early on, “And, of course, he prayed and read his Bible and consecrated every act of his life, every thought he had, to God. He did this consciously, every day.” Jackson was a man of intense faith while being a man that could handle himself with poise, determination and lack of fear in battle. The First Battle of Manassas raged, “He moved, according to one admiring soldier, ‘in a shower of death as calmly as a farmer about his field when the seasons are good.’ He seemed to be a different man in the heat of battle; his eyes blazed, his whole being seemed to glow with ardor of the fight. One soldier in the 33rd Virginia recalled that former VMI cadets, observing the cool confidence of their commander, now saw the warrior and forgot the eccentric man.'” The victory in Manassas and Jackson’s heroics earned him his famous nickname, “Stonewall”.
In regards to a brief snapshot of Thomas Jackon’s personality. He a principled man. Jackson kept a list of how he wanted to live, “Endeavor to be at peace with all me. Never speak disrespectfully of anyone without cause. Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company…” Along with being devoutly christian, he also had a deep love of literature, architecture, history and gardening while being known to be an optimist.
Jackon’s legacy can be attributed to his Shenandoah Valley campaign, which relied on speed and deception. Fighting for Stonewall was tough, “War, in Stonewall Jackson’s army, was never going to be anything but a hard and desperate thing. There was no stasis, no easy living, no resting on laurels no rest at all, in fact. Oddly, his footsore army, amid its cursing and grumbling, was starting to embrace his idea. If Jackson was not likeable, he was certainly a man you could follow, and in spite of his delphic refusal to share information, he was at least predictable: you were going to march fast and far and then you were going to fight, and you were lucky if you got lunch.” In the battles of Front Royal and Winchester, Stonewall Jackson led his army to victories in spite of being heavily outmatched by Colonel Kenly and his Union forces. By the end of the battle, Jackson’s brilliant strategic maneuvers led to the capture of 691 Union soldiers and a large quantity of supplies. The legend of Jackson carried over in the ranks of the Union army as well, “Northern soldiers sent home their own praise, too, calling him ‘a man of decided genius,’ and ‘this great leader’ who had ‘outgeneralled all our commanders.'”
After Stonewall’s death it shook the Confederate morale to its’ core. The loss of their legendary leader was a huge blow. His funeral procession was one of the largest in American history at the time by many accounts. It was called a national tragedy, “A silence profound, mournful, stifling and oppressive as a funeral pall succeeded to the voices of cheerfulness. Jackson, whose most notable personal attribute was his silence, now inspired a wave of deep, despairing quiet throughout the army and the Southern nation.” Again from the North, a reserved mix of praise followed in the Washington Chronicle, “Stonewall Jackson was a great general, a brave soldier, a notable Christian, and a pure man. May God throw these great virtues against the sins of the secessionist, the advocate of a great national crime.”
I think a closer look at Stonewall Jackson’s life is a worthwhile endeavor. He existed in a highly controversial time in American history but is also an interesting example of leadership, discipline and poise. His legacy is a peculiar one for certain, it can be viewed as one of triumph and tragedy. He held closely the teachings of the Bible while being one of the most capable military leaders of all time. Rebel Yell is a worthwhile read, it is certainly a wise investment of time.
Written by Michael McPhail
General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
The difference in religiosity and a religion—or, put in modern vernacular, the difference in spirituality and religion—seems to be a trivial distinction if not an outright tautological distinction. Religiosity (or, in the pervading modern mindset, “spirituality”) seems to be something akin to the adjective usage of the word “religion.” Now, a certain stereotype comes with the word “spirituality,” as images of New Age movements come to light. I am not trying to argue the merit for or against New Age thinkers. I am simply acknowledging the stereotype that exists in the modern mindset about what spirituality is, and how it relates to religion. Mainly, that it does not. “Spirituality” is portrayed as religiosity unhinged from any organized religion. Any delineation that exists between “spirituality” and “religiosity,” and I am sure that there are quite a few, will be forgone in my post here, as I am simply trying to establish a difference in the adjective and noun forms of “religion.” For the intents of this post, “spirituality” and “religiosity” will both simply be defined as the “adjective form of ‘religion’.”
Why does this distinction deserve so much exposition? The answer to this question is put quite concisely in a book I believe that everyone who belongs to an organized religion should read—Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. This work was composed by writer, philosopher, neuroscientist, podcast host, and one of the “four horsemen of atheism” Doctor Sam Harris. Now, I realize that this work and its author seem a bit out of place on this blog, but I believe this book is one that will benefit everyone to read. Furthermore, it is delivered by an incredible modern mind who has lived a life in search of truth in religious, philosophical, and scientific spheres.
When reading Waking Up, I urge the reader to remember that every treatise from Aristotle to modern philosophy of mind books—which I consider Waking Up to be one of—is only one person’s understanding of a subject. Ask any good teacher, and they will tell you that to truly understand a subject, you need multiple teachers to account for the parallax. To paraphrase a famous Zen saying, “Do not confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” In the context of this post, do not confuse one person’s take on a subject—comprehensive and thought-provoking as it may be—to be the absolute and objective truth of the subject. Furthermore, when dealing with subjects like the nature of consciousness or any metaphysical or epistemological subject, you are reading revelation by someone of something. In other words, this is how they have understood something bordering, or quite possibly fully encompassed, the un-understandable. I believe my lengthy prelude should be taken into account because this nebulous minefield of a book provides invaluable and compelling arguments for quite a few of these far-reaching topics from one of the foremost minds of the day. Spirituality, the nature of consciousness, ontological anthropology, and general ethics are all addressed in this book, though Harris’s view on ethics is more extensively covered in some of his other works like The Moral Landscape and Letters to a Christian Nation.
One of Harris’s central themes, not just in this book but in his philosophy in general, is that a successful system of ethics can be erected outside of dogma. Furthermore, dogma creates a myriad of problems in the co-existence of sentient creatures and is an outright detriment to his consciousness-based ethical system. This system postulates that the only ground that a system of ethics can be reasonably derived from is from recognizing suffering in sentient life. The cessation of suffering in sentient life is deemed “good,” and the prevalence of suffering in sentient life is deemed “bad.” If this sound Buddhist, it is because it is. Harris spent many years under the tutelage of various master both in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, advocating Dzogchen, specifically, in grounding his consciousness-based ethics in Waking Up. Within Waking Up, Harris also divulges some of these incredible stories from his life, leaving college at Stanford to pursue his quest for knowledge in the East. After years of search, he came back to the United States and finished his training at Stanford before going to UCLA for his Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience.
How does one of the four horseman of atheism advocate for an ethics system using Buddhist thought to justify it? Is Buddhism not one of the major world religions? Well, I believe he does so by making the distinction I made at the start of this post. He does so by drawing on something that Buddhism has remembered and that Christianity has forgotten: religions are not “religions.” Using the noun form of religion, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has pointed out, is inadequate. Likewise, thinking of any “religion” in the noun form is inadequate. Once a “religion” is objectified and made into a thing, it becomes finite and begins to stagnate. Just like life (which many religions try to reflect and emulate), once you define it, is it still the same? No, because the infinite cannot be understood in finite terms, only pointed to. For a tradition to be truly alive, it must remain like life—undefinable and unlabeled to a degree. Though we are humans—concept creating animals—taking our need to define to the extreme results in the very thing I believe Harris is criticizing: the over-formalization and organization of transmitting meaning that hinders the purpose of that meaning.
Now, I made a bit of an over-generalization previously. All denominations and people in the Christian tradition do not make the error in perception that Harris is preaching about, nor are all streams of Buddhism exempt from making this error—which is something Harris points out, himself, in his book. Although, I shall play devil’s advocate once more and point out that Christianity is a “Systematic Theology” and Buddhism would not be labeled a “religion” (a term that had to be created in most of the native languages of Buddhists) if not for Western scholars imposing this concept of “a religion” upon them.
I apologize for not doing a proper book review on this post, but I believe my arguing why this book should be read as opposed to its specific content is more important. This why is to point out the importance of the life of a religious tradition.
I remember my Hebrew professor in college told us a story once about his father questioning him about the content of the Bible. Then training to become a Lutheran pastor, my professor was questioned about what was in the Bible. Upon every answer he gave to his father, the parental response was the same, “No, no, no…what is in it?” Anyone can memorize and rattle off a series of scriptural quotes, and it takes just a little more effort to find a message that will apply to quite a few people surrounding one of the stories and quotes in the Bible, but what is in those stories and quotes? How come I can read the same story with the exact same words in it four years apart and have it direct my life and mean entirely different things to me? There is something in the Bible that makes it different from the works of Shakespeare or James Patterson, though all three are literature. You are not just following a narrative and taking away the moral of the story. You can do that, and I fear that quite a few people read the Bible in that exact way—like they are just memorizing a linear plot progression that affords them with a single life lesson per story. But, I believe most can attest that a relationship and active engagement with what is in the Bible yields result after result of different meaning for something in your life. It truly seems like the Bible is alive. This makes sense for the Word of The Living God to, itself, be alive. Why else would large portions of those that believe in the Christian tradition also believe in Luther’s sola scriptura. The thing is alive! The Christian “religion” is the “religion” of life. It is the engagement with life as it truly is, and not the continuous objectification and dogma of the Christian “religion,” that is Christian religiosity and the Christian tradition.
This abject compartmentalization of divine reality instead of engagement within divine reality is what Harris takes to be the bane Christianity. Playing no favorites, Harris does point out the hypocrisy in several Buddhist streams and teachers which preach this very same abject compartmentalization. He ultimately seems much more sympathetic to underlying Buddhist philosophy, as he argues that this mode of thinking (a more Buddhist) is more conducive to a universalized ethics system.
As I mentioned above, Harris’s ethical beliefs are more thoroughly outlined in some of his other works, but I believe that Waking Up would better behoove the modern reader to pick up. In truth, I have been relying on an amalgamation of Harris’s books and podcasts to write this post, so you would not get as comprehensive an overview on the entirety of Doctor Sam Harris’s thoughts in Waking Up. What you would get, if you are a Christian like myself, is an expansion of your worldview on two fronts: the practical and the religious. Practically (and here I mean it in the contemporary Western, scientific view of the world that is prevalent today), one learns a leading neuroscientist’s views on consciousness, sentient life, and components of what makes us human—a truly fascinating scientific book if nothing else. Religiously, one is brought into a world of skepticism, yet it is all constructive. Doubt has been part of the Christian’s diet as long as there have been Christians. Truly, the reason Christianity became a “Systemic Theology” is because there were multitudes of doubters who banned together to engage in the tradition and come up with recitations to encapsulate the truth. A wonderfully noble activity, yet an ominous one. Harris causes us to remember that memorization is never the same as engagement.
Written by guest author Michael Salvatore Politz
Dr. Sam Harris
I recently completed a challenging, ambitious undertaking that has been a year in the making. I decided that as a member of Western society (no less as a professing Christian) it was high-time for me to read the most influential book of the Occident for the last two thousand years. To call the Bible a book is a misnomer, as it is really a collection of 66 books (at least in the Protestant canon) that are at once widely disparate and intricately interconnected. The themes that I was immersed in throughout these books are so ubiquitous in our lives that we often forget that our Western-colloquialisms had their origin in the great “King James Bible” (“can a leopard change his spots,” “bite the dust,” “blind leading the blind,” “go the extra mile”). I have included a link at the end of this blog to all sorts of English sayings that originate in the Bible, of which most are likely unaware.
However, the Bible is not all memorable turns of phrase and Sunday school stories; it is a complex, at times confusing and conflicted narrative of humanity’s first monotheistic religion and the ensuing implications. I will now attempt a broad stroke chronological overview, saying nothing of internal inconsistencies, authenticity of authors, or dates of composition.
The Bible (as organized in the Protestant canon) is the story of the relationship between mankind and a universal God who presents Himself as an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent spiritual being with masculine characteristics. As the Creator of human beings, God demanded full allegiance and obedience, but His first two human creations, Adam and Eve, disobeyed this call and led all of humanity into open rebellion against God. The rest of the Bible is a story of human-divine reconciliation, which is not so strange or surprising a theme, except that this reconciliation does not take place on the global scale, as one might expect. It is relegated to a group of nomadic sheep herders in the Negev Desert, called the Hebrews. Ostensibly promised by God all the land west of the Jordan River, these nomads were taken into captivity and enslaved by the powerful Egyptians well before they could come to national prominence.
Following a liberation campaign at the hands of Moses, the Hebrews (now termed Israelites) march back across the Sinai Peninsula to the eastern shores of the Jordan River in anticipation of conquering the land that was promised to them from its current occupants. During this time in the desert, God entrusts to Moses an archaic and sanguinary system of ritual animal sacrifice aimed at appeasing divine wrath over the sinfulness of the Israelites. A division of the people into a priestly caste, called the Levites, and the construction of a temporary residence for the presence of God, the Tabernacle, ensued. At long last, the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River and, with the military leader Joshua of Nun at the helm, obliterated those occupying the land known as Canaan. After successive generations of leaders known as “judges,” the Israelite people beg for a king. Saul is the first king given to them by God, followed by the supreme king of Israel David and his son Solomon. These kings achieve military conquest over all the surrounding nations, and Solomon builds a permanent residence for the presence of God in the ancient city of Jerusalem.
Subsequent Israelite kings assimilate to the Canaanite cultures around the now thriving kingdom of Israel, much to the chagrin of God. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split in two with the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. These newcomers to the scene were no match for the superior geopolitical powers of Assyria and Babylon. Through the mouth of various prophets, God threatened exile at the hands of these military superpowers lest the citizens of Israel and Judah turn from their foreign idolatry and intermarriage. These words fell on deaf ears, however, and the northern kingdom was taken away into captivity at the hands of the Assyrian king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Soon to follow was the southern kingdom in 605 BCE at the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. This exile lasted 70 years, until the defeat of the Babylonians at the hands of the Persians.
The Persian king Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Judeans to return to Jerusalem and even gave them financial assistance to rebuild Solomon’s temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. These Jews were expected to live under the rule of a satrap, but the leadership would subsequently change hands from the Persians to the Greeks to the Romans. During this transitional period, the Bible goes silent for 400 years until it picks back up in the Roman province of Judea. The Jews are living under the rule of Herod the Great and two new Jewish prophets have appeared on the scene – John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John defers to Jesus, and Jesus begins a period of public ministry that includes healing, teaching, and reinterpreting the harsher aspects of the Old Testament.
His followers believe Jesus to be the fulfillment of a prophecy concerning a new Jewish king from the lineage of David and Solomon who would come to restore Israel to former glory. Various Jewish religious leaders scoff at Jesus’ claim among His disciples to be divine (the Son of God). At the behest of these religious leaders, the Romans are convinced to execute Jesus via crucifixion as a potential insurrectionist threat to the reign of Emperor Tiberius among the politically volatile Judeans. Convinced that Jesus rose from the dead three days after His death, the followers of Jesus begin a global campaign to spread the message that the death of Jesus had far more than regional significance. Allegedly, it was the fulfillment of a plan dating all the way back to the initial rebellion of humanity against God, wherein God Himself would become a human and receive the punishment due humanity for their rebellion at the hands of God Himself. At this time, the concept of multiple persons existing within the one conceptual God came to the fore, primarily due to the exposition of the Apostle Paul.
Against all odds, this new message of reconciliation with a monotheistic, yet plurally existent, God became wildly popular in the Roman Empire. The Bible ends in the nascent stages of the ascendancy of Christianity, but the rest, as we say, is history. Why then, should one read the Bible? It should be noted that until the Enlightenment, very few serious thinkers in the Western world took for granted that the information contained in the pages of the Bible were authoritative and true. Since then, it has been for everyone in each successive generation to decide for himself whether the words of Scripture are inspired, or merely inspiring.
Regardless of whether one considers the Bible to contain the keys to eternal life, its secular contribution to the world stands on its own. The Bible influences (and has influenced) international wars, political elections, philosophical treatises and national amendments to social contracts written under the auspices of natural law. It guides and directs the daily lives of billions of inhabitants of our planet, and its timeless stories, words and phrases have been inextricably woven into the fabric of Western society. And while I have fixated on its Occidental preeminence (one really cannot understand the history of Europe and the Americas apart from the Bible), it must not be forgotten the Bible was written entirely in Asia. It is as much a legacy of the East as it is the West. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism all find their foundation in this book, and its narrative is the personal narrative of so many individuals.
The leather binding on my Bible reminds me of the bovine that had to be slaughtered for me to read this book. This harkens back to the untold number of cattle, sheep, and oxen that were sacrificed as an appeasement to the wrathful God of the Israelites – which points me forward to the brilliant story of redemption wherein that same God became a human and delivered Himself up to sacrifice at the hands of the greatest empire of rebellious human beings the world has ever known. This then reminds me that this sacrifice came to dominate the imaginations of said empire and the entire Western world thereafter. Even with the blow suffered by the Enlightenment, one need only look at the modern Zionist movement and the firestorm that emerged when the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem to understand that this collection of books has not yet lost its fervor. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “the grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Written by Cal Wilkerson
With his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, cosmologist and physicist Sean M. Carroll has certainly convinced me of one thing – it is now impossible to have a serious conversation on philosophy without a commanding knowledge of the natural sciences. A clean delineation of the humanities from the sciences that so many crave will no longer do. The central premise of Carroll’s book is an audacious claim that “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known.” He derives this claim from a formulation of Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek’s “Core Theory.”
Now, if you are anything like me, when you first see this equation it does not convince of any great ontological truths. Let me attempt to elucidate. Theoretical physicists, through decades of meticulous research using particle accelerators, have postulated quantum field theory. This theory suggests that the particles and forces of which all matter is composed arise out of the vibrations of fields. Two kinds of fields, fermions and bosons, give rise to particles. Bosons make up force fields (such as the Higgs field, which gives matter to particles), and fermions make up the matter of which we are composed.
Basically, there are three kinds of particles and three kinds of forces. The three kinds of particles are protons and neutrons (which make up the nucleus of our atoms) and the electrons which orbit those atoms. The three forces are the strong and weak nuclear forces (which hold the nuclei of atoms together) and the electromagnetic force which binds the electrons to the nucleus. An additional feature of physical reality is gravity, which is more of the curvature of spacetime than a force, but we include it as a force for simplicity’s sake. The particles are made up of more fundamental particles (quarks, neutrons, and gluons), but fundamentally all physical reality is made of the particles and forces arising out of these two fields.
The seemingly presumptuous claim of Dr. Carroll is that the above equation is so wildly successful in predicting past, present, and future states of the universe, that it is completely unnecessary to introduce any further explanations. In fact, any additions to the Core Theory would be a violation of the way that things are. Drawing on the work of mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, Carroll postulates that a “Demon” who had the capacity to know the current momentum and position of every particle in the universe would be able to perfectly predict the state of the universe at any given moment of time future or past using the equation of the Core Theory. The future, according to Carroll, is pre-determined by “the laws of physics and the prior configuration of the universe.”
Time, as Carroll would have it, is an emergent category. We attach the labels of past, present, and future, from our human perspective, but they do not truly exist. We remember the past, but not the future. For us, causes precede their effects. We can make choices that affect the future, but not the past. All of this is a result of our human experience with entropy – the physical tendency of the universe to proceed from a state of order towards a state of disorder (low entropy to high entropy). It is this tendency that gives us the illusion of the progression of time; the states of the universe are instantaneous and irrespective of our reference frame. Carroll would argue that there truly is no meaningful reference frame, aside from the anthropological one we attach.
Theories of emergence – that the whole comes about due to the interaction of the parts – is an important feature of the book. Starting with traditional examples from science (that anyone can accept that a chair is just a collection of atoms that we ascribe the concept of a chair to), he then goes on to unravel even the most sacred Platonic objectivity. He insists that everything from gender to consciousness to meaning to morality are nothing more than emergent categories superimposed on physical reality. Everything can be explained by the Core Theory, and there is no need to introduce external variables. Carroll refers to himself as a “poetic naturalist,” which is to say that he is a naturalist who uses emergent categories to describe things that could otherwise be reduced to the Core Theory. Doing so allows him and other poetic naturalists to create meaning and order in a tumultuous and disillusioning cosmos.
Philosophically, Carroll is a moral constructivist. If he can deem a human being an emergent phenomenon, it is no surprise that he believes morality to be an emergent construction of said human beings. Humans do not derive their morality from an objective standard of virtue but rather construct it mentally and then assume universal applicability. Over thousands of years, humans have thrown off their animal instincts in an effort of self-preservation and constructed a moral system that has no basis in physical reality. There are no natural laws that demand that humans not steal from one another or kill each other – the only universal physical law, according to Carroll, is the one inserted above. Humans have constructed elaborate systems of religion to alleviate the mental agony that comes when a self-aware creature must contemplate his own inevitable end.
You may wonder why you should read this book when, statistically, the vast majority of people disagree with Carroll on matters of morality, consciousness and mortality (myself included). Using the statistical methods of 18th century Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes, Carroll challenges his readers to weigh out their prior credence against the experimental evidence and adjust their worldviews accordingly. Most people do not believe that they are emergent constructions of the Core Theory, and most people also believe that there are supernatural explanations for the natural phenomena of our everyday lives – but do we have adequate justification for such belief? Are there natural explanations that are simpler, more succinct, and more harmonious with the body of knowledge available? How much cognitive dissonance have we humans introduced into our lives? After reading this book I realized that for the most part I am unabashedly, inconceivably unaware of the fundamental physical fabric of reality out of which I am made. I would venture that others are as well. I would not stand a chance in defending my philosophical belief system against Dr. Carroll. If you believe that you fall into this category as well, I would recommend you give his book a read.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Sean M. Carroll
Seneca has made a long overdue entrance into modern times along with his philosophy: Stoicism. Letters from a Stoic is by far his most popular collection because it can speak to all that read it on a very intimate level throughout. Seneca faced exile, alleged affairs, failing health and rising from an obscure background to wild success even tutoring the infamous Emperor Nero during his lifetime. He was an advocate of cold baths, simple meals, the pursuit of knowledge and running. Addressed to the real or fictional Lucilius nonetheless Lucilius could be every person that reads this fine collection of wise letters. It could be argued that most self help books that are peddled have their roots in stoicism. Seneca gives all who come to this collection timeless advice.
Seneca covers so much in his work that I had to make sure I paced myself to absorb all the advice. He writes about friendship, “what is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well.” That definition of friendship and the goal thereof truly puts a premium on the endeavour of getting close to someone. We water down so many definitions of words in modern times like awesome, love and great. Seneca reminds us that calling someone a “friend” means more than someone you see occasionally interact with. He also places a great deal of importance on the lost art of self reflection, “such is more or less the way of the wise man: he retires to his inner self, is his company.” I am particularly drawn in a strange way to his advice on living in view of impending death. He writes, “death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man as much as an old one, the order in which we receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register and, secondly, that no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day…” I try to daily remind myself of his teachings on the fleeting nature of life. If I am tempted to binge watch Netflix, I ask myself what Michael the elder towards the end of his life would think? Would he prefer me to waste precious hours watching a forgettable tv show or make a phone call to our father or to pick up a volume of great literature or go run until exhaustion in pursuit of a slightly better mile time? For this reason alone, reading Seneca is valuable. I liked how he constantly reminds Lucilius to pursue wisdom, “give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men.” I vividly remember in my various dealings with people and money that we humans can quickly become unreasonable with ourselves and with others in pursuit of selfish gains. Seeking constant improvement in understanding more through philosophy is more valuable than monetary gain because like Seneca writes, “philosophy wields an authority of her own; she doesn’t just accept time, she grants one it.” Painful reflection is perhaps one of the most challenging things we can put ourselves through. Seneca calls for it because it is necessary to improving, “what really ruins our characters is the fact that none of us looks back over his life. We think about what we are going to do, only rarely of that, and fail to think about what we have done, yet any plans for the future are dependent on the past. He writes that, “for nature does not give a man virtue: the process of becoming a good man is an art.”
Through and through Seneca’s Letter from a Stoic proves over and over that it is a timeless work that is just as applicable today as it was hundreds of years ago. Seneca like all men had his faults and fell short of his own standards and advice but he leaves us all an example on how to live life in view of our death. This book matters for young men especially because we at times think we are invincible and immortal. It is an antidote to selfish living and more importantly wasting time. I will close this post with my favorite one of my favorite quotes, “and yet time is one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”
Written by Michael McPhail
The Death of Seneca by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez
To quote from the beginning of the preface of With the Old Breed: this is “an account of one Marine, E. B. Sledge, in training and in combat with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns.” Young and old men taken far from Mobile, Alabama, or anytown, U.S.A., to tiny islands no American had ever glanced on a map, much less ventured before, to conquer and defeat “the enemy.” Partially recreated for a contemporary audience in HBO’s The Pacific, Sledge’s war-time memoir is a faithful and sobering account of the enlisted Marine, and much more.
Though he speaks and acts throughout his battles through various roles–private, stretcher bearer, recruit, etc.–it is often his position as 60 mm mortarman, the weapon he chose seemingly at random in basic training, that tends to inform the perspective most. Sledge, by the end of the work, by most measures, has become an expert marksman–but just one man trained “to be cannon fodder in a global war that had already snuffed out millions of life.” Perhaps no other war-time account is as vivid in placing the soldier in the throes of “shell shock”. The constant noise and concussion of shelling even weary the reader. Whether charging across an open field, or exchanging a counter barrage with the Japanese, the bombardments are not strategic abstractions, but graphic descriptions of human bodies, bathing in a steaming shower of hot metal, moving in shrapnel and bullets that cut flesh, mangle limbs, and draw blood.
Here, Sledge’s recollections, which he largely captured in notes taken inside a small sweaty Gideon’s Bible, are an old and new testament to the awesome and terrifying capacity of humanity hard at work in one of its oldest endeavors, “killing for the sake of killing.” Sledge becomes a man—by his own admissions and actions, (though his acts are not as foul as some of the other Marines and Japanese accounted)—desensitized to the carnage around him: every day, witnessing “some new, ghastly, macabre facet in the kaleidoscope of the unreal.” After the blood, the maggots, the stinking uncovered corpse or corpsmen left to rot in mud and filth, Sledge is forced to question the “eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how ‘gallant’ it was for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country’, and to ‘give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,’ . . . . The words seemed so ridiculous.” Men seem to be damned by features of geography, moved here and there in formation on maps and battle plans (which are recounted and sketched in impressive detail by the author), where “only the flies benefitted.” He accounts an unholy communion of man and nature, creature and machine, that mortifies hope.
In the final pages and stages of Okinawa, Sledge and the reader must encounter a rotting Marine inside a killing field crater: “the most ghastly skeletal remains I had ever seen”, a “half gone face”, leering with a sardonic grin seemingly mocking his efforts to hang on to life. Or, as Sledge notes, “maybe he was mocking the folly of the war itself: ‘I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and you will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.’” And for Sledge, these recollections are absolutely necessary and well recalled: informed, exact, humorous at times, and uncompromising–his existential meditations are important and timely placed. Such tales of war are universal, and both young and old; all seem to make young men old, and old men young.
Why does this book matter? Facing our depravity, when man struggles with those who can kill both body and soul, here, it is thought, word and deed, and the stories of those he memorializes who were willing to make a sacrifice, that may, though even in part, serve to resurrect some part of the human spirit from dirt, decay and death. If man has and will go so low, may we be witnesses, even in our imperfect and ironic attempts, of preserving life, to some understanding of true life, and to have that life more abundantly. As he ends, “the only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other–and love.” He closes: until the millennium arrives and man ceases to enslave another, true valor and sacrifice will have men to test its meaning. And with that esprit de corps, the memories of “the Old Breed” will not and should not soon be forgotten.
Written by guest author Garrett Wilkerson
Corporal Eugene Sledge
I first heard Dr. Jordan Peterson in one of my favorite podcasts, The Art of Manliness. After that interview, I had to explore more of this straightforward Canadian clinical psychologist. I listened to some of his lectures on the psychological significance of Old Testament stories in the Bible and then periodically he reappeared in some of the other podcasts I am subscribed to like Jocko Podcast and The Tim Ferris Show. I liked what he had to say about being a better man and finding meaning in life. He has been caught in the crosshairs of the radical left with his opposition to Bill C-16 in Canada which is essentially is a threat to free speech but research it more in depth on your own time. He has gained popularity because his message resonates with so many people and has started a bit of a renaissance among my generation. Dr. Peterson isn’t afraid to spar with the liberals and he keeps winning which is very refreshing to see (watch interview with Cathy Newman). As far as a resume goes, he has published more than a hundred scientific papers, over 500 hours of lectures on Youtube, taught at Harvard and stands in the face of dangerous imposing ideologies.
I finally picked up his book: 12 Rules for Life an Antidote to Chaos. Many of my friends were reading it and I couldn’t wait to work through it. I finished it quickly and Dr. Peterson’s wonderful work really hit home with me. In the first chapter, Peterson writes, “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood.” He kicks off the book with kicking you in the gut but what he writes is dead on. My generation doesn’t get that advice from a prominent figure enough. The second chapter: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping is probably my favorite. I fall into the trap of being so incredibly hard on myself and it can be debilitating. He writes in reference to people being extremely tough on themselves, “they are excruciatingly aware of their own faults and inadequacies, real and exaggerated and ashamed and doubtful of their own value. They believe that other people shouldn’t suffer, and they will work diligently and altruistically to help alleviate it they extend the same courtesy even to the animals they are acquainted with but not so easily to themselves.” As a clinical psychologist, Peterson knows how to cut straight to the bone of issues that ail the human psyche. So far he has addressed, how to approach the world and how to approach yourself in only two of his rules for life. That is worth the price of the book. He follows the prior two rules with a great message about dealing with toxic people in your life in chapter three, “if you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated fairly and honestly. Friendship is not a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place.” Peterson provokes the reader to challenge his or herself into deep self reflection. I found myself journaling extensively while reading this and that is always a sign of a well written book by my standards. In chapter six, Dr. Peterson brought me to tears with his example from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s self reflection. I had listened to his podcast and lectures enough to know how much he loved The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which I actually found volume 1 of that work at the LSU book sale for $4.00 in the very back of the warehouse as a cool side note. Anyway, Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet officer that was later put into a Soviet prison camp. Peterson writes in chapter six, “then he (Solzhenitsyn) asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so how? He remembered his unquestioning support of the Communist Party in his early years. He reconsidered his whole life. He had plenty of time in the camps. How had he missed the mark, in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied? Was there any way that the sins of his past could be rectified, antoned for, in the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag? Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life, with a fine-toothed comb. He asked himself a second question, and a third. Can I stop making such mistakes, now? Can I repair the damage done by my past failures now?” This is the kind of self reflection that brings people back, we are not all Soviet officers (I hope) but we have all failed and made awful mistakes. Instead of sweeping them under the proverbial rug, Peterson calls us to painfully make mature mental progress which will result in a better life. Finally, I found it very interesting what he had to say about success, “the successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice.” My generation expects the corner office and the loft apartment immediately. We have lost the understanding that success has a price tag and that price tag is sacrifice. More specifically, it is delaying gratification. Through and through, Dr. Peterson has made a tremendous impact on me and this work is one I will continually refer to going forward.
There is a lot more I could write about this book and Dr. Peterson but I strongly encourage reading 12 Rules for Life. The cynics can call it pop psychology or self help but it is so much more than that. It truly is an antidote to chaos, a lot of what he writes is stuff we already know to be true, he just brings it out in his writing. He does an excellent job in finding the value of mythology, religion but also science. Dr. Peterson is able to reconcile the fields with ease in his writing. As a young man, it is a great book to help forge me into a stronger one. This book is worth your money and your time. I will close this post with one final quote, “taking the easy way out or telling the truth those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.” This applies to our interactions with others and ourselves.
Written by Michael McPhail
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
Being a man of supernatural persuasion, I reject the most central premise of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; however, my dismissal of Sagan’s naturalistic cosmology does not in any way diminish the haunting beauty of his masterpiece. The universe itself was Sagan’s god, and he worshipped its complexities and intricacies that could be understood only through the powerful tool of the scientific method. “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
Sagan’s reconstruction of cosmological history follows that which is generally accepted by academic science today: all of the matter and energy contained in the universe as we know it came bursting forth from a singularity known as the Big Bang some 13.8 trillion years ago. Our earth formed around 4.6 billion years ago, and life on earth emerged shortly thereafter, 3.5 billion years ago. It is estimated that 99% of all life that ever inhabited the earth is now extinct. After several million years of evolution, our species, homo sapiens, appeared on the scene 2.2 million years ago. On the cosmological timescale, human beings are newcomers to the grand scheme. However, we are unique in that we are the only beings discovered that have consciousness. This consciousness is “a way for the universe to know itself.”
Taken from the perspective of a naturalistic atheist, this narrative is full of spectacular wonder. Through millions of chance occurrences, not orchestrated or planned for, Sagan (and all of humanity, he asserts), arose as a cosmic accident at this particular moment in the passage of time. The very elements that compose human beings came from the blazing hot furnaces of stars. “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” In a sense, human beings are the first awakening of the cosmos to itself… or perhaps not. Sagan holds out hope throughout the book that, given the vastness of the universe, there might be life and even conscious life on other planets. It is his vision for humanity that we put aside our petty differences, form a truly cosmopolitan, global society, and devote our resources to the exploration of the universe from which we came. Harkening back to the great Age of Exploration, he calls our planet “the shores of the cosmic ocean” and invites us on his interstellar journey of epic proportions.
Cosmos is the manifesto of a thoughtful, humanitarian atheist. Far from being a purely scientific treatise, his work ventures deeply into the realms of philosophy and religion as well. He upholds and protects the dignity of human life with scientific justification. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” Living in a time of likely nuclear self-annihilation during the height of the cold war, Sagan was a pacifist who was very concerned about the future of humanity. He saw history as progressive and believed that the march of scientific progress could usher in a golden age of human prosperity. As an atheist with no hope of an afterlife, Sagan devoted himself to living as full and meaningful a life as possible. His work inspired future scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson. His wife, Ann Dryan, when asked about her husband’s death, responded: “We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Regardless of your religious convictions, this is a book worth reading. It will challenge any reader’s self-importance and humble him in the face of the awe-inspiring cosmos. We are so much smaller and more insignificant than we pretend to be. We are subject to and at the mercy of forces wildly outside of our control. Hubris has no place in the face of galaxies, pulsars, and black holes. Perhaps Sagan would even agree with the third chapter of the book of Genesis, albeit with a slight caveat. Stardust you are, and to stardust you shall return.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Our culture is fascinated with scandal in current times: perhaps a shady alliance with a long time geopolitical rival, rising powers in the east and the fear of immigrants altering long standing cultural norms. These words could also be written of Rome in 146 B.C. Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic has everything and more that the hit series on HBO, Game of Thrones has that so easily captivates our hard to retain attention spans. Duncan also has an award winning podcast series, The History of Rome that is also worth a listen. It is not his point in this book to compare the Roman Empire with the United States but he does make a note that we are not in the origin phase nor in the revolutionary phase or in the global conquest phase therefore we must be between the great wars and the rise of the Caesars. There are so many fascinating players in this book like aspiring power brokers, cunning businessmen and daring military leaders. It has all the ingredients of a compelling drama. Duncan starts the book in 146 B.C. with our first characters, Publius Scipio Aemilianus as he stood victorious over their longstanding rival Carthage while to the east Lucius Mummius sacked Corinth in a sweeping display of Roman power. Their enemies to the east and west were finally defeated for now. These victories were the plateau before the decline of the republic because Rome’s compass pointed to imperialism remaining unchallenged as the dominant power in the world. A very interesting nugget of insight I gained from this book was learning that in times of crisis the consuls could pass power to a single man who would hold power in order to get Rome out of danger: the dictatorship. The dictatorship would expire after six months and for almost five hundred years the dictators held on to the power. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus is one of our ambitious men that didn’t win his popularity on the battlefield but rather in the political arena. After the Second Punic War in 202 B.C. the roman economy was in crisis mode due to the influx of foreign wealth won during the campaigns. Essentially, a few families became very wealthy and the rest of Italy became weak with poverty, taxes and conscription. Ambitious as ever, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus proposed Lex Agraria which was a land redistribution law. As you can imagine it was controversial like it would be in today’s time. Tiberius was able to get Lex Agraria pushed through only to his demise. Beat to death with table legs in the Temple of Jupiter by angry senators was the fate of one of Rome’s most daring politicians. Another cool insight I gained from this book was that Scipio Aemilianus introduced the habit of shaving one’s face daily, I often think when I am shaving before work that this cool habit came from Rome. Although Tiberius Gracchus met his fate in a bloody fashion, Gaius Gracchus brought the Gracchus name back in vogue. After serving in Spain with the Roman legion, he returned to the political realm of Rome to bring it back to health. Through calculated political moves winning over the rich and the poor his first term in political power was an overwhelming success. During a political war that he lost along with his Italian citizenship, he started his first colony at the site of old Carthage in North Africa. His ambitions burned out after his failures in North Africa. When 120 B.C. came around, so did the infamous Cimbri from near modern Denmark. They were in search of a new homeland which alerted and unnerved the Roman inhabitants to the south. The Cimbri made quick work of the Roman legion sent to challenge them in the battle of Noreia. They would be a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire for a long time and be a constant external threat. Enter, Lucius Cornelius Sulla to the scene. After strategic moves he was teamed up with Gaius Marius. This relationship would be pitoval as several military victories earned Sulla a spot on an embassy that acquired the long time rival of Rome the Numidian King Jurtha that hid from Rome with the neighboring Mauritanians. Jurtha had been a constant threat to Rome and Sulla negotiated with King Bocchus to surrender Jurtha over to him. This success only further catapulted the undefeated military leader. Sulla would claim victory in a preceding civil war and become dictator for life in Rome. There is a lot more to say of this incredible book but I hope this a nice taste for the compelling history of Rome. This book is important because history has patterns and much can be learned from a great civilization that was filled with incredibly ambitious men that regardless of being right or wrong laid the foundation of the modern world. History has always been one of my favorite subjects to read about and this book gives the average reader great information to further peak the interest in learning more about the Roman Empire.
Written by Michael McPhail
During a recent perusal of books that influenced Elon Musk, I stumbled upon “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. Being a man of science, I have always had a fascination with Albert, and I knew that he was a household name for a reason. However, I only knew of his life and work vaguely. Through the pages of Isaacson, the man and the myth came alive to me, and I am now able to fully appreciate this giant of the 20th century.
Einstein was born into a Jewish family in Germany during the late 1800s. Throughout his lifetime, he would renounce his German citizenship, reclaim it and renounce it again, become a Swiss citizen and finally an American. He was also instrumental in the foundation of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Such internationalism won Einstein the nickname: “Citizen of the World”. Einstein was a theoretical-physicist, pacifist, Zionist and humanist. His life was characterized principally by a love of freedom and a rebellion against strict authority – both academic and political. He claimed that all great thinkers required freedom as a prerequisite for greatness, calling it the “foundation for creativity” without which there would have been “no Shakespeare, Goethe, Newton, Faraday, Pasteur, or Lister”. Most think of Einstein as the professorial type, clicking away on a chalkboard in a university hall confined to academia. However, his most unrestrained work was done while working at a Swiss patent office.
The patent office environment allowed him the freedom to conceive complex thought experiments about the way that light and time operated in the universe. It was from these thought experiments that he was able to have his 1905 “Miracle Year” in which he published 5 papers that would shake humanity’s conceptions of the physical universe. From these papers came his famous theory of special relativity, which (without getting bogged down) asserts that because the speed of light is constant, time must not be constant at or near the speed of light. Consequently, time slows down the faster one travels, and therefore two individuals could age differently depending on their speeds relative to each other. He also came up with the photoelectric effect in these papers, the idea that light behaves as both a particle and a wave. It was this finding that won him his only Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. From these foundational concepts, he later came up with his general theory of relativity, where he proposed that mass curves space-time, resulting in his famed equation .
Einstein spent the better part of the 1920s helping to invent, and later discredit, quantum mechanics – the idea that on the subatomic level, the positions and momentum of particles exist only as probabilities until they are observed. Einstein was uncomfortable with the implications of this theory, famously stating “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”. His 1905 papers did so much to advance this field, but afterwards he could not accept a universe in which all outcomes are completely random and dependent on the observer. The latter part of his life would be consumed with the quest to disprove quantum mechanics, and to find a unified theory that linked gravity with the electromagnetic force. He died without ever seeing these accomplished.
Aside from his science, Einstein was also an influential man in the world of politics. Though he did not follow the Jewish faith as such, Einstein was seen by many as the premier Zionist of the Western world, advocating for his fellow Jewish brethren in every way possible. In fact, Einstein was offered (but declined) the second presidency of Israel. The first president referred to Einstein as “the greatest Jew alive”. Einstein was also an outspoken pacifist who called for multilateral disarmament and the creation of a one-world governing body. Both his pacifism and Zionism were put on hold, however, whenever the Nazi Party took control over Germany. As a newly sworn-in American citizen, Einstein did his part to contribute to the war effort by writing President Roosevelt a letter which would launch the Manhattan Project. His famous equation served as the basis for the first successful detonation of the atom bomb.
After the war, Einstein’s aversion to totalitarian regimes persisted, and got him into trouble with the American Red Scare. At the height of McCarthyism, a 1400-page FBI dossier was kept on Einstein as a suspected Communist. These suspicions were highly unwarranted, and though he was verbal that the true threat to freedom were Communist witch-hunts, he largely lived out his remaining days in America in relative quiet. At this point in his life, he was an international celebrity and one of the most famous men alive, but his obliviousness to the fame and eccentric personality contained this genius to his New Jersey home at 112 Mercer Street.
Much more could be said about Einstein, and Isaacson has said it all elegantly. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to know about the man, or anyone desiring to glance inside the mind of a savant. By his own admission, Einstein claimed, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious”. His “curiosity” unraveled the very fabric of the universe as we know it, illuminating our perceptions of space and time in the process. Einstein had that sense of wonder which leads towards all great discoveries – the special eye that looks at everyday occurrences as miraculous and strives to discover the deeper meanings behind them. “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”
Written by Cal Wilkerson
I recently finished Principles by Ray Dalio the founder of Bridgewater Associates which is one of the most successful privately held investment management companies in the country. I listened to one of his interviews and immediately ordered his book. I usually don’t spend a lot of time reading business books even though I am in business. This book was full of great applicable life values, management advice and work strategies. For a wildly successful investor, Ray Dalio is a very humble man or at least from my perception of him through his writing. The book is split into three parts, all equally satisfying but all three different. The first part is the background on Ray Dalio. It is a great autobiography in which he lays out his successes and failures with brutal honesty. The second part is his life principles. This part of the book focuses on the big picture of living and advice on how to structure our thinking. One big ticket item Dalio hits on is being radically opened minded and evolving throughout life. One of my favorite principles he writes about is that the individual’s incentives must be aligned with the group goals. This bleeds over from business to daily life, it encourages being a good citizen and employee. He points out that pain + reflection = progress, knowing our past failures and learning from them through examination will teach us, “There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals.” This is important to remember because often times my generation has been known as weak and unwilling to face direct challenges. He has an excellent 5-step process of personal evolution: 1.) Have clear goals. 2.) Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of achieving those goals. 3.) Accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes. 4.) Design plans that will get you around them. 5.) Do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results. Another one of my favorites points Dalio makes is that it is vastly important to know history, psychology and science. These areas of study help you understand people therefore helping you understand how to live more effectively and be more successful in business. Radical open-mindedness is one of Dalio’s favorite principles throughout the book, “Sincerely believe that you might not know the best possible path and recognize that your ability to deal well with “not knowing” is more important than whatever it is you do know.” I found a lot of wisdom in the life principles section. The last part about work principles was extensive and insightful. Ray Dalio built Bridgewater as an “idea meritocracy.” That means that the best idea wins regardless of position or tenure. He breaks it down as: idea meritocracy= radical truth + radical transparency + believability – decision making. He also lays out an excellent work philosophy that must be revisited often, “Make your passion and your work one and the same and do it with people you want to be with. Work is either 1.) a job you do to earn the money to pay for the life you want to have or 2.) what you do to achieve your mission, or some mix of the two. I urge you to make it as much 2.) as possible, recognizing the value of 1.) If you do that, most everything will go better than if you don’t. In most businesses you are so micromanaged that a mistake seems like it could derail your career. Dalio points out, “I believe that great cultures, like great people, recognize that making mistakes is part of the process of learning, and that continuous learning is what allows an organization to evolve successfully over time.” Even though it is an age old adage: don’t say anything about someone you wouldn’t say to them directly is one of my favorite principles about work life. It is important for me to remember that throughout my career. Principles is one of my new favorite books because it is an honest look at personal and professional advice from a successful veteran. You should pick up this book because it is a 500 page mentor on how to become a better business minded professional and more socially aware individual.
Written by Michael McPhail
I recently read Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard which I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. The book takes a look at a young twenty five year old Winston Churchill during the Second Boer War between the British Empire and the Republic of Transvaal at the turn of the 20th century. I learned a tremendous amount about the conflict in South Africa and saw a profile of Winston Churchill that isn’t typically portrayed. I have always admired the idea of Winston Churchill and the way he is painted in history but this was my first reading a book about him. After fighting for the British Empire in Egypt and India, Winston Churchill entered the Second Boer War as a correspondent for the Morning Post while Rudyard Kipling would be covering it for the South African newspaper the Friend. The Boers surprised the British under the leadership of the thirty-seven year old Louis Botha and the unconventional standing army of Burghers. Blending in with the environment, the Burghers were deadly accurate with their Mausers and smokeless gunpowder, they had no shame in guerilla warfare unlike the traditional British. Several Boer victories later Churchill was accompanying British forces on an armored train that would prove to be a blunder. During the fierce but one sided battle, Churchill heroically took charge of the situation and tried to save the train engine with a handful of men but the Boers had wisely strategized to prevent many from escaping. Winston Churchill was taken prisoner and the British embarrassed again by Louis Botha. During his imprisonment, he had amenities typically uncommon to most prisoners like access to reading materials and a barber. Although he wrote, “You are in the power of your enemy. You owe your life to his humanity, and your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul in patience.” If you even have a basic knowledge of Churchill you know this type of life drove him mad. He made himself a part of an escape plan hatched by two fellow prisoners Haldane and Brockie. Churchill desired immensely to be back in battle for the opportunity for glory, recognition and advancement, that nothing would stand in his way. Churchill’s impatience after a couple of days of foiled attempts for the plan to unfold, rashly went on alone while leaving behind his co-conspirators. After his escape, the Boers found a letter under his pillow addressed to Louis de Souza, the secretary of state of war, essentially stating he was should not have been held captive since he was a press correspondent but a humorously smug “pour prendre congé” French for “to take my leave” was added to the postscript of the letter in true Churchill fashion. Churchill’s aristocratic background (being the son of Lord Randolph Churchill) only enraged the Boers even more after his escape and intensified the hunt for him. It was said that the state came to a standstill. Churchill had to navigate the Transvaal with his intuition and wit. Using the railways for a time to get closer to Portuguese East Africa, more specifically the port city of Lourenço Marques to get away from the Boers. Another true Churchill reaction was when he found out the Boers were offering $25.00 for his reward dead or alive and wrote to the poster’s author, “I think you might have gone as high as $50.00 without an overestimate of the prize.” While he underwent many close calls of being recaptured, he finally made a massive gamble by going up to a small house in the country and he luckily found John Howard, one of the few Englishmen left in the country who would aid Churchill to safety. After being recognized as a war hero, Churchill returned to the war in the South African Light Horse unit and took part in many important battles and ended up returning to free his fellow prisoners. He won nationwide recognition and won a seat in Parliament not long after. This book is a great investment of your time because you see the iron willed, foolish and daring Winston Churchill in a pivotal time in his life. This book shows the value in action, risk and never giving up on a challenge. Faults and all, Winston Churchill is a titan of history that inspires young men like myself today to attempt great things. May we all have Winston Churchill’s unrelenting spirit in all our endeavours.
Written by Michael McPhail
Since I am living a year in Africa, I thought it would only be proper to read and review some African literature. Admittedly, I have never read any works of literature from or about Africa aside from King Solomon’s Mines (if that even counts). The book I picked for my introduction to the genre, Cry, the Beloved Country, certainly did not disappoint.
This work was written by Alan Paton, a former principal for a South African boy’s reformatory school, in 1948. The book is a work of historical fiction, and it details the journey of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican village priest from Ndotsheni in the province of Natal. Reverend Kumalo receives a letter at the beginning of the novel requesting that the old priest come to Johannesburg on account of his sister, Gertrude, being sick. Having also not heard from his son Absalom, who left for Johannesburg some time prior, Reverend Kumalo decides upon the costly and lengthy trip to the city. This trip to Johannesburg leads Kumalo on a journey that will threaten to unravel him – as he witnesses firsthand the deleterious effects that the city has had on his closest loved ones, as well as the poor state of affairs for race relations in South Africa just before apartheid.
This book has so many rich themes that it is impossible to plumb the depths of them all. I can only enumerate a few and highly recommend that you pick up a copy of the novel for yourself. Passages of the book are reminiscent of the Bible, and they raise the questions of futility of life and suffering. While Kumalo searches in vain for his son, he cries out: “who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle, and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us?” Melodic passages like this are scattered throughout the book, and they offer a window into the pain that was felt in this period of time as native villagers were pulled into horrible working conditions in Johannesburg with the allure of the mines. The gold mines offered to enrich South Africa, but at the end of the day, they only served to enrich wealthy white Europeans while the native workers lived in Shantytowns and faced moral degeneration. Such degeneracy in his own sister and son is what Kumalo sadly had to face when he found them in Johannesburg.
The themes of race relations between black and white in this book are prophetic, reaching even into the present day South Africa. They apply not only to South Africa, however, but even to America and beyond. Consider this passage: “For we fear not only the loss of our possessions, but the loss of our superiority and the loss of our whiteness. Some say it is true that crime is bad, but would this not be worse? Is it not better to hold what we have, and to pay the price of it with fear?” Alan Paton, as a white principal of a boy’s reformatory school, understood the narrative of crime and fear all too well. His question for his country concerned the motives for native on white violence, and he summarized this motive as one of fear. Fear takes a primary place in the book – the whites of South Africa feared losing their superiority over the natives, and the natives feared their own relegated place in what was once their home country. Paton narrates a city hall meeting on what to do about native crime: “And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown”. To educate and lift the natives out of poverty would aggravate the existing social structure and usher in the unknown; the whites would prefer to live with fear of native crime rather than the fear of this new societal order.
There is a criminal trial in the book in which Paton explores fascinating themes of the relationship between the Law, the Judge, and the People. “The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just. Therefore if justice be not just, that is not to be laid at the door of the Judge, but at the door of the People, which means at the door of the White People, for it is the White People that make the Law.” I can’t help but read these words that were written in 1948 and think how deeply they would resonate with current political figures decrying social inequity in America today. Paton wrote with a masterstroke that cannot be denied – regardless of which side of the racial-political issues one sits.
In some ways the book is a theodicy, seeking to understand the very will of God. Kumalo has his own faith tested through his journey in Johannesburg, and towards the end he is admonished by a friend that suffering is the key to true belief. “For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For there is no life without suffering.” The journey of Kumalo brings the reader face to face with much pain, and his response to adversity is remarkable.
Perhaps the most significant character in the book is not a human, but the land itself. The pivotal passage of the book goes thus: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.” This exposition can make the heart soar and ache simultaneously – and it begs the central question of colonialism and imperialism: who has a right to the land? What gives anyone the right to claim for themselves a land, especially when there is an indigenous peoples already there? Are those indigenous peoples culpable for taking the land from those who dwelt there before them? Is this why the right of conquest has been historically understood as the foundation for what is just? Answers to these questions, as well as numerous other quandaries can be found within the pages of this famous and important South African novel.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Cal and I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. He explores the development of our species from the Stone Age to the 21st century and beyond. Easy to read and well written from beginning to end. He asks broad questions and answers them systematically and scientifically. We decided to change it up a bit and have a question and answer session on this particular work. There are ten questions total that we asked each other that will be listed below with our answers. Hopefully this will inspire you to explore the topics we discuss by reading this book yourself.
Michael McPhail: In Part One, The Cognitive Revolution, Harari writes that our ability to think, “declared independence from biology” largely due to the creation of shared myths thus cultures developed. Do you think that the very thing that united our species (cultures) will drive it apart?
Cal Wilkerson: Culture is a very interesting thing, because it largely stems from our sense of the “other” or the “not us”. A case study of this is the religion of Western liberalism, which attempts to fit all “valid” cultures into the pantheon of inclusivity. However, there are certain cultures that it must by nature exclude (bigots, homophobes, racists, etc.). It excludes these sub-cultures on account of their being exclusive, but ironically this results in Western liberalism becoming itself an exclusive sub-culture. Personally, I think cultures are here to stay, and that while they have the power to unite, the existence of multiple cultures will always necessitate division. I don’t see much possibility for all communists and capitalists, Muslims and Christians, nationalists and globalists, coming together and uniting under one universal human banner anytime soon. As such, culture will continue to unite humanity on the micro level but drive it apart on the macro level.
Michael McPhail: In Part Two, The Agricultural Revolution, the quote that stuck out to me was, “The Faustian bargain between humans and grains was not the only deal our species made. Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.” In your opinion did the agricultural revolution have more pros or cons?
Cal Wilkerson: This section was particularly fascinating to me. As Harari points out, the word “domesticate” is derived from the Latin word domus, meaning house or home. Before humans began to care for specific crops and animals, they did not live in homes; rather, they were nomads and hunter-gatherers. The need to build homes and permanent settlements arose from a need to care for the crops and animals. So who was really domesticated? Humans are the ones who built houses to live in and formerly did not have them. Additionally, a few species went from being largely insignificant (corn, barley, oats, wheat, rice, sheep, cows, pigs, goats, chickens) to being absolutely ubiquitous! They ensured their evolutionary survival via alliance with humans, and humans greatly diminished the types and variety of food they eat on a daily basis. We were able to grow more food and store away surpluses, but this prompted us to reproduce more, have more mouths to feed, and have to grow more food. This cycle has continued more or less to the current population of 7 billion people, still utterly reliant on these staple crops on the global market. However, I believe that now with the robotics revolution and genetic engineering, the scales have tipped in the favor of humans. We now can genetically engineer our crops to be insect-resistant, kill neighboring weeds, grow to a specified height in a specified time, etc, and we can do all of this by using drones to fertilize our fields and self-driving tractors. No longer do humans have to “eat their food by the sweat of their brow”. Furthermore, we have begun the large-scale enslavement and massacre of millions of domesticated meat-animals to satisfy the insatiable appetite of a world obsessed with meat. Go to a modern chicken plant and you will see the horrific life that these animals endure so that we can get our fried chicken tenders. In the long run, humans won the agricultural revolution, but the battle has just been won recently with robots and genetic-engineering. Ask a slave in the 1800s working on a rice plantation if the pros outweighed the cons, and he would probably prefer to be a hunter-gatherer. But as an American with the world’s market of consumable goods at my fingertips, the pros definitely outweighed the cons to get here. What a time to be alive.
Michael McPhail: In Part Three, The Unification of Humankind, I found myself pondering this quote, “We do not trust the stranger or the next door neighbor. We trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.” My question for you is, what is your take on the concerning nature of our societal make up the more and more we evolve?
Cal Wilkerson: This is something that I have thought about being in Malawi, Africa, for these past two and a half months. As a Westerner, I am treated differently in this country, largely due to (I suspect, though I cannot prove) the assumption that I have a great deal of disposable income. While this is true in the relative sense, I wonder what the Malawian’s perception of me is. Am I an intruder, an opportunity for an exchange of money, someone who has been exceptionally blessed by God, someone who has worked very hard to get to the position that I am in, someone that the cold hands of fate have favored irrationally? For whatever reason, I have money and others do not. This is true (to some limited extent) of everyone who is born in America, regardless of social class. I think the more important societal question to be asked is – why is this so? What does having capital tell about the essential aspects of a person? Why do we trust a person who has money more than one who does not have money? Whether implicit or explicit, we make certain character judgments rather quickly based off the liquidity of a person. I believe that each society, and each person, must take a personal journey through why this is so for them subjectively. Only then can it be analyzed as concerning or not.
Michael McPhail: In Part Four, The Scientific Revolution, Harari hits on, “Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics but politics should not be allowed to influence capital.” Living a year in the global south, what negative repercussions have you seen from this dominant line of thinking?
Cal Wilkerson: As Noam Chomsky so elegantly put it in his documentary “Requiem For the American Dream”: “power concentrates wealth; wealth concentrates power”. There is an undeniable alliance between the wealthy and the powerful not just here in Africa, but also everywhere that capitalism exists. You see it in the campaign finance laws that were implemented by the United States Supreme Court in Citizens United. The capitalist consensus seems to be that industries and shareholders should be able to use their capital to elect government officials who will keep regulations loose and bureaucratic red tape to a minimum. Additionally, capitalists should be able to invest in huge lobbying conglomerates that will work around the clock to ensure that only policies beneficial to said capitalists are moved forward in the political arena. But by and large, the government should be laissez-faire as pertains to the market. The market should be pure, free, and unhindered by the meddling hands of a central power that does not understand the market forces it tinkers with. Here in the global south, this line of thinking is problematic for several reasons. First of all, workers here have no voice. There are no unions to speak of, people are dirt poor and will do just about any grueling or backbreaking work in order to bring home some currency to care for their families. Without the ability of politics to influence capital, these poor and downtrodden workers will be manipulated, taken advantage of, and cast aside by the titans of industry. Furthermore, the organizational structure just isn’t here in Africa yet. So much of the culture here is still based on villages and tribes. The land is owned by whoever happened to plant corn in that particular plot this year, with no clear fences or boundaries or borders. Ostensibly, the government could own it all, but the reality is that no one really knows or cares who owns what. There is no concept of private ownership in Malawi (outside of the cities); although it is not a communist country, things are shared and held in common to an astonishing degree. In a country this poor, the government really does have to give industry a kick in the pants to get things started, or else villagers will be living in mud huts for the next 50 years. At least here in Malawi, Harari’s “capitalist dilemma” does not yet exist on the large scale. I suspect it is the same in many other underdeveloped countries globally.
Michael McPhail: Lastly, after finishing this book what do you think will be the ultimate end to our species and what will our lasting legacy be? Good? Bad? or simply how you choose to view it?
Cal Wilkerson: To be quite honest, I don’t think the prognosis is looking very promising. One need only look at Malthusian population predictions to see that we are very near our carrying capacity as a species. I am tempted to agree that our short-term gains in standard of living will be eventually outpaced by the astronomical growth of the human population, ultimately driving humans back towards the animal struggle for survival. The human population grew from just 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012. Some statisticians place the carrying capacity of human beings at 10 billion, and estimates of population growth predict that we will reach 9.5 billion by 2050. Now inequities abound within the inequitable human species, but currently (if every human lived in absolute equality and necessity), it would take approximately 1.5 Earths to sustain the population. By 2050, assuming trends continue (and I believe that there is good reason to believe they will), we will need 3 Earths to equitably sustain the population. Global food supply is only the beginning of the problem – the greatest problems lie with the destruction of the earth in the name of economic progress. The deforestation of the rain forests, melting of the global ice caps and rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse gas emission and large scale extermination of myriad species name just a few of these problems. The question is – where do we go from here? We can either make the pie bigger (improve technology so that we do less damage to the environment, are able to feed more people with less labor and capital, explore and colonize another world), or we can eat with fewer and smaller forks. It is not likely that any humans living in a currently opulent society are going to want to consume less; so likely I think that the lower classes are going to suffer as a consequence. I think that things will get worse for everyone in the long run, but especially so for those who are already marginalized and without power. I truly fear that very soon we will see the worst of humanity come to the fore, as the struggle for scarce and limited resources becomes all the more apparent. Now – as an optimist – I hope that after the inevitable struggle and crisis has taken its toll and the damage is done, that the enduring legacy of humans will be their ability to overcome this particular moment in history – the dilemma of the looming carrying capacity. It is the first truly global problem, against which EVERY human is going to be called into the struggle. I do not believe that the solution will be clean, equitable, fair or humane (resolution to human problems throughout history seldom have been), but I believe that humanity will learn from it and endure. As famed author William Faulkner said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
Cal Wilkerson: Harari suggests that money isn’t a material reality – it is rather a psychological construct. As a banker, how does this concept of money as a universal system of mutual trust play out in your work?
Michael McPhail: I tend to agree with Harari’s analysis of capital. The way the banks and their customers operate is based around the construct of money. The numbers and paper lose meaning once that agreement is terminated on the actual value of it. I see it played out everyday whether through credit limits, profit and loss statements and just simply bank account balances. The numbers represent the agreement of the psychological construct of capital. On another note I see the way it makes people act, which is far more unsettling but also shows the incredible ingenuity of humans as well. I stand in fear and awe every day of it.
Cal Wilkerson: In his section, “The Law of Religion”, Harari claims, “without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals” to claim universal human rights. Why do you think liberal humanism is so popular in an increasingly secular Western society?
Michael McPhail: Our connected world allows people to see the plight of our less fortunate brothers and sisters around the world and even a few streets over. I think it is a response from those of us who have far more than we need towards those who have far less than we can imagine. We all want to some extent want others to have opportunity like ourselves but how it plays out is subject to debate. Liberal humanism is a natural response to so many of the injustices that we are exposed to.
Cal Wilkerson: When speaking on the Gilgamesh Project, Harari mentions that the leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life and that by 2050 some humans will become a-mortal. Will we see this in our lifetime? More importantly, should we see this in our lifetime?
Michael McPhail: A-mortality is something that is encroaching in our lifetime but if the goal is simply to avoid death itself then I think that shows our species lashing back at nature and the limits of time that have been placed on us. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it in our lifetime at the rate of scientific advances. My biggest question is what would it look like to see this implemented? Who would have access to it?
Cal Wilkerson: Do you think that happiness is just a succession of biochemical states that can be controlled by synthetic drugs, or is there more to happiness than that? (Admittedly, I do drink and depend on coffee for daily happiness).
Michael McPhail: Coffee is a cruel but necessary master for me as well. As I grow older I think that the biochemical states of happiness cannot be denied but a large part of me wants to believe that there is more to it. I am by no means a neuro-scientist but we pursue relationships, experiences and work that produce happiness so it has to be something more tangible than simply chemicals being released in our brains or at least I want it to be.
Cal Wilkerson: The book ends by discussing the possibility of Sapiens becoming an entirely different type of being – linking human cyborgs on a “brain Internet” to share human memory and consciousness, bionic appendages controlled by human thought, creating a mind inside a computer, etc. Do these possibilities excite or frighten you?
Michael McPhail: I think it is very possible to see humans create a synthetic man over time. It frightens me but mainly due to pop cultures predictions of how those artificial intelligent beings will develop and respond to us that is driven out of fear obviously. It excites me to see the possibilities that could play out while seeing the experiment in work. If you look at a lot of social media platforms that are trying to learn human behaviors then it is obvious what is going on. Through our innate human desire to be connected we propel this. Werner Herzog my favorite documentary filmmakers quoted The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, that said “Sometimes war dreams of itself,” in his marvelous documentary Lo and Behold, in reference to the potential development of an AI within the web. It is something I find myself thinking a lot about. If we believe in evolutionary trajectory then it is inventible that a beta species creates an alpha species that will carry on our true immortal legacy long after we are extinct.
Written by Cal Wilkerson & Michael McPhail
What is meaning to humans? Truly, it is hard to even pose the question without utilizing the word itself – i/e What does meaning mean? The most infuriation tautology to elucidate, meaning seems to be absolutely pivotal to humanity. Looking at the conundrum from a philosophy of language perspective, meaning becomes one of the most essential staples to the noölogical sphere, as we derive essence to the ontic realm seemingly just as much from linking verbs – what something is, was, be, etc… – as we do from the meaning or purpose of something. In discerning this ontic essence of a given thing, almost all logical progressions follow the linking verb to the meaning. In other words, “what is it” is usually followed by “what does it mean?” This process most likely occurs just as often in the reverse, but one curiosity remains – meaning and existence are inherently tied to our reality, and, furthermore, our lives as humans. Now, if my vague philosophical ramblings may be excused, I would like to convey what this means pragmatically by observing the work of a great man – Viktor Frankl.
Frankl’s most famous work Man’s Search for Meaning has already been wonderfully discussed on this blog. I highly recommend reading both the post of that book on this site by Michael McPhail and the book itself, and if you are not to take my recommendation on it, Man’s Search for Meaning consistently comes up on 100 Books to Read in Your Lifetime listings. It is a classic and beautiful work. However, I would like to shed light on one of Frankl’s lesser-known works. This work goes by the title of Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, but serves as an expansion of another work of Frankl’s – The Unconscious God – with additional material further being added from a lecture Frankl gave in 1985. Needless to say, this much later work of Frankl’s is an amalgamation of many of his theories. As such, even though rich with complexities and clinical terminology, this work feels inherently personal. It feels as if a much older Frankl is trying to convey his lifetime of experience as a psychiatrist and human to paper in the hopes of motivating and inspiring posterity.
In contrast to his earlier works, Frankl is now years away from his concentration camp experience – doubtless to say such unimaginable malice and horrors are not for someone like me who has not gone through them to speculate as to their implication to someone who has gone through them -, but this work does not draw on much proof from his accounts from his imprisonment during World War II. Instead, one can tell that this is Frankl truly reaching for the zenith – the crux – of his paradigm of logotheraphy. Having outlined strategies, examples, and tenants of logotheraphy in earlier works such as “meaning-making” and “existential analysis,” Frankl now delves deep into what makes logotheraphy “tick.” What is the protoplast to which he was able to build this paradigm off of.
Searching backwards, Frankl begins to postulate factors of consciousness. One of the most unique aspects of human consciousness is its transcendent capabilities. For example, we are able to view ourselves in the 3rd person and think of the narrative of our lives from both a subjective and objective perspective. From this oddity, we can look at ourselves as if looking at another person, surely then enabling us to develop fields such as ethics. The speculations in the philosophy of the mind area in this book are remarkable, but another area far supersedes them – Frankl’s delve into the religious.
As a religious studies major, Frankl absolutely fascinated me in this work. Integrating the psychological with the religious, Frankl speculates as to where the ultimate meaning in one’s life can be found. In a logical span of ideas and postulates, Frankl arrives at the conclusion that Unconscious Religiousness is the wellspring for humanity’s individualized meaning and – from the perspective of logotherapy – the source where healing and purpose may be ultimately derived from.
Now, one of the most unique things Frankl does which enables this theory to hold for just about every person is to expand the notion of a religious person and an irreligious person. By Frankl’s account – or by the definition he proposed for strictly the sake of this work –religiousness is the foundation which meaning is built off of in each person’s life. While I am paraphrasing – and no doubt paraphrasing poorly at that -, this expands the notion of religion far past the Abrahamic or contemplative practices we are familiar with to a sphere where it would be hard to actually find an irreligious person. Truly, by this outlook, any underlying philosophical, sentimental, or intuitive worldview one has that slakes the ensuing chaos we as humans face when contemplating or own mortality may be consider religious. In other words, as long as a person has a belief in something within the world of ideas and ideals – be it Kantian logic, Buddhism, Logotherapy, or even a household family maxim– they may be considered religious.
How would an irreligious person even be perceived by this standard? Poor souls who have nothing to believe in, literally nothing, facing the maelstrom of disarray that comes with meaninglessness. This void of meaninglessness is what Frankl calls the existential vacuum. It is the source of the tragic triad – guilt, suffering, and death. Prophetically, Frankl embarks as a crusader to provide meaning through understanding via logotheraphy to combat this existential vacuum which will only grow hungrier in the coming decades.
This work is incredibly deep but worth every second of the read. Being the last work of unbelievably inspiring man, this book is a must for any fan of literature, religious studies, philosophy, psychology, theology, or human nature in general. Having passed away so recently (in 1997), it is interesting to think that the work Frankl was doing in his lifetime is sitting there ready for some pilgrim to pick up to reigns, to follow in the logotherapeutic footsteps as a crusader trying to combat the existential vacuum with meaning making.
Written by Michael Salvatore Politz
Dr. Viktor Frankl
As far as vicarious living is concerned, John Krakauer recounted one experience I never wish to personally have but felt as if I have had – due to the vividness of his writing. Into Thin Air is an autobiographical account of his time on Mt. Everest during the spring of 1996. Krakauer was sent by Outside magazine to Nepal to write about the commercialization of Everest as part of famous alpinist and climbing guide Rob Hall’s expedition. Krakauer was never meant to proceed any further than Everest Base Camp; his decision to do so involved him in a tragedy that will likely haunt him until the day he dies. Four members of Rob Hall’s “Adventure Consultants” team died in the summit attempt, including Hall himself. As a journalist and a client of the expedition, it was natural for Krakauer to attempt to maintain objectivity, but while personally witnessing fellow clients and his own guide perishing at an altitude of 28,000+ feet, he will always wonder if he should have done more to attempt to save them.
So many themes captivated me from this book, but a few were especially prominent. Krakauer does an incredible job of making the various guides for the expeditions come alive as human beings, and not just as names in a book. Rob Hall, Scott Fischer and Anatoli Boukreev will forever remain demi-gods to me. I have never done alpine mountain climbing, but after reading the feats that these men accomplished over their careers, I am confident that they were some of the most gifted and underappreciated athletes of the 1990s.
At the time of the expedition, Rob Hall had just completed his 5th summit of Everest, the most at that time of any other non-Sherpa mountaineer. His first date with his future wife, physician Jan Arnold, was a summit of Denali in Alaska. Scott Fischer, leader of the friendly rival alpine outfitter Mountain Madness, climbed Lhotse (27,950 feet), K2 (28,251 feet), and Everest (29,029 feet) all without supplemental oxygen. Those are the 4th, 2nd, and 1st highest peaks in the world, respectively, climbed with 66% less oxygen than we enjoy at sea level! He employed his great friend Anatoli Boukreev as a lead climbing guide for Mountain Madness on the Everest expedition. The apotheosis of Boukreev came for me upon realization that he had climbed 10 of the world’s 14 eight-thousand-meter peaks (peaks above 26,247 feet) WITHOUT supplemental oxygen. The interplay of these three guides really formed the crux of the book’s tension.
Most tragically, Krakauer got exactly the story that he came to write. Ever since Dick Brass, a ultra-wealthy Texas rancher, became the first person in world history to climb the “Seven Summits” (a concept that he created) at age 55 in 1985, the commercialization of these peaks began. If some old former Disney owner could climb the highest point on each continent, then the challenge was up for grabs for anyone with enough time and money to do it, right? The tragedy recounted in Into Thin Air and the point that Krakauer successfully makes after experiencing it firsthand is that many of the world’s summits, and especially the Himalayan ones, should remain the exclusive realm of the alpine demigods. Mere mortals have no place on these peaks, and an abundance of wealth cannot redeem your life from a sudden change of weather or an avalanche at 29,000 feet.
The average price paid in 2017 for an Everest attempt, not including travel to and from the mountain or personal effects, was roughly $45,000. Krakauer does an admirable job of relating this steep price tag to the poor decision making on the part of some of the guides to not turn around when so close to the summit. Some of the clients were making their second or third summit attempt, and at this point in their lives, death would be preferable to not reaching the summit. Additionally, in the last 2,000 feet of the climb, the oxygen in the air is about 33% what it is at sea level. Krakauer reports of men in the expedition hallucinating, not getting enough oxygen to the brain to make sound decisions, and not having enough oxygen in the blood to protect against the sub-zero temperatures. Additionally, each guide fears that if they do not get their clients to the top, then future clients will choose the rival expedition with the highest summit success rate, safety be damned.
The story reaches its climax on the fateful night of May 10th as eight people caught in a blizzard died on the mountain in an attempt to descend from the summit. The account of their lying out in the agonizing cold getting pounded by the blizzard, and of the heroism displayed by the guides in attempting to (and in a few cases successfully) save those stranded is both beautiful and terrible. Of course, the most poignant question remains of whether Anatoli Boukreev is a selfish monster or a selfless hero, but that is for the inquisitive reader to decide for himself. The post-summit fallout between Boukreev and Krakauer is sad as it is painful, and for the record – I agree wholeheartedly with Krakauer, although I am in awe of the accomplishments and career of Boukreev.
As Krakauer stood on the summit of Mount Everest, after 6 weeks of acclimatization and grueling hiking, not to mention months and years of preparation, he admits that he “just couldn’t summon the energy to care”. How remarkable to me, that a man would put his body through hell and back all for an overwhelming surge of… apathy. He hadn’t slept in 57 hours; he had only eaten a bowl of ramen noodles and a handful of peanut M&M’s in the preceding three days. He could feel nothing “except cold and tired”, and the lack of oxygen (even while wearing supplemental oxygen) reduced his mental capacity to that of a “slow child”. For the $65,000 Outdoor magazine paid to get him there, he spent “less than 5 minutes on the roof of the world”.
Krakauer is the greatest adventure writer of our day, bar none. Every chapter is the work of a master craftsman who imbues each sentence with his very soul, as one who has literally experienced the pain and danger himself. He exposes unchecked romanticism about adventure for what it truly is – a fool’s game, that costs lives. For anyone with wild dreams of grand outdoor adventure, myself notwithstanding, take a detour through Krakauer’s book and count the cost, before you succumb to illusions of grandeur.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Left to right: Hall, Fischer (top) Boukreev, Krakauer (bottom)
Since reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the philosophical school of existentialism has had a growing influence on my thinking. While my understanding of existentialism is far from adequate to speak on it broadly, I can humbly attempt to convince the casual reader why this masterpiece of Kierkegaard’s is worth a week of your time to read. Written in 1843 by the Danish philosopher, the book focuses on the Biblical account of Abraham being commanded by God to murder his only son Isaac as a sacrifice to the divine. At first glance, the reader may be off put that this is simply another attempt at moralizing by a Christian philosopher, but this is hardly the case. Kierkegaard ingeniously uses the patriarch’s struggle of faith as a pseudo-autobiographical account of the breaking from his own engagement to Regine Olsen.
Using the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard begins his work with a Eulogy on Abraham. Laying out his central premise, he espouses, “everyone shall be remembered, but everyone was great wholly in proportion to the magnitude of that with which he struggled. For he who struggled with the world became great by conquering the world, and he who struggled with himself became great by conquering himself, but he who struggled with God became greatest of all.” Herein lies the existential nature of the work, that of the struggle of personal existence against external forces. God is primary in this existential struggle, as He is the one force against which the individual existence has no real choice but submission, even a submission against one’s will.
Kierkegaard next presents three Problemata’s which Abraham had to answer to become the great man of faith that he is revered as. He had to gain this reverence, for other men doing the exact same thing that Abraham did would be considered sinful. How is it that Abraham could purpose in his heart to murder his son, his only son, and yet still be revered as a great man?
The first problem that Kierkegaard poses is whether Abraham had a right to a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham had to choose between what was ethical (his duty as a father and a husband) and subservience to a telos (the ultimate, that being God). When God gives a commandment, the ethical no longer applies, and what is wrong in a normal sense now becomes right in an ultimate sense. This paradox that what is wrong is also right, and what is right is also wrong, is central to the next problem that had to be addressed – namely whether Abraham had an absolute relation to the absolute. To become the knight of faith, as Abraham did, he had to make the leap of faith. This leap required both fear and trembling on the part of the potential knight, because what was being asked was absurd and should push a man to desperation. The existential is rooted in the freedom of choice, that of personal existence. A man must choose either to make the leap of faith, or to reject God on account of the paradoxical nature of God’s request. However, for Abraham to become the knight of faith, he had to accept his absolute duty to God and take the leap of faith in sacrificing Isaac.
The third and final problem that is addressed in the book is whether or not it was ethically defensible for Abraham to conceal his undertaking from Sarah, Eliezer, and Isaac. According to Kierkegaard, the world of ethics rewards disclosure and punishes hiddenness, while the world of aesthetics does the exact opposite. The task that God gave to Abraham was so terrible that he could not reveal what he purposed to do to anyone else, but because God commanded him to do it, he was afforded a teleological suspension of the ethical because of his absolute relation to the absolute. He was ethically wrong, but absolutely right. Abraham had every intention of murdering Isaac, going so far as to lift the knife and begin to plunge on Mount Moriah. He agonized the entire journey up the mountain, and never once revealed to Isaac, Sarah or Eliezer what he purposed to do. But he purposed to do it, and he struggled with an internal agony and torment of faith that few can comprehend. Perhaps Abraham’s silence was an outward expression of an inward reality that defies all comprehension.
What is central for Kierkegaard is not a moral story based in Judeo-Christianity, but rather a story that highlights the very struggle for existence. According to existentialism, when a man makes a decision, especially an agonizing one requiring much fear and trembling, that is when a person truly exists. Agency is the primary thing for the human being, and the magnitude of his struggle for agency defines his greatness. The story of Abraham takes primacy for Kierkegaard, becomes Abraham was forced into a situation in which he had to make ultimate decisions, not ethical ones.
Kierkegaard too made an ethically unpopular choice in favor of what he saw as a leap of faith towards the infinite. He broke off an engagement with his fiancé Regine Olsen, opting instead to make the movement of faith towards the infinite. What this looked like practically in the life of an existential philosopher, I can only speculate. It is fascinating to me that he compares the heart-wrenching sacrifice of an only son at the hands of his father to the sacrifice of breaking off his engagement in the face of no apparent external prodding. His family approved of the marriage and so to did his societal peers; it seemed to be a perfectly reasonable match in the finite sense. However, like Abraham, Kierkegaard had to conceal his absolute relation to the absolute from everyone else, and make the leap of faith alone. Whatever his reason, he felt personally compelled to act, and for that he must be commended.
In conclusion, this book is a treasure trove of thought-provoking philosophy for both the religious and the secular alike. In the end, it is a book about action and about decision. Great men are called to struggle with difficult decisions on a daily basis – whether with the world, with ourselves, or with a higher power. Great men are required to make decisions that at times defy what is ethical and what is conventional. Great men are given the freedom to recognize that at times, their decisions must rise to the plane of an absolute relation to the absolute, for which they are accountable to God alone. Great men earn the right to conceal their plans, to defy the ethical and realize that they owe an explanation for their actions to no one, save God. Great men are called to take the leap of faith into the infinite, to accept the paradox of life; to accept and leap anyways.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac
As most of you know from my brief and flattering bio post by Cal Wilkerson, I am an avid listener of podcasts. Podcasts are a much needed break from music and at times far more satisfying than silence in the car and a complement to physical training. They offer insight to an endless range of topics from self-development to learning a new language. Since I am right in the middle of the book I am planning on writing about in our next traditional post, I decided to diverge and buy myself some time by giving out my favorite podcasts that I subscribe to. These are simply my personal favorites but I hope that at least one of them will be added to your own list.
1.) Art of Manliness: I have listened to every episode of this podcast and have seen it grow into an incredible site. Brett McKay is a personal hero of mine. His mission is to revive the lost art of manliness in the modern world. He hosts authors, adventurers, athletes, social scientists, investors, style experts and many more interesting people on his show. He has developed a very strong brand and message. Twice a week he comes out with a new show that almost always peaks my interest into an area I was otherwise unaware of. I could go on and on about how great it is but just do yourself a favor and listen to it.
Favorite episode: #197 “On the Joys and Travails of Thinking”
2.) The Tim Ferris Show: This podcast is great because Tim’s mission is to interview world class performers in all areas of life and break down how they do it. Not only that, he digs up habits or strategies for the average guy like me to implement to become a better person physically, mentally or spiritually. I like the interviews he has with world class athletes and their training routines. I have picked up a lot of great tips from this show. Tim’s energy is contagious throughout all of his interviews. I recently purchased his book Tools of the Titans as well.
Favorite episode: #255 “How to Turn Failure into Success”
3.) Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: I have always loved learning more about history and this podcast definately scratches that itch. It is excellent for long car rides because the episodes are hours in length. Carlin is such an interesting guy in general as well he talks about politics a lot which I find compelling. He does a great job of citing sources and recommending books to read along the way during his lengthy shows. History is such a broad topic and Dan chews on each aspect of it.
Favorite episode: #50-55 “Blueprint for Armageddon”
4.) Against the Odds: Another history podcast that is produced by the American Heroes Channel. It is essentially the podcast version of their TV series. It has sound effects, interviews and well done commentary during the episodes that usually last anywhere from half an hour to an hour. It highlights different instances of american soldiers displaying courage and triumphing against the odds in WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. I have on more than one occasion teared up while on a long run listening to the interviews from the soldiers that clawed their way out of impossible odds and banded together under fire.
Favorite episode: Season 1 Episode 4: “Blood George at the Chosin Reservoir”
5.) Revisionist History: Malcom Gladwell is not only an excellent author but his podcast series is just as good as his many books. He goes off the beaten path and looks into stories that are overlooked by the history books. He interviews the people that experienced the history while also taking a step back to look at the different nuances of the whole ordeal. The stories range from the light hearted to the truly disturbing. Gladwell has a very calming voice as well.
Favorite episode: “Hallelujah”
I was familiar with Sebastian Junger’s documentary Restrepo and I saw that he was speaking about his book Tribe at a university near where I live. I made arrangements to attend and I read the book in one sitting, granted it was only 167 pages. The talk was just as insightful as the book and being able to meet him afterwards was just an added bonus. Tribe is Junger’s analysis of modern culture after his experiences living with soldiers and being in the center of warfare. He reflects in the introduction on his own question relating to self development, “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a society that doesn’t require courage?” Our society has evolved so much that you can make your way through life in unheard of amounts of comfort and leisure. Junger points out that industrial society caused the accumulation of personal property which allowed people to become more individualistic. Urbanization and financial independence tend to lead to isolation which is a massive trade off to the wealth that America has accumulated. Authority has been much more exalted than community in our culture. Junger writes, “The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.” Junger noticed in his wartime experiences like in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan that these soldiers lived under the constant threat of attack and not ideal living conditions yet the bond they shared was unlike anything he had experienced. The bond was so strong that when they left, months later they all longed to be back. He notes the primal desire of man lies within being part of a tribe, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” Another fascinating point Junger makes is the warring society we live in against each other, “We live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about–depending on their views– the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign born, the president, or the entire US government.” This last year in America is particularly unnerving. Junger writes about the nature of the current dialogue, “Contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits.” The American soldier comes home often times from a close tribal group to a society of strangers, “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.” Sebastian Junger is an incredibly insightful man that wears his experiences on his sleeve while being able to communicate the lessons he learned in a powerful way. I will let you search more on your own on about the problems that Junger writes about and the solutions he offers. This book is a great read because it is an unashamed look at our modern society and culture through the lense of what we all want but what we all do not have: a real connection to each other.
Written by Michael McPhail
Sebastian Junger and Michael McPhail at book signing after forum
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a book I keep coming back to ever since I first read it. This book contains the private reflections of fascinating emperor. Stoic philosophy is like black coffee for the soul or at least to me it is. There are a lot of myths that surround Marcus Aurelius but this book is the real man in writing. I only paid a dollar for my copy of this book which is laughable compared to the amount of wisdom I gained from it. Meditations contains twelve books each one covering a different theme of his philosophy on life. Self-help books flood the markets today but this stoic work is the cornerstone of true self betterment. The opening of Meditations, Aurelius lays out what he learned from his family members, “From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts.” Taking time to think back on how others have helped shape you is a great practice or even writing letters to your loved ones specifically thanking them for the lessons you learned from them. Book two is filled with stoic proverbs that should be memorized. Knowing that death is ever present, Aurelius writes, “Since it is possible that you might depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.” This must be applied to every aspect of life if taken to its’ fullest meaning. Meditations is a book written by a man that knew his time was limited not even being emperor of Rome could save someone from death. He writes, “Even if you were going to live three thousand years, and even ten thousand times that, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.” One of my favorite quotes from the entire book comes in book three, “If you apply yourself to the task before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you might be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activities according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happily. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.” Marcus Aurelius saw the immense value in taking care of himself mentally. In book four he starts it off with, “For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul…tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.” The older I get the more I realize the mental relaxation is harder to come by. I have implemented a time in my day to spend in guided meditation and it is a relaxing retreat from our connected world. I find that his philosophical systematic approach to the different aspects of the human experience to be some of the refreshing words in print. On mornings I have trouble getting up to work out or just in general these words come to my mind even if I try to resist, “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm? But this is more pleasant. Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?” In life hopefully we will all experience success but even the mighty emperor knows that these are passing enjoyments, “Short-lived are both the praiser and the praised, and the rememberer and the remembered: and all this in a nook of this part of the world; and not even here do all agree, no, not any one with himself: and the whole earth, too, is a point.” I admire Marcus Aurelius a great deal, I find a lot of respite in his words from hundreds of years ago. He has helped shape my own personal philosophy by giving me a stoic link on the chain to the anchor of my soul. This book is a great introduction to stoic philosophy and far better than the newest self-help book being published today.
Written by Michael McPhail
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
The essence of manhood is the subject of much debate in the modern era. It can be tough to navigate through this dialogue at times but Iron John by Robert Bly is a deep mine of wisdom. I kept hearing about this book and the title itself drew me in, Iron John: A Book About Men. He follows the story of Iron John by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and uses the Wild Man as the mentor figure to men through the eight part story. Bly teaches through this myth to draw out real applications, analysis and critiques of the modern man. While reading this book, I felt pain and joy reflecting on my own personal journey. He starts the book writing about how the modern man has become docile and gentle but counters with, “Contact with Iron John requires a willingness to descend into the male psyche and accept what’s dark down there, including the nourishing dark.” Freeing the Wild Man from the cage like in the myth of Iron John comes at a barter. Asking for the lost “golden ball” that many of us men lose in our life that we long to have back we must unlock that cage of the Wild Man. I liked how he emphasizes the importance of a rite of passage into manhood, “Women can change the embryo to a boy, but only men can change the boy to a man. Initiators say that boys need a second birth, this time a birth from men.” Robert Bly puts a premium on mentorship which is also a lost role in the current times. He writes, “Not receiving any blessing from your father is an injury. Robert Moore said, ‘If you’re a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.'” He writes about how important male friendship is which compared to contemporary competitive work relationships do not truly satisfy the soul. The addictive state of America is addressed in this book as well. Bly points out that we becomes slaves and attractiveness of it, “There is a pleasure in becoming a slave. Then we can turn into an addict, and never be in charge of our own life, and shame ourselves further.” On the journey to manhood, Bly writes about finding your “ashes.” The great men of the past found theirs in their physical or financial trials on the road to a stronger self. Again he pulls from the images in the myth but nonetheless he writes about “entering the garden”. The garden being that of a time set apart in self reflection or self betterment, “Some men entering the garden begin by getting up at 5 A.M. and keeping an hour for themselves each morning before work.” Developing the “internal warrior” again is an interesting point that Bly makes. He calls men to bring out the sword to cut away from our own self-pity and victimhood, “The collapse of the warrior means that the sword is thrown away. I have met many good men since who say that if someone gave them a sword, they would break it or stick into the earth and walk away.” That image is a defining feature of many of us, Bly calls us back to arms. He concludes with this excellent summation of the Wild Man, “The Wild Man’s qualities, among them love of spontaneity, association with wilderness, honoring of grief, and respect for riskiness, frightens many people.” Robert Bly stresses the importance of opening yourself to ashes. A path that involves intensity, self awareness of wounds and possibility of failures. This book is an unashamed diagnosis of manhood but unlike most books bashing us men, it provides many great antidotes against becoming spineless complacent boys. Go buy this book, read it, take notes on it and then go out into the world with the sword remembering our brother Iron John.
Written by Michael McPhail
Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, is a fascinating true story of adventure, failure, friendship, determination and triumph against the odds. Antarctica the cold remote continent was a forge that refined the 28 man Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the early 1900s that faced almost no chance of survival as they watched their ship crushed by sheet ice, “….the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.” The leader of the expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton is a constant source of inspiration to emulate in my own life. Lansing writes of Shackleton after the Endurance was finally crushed and lost forever into the sea, “He was the Boss. There was always a barrier, an aloofness, which kept him apart. It was not a calculated thing; he was simply emotionally incapable of forgetting— even for an instant— his position and the responsibility it entailed. The others might rest, or find escape by the device of living for the moment. But for Shackleton there was little rest and no escape. The responsibility was entirely his, and a man could not be in his presence without feeling this.” After drifting in the pack ice, the team set out for the remote Elephant Island off the coast of Antarctica in nothing more than homemade lifeboats. After days without sleep, freezing temperatures and open sea navigation they all made it to the island, “They were on land. It was the merest handhold, 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep. A meager grip on a savage coast, exposed to the full fury of the sub-Antarctic Ocean. But no matter— they were on land. For the first time in 497 days they were on land. Solid, unsinkable, immovable, blessed land.” In today’s world it is hard to get a group of bankers in the same room much less to cooperate with each other but we see with this group despite their different backgrounds, they banded together to accomplish a remarkable feat. Shackleton knew that the task was not finished after reaching Elephant Island. Lansing paints a moving image after they landed on the island, “Shackleton stood in the center of the group. He had removed his helmet and his long, uncut hair hung down over his forehead. His shoulders were bent with care, and his voice was so hoarse from shouting that he was unable to speak above a whisper. Yet he felt a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to be standing at last on land, surrounded by his men.” Shackleton knew that the mission was not finished with Elephant Island. He selected his five men to be a part of another ambitious effort to sail to South Georgia Island in hopes of alerting Scandinavian whalers of their plight. The five chosen were, “To guide an open boat that distance, under conditions that were frightening even to contemplate, and then to strike a pinpoint on the chart was a task that would sorely tax even Worsley’s skill as a navigator. After him, Shackleton chose Crean, McNeish, Vincent, and McCarthy.” Impossible odds were surmounted only to be followed by more. After the perilous open sea excursion of nearly 800 miles they landed on South Georgia only to realize a mountain range lay between them and the small whaling station, “A few of the peaks on South Georgia rise to somewhat less than 10,000 feet, which certainly is not high by mountain-climbing standards. But the interior of the island has been described by one expert as ‘a saw-tooth thrust through the tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the northern sea.’ In short, it was impassable.” They made the decision to trek 29 miles instead of risking 130 more miles in the ocean. When the group reached the whaling village, Shackleton was taken to Sørlle who he knew to identify him, “‘Who the hell are you?’ he said at last. The man in the center stepped forward. ‘My name is Shackleton,’ he replied in a quiet voice. Again there was silence. Some said that Sørlle turned away and wept.” Through teamwork, leadership and belief in the impossible the entire crew was rescued. Shackleton has developed a cult following when it comes to his leadership style for good reason. The mission was not a success but survival of the crew has been immortalized and the story itself is perhaps far more harrowing than if they would have accomplished their task. Every young man should read this book regardless of his endeavours because throughout life we will all be put up against seemingly impossible tasks. I want to end this post with one of my favorite quotes by Sir Ernest Shackleton, “Never for me the lowered banner, never the last endeavor.”
Written by Michael McPhail
“Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy is the American epic in its’ truest form. McCarthy’s prose style has been called biblical by many critics. He is an author that must be read by young men, especially his book Blood Meridian. No words are wasted in this powerful yet poignant novel about mankind. I find McCarthy’s direct writing style to be particularly refreshing in the modern writing scene. Set in the American Southwest and Mexico in the mid 1800s, it is a violent look into that bloody time period. The characters range from a runaway kid who is the main character, to an ex-priest named Tobin, to a murderous pedophelic renaissance man named the Judge, to the war monger gang leader Glanton and many more colorful characters fill this book from beginning to end. “Blood Meridian” emphasizes the nature of man, his dark heart, fate and war. All topics that we don’t like to think about or accept. The Judge’s quote, “It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.” That quote stuck with me as I pondered our species. We idolize war, our countries were claimed through warfare, we watch movies about it and the news covers it daily. This book argues that our true god is war. Towards the end of the book the Judge says again, “Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war , who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.” Another major point of the book is fate and its’ indifferent nature towards mankind. When the kid is lost after a battle, he is found by Mexican cowboys. After giving him much needed water the leader of the group says, “When the lambs is lost in the mountain, he said. They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf.” McCarthy’s philosophy comes out in that quote about fate’s role in the human experience. Another aspect of the book I loved was the way McCarthy described scenes in true wordsmith fashion, “They watched storms out there so distant they could not be heard , the silent lightning flaring sheetwise and the thin black spine of the mountain chain fluttering and sucked away again in the dark . They saw wild horses racing on the plain, pounding their shadows down the night and leaving in the moonlight a vaporous dust like the palest stain of their passing.”I was able to read Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir “My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue” that inspired McCarthy’s novel. It is very interesting because many of the characters in the novel are based on actual people referenced in Chamberlain’s memoir. If you can get your hands on a copy of Chamberlain’s memoir than it is an excellent companion to Blood Meridian but I had to search through the archives at my university to find it. This book is worth your time because it offers an unfiltered look into this violent time period in American history.
Written by Michael McPhail
The line between eccentricity and genius seems to be walked with the utmost ironic frivolity by those we so deem the true movers of our society. I use the phrase “ironic frivolity” here because it seems whenever one makes the leap from philosophy to a specific science or field, we tend to think that that field was devised of completely logical and tedious steps. It seems more often, however, that those who actually move the world do so with an almost puerile trot.
To better elucidate what I mean by this, I wish to review a masterstroke that has only recently become available to the public. Doctor Carl Jung – a contemporary of Freud’s and the founder of analytical psychology – is a somewhat enigmatic figure within the already niche field of psychology. Truly, I would not have been able to produce more than a faint remembrance of his name until my interest in the man was piqued while taking a Comparative Mythology class during my senior year of undergrad. Alongside better known contributors to the field like Joseph Campbell, Jung was mentioned only briefly in our class lecture. I read his book Man and His Symbols for the class, as I ended up writing my final paper on a Jungian analysis of the Enuma Elish and Hesiod’s Theogony. After only this brief introduction to Jungian psychology, I was inexplicably hooked, reading every portion of his collected works I could get my hands on. Now, I do not expect the reader to share my subjective infatuation with Jungian psychology, but I do wish to recommend very highly the book that started it all for Jung. According to Jung, himself, when reflecting upon his then newly established field of psychology, “Everything later was merely the outer classification, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything was then.” This mysterious “then” that Jung is referring to is his chronicling of a series of dreams, visions, and active imagination sessions that occurred immediately prior, during, and shortly after World War 1. These personal writings were collected in a series of journals called The Black Books which were later transcribed and gorgeously illustrated by Jung himself into a book which was finally published half a century after his death in 2009 called Liber Novus or The Red Book.
The simple title – literally “the red book” or a reflection of the ornate binding Jung put around it – seems to bait the reader into a perceived magnum opus of psychology – at least it did to me. The book itself could not be more disheveling to any reader expecting a scientific work describing such things as psychological types from the man who provided us with terms like “extroverts,” “introverts,” and psychological “shadows.” What the reader instead receives is a series of psychopompic and allegorical quests more akin to works of Dante or C.S. Lewis that Jung undertakes – in true Dante fashion – as both pilgrim experiencing the revelation and orator conveying the tale to posterity.
One can see upon reading the various chapters how each revelation corresponds to a main idea in Jungian psychology. Luckily, many aspect of Jungian psychology have diffused into modern pop psychology and psychological tests prevalent in academia as to provide a bearing to the average reader – as it did to me prior to my immersion into Jungian psychology. In one scene, Jung is taught by the Biblical prophet Elijah and equally scripturally infamous Salmone – the woman responsible for the execution of John the Baptist – about such things as psychic opposites, the anima, and the animus upon being a guest in the odd couple’s home. These concepts refer to, respectively, our dualistic method of perceiving reality (if something is “good” that implies that it is not “bad” and so on), the “inner woman” or conscience within man, and the “inner man” or conscience within a woman. Over the course of several other chapters, Jung has a conversation with his own soul which takes various forms such as a bird or a snake in which Jung, himself, is suspended in messianic fashion in midair as his soul divulges secrets to the agonizing Jung. Such ethereal whispers include things such as humans should strive to be, “not Christians but Christ.” In other words, do not imitate and idolize Christ, rather live as the perfect human which you already are because, “We should not bear Christ as he is unbearable, but we should be Christs, for then our yoke is sweet and our burden easy.” Jung further elaborates, “No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs.” Confusing, I know. Yet, within the course of the story, it makes perfect sense as you look down upon Jung for being so ignorant as to not grasp this concept sooner in his journeys. Other wonderfully vivid scenes include a meeting in a garden with Christ, apprenticeship under a magician named Philemon (a significant figure to Jung), sitting in a bar discussing Thomas Kepler’s Imitation of Christ, and a sermon to the dead where the origin of consciousness is discussed, albeit it is never expressly stated within the work.
Whether or not the reader is offended by some of these scenes, believe me I was shocked by some of them, the imagery and stories within the pages of The Red Book are amazing. Other than such works as Saint Augustine’s Confessions, there are few other writings in which a well-respected mind chronicles its development. Furthermore, there are few other works that are as incredibly rich with calligraphy, illustrations, allegories, and meaningful scenes all put into one work by one man. You may not agree with the entirety of this work – I highly doubt most will – but the raw glimpse into the soul of a great human is something not easily passed upon. There is a full copy with all illustration and calligraphy included that is available online for a pretty penny, but the “reader’s edition” which contains all writings and a great introduction is an affordable compromise and also available online. From many perspectives, but especially from a writer’s, this is something I believe all should read if only to gaze upon pure visceral human striving to understand something greater than oneself. Jung displays something that I believe is held as un-stated maxim in society and is demonstrated perfectly by The Red Book – that being that the true movers and creators in our society trod the line between eccentricity and genius, taking generously from both sides.
Written by guest author Michael Salvatore Politz
Dr. Carl Jung
Of all works of literature I have been tasked with writing on, The Brothers Karamazov is far and away the most difficult. Even a cursory attempt to capture the magnificence of this book is tantamount to sacrilege. This magnum opus of Dostoevsky will strike even the casual reader as just short of divine inspiration. Nevertheless, with unskilled words and poor understanding of the work that I am handling, I will attempt to do just that. BK was completed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1880 – his final and most grand novel. It is written in four parts, subdivided into twelve books, and follows the drama of three brothers in the Russian village of Stepanchikovo at the turn of the 20th century. The three brothers are Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei, one of which is culpable in the murder of their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, following a scandalous feud that flares up in a short number of days. The book ends with the trial of one of the brothers, a verdict, and an open-ended tale of his fate. BK is so much more than a simple murder mystery, however. At its core, it is an intense exploration of the conflicting identities of the enigmatic nation that is, and was, Russia. Each of the three brothers represents a unique and contradictory ideal of what Russia should be as it heads into modernity. Russia has always been an outlier, in so many ways. Its struggle for identity can be traced through many narratives: whether it is a Western nation or belongs more properly with the East, its lagging behind the rest of Europe in industrialization (not abolishing agrarian serfdom until 1861), its distinctively Christian hierarchy (choosing a variant of Greek Orthodoxy rather than answering to the Vatican), and of course, diving headfirst into Communism in 1917, far before the rest of Europe was prepared to do so. These tumultuous questions were raging inside the head of Dostoevsky, and his avenue of exploration for them was through his three protagonists. Alexei, the youngest brother, represents the naivety and enviable simplicity of continued faith in the God of the Russian Orthodox Church. He enters the local monastery as a novice under the instruction of the beloved Elder Zosima. The middle brother, Ivan, is the antithesis to Alexei. He has returned to Russia after an extensive stay in France, where he has learned the twin philosophies of atheism and socialism. He longs to see his Motherland turn from its backwards belief in a higher power, and join with the rest of Europe in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Dmitiri, the eldest, is the most like their father. He represents the primal and brutish nature of ancient Russia. A destitute voluptuary, Dmitri is guided only by his sensual pleasures, unable to restrain himself from the allures of wanton women, excessive spending, and overconsumption of cognac. While each of the brothers embodies a different aspect of the true Russian character, Dostoevsky did not hold them all in equal esteem. He indicates a clear intent for Alexei, affectionately called Alyosha, to be the reader’s protagonist. Alyosha’s path alone transcends questions intended solely for the future destiny of Russia and provided answers for the future destiny of mankind. His path cut to the heart of what it means to be human in a ragged, harsh and unforgiving world of other selfish human beings. His path was the “ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love”. He is also the glue holding all of the other characters together. His innocence and optimistic faith in the potential goodness of other human beings commands a respect that none of the other characters in the story come close to achieving. Alyosha draws all of his strength from the lessons of his superior, the Elder Zosima. The elders were an antiquated order in Russia at the time, and their ability to hold sway over the community was quickly losing traction due to rational empiricism and a discontinued belief in the supernatural. Alyosha, however, was a true believer. Zosima taught him not to focus on proofs or theorems. Scientific inquiry had no place in the realm of faith. Zosima exhorts, “no doubt is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to convinced… by the experience of active love”. Alyosha was taught to love and to love unconditionally. For Zosima, “each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all”. His approach to faith was one of utter humility; convinced that he was the greatest sinner of all, greater than any fornicator, murderer, or wrathful man that ever lived, he possessed an inner peace and tranquility that no man could fathom save for those who also practice it. “A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it”. Ivan rages against the theology of Alyosha, and instead entrusts Russia with newfound philosophy. Sneering at Alyosha’s faith, he insists, “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel”. Ivan cannot accept an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent and personal God within the world of unspeakable cruelty and injustice that he sees around him. “If the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness,” retorts Ivan. This represents a prevalent view within a cynical and disheartened Russia. The Russian aristocracy was tired of the peasant’s insistent faith in a higher power that had done nothing to mitigate the harsh realities of life. It is Alyosha’s role to redeem both his brothers (and metaphorically, Russia itself) from the hellish existence that socialism and atheism would usher in. “Fathers and teachers, I ask myself: “What is hell?” And I answer thus: “the suffering of being no longer able to love.” Reams of paper can and have been expended to plumb the depths of this book. The most I can do is close with some parting advice to the ambitious reader. You must read this book. There are lessons to last a lifetime within its pages. In the words of deceased author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.” A laundry list of world-class thinkers has had a similar response, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus and Aldous Huxley. The chapters “Rebellion”, “The Grand Inquisitor”, “From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima”, and “The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare” are of such a sublime nature, that I cannot find adequate words to represent their utter literary ingenuity. Reading this book will test your endurance like no other work has. It took me a full 3 months to finish it, carefully pouring over every sentence, line by line, at no greater pace than 20 pages a day. Like all great works of art, it is meant to be savored. One could not truly unlock all of the treasures BK has to hold with ten read-throughs, but any self-respecting literature buff must try. Get to know the brothers. They will teach you more about yourself than any other literary character can.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
I have not read many science books in my life but Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is a book that has been on my list for a while. Once I started, I finished it within a week. The topics in the book range from broad scientific historical thought to specifics about black holes. Simply considering the deep theories of the universe was a reward in and of itself. Some things went over my head but this is written in a way that makes an average guy like myself wanting to learn more. In his chapter on the expanding universe, Hawking explains the open universe theory and the closed universe theory that interested me greatly. In the open universe theory, our universe begins from the Big Bang with the expanding mass of radiation and matter to proto-galaxies on to galaxies that begin to move apart so far that they finally extinguish themselves into an ambiguous end. On the other hand, in the closed theory of the universe we go from the Big Bang to galaxies reaching their maximum separation from each other then apocalyptically begin to move towards each other to coalesce and finally fall into the Big Crunch. I liked how Hawking highlighted the work of great pioneering scientists in the past like Sir James Chadwick, Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei and many more. The chapter on Black Holes and onwards compelled me to think more deeply about time and my place in it. In the illustrated edition I read, there is an excellent figure of the stages of a black hole being formed. Just meditating on a star collapsing under its own gravitational pressure, then imploding as it falls deeper into its own gravity well then forming an event horizon and ultimately a singularity horrified me but fascinated me just as much. Hawking has a way of explaining complex topics to graspable concepts in this book. For example, “The event horizon, the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape, acts rather like a one-way membrane around the black holes.” This book contains so many great scientific insights that I was clueless on beforehand. Now I could hold a semi-intelligent conversation with someone on space-time, relativity, thermodynamics etc. The goal should always be to gain more knowledge in areas where you are unfamiliar. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone which is when learning is achieving its’ finest objective. I would highly recommend this book to be put on your reading list and its’ contents to be considered deeply.
Written by Michael McPhail
Young Stephen Hawking
Just the other day, I was called upon to help out an acquaintance with her katsaridaphobia (fear of cockroaches) by demolishing the pesky intruder with a book binder. While I thought the matter completely trivial, she was traumatized by the experience – completely paralyzed with fear at this tiny pest. The encounter sparked a conversation about phobias, and I was forced to admit that I have one of my own – thanatophobia, the fear of death. Being a man of faith with a supposed eternal security policy, it might seem odd that I fear the very gateway to the divine. Nevertheless, the inexplicable nature of this solitary confrontation has kept me up many a nights. What becomes of perception at death, are our senses heightened or diminished, can we perceive things extra-sensory, or does the very fabric of time and reality unravel in a way incomprehensible for our minds to fathom? These harrowing questions were the subject of inquiry for Dr. Paul Kalanithi. The doctor approached this problem from several different angles throughout his academic traverse. He earned a master’s in English literature at Stanford, followed by a masters in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. Unsatisfied with the results, he decided on a direct encounter with death by applying to and being accepted into Yale Medical School. Dr. Kalanithi relates, “I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.”Continuing his journey, Dr. Kalanithi took a highly competitive medical residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, his alma mater. Still seeking to comprehend death in an endless sea of life-altering neurological trauma, he recounts, “I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun.” Dr. Kalanithi needed to access the core of the sun to arrive at an understanding, and tragically, at the age of 36 he would get his wish. A chief resident with a world of possibilities ahead of him, Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, only a 0.0012% chance at his age. “Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit.” I will save the details of the latter half of the book for the perusal of the reader, save this bit of information – Dr. Kalanithi had has book published posthumously a year after his 37th birthday. Curiosity kills the cat took on an eerily true meaning, and Dr. Kalanithi explored the intersection of “biology, morality, literature, and philosophy” from the patient bed rather than the physician’s bedside. In his work, the doctor proved his worth as a philosopher, poet, and tenacious human being. He referred to the cancer wrecking his body as “the privilege of direct experience,” and boldly asserted that “even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.” He exposited the works of Nietzsche and Darwin – that the characteristic of the organism is striving. He held on to hope for the sake of his wife and newborn daughter, asserting that hope was some combination of confidence and desire. Paradoxically, as a medical doctor his confidence was that he would die, while his hope that he would live. Therein lies the heart wrenching drama of human death. And so it is with us all. Death is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun that sustains life. As Michel de Montaigne penned, “to study philosophy is to learn to die.” As more or less healthy young men, we assume that the bridge of death is so far off that we never needs cross it, for we will never arrive there. This is not so, and the bridge could be directly over the horizon. In a world of statistical probability, the philosophical young man will opine “why not me” rather than “why me?” Upon reading this book, my advice to young men is a rather stoical bit. On occasion, it is prudent to envision yourself as already dead. Take the view from the casket and imagine what legacy of life will be told at your funeral oration. Have you dreams, plans, or aspirations? Do not delay their realization. Not to wax morbid, but to examine for a life worth living and to live a life worth examining. Time is a nonrenewable resource, and death sets the limit. Prepare now for your death and the hereafter by living an intentional and purposeful life. Remember that until you actually die, you are still living. Breathe in each breath fully; there will come a day for us all when breath becomes air.
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Dr. Paul Kalanithi with his family
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is one of the most profound books I have picked up. Totaling at only 165 pages, it is short in length but deep in wisdom. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist that survived the Holocaust, through his experiences he crafted Man’s Search For Meaning. He splits the book into two parts. In the first part he lays out his different experiences in Auschwitz and the second part he gets into logotherapy which is his psychological philosophy on existence. Frankl addresses the fact that there is a lot of concentration camp literature when he writes this, so the first part of the book he doesn’t feel the pressure to go into every detail. This book made me think about choices. The choices we make every day and how they shape us. Frankl writes, “And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” On a smaller scale, in our daily lives as young men we have these choices to make. That inner freedom that Frankl makes note of is a precious jewel that we must defend with all our might. In one moving scene, Frankl struggles with whether or not he should wake a fellow prisoner from an obvious nightmare but instead he decides not to writing, “At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.” The way this book stands out stacked up against many in its’ genre is Frankl’s view on life and suffering. He writes, “…human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.” He over and over writes about being worthy of his sufferings and knowing how to die. Under such extreme inhuman circumstances, Viktor Frankl forged an incredible philosophy on life and suffering. As men we want to be challenged but at the same time we want to have an easy road to success. Frankl addresses man’s true calling, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” This book is worth its’ weight in gold and it is worth your time. Life is hard and we face challenges every single day, this book is a resource to look to for encouragement. He concludes the book with a powerful quote about mankind, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.”
Written by Michael McPhail
Dr. Viktor E. Frankl
The tragedy of Christopher Johnson McCandless captured my imagination like no other. In many ways he was the man I could never be, but could only live vicariously through. Upon graduation from the prestigious Emory University in Atlanta at the age of 22, he took a step of bravery that only the most intrepid millennials would dare to take. Despite (or perhaps in rebellion against) a bright pre-planned future ahead of him he forsook all his parents plans for him and went into the wild. McCandless spurned his parents wishes for him to attend law school and without consulting them, donated all of his $24,000 of savings to charity before completely disappearing. Adopting the sobriquet Alexander Supertramp (pulled from a character in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”) he ditched his phone, identification, car, possessions and wallet for the vast expanse of the American West. Our hero was a hopeless romantic, fueled by the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Jack London and Leo Tolstoy. Disgusted with the societal conventions and trappings of the “American Dream”, he sought out what was true, beautiful and unfiltered. His travels included a three month long solo paddle down the Colorado River into the Gulf of California, an excursion into the brutal heat of the Mojave Desert and his last and fatal expedition to the Stampede Trail on the outskirts of Mt. Denali in Alaska. In the end, an indomitable spirit was no match for a dominable body. For McCandless, the body was simply the conduit to transcendence, and the most pitiable life of all was the one that was not lived. His very life and death leveled this accusation at all the conformists who carefully crafted his upbringing for their own purposes, chiefly his own father. He was willing to risk his own body for the chance of escape from these things modern Americans value so highly: mortgages, excessive capital, crumbling marriages, greed, envy and a plush 401k. He had no interest in the false definitions of success or societal mores of manhood. Before his death on the Stampede Trail, McCandless had underlined a quote from a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden” that he carried with him: “I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.” As I begin my young adult life, I ponder whether or not I have already taken a seat at the obsequious table. This is the path most traveled, and most young men are willing to sacrifice sincerity and truth for shallow relationships, unfulfilling careers, and the pursuit of an illusory dream that wealth, power and privilege will bring us satisfaction. We fawn over social media and public perception all the while betraying our true selves and relegating ourselves to a menial existence. McCandless would not. And while he died an untimely death, he will forever remain a personal hero of mine. May I always cry out with McCandless in the poetic words of Thoreau: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast!
And Captain Ahab Too!
-Graffito found inside the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail
Written by Cal Wilkerson
Christopher McCandless in Alaska
I started my summer reading with Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. It was a birthday gift from my brother and an excellent addition to my library. It is the wartime diary of the youthful Ernst Junger during World War One, he is fighting for Germany and offers a soft handed banker like me a very fascinating and moving look into the complex nature of war. The first page had me hooked, “We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.” Throughout the book Junger is straightforward about the gruesome images he takes in without mixing in much or any philosophical or spiritual jargon. For example he writes, “In the morning, the sentry on our left flank was shot through both cheekbones. The blood spurted out him in thick gouts. And, to cap it all, when Lieutenant von Ewald, visiting our sector to take pictures of sap N barely fifty yards away, turned to climb down from the lookout, a bullet shattered the back of his skull and he died on the spot. Large fragments of skull were left littering the sentry platform.” We are able to see Junger’s climb through the ranks of the German army while he guides us through battles. His resolution and honesty was something I quite frankly admired page after page. Junger lays out death as ever present, “It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit.” The whole book enraptures you in the moment with Junger and is a true page turner. I felt like I got to know him better than I know most people in my life. That is the real power of books especially memoirs like this one. They become written friends, they are forever etched in your memory and you are able to draw all sorts of lessons from them in your daily life. Storm of Steel is a must read, it is a must read for young men today to remind us of the past and what many of our forefathers witnessed firsthand. It shows the brutal and strange beauty of warfare.
Written by: Michael McPhail
Ernst Junger 1918