Fear Makes Snitches of Us All, Research Time, 17/10/2017

When I was in my last year of undergrad, I took a graduate course about Hannah Arendt. It was a beautiful course, with a professor who’s still a valued colleague and a friend.* It was my first exposure to her work, and to work about her work.

* Who I don’t talk to often enough. Nobody talks to anyone as often as they should, but maybe that’s what people who don’t talk enough say.

Human social solidarity is broken by tyranny, when your government
forces the people into paranoia, fear of each other, incentivizing
betrayal over friendship.
One of Arendt’s concepts was the centre of complex debates in the commentary – common sense. What exactly was this concept of Arendt’s? I think I read more about the concept than Arendt’s own writing on it in that course.

That was only one of many ideas in commentary, when the course itself focussed on understanding modern international human rights law and responsibilities with Arendt’s concepts. So the course never made time for the whole of The Human Condition.

When I read her discussion of common sense in the context of reading that book, I had what I think is a good handle on it. Not enough to end all dispute in Arendt commentary, of course. That’s not my goal, thank God.

No, I just want a concept whose structure and mechanics I can understand and use well enough for my own argument on the same broader question – How can we live together in peace.

So you have my take on Arendt’s concept of common sense. Literally the style of life of self-conscious social creatures – we live in the world as if that world is shared. Not only that, we need to live in a shared world for the sake of our mental health. Social life is exercise for an essential part of the human organism – our minds and personalities.

In one of the first climactic moments of Doctor Who, he said, "Fear
makes companions of us all." Only fear of what's outside. When you
fear the ones who are trapped with you in the cave of skulls, you'll
never get out alive.
Daily life includes camaraderie, friendship, the exchange of meaningful, significant conversation. Humans need the act of bonding, the constitution of solidarity, to be our complete selves.

Our highest state as a society will be when all 7.4-billion of us are open to becoming a single, global community. Humanity’s most complete selves. Between us would be a literal common sense – the sense of living in common, as friends, as part of the same society, in all our differences.**

** Excepting, of course, the paradox of tolerance – not really a paradox, because this utopia would be a society not of tolerance, but acceptance. The refusal to be friends must never be accepted.

This utopian asymptote – universal solidarity and friendship – was how Arendt saw totalitarian structures of government and society extending back thousands of years. We’re accustomed to seeing totalitarianism as a new invention – that’s how Hannah Arendt saw things in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Totalitarian governments like Hitler’s, Stalin’s, and Mao’s was the most intense form of it in history. But the fundamental principle is the same as in the time of the ancient Greek tyrannies. Break solidarity, isolate people with fear.

The Soviet Union's NKVD, the secret police institution that ran the
government with Josef Stalin at its head, I think of as the best
example of totalitarian and tyrannical government for my ideas in
The institution of the secret police was how the modern administrative state did tyranny. Short of full-on totalitarianism, that’s the modern form of tyranny. But the basic function is the same as in the smaller communities of Polis Greece.

The tyrant is isolated from the people – they fear him, and hide from being noticed by him. The people hide from each other, avoid being noticed even by their friends. Any friend could become an informer on you, even if you hadn’t done anything. To inform is a weapon, to bring down the tyrant’s police on someone you want out of the way.

Democracies are practically the inversion. Ideally, leaders should fear the people, because the votes of the people can cost them their jobs. At the least, citizens want to be seen by their leaders – we lobby them, complain to them, yell at them that they’re doing a crap job.

In a democracy, where we can bring our institutions to our heel, we can create the space in our society to build bonds of friendship. Our interactions along these bonds create common sense – our intuitive sense of common ground with our neighbours. Near and far.

When these bonds are broken, we become weak. We’re less than what we could be. That’s the destructive power of paranoia, of the secret police.

Social Matter as Memory, Research Time, 16/10/2017

This weekend turned into a longer gap than I thought. I didn’t expect Friday to be so mental, but it ended up so full of stuff and so generally stressful that I couldn’t get much thinking done at all.

And while the weekend itself has been pretty packed full of stuff to do – catching up on marking, attending a conference on refugee integration, getting a bunch of work done for SERRC, and a pile of personal correspondence – I did at least manage to relax while doing all that.

Humanity's tendency to clear forests, I sometimes think, is rooted in
how bloody scary they are in the middle of the night. We've fought
against the prospect of our fragility with such success that we could
very well end up killing ourselves in the next few generations.
Thinking at least needs a moment. Just a moment.
• • •
The Polis was more than a city. It was more than the first democracy in the West, whatever democracy must mean if it includes modern parliaments, presidents, and these strange town assemblies.

Talking about the Polis as a primordial democracy is very inadequate to the deeper meanings of how Polis-era Greeks lived. That is, how they understood their lives, the nature of their society, their place in the world, and their relationship to time and history as individuals and societies.

The metaphysics of their societies, in other words.

A Polis Greek person’s relationship to nature. It’s about fear, really. People knew how fragile humans were compared to the power of natural forces, the forces of the Earth.

Powerful storms could wash away their homes. A few too many dry seasons, and your whole community starves. Even just getting lost in the woods would be enough to kill someone – dying of exposure, fatal injury, drowning, or even attack by predators.

All of this is still true, but the development and omnipresence of our industrial civilization has complicated our relationship with the Earth. And made it much more violent.

Most of our record keeping about history is totally unreliable. Danny
DeVito's character in Hoffa, a movie I loved as a teenager, never
existed. Bobby Ciaro was an amalgam of two different people
who couldn't work separately in the narrative.
Leave that to the side. Think about that relationship. The Greeks conceived of nature as immortal, cyclical as the entire universe. Even individual plants and animals were thought of as immortal because they understood such non-human organisms as interchangeable. Individually unremarkable, both in their existence and how they understood themselves.

Only humans were mortal – we had distinct, singular, unique identities and we knew we were going to die one day. That’s the condition of mortality.

The Polis was an institutional means to fight our mortality. The continuity of the Polis itself maintained the records and famous stories of debates, speeches, and displays in the assembly. The leaders of the community – those who were able to leave the hard labour of maintaining their lives and households to families and servants – had a shot at immortality.

Glory and fame in your community – the display of virtue in debate, speech, and leadership – was how a mortal could survive their own death.

How real can our modern myths ever really be?
The social institution itself was a form of memory, a way of making memory collective. Societies have always had oral histories, tales of the community’s past and remarkable leaders. The stories mutate over time, though, and become mythical. Real people morph and blend into different characters.

Hell, most Hollywood studios can’t even make a biopic without merging real-life characters and smoothing out their subjects’ messy lives into straightforward narratives. That’s just a matter of a few years of production. Think about the kind of mutation that happens to a society’s narrative memory over centuries of retelling.

Achilles wasn’t simply “brave and bold.” He was a person, with all the complications involved. But by the time he got into the song, brave and bold was all he was.

The Polis was an institution that kept the histories of its leaders – their remarkable speeches, their thundering arguments, their theatrical acts in the public square – rooted. The gathering of Polis leaders was a place of governance, but most people wanted to go there for the chance of mythmaking.

Myths that would preserve their memory without transforming them. Their great acts in public leadership would be preserved as the acts of men, not becoming literature or image. The stone of the city and the square made their memory material.

Slowing History Down, Research Time, 12/10/2017

Here I am continuing the short but dense post I wrote yesterday. The real unfolding of history – the complex web of interconnecting events and processes – is too chaotic for us to understand it as a whole.

Our histories simplify the world. Look at how we discuss history over centuries at a time. We focus on a few great leaders, the activities of governments, business leaders, and massive economic interests. Zoom in or zoom out from the village to the globe, and it's the same structure to the story of the place.

Human spaces are carved into simple patterns and clear paths. All
other creatures are driven from the space. Co-existence – even
though ecological co-existence is always kind of dangerous and
rarely peaceful – becomes impossible, or at least rare.
We can contain much of the immense detail of history, but only if we either stick to a single phenomenon, or a very short period of time.

I once knew a professor of history who concentrated almost all the research articles of his multi-decade career on a few key decades of industrial development in early 19th century Montreal.

It’s immensely impressive, but I’m reminded of an image I came across once. You can achieve incredible things in a narrow specialization, but ultimately you have to put it to use. But now you have to wonder if you need more than narrow or broad knowledge to act best.

If you do need that level of knowledge, you’re screwed because that knowledge is practically impossible at the speed of human life. We can build datasets that big, but comprehensively understanding that dataset takes way longer than any time we’d have to act on what it can tell us.

Here’s a place where Hannah Arendt’s discussions of Greek culture turn out to be pretty enlightening for folks living in the nuclear age. You can – with reasonable accuracy for such a big, complicated, chaotic assemblage – describe modern civilization as an attempt to grasp hold of the world by paring it down to the human story.

Raccoons are called human-adapted species because they've done so
well adjusting to life in human urban spaces. They're one of very few
success stories in humanity's industrial age.
Human geography is simple – like a European park, we shape our world into simple structures. Boxes with clear boundaries. Specific lanes segregated for different kinds of vehicles and directions of traffic. We build our cities in grids and circular patterns – simple shapes.

We bulldoze the complex patterns of multifaceted ecologies. To see the chaotic mess of wilderness disgusts many of us – unsanctioned plants are weeds. So we reduce the world to human structures – cities, highways, farms, parks – to simplify this complexity.

Then we’ll at least have a better chance of grasping hold of the world. It won’t be so chaotic, and it will have a pattern of entirely human design. The world won’t change so fast because there won’t be so many ways for it to change. In paving the world, we’ll slow it down enough to grasp it in our knowledge.

When we shape our society to make it last forever, we finally have a world that we can understand. It won’t escape from us.

Arendt finds this idea in the political thinking of Plato and Aristotle. They saw the greatness of humanity in building a world that lasted – a permanent world. It would be a world built by craftsmen, designers. That’s the image of the legislator, the mythical founder-leader who builds a city and a society just as an architect and team of masons builds a temple.

Laws and institutions exist to constrain human behaviour and
channel it in directions where it can be understood. If you
understand it, then you know how to control it without the
chafing violence of constraint.
Can we even achieve that level of constraint in human societies?
Why on Earth would we want to?
The designed order of institutions and laws would make the desperation of human action unnecessary. We wouldn’t need to fight with chaos to catch up with reality itself as it steamrolls us. Durable institutions are reliable, and human institutions are comprehensible.

We associate Plato and Aristotle with how the Greeks thought. They’re often the only Greek thinkers popular culture pays attention to. But they were rebels in their society – while they created concepts at the heart of our culture, they had little direct influence on their own for a long time after their own lives.

Most Greeks were creatures of the polis – the one durable institution in Greek society, built to hold the hurricane force of contingent, improvised action. These were the debates and duels of Greek politics.

The culture as a whole most valued fleeting glory than vain dreams of permanence. Instead of grasping for comprehensive knowledge, they were content to become the brightest light in the chaos for a moment.

Who do you think was most wise?

What Does It Take to Control History Itself? Research Time, 11/10/2017

When I come up with titles like that, you can tell I grew up watching a lot of Doctor Who. But I’m actually going there by the end of this few hundred words, I think.

I noticed a curious passage in The Human Condition, where Hannah Arendt – in her abstract conceptual approach and her historian’s style of evocative writing – starts talking about network effects.

Even something as ordinary as a timely trip to the bathroom can have
amazing consequences that are impossible to predict.
Not in any technical sense, of course. The Human Condition came long before Bruno Latour and his sociological actor-network theory, or the popular knowledge of neural networks in artificial intelligence research, or any of the networked communications infrastructure our civilization depends on today.

Arendt is talking about the capacity for a small act in any human society to have outsized effects. Consequences spiral outwards from any action, always expanding their power well beyond an actor’s intention.

What do we think of before we make any relatively significant action in our lives? I don’t necessarily mean only the obvious decisions about whether I should marry this person or bomb this country. Those are events with clear meaning and many unintended consequences.

She’s talking about events like conversations about important topics with a friend. Politics, love, business, family – anything that you’d share with someone you trust.

She's even talking about utterly trivial events like picking up a package from the post office, bumming a ride home from work with a friend, going to the bathroom.

Any event can have unintended consequences because we can’t perceive – in the moment of our action – all the indirect and systematic affects that can flow from it. We can’t see the entire web of causality – forward and backward, molecular and molar – at once.

That’s the power and gravity of human action, according to Arendt. Any one of our actions could occur at what turns out to be a critical juncture of causes and processes. Even our most trivial action can have knock-on consequences that transform the world.

That would be a fantastic novel to write, actually. Also reminds me of what I’ve read about Laozi.

What would it take to grab hold of chaos? To bend chaos to your will and make sure that only what you planned would happen.

Confronting History as Chaos, Composing, 10/10/2017

So a lot of my research so far for Utopias has been about political philosophy and thinking. Here’s another look at how I’ve approached the research for it.

Like I’ve said, there are three parts. The first one is about the human relationship with time, how we understand and engage it in our daily lives and in our larger self-conceptions of society and history.

The second is about how we can use the different aspects of that relationship to understand the dynamic processes of reality – the constructive, productive power of time.

Just around the corner, the limit.
The third figures out what ways to understand time best harness humanity’s most constructive, sustainably productive powers. Doing that also identifies what those powers are – the powers of enthusiastic, free solidarity in all sectors of human society.

I’ve been researching the third part mostly for two reasons. One is that the political philosophy concepts are where I needed the most work. I wanted to improve my knowledge about a particular direction in democratic theory.

A processual way of thinking about the development of communities, states, and societies, skeptical of all dominations, hopeful about the power of pluralism and freedom.

I’d already developed my concepts for part two writing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. We understand ecological matters – and the general development of the universe – best when we think in terms of processes and dynamics.

My expertise on part one’s subject – humanity’s relationship with time – is a blend of the two positions. I’ve done a lot of the research about process already, but not yet about how we come to (mis)understand ourselves – historical, narrative humanity.

Analyzing how we understand history and humanity's development
through asking What Happened? is also a pleasant chunk of Gilles
Deleuze's writing. I actually see many similarities between his and
Arendt's concepts, even though there seems to have been no
influence between them.
Reading Hannah Arendt’s work is very enlightening, given that this is the setup of the project. I consider her a predecessor – in my pretentious moments – because The Human Condition is simultaneously about how humanity really develops over time, and the different ways we understand that development.

We understand our development by asking What Happened? Then we figure out the best ways to get answers. Once we have enough facts, we make a story – great actors, pivotal events, the power of humanity acting together. That’s our history.

History is what we tell ourselves when we answer the question What Happened? But that’s a retroactively written history – history with themes, great characters, running currents, a kind of unity. Whether it was a secular unity, or a Providence, Zeitgeist, Invisible Hand – it's still unity. Events as they’re unfolding have no such unity.

Events are chaos – maelstroms of colliding processes and forces. Military institutions like states smacking into each other. Terrifyingly complex economic and industrial systems span the globe, but emerge from thousands and millions of individual acts.

The system transforms those acts, but this feedback loop between a huge system and its constituents physically constitutes human civilization. There’s incredible variety here, a huge diversity of powers, processes, stories, lives. The history of humanity as it actually unfolds is an authorless history.

Despite the convergence I see in their concepts, Arendt and Deleuze
had utterly different philosophical approaches, styles, and thinking.
I think part of that is rooted in Deleuze's relative privilege compared
to her. Deleuze rode out the Second World War in relative safety,
losing only his brother, a resistance fighter. He was 20 by the war's
end. Arendt escaped the Holocaust and was a political refugee for
many years in her life.
Arendt makes very clear how utterly terrifying it is for human history to be truly authorless. Those metaphors about maelstroms are appropriate. We tell ourselves coherent histories – whether in scholarly books, or popular films and novels, or epic poems and myths in Athenian squares thousands of years ago.

It’s meant to give us a means to grapple with the chaos of time – to turn events into history through understanding. Sometimes, it works, and we understand the world in the best way to thrive.

Often, we lose track of how the world develops, clinging to old certainties out of inertia, or because we’ve culturally bathed in them for so long that it becomes difficult to conceive of anything different.

A complete conception of the real development of events is totally incoherent because of that chaos. Every simple story is too simple to be true – in the real complexity of history, all contraries are compossible.

But it’s seriously difficult to conceive of that kind of world. It takes complexity in thinking, and the ability to confront the terror of a rudderless reality.

Out of a Depression Into a Flood, Composing, 06/10/2017

I've been thinking of a particular argument I want to include in Utopias. As I research different concepts – especially because my writing is so transdisciplinary* – I develop more details of a broad outline.

* Even when I write fiction, it’s transdisciplinary. I made it part of the latest small sci-fi project I’m part of. Now, I can’t tell anyone a damn thing about until December. But I’ll periodically tease this with ironic jokes about how I have to keep my mouth shut for months.

There's only over so much to consume. Earth isn't infinite; it only felt
that way when our powers to transform it were very small, or else
worked only on a very slow pace when they grew large. Not anymore.
Different parts of my research focus my ideas more, and I can expand different parts of the outline until the details are so fine that I may as well start writing draft passages. I feel like I’m about there now with a passage about consumerism’s conditions and causes.

Call this gathering my thoughts.

Do you remember a post I wrote earlier this summer about Hungary’s inflation crisis during the Second World War? The seeds of the argument start there, the most ludicrous crisis of economic over-intensity seen yet.

So to finance their total war production, the Hungarian government printed so much currency that the value of its currency ballooned from US$33.50 in 1943 to US$460,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in 1946.

Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, offered (among many things) that this fate of catastrophic hyper-inflation was inevitable unless industrial production slowed to a comparative crawl. His prescription to do so was to shut down state-financed industries and massively lower wages to take as much money supply out of the economy as possible.

Both paths, he said, involved terrifying human suffering. Millions would be reduced to poverty. But those were the only two futures he could conceive of – a world of hyper-inflated currency or a world with almost no money at all.

Keep building and building and building. Even highways wear away
and need replacing. Build it all on top of the ruins of the old. But in
just a couple of decades instead of centuries.
The actual solution was totally different, of course. All the free-market industrialized countries gave themselves a massive Marshall Plan. In Europe, Japan, and South Korea, American government and industry gave them huge investments to rebuild their countries from rubble.

In America, their whole economy was one massive Marshall Plan. They didn’t have anything to rebuild, so a culture of consumerism developed. This is when Arendt saw American economic life changing its focus from the value of work to the value of labour.

Ironically – or maybe intentionally – this was during the McCarthyite crackdown against socialists and the labour movement. But we’re talking concepts here.

So Arendt identifies how American industrial production – to prevent the disaster of over-production and hyper-inflation Hayek predicted – encouraged consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the culture of disposability to keep the economy moving.

She never mentions Hayek by name of course. These are the arguments I’ll set against each other to make a more general point.

Production that lasts – what Arendt, in her trilogy of concepts at the heart of The Human Condition’s analysis, calls work – is what made the world human in the first place. The infrastructure – buildings, roads, cities, warehouse districts, oil refineries – that stands for decades and reconfigures massive landscapes.

You eat to live. Something's always
going to eat you eventually.
Work** is the creation of the world as it exists for the sake of humanity – converting the ecologies of Earth into fully human environments. Naturally developing ecologies exist for the sake of all its constituents – this is why they’re so violent, because a lot of those creatures consume each other to survive.

** Arendt’s philosophical concept of work.

Arendt depicts work – the creation of a lasting human world – as an activity of great dignity. It is, as far as it’s powerful. And it’s impressive. When I was visiting the Louvre last week, what I found most impressive were the Babylonian and Mesopotamian ruins. After thousands of years, these massive stone building fragments – three-story-tall doorframe columns! – were even more awesome simply for having lasted so long.

The Burj Dubai, Taipei 101, and CN Tower would envy such luck of lasting for literally thousands of years.

Yet to build our permanent home, we have to carve it out of the ecosystems that actually keep us alive. For many thousands of years, human civilization never got that intense. There have been ecological crises that brought down major empires – soil exhaustion, water pollution.

But only in the last couple of centuries have we been able to clearcut entire countries. We’ve built dams so huge that the weight of their reservoirs’ water causes earthquakes. All the water on Earth is threaded with plastic molecules, heavy metals, sewage, oil slicks, radioactive waste.

This is what comes from valuing work that lasts. You produce work that destroys itself and takes you with it.

She Did Kind of Expect the End of Everything, Research Time, 05/10/2017

My musings yesterday got a little disconnected. Kind of went beyond “rough draft” and into “jottings on the asylum wall.” Okay, maybe not that bad. But it didn’t turn out to be as systematic as I wanted.

Here are some thoughts in reaction to Hannah Arendt’s longer discussion of human labour and industry. Even though she earlier wrote that humanity seemed far from maxing out our planet’s carrying capacity, she can see the danger coming.

Can we eat our whole civilization alive? When Hannah Arendt was
writing, that was almost literally the guiding principle of the entire
economy of industrial civilization in both capitalist and communist
Her concepts that she uses to analyze our society’s predicament come from Polis Greek culture, but she expresses them in universal terms. They become three categories of human production on a societal and global level.

Labour is the production of what we consume – human metabolism at work in the world. Work is the production of machines, infrastructure, and institutions that are built to last. Action is the production of acts themselves – deeds that leave no legacy except their memory and example.

Arendt’s analysis of how labour functions in 20th century industrial society – both in American-dominated and Russian-dominated societies – is the lynchpin of her critique of consumerism.

For the sake of maintaining such massive industrial productivity that we built to overcome the Great Depression, we were producing goods to consume them for our pleasure with the same speed as we’d consume weapons, ammunition, and human lives in war.

The problem was that consumption became the pinnacle purpose for production. So much of our production power was devoted to making things that we’d consume. They had high value in their use, but using them would also destroy them, so we had to make more constantly.

We were all, for our livelihoods, so dependent on the relentless pace of Western industry’s production that the system itself was becoming automatic. Its activity, as Arendt put it, was beyond the power of human decision-makers to stop.

Even an advertising man can have moments of profound insight and
a life remarkable enough to preserve in our community's historical
No matter how many people might decide that such an ephemeral, superficial lifestyle wasn’t for them, the machine couldn’t stop. The productivity of our economy was built around disposability.

However ethically empty economic life might have been under this arrangement, it did make for a great job creation plan. That was one aspect of the high-quality manufacturing sector jobs that drove the expansion of the middle class in the mid-20th century. We had to keep making those things to consume and destroy them.

The problem with our contemporary economy is much worse in particular ways. Now, so much of the extra value of our work goes to virtual sectors – banking, insurance, and stock investment.

A lot of the stuff we consume – games, information, media – is free or extremely cheap to buy. So there just isn’t as much money flowing through the production process as there used to be when Arendt was alive and writing.

And although she doesn’t say it directly, the economic cycle of ballooning over-production and over-consumption still has the effects of ecological destruction. Eating the planet alive.

In so many ways, our economies are unsustainable because nothing is built to last. We labour and enjoy, but we don’t build and act.

No One Expects the End of Everything, Jamming, 04/10/2017

As I was reading through The Human Condition, I made quite a few notes. I always make notes when I read philosophy, of course. Most of the time, they’re pretty trippy reactions to concepts. Elaborations. Arguments. Questions. Comments. Links.

Sometimes, it’s a joke. A meaningful, significant joke. A cruel joke. Definitely a cruel joke. The worst way to have an idea go out of date.

Much of human civilization is passing the point where industrial
life has more benefits than drawbacks.
Hannah Arendt writes, “Mankind as a whole is still very far from having reached the limit of abundance.” Chapter 16, page 124 of my English edition.

This is from the late 1950s, when human industry was kicking into its highest gear yet. This was the decade when we started pumping enough carbon gases into the atmosphere that we were kick-starting the sixth Great Extinction.

Here’s a thought that comes to me when I read this sentence of hers. Here we were, so close as a civilization to reaching the carrying capacity of our planet. Yet no one could see it.

Only 60 years after Arendt wrote The Human Condition, we were pushing up against the carrying capacity of our planet for an industrial civilization of more than seven billion people.

In 1960, the Earth’s human population had only recently passed three billion. The problem wasn’t nearly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We all knew the danger of nuclear weapons. The Cold War loomed starkly enough that it was called the nuclear age.

Nuclear weapons no longer have that solemn dignity, as if we could control the finger of God with a big red button. Now, they’re the apocalyptic toys wielded by boy-emperors and man-children. What was humanity’s great achievement of divine wrath is now our grotesque stumble into drunken mass suicide.

None of this is predictable. Donald Trump is the President of the
United States of America. What the fuck?
Arendt could never have seen Donald Trump. If she had, she’d probably have dismissed it as a night terror. Even four years ago, the prospect of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States was an unbelievable proposition.

Humanity is dissonant when we try to tell the future. All we can do to anticipate the future is follow present situations and trends along their current dimension of progress. When we believed that every home would have an atomic oven. Or that passenger rockets would take us on trips around the world in less than an hour.

Maybe we can imagine some much more intense version of the present moment. Cyberpunk imagination brought us that.

Even when the predictions are accurate, they’re limited. Elon Musk is talking about doing rocket-based commuter flights from San Francisco to Japan in 25 minutes. But I think he just feels cheated that we never got the moon colony by now, like we all thought 60 years ago.

We’re living in a generally less intense cyberpunk future right now. Yet who in Larry Niven’s generation could have dreamt up cyberpunk? Let alone Jules Verne’s generation.

In this passage of The Human Condition where Arendt drops this line, she’s continuing her long analysis of how Western values have transformed from Polis Greece to the Atomic Age.

She can see some kind of radical transformation ramping into gear because her eye is on industrial production and the processes that enable it. Because she’s tracking the development of Western values, she has her eye on the growing frenzy of consumerism in the United States and the other free market industrialized regions.

Arendt had lived through the Second World War, and catalogued the many thresholds humanity crossed in those years. We know the most about what she wrote about its terror threshold. But she was also watching our economic thresholds.

The Second World War was the period of humanity’s most aggressive, intense, and massive industrial production yet. Fifteen years after its end, none of that industry had scaled back its powers and processes. War wasn’t eating it up – people were.

This was consumerism. The dignity of building goods to last was replaced by the relentless push to consume. Buy, wear out, and replace. That’s why my grandparents’ sewing machine could keep working for decades, but most everyday machines like that now have lifespans of a few years.

We’re supposed to throw them out and replace them. It’s the only way our industry could keep pace with the capacity we developed through total war. At the time, the buildup of consumerism was necessary – only the intense industry of the Second World War could bring human civilization back from the Great Depression.

The price was dignity in so many ways. Arendt follows the grotesquerie of consumerist morality. My work – and that of many others – has followed the grotesquerie of ecological destruction.

Humanity drowns in our own shit, and does so in D&G shades.

A Face of Canada’s Future, Advocate, 03/10/2017

He really is that good-looking. Photo by
Bryan Adams because: Why not?
I had a feeling he was going to win, but I didn’t think he’d do it on the first vote. I’m really glad he did, and that his support across Canada was so widespread.

Jagmeet Singh is a historic figure in Canadian history as of Sunday afternoon. I’m happy to have been in the room to see it. Jagmeet faces some unique challenges that fit our moment unfortunately well. I think he’ll come out on top, but not after confronting the essential challenge of progressive politics today.

I’m talking about race.

A few years ago, I wouldn’t say that race would soon become the essential challenge of politics. But I didn’t expect such an intense reaction to the two major popular movements against systemic racism – Black Lives Matter and Idle No More.

I saw nothing wrong with those protest movements – their goals of being treated as genuine equals in their countries and communities are perfectly benign democracy. Yet the reactionary movement has been horrifying.

There’s Donald Trump, the elderly racist dick who’s become President of the United States. There’s the revival of genuinely genocidally-aiming white supremacist groups through social media communities.

In Canada, our own militia groups are forming, thanks to the online radicalization of white nationalism worldwide. There are the Proud Boys, Soldiers of Odin, and the folks who organized the Storm Alliance protests last week.

Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin,
Alexa McDonough, Jack Layton, Tom Mulcair, Jagmeet Singh.
They and their supporters have tricked us into giving them space to organize by appealing to our democratic values. These very energetic, confident young men may tell you they support free speech and democracy. Freedom to be who and what you want to be, believe what you want to believe.

They’re lying. They are radical white nationalists. They want to enforce a permanent black underclass in America, slaves in all but name. They want to finish the genocide that John MacDonald ramped into high gear – there’ll be no more Indigenous languages whispered or religions appearing. No more Indigenous people, by any means expedient.

This is what white nationalists want. And they want you to want it too.

There is nothing the New Democrats could do to provoke such people more than elect a young, hip, charismatic, intelligent Sikh politician our federal leader, and give him a mandate to work as hard as he can to become Prime Minister. The first Prime Minister from Canada’s only political party to consistently embrace social democracy.

Barely 24 hours after his election as federal leader, other federal leaders were so condescending to him, treating him like a fool who didn't even know how parliament worked. I doubt that if Charlie Angus had won, and his speech included an appeal to make him Prime Minister, Elizabeth May would have read from her tenth grade civics textbook.

Then, Elizabeth May has always been more malignant than she appears.

Even Jagmeet's brightest hopes are tainted with epithets disguised as double entendres. Is his appearance not 'secular' enough to earn Quebecer's support? Let's just call a spade a racist here.

I happen to think that the political party founded by a Baptist minister has room for a leader who defines himself in part through piety to his religion. In Jagmeet's case, that's a religion whose founding values are community solidarity and the fundamental equality of all people. Social democracy, the values of the New Democratic Party.

Jagmeet’s election was a direct message to the white nationalist radicals who threaten to overthrow the principles of equality at the heart of democratic values. Jagmeet’s campaign slogan was “Love and Courage.”

Well, in Punjabi, the phrase also translates* as, “You want to mess with us? Come at me, bro.”

* Very, very, very, very loosely.

I never thought I’d spend my political life in my 30s fighting Nazis. But I’m fighting a bunch of fucking Nazis. So put me on Team Jagmeet.

Echoes of Future Politics, Composing, 02/10/2017

I haven’t posted about it in a few weeks, but I’m still working on my Doctor Who project. These are the essays on the Peter Capaldi years that I’m revising into a book, which I hope will be released independently in the gap between Capaldi’s farewell this Xmas and Jodie Whittaker’s official premiere later in 2018.

Filming The Caretaker on the set of Doctor Who in those innocent
times of the year 2014.
I wrote these essays first as reviews – episode by episode as they played, I took a philosophical lens to them. Like all my writing on the blog, these posts improved over time. So when I go back to earlier posts – like this initial review of The Caretaker – I can see that they’re in serious need of revision.

Sometimes, it’s a style issue. Sometimes, it’s way more complicated. The case of Gareth Roberts, for instance. When I first ranked the stories of Capaldi’s first season, I put Roberts’ The Caretaker on top of the list.

The reasons were clear to me. For one, it was a perfectly constructed farce, which threaded complex characterization and relationship-building among the plot itself. It was a masterful fusion of the sitcom style with a Doctor Who adventure story about an alien robot.

The Caretaker also confronted a political issue that had drifted away from prominence in Doctor Who since Steven Moffat took over as creative producer – class. The central source of conflict in the story was the misunderstanding between the Doctor and Danny Pink over class.

The Doctor – keeping with the war, peace, and sacrifice theme of the season – presumed Danny to be a bit stupid when he first learned that he’d been a soldier. When Danny learned that the new school caretaker was actually a Time Lord, he presumed the Doctor was the same kind of Lord who gave him his mission in Afghanistan.

The sort of upper-class bastard who’s content to start wars and burn bridges to prop up his rightful place at the top of the social world. The Doctor didn’t yet understand that Danny was a victim of war, someone who’d killed but who wasn’t a killer. Danny didn’t yet understand that the Doctor was a Lord who’d turned against his class for the exact same reasons Danny despised the lordly caste.

Understanding all the facets of Clara Oswald is more than I think one
book can manage.
Clara was literally caught in the middle – dealing with this massive misunderstanding between the two most important men in her life – her lover and her best friend. That’s not to mention how the Doctor’s friendship with Coal Hill troublemaker Courtney or the motives of the Skovox Blitzer robot played into the same themes.

Roberts did a beautiful job weaving all these elements together. I consider it a masterclass in the craftsmanship of thematically rich comedy narrative. In the moment of that season, the story also did a wonderful job of maintaining the hopeful outlook of Doctor Who.

After a bleak season finale with Death in Heaven, Roberts offered a refreshing model for the show going forward. Writing as I was a few days after its broadcast, I also presumed that this would be Clara’s exit from Doctor Who, a terribly depressing place to leave the character.

Clara’s future – and how I’ll deal with her in this book – are subjects for another post. Probably several as I hammer out my ideas. Clara Oswald contains multitudes, as you know.

No, my biggest problem as I rethink the Caretaker essay is its author. See, when Gareth Roberts first wrote The Caretaker, her politics were kind of a non-issue. He was just an ordinary British middle-of-the-road decently-off gay liberal.

I followed him on Twitter, and quite enjoyed a lot of what he said. Roberts would fairly often post about political issues, and I could often sympathize with him at first. Given the political choices Britain was offering its people for government early in the Capaldi years, I could see how someone in his position could be frustrated.

Gareth Roberts hasn't written for Doctor Who on television since
Capaldi's first year, and I think his increasingly extreme turn in
politics have been a key reason.
Suspicious of Jeremy Corbyn and his reputation for being too far on the left for most people. Feeling a bit frozen out of the Tories, whose austerity budgets were putting too much of a squeeze on the British people. Unable to accept the perpetual damp squib of Liberal Democrat organizing and opposed to separatism, there seemed to be nowhere to stand.

Well, there was one other place. And over the next few years, I saw Roberts drift there. The key issue seems to have been anti-gay violence by extremist Islamists, particularly the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Florida. Over 2017, Roberts flew very quickly to oppose Islam, painting all Muslims as supporters of massacring and oppressing LGBTQ people.

This is a major path that alt-right activists use to turn liberals into anti-Islam bigots. All Muslims are conflated with the most violent extremism, this time on the wedge issue of gay rights. The Chechen crackdown on LGBTQ people – concentration camps included – is an important touchstone, since Chechnya is a Muslim-majority Russian republic whose president is Muslim himself.

Of course, the alt-right’s radicalization narrative avoids the fact that anti-LGBTQ strongman Ramzan Kadyrov executes white nationalist Vladimir Putin’s own anti-LGBTQ and nationalist agendas. Kadyrov is an ally in the Eurasian imperial project motivating modern Russian global affairs.

So what am I supposed to do with a script that celebrates love, joy, and comedy, when its author has fallen into the radical racist politics that Doctor Who fundamentally stands against? I honestly don’t know. Any suggestions?

A Society of Workaholics, Research Time, 30/09/2017

I’m never too quick to condemn capitalism. Two reasons why. One is because everybody’s doing it. We’re in a resurgence of anti-capitalist activism, equally critical of our destructive industrial practices and the financial policies that crush billions of lives.

For good reason, of course. There’s plenty about the drive to ever-more-intense industrial production that’s probably making Earth uninhabitable for us. Climate change, yes. But even beyond that, just consider the horrible effects that basic pollution has on our ecosystems.

The goal that most of us have in our lives is to spend our energies doing
something we love. That's the heart of so much career advice, even
though there aren't many folks who can do that. Even in the fortunate
industrialized West, too many people spend too much time having to do
something they don't want to do. This seems a source of social tension.
Do you know how much plastic you eat every day? Tens of thousands of microscopic plastic particles are eaten by fish and crustaceans every day. We eat those same plastic particles when we eat those fish.

We aren't just drowning in our shit – we eat it too. That’s the second reason why.

But if we can correct the mistakes and self-destruction of mass industrial capitalism, we shouldn’t abandon markets entirely. One obvious reason is because state-run industrial endeavours have rent scars in the Earth too. Consider the destruction of the Aral Sea to water massive cotton farms on the orders of the Soviet government.

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is a critique of the industrial society human civilization had become – among the many things it is. That’s one of the many philosophical ideas she finds in comparison with the life and morality of Polis-era Greece.

This political problem is a question – pretty simple in the ordinary way we encounter it. Do you work to live? Or do you live to work?

Consider how the economy of Polis Greece worked. Yes, there are plenty of material differences that make directly emulating it ridiculous – the drastically lower population, that it was almost entirely agrarian.

Forget that – philosophy is about understanding what concepts can guide new action for our new situations. Isolate a concept – See what actions and processes its framework of thinking can lay out. See how it changes your conceptions of what’s possible.

I grew up surrounded by values like these about your work. You should
always feel that your work is dignified, a source of honour, pride, and
pleasure too. Work should be something that, even when it may drain
your energy, you enjoy it, and it has benefits beyond your own
pleasure as well. We want to make a living in a calling or a
vocation, not merely a job. Watch Mike Judge's Office Space, and
you see how he valorizes manual labour as honourable work.
That's true. But consider public service like community
leadership, or even teaching.
So look at how their economy worked. The whole purpose was to produce enough that you could live off its surplus for the rest of your life. Put a lot of effort, labour, and work into your life and career at the beginning. Make a huge enough surplus that you can stop working for a while.

You can now afford to pay other people to labour for you – run the household, make food, do all the little tasks of staying alive that take so much time. That way, you can devote yourself to what you’ve always wanted to do, what you’ve been raised to aspire toward all your life.

Join the government.

Of course, Polis Greeks didn’t have a government like we do. There was no welfare state bureaucracy. There was the military, tax collectors and financiers, scribes recording the debates of their leaders.

Leaders would plan new construction in the city, represent their community to other cities, make decisions about how the city as a whole would handle its business. But Polis Greeks didn’t consider any of this business of leadership to be work. They wouldn’t expect to be paid.

The whole reason why they were able to become leaders is that they’d already built enough wealth to live on without having to build any more. Surplus was to be spent on supporting your public life as a community leader and statesman.

What kinds of personalities do our values today of workaholism and
unstoppable accumulation create? I don't think I'm comfortable
living in a society where our most powerful people are the ones
deranged enough to think it's perfectly good to profit off the misery
of others because unstoppably growing wealth is the primary
good in your life. Is this a reasonable way to live? A good way?
That’s what they considered retirement. Rather, they had this phase of public leadership that came between your working life and your retirement.

Contrast that kind of personality with the attitude all too popular today about wealth. You just keep accumulating. There’s no stopping you. Just keep growing and growing and growing your personal wealth in assets. Own more and more and more.

Who needs $47 billion? Even the billionaires who become philanthropists never truly divest. They hold on to so much money and assets so their value can continue to grow and fund more philanthropy.

Why did you need to lock up that much wealth for yourself at all? Philanthropy moves faster when everyone else has the money in the first place through their own jobs and careers. This is the moral ideal at the heart of today’s mania for basic income.

But a basic income from the government is only necessary because the private economy isn’t providing it. It should, because that’s why anyone goes to work all – they want to earn enough to live, to retire comfortably, or spend more time in their lives as leaders in their communities.

We’re a society of workaholics. Why should we have to be this way? How else could we live if all of us chose to prioritize our lives a little differently? Imagine what our society would be if no one ever wanted to become a billionaire at all.

Look into the most abstract features of their souls. Now you’re doing philosophy.

Each of Us Is Nothing If We’re Alone, Research Time, 26/09/2017

Now and then, I’ve wandered around Reddit having conversations about philosophical ideas. I had interesting conversations, but few of them were all that pretty. One that stuck with me – which I realized informs so much of radical far-right youth culture today – was about morality.

Someone told me in all seriousness that all forms of moral obligation were oppression. Because any means by which another person seeks to control my actions oppresses my individual liberty.

That’s really messed up. And I thought it was just the ravings of a messed up Reddit freak. But reading Robert Nozick’s radio show argument, I realized that this idea had real pedigree.

You can make an idol of Les Stroud the Survivor Man, but remember
this very simple fact. We'd never know about his incredible skills at
disappearing from civilization and living in the wilderness if he
didn't bring an Outdoor Life Network camera crew with him and
broadcast all his adventures on cable television to a nationwide
and global audience.
Now, Nozick was ostensibly writing about the free rider argument. He was arguing that it was morally acceptable to be a free rider on a system designed for the common good because a fundamental element of individual liberty is the freedom not to do something despite others pressuring you.

But look at what that argument actually says. The free rider problem is typically posed, literally, as taking a free ride – its typical example is hopping on a public bus without paying for it.

Nozick pumps a different example for the free rider problem and ends up in much more horrifying territory. Instead of a bus system, he describes a community entertainment program that you’ve already promised to contribute to. And he says you still have the right to back out, no questions asked.

He meant to talk about the free rider problem, but he’s argued that each of us has the right to break promises.

Having the right to break promises also means that you have the right to step away from your whole society. Because if you capitalize on your right to break all your promises, then you shout to the world that no one need ever trust you again. If you’re enthusiastic about doubling down on your freedom to break promises, no one ever will trust you again.

Your liberty is the freedom to turn your back. Let's admit that we all have this freedom. Now let’s also examine the consequences.

True isolation destroys your humanity. As an inherently social species,
we have to compromise our desires if we want to complete
ourselves as people.
Even though Hannah Arendt wrote The Human Condition 20 years before Nozick published Anarchy State and Utopia, she made one important point about the terror that results from Nozick’s idea. And I mean it when I say terror.

Turning your back on society literally means becoming a totally private person, a hermit. In the cartoon version of libertarianism, this is how the most extreme folks live. Move out to a cabin in the middle of the woods, disconnect from everything,* grow a vegetable garden, and hunt deer with your own increasingly massive weapons arsenal.

* Unless you keep the internet to stay on Reddit and 4Chan, catch up on Breitbart, follow your favourite youtubers, and watch @realDonaldTrump.

I’m being extremely sarcastic, but I’m also making a larger point about what disconnecting from society really means. You really do kind of have to become a cartoon radical libertarian to make a truly clean break – to live without the oppression of being bound by promises.

Being in Paris this week, where Arendt herself spent a good chunk of her philosophically fertile years, reminds me of the influence of old ideas, ancient concepts, on our contemporary thinking. She writes about the Polis Greek meaning of the word ‘private,’ to describe the private realm – the Greeks thought of it literally as the realm of privation.

Appearance is an essential aspect of reality, and to flee from
appearance is to fly into a shadow existence, to become a shade
instead of a person.
Someone whose entire life is relegated to the private realm is deprived. He’s a pathetic figure.** The libertarian desire for freedom – as the radio show problem and moral obligation as oppression expresses – creates a deprived human personality.

** And I feel safe saying that it’s often a he.

When someone defines their life according to such a desire, they fly away from society and human connection. All attempts at social relationships are rejected. The goal becomes isolation – isolation as the only space that can be truly free.

Arendt writes, “The private man does not appear, and therefore is as though he did not exist.” If you don’t enter society, then you don’t really exist as a person. At least, you aren’t a complete person. Your existence as a human is damaged, withered. You’ve purposely broken parts of yourself.

Those broken parts of the totally free person (on this libertarian model) are the means by which we compromise our will. I can’t just demand food for free from a restaurant, break all my promises to my friends, betray my wife, and abandon my children. All these are constraints on our freedom, when freedom is conceived as total escape from obligation.

But to cut yourself away from all those obligations makes you literally inhuman.

Each Together IV: A Family of Millions, Research Time, 21/09/2017

I’m not going to answer that question about our mortal desire for immortality right away. I don’t really have one right now. When I do, it’ll probably involve some complex examination of the relationship between memory, personality, culture, history, and knowledge of the past.

Instead, I want to riff on a few more ideas I encountered about community, social unity, and nationhood in the early chapters of The Human Condition. I’ll lay it out with a bold, blanket statement that I feel isn’t getting through to enough of popular culture as it should.

Humanity in servitude is a mass of indistinguishable organs.
My blanket statement:

There are a ton of people who hate all forms of socialism and even just basic caring for your community because they think it’s all creeping communism. And I’m sick of that ignorant shit.

I mean, there are clear sources for this. Ever since Friedrich Hayek helped launch the Mt Pelerin Society and the network of think tanks it inspired, that notion has flooded our popular culture through pretty much all channels of media.

It’s been in the right wing ever since The Road to Serfdom blew up – that any form of collective action or identity contains the conceptual seeds of totalitarian communism. Whether it’s a trade union, a single-payer state-funded health care system, or even simple community organizing to lobby a government or a private company.

For Hayek, solidarity is the same as communism. So it’s gone for a growing chunk of conservative North America. The idea began in the populist work of a Nobel Prize winning economist, and is now in the mouths of dim-witted pundits with terrible moustaches.

At least when Hayek was talking about this, his ideas had some bite. They were wrong, but they bit.

Here’s how the most brutal communism conceives of humanity. Each person has no real meaning in their lives as individuals. Our authentic roles are as members of a class, so our individual personalities express only our general class interests. Because class interests are fundamentally shared, each of our lives are indistinguishable from each other.

Friedrich Hayek gets his Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.
For Hayek and the modern North American right wing that followed him, this is the ideology of any political philosophy which accepts any kind of collective action or identity. They see this in the labour movement and marxism.

But Karl Marx didn’t invent this concept. Hannah Arendt identifies the root of how comradeship becomes collectivization in nationalist movements and the modern concept of nation itself.

The heritage is pretty straightforward. European society was dominated by feudal relationships through the medieval period. The ethics of these feudal societies were based on paternal responsibility expressed on the scale of entire towns.

The local lord or royal is the father, and the only political relationship of which anyone is capable is subjection. The community consists of one paterfamilias and all others are bowed heads. The lord has the unquestioned authority of a household head, and all members of the community are one family.

As lords disappeared, says Arendt, the morality of subjection and the community as family persisted. That morality became a force of peer pressure to conformity in your identity and political beliefs.

A political morality of subjection, without a monarch to which we’re subject, becomes subjection to the popular morality itself. Dissent of any kind is considered immoral. It would be dissent from the only body that makes your existence legitimate – the nation.

A community of millions who subject themselves to the will of all, as popular morality expresses it. That’s the vision of the dedicated nationalist. Human dignity is only realized in the achievements of the nation itself. This is the ideology that brought us racialization, colonialism, and the two Great Wars of the 20th century.

The nationalism that consumes the modern Western right wing makes them more like their boogeyman communists than the social democrats they hate.

Each Together III: The Immortal’s Life, Research Time, 20/09/2017

When I first read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, I didn’t understand why she made Greek thinking and values a focus of her inquiry. Surely, there are other routes to forgotten ways of thinking in other traditions of humanity.

There are. Ten years ago, I was wondering why we’d choose to return to the Greek tradition for inspiration instead of philosophical ideas from ancient China, India, Africa, or the Americas. But I didn’t yet understand that Arendt herself wasn’t able to do so.

They weren’t her traditions. I mean that in a personal sense – she hadn’t ever really studied them. Her own expertise was rooted in the Western tradition, and that began in Polis Greece. It’s also true in a civilizational sense – Arendt was a European, whose work and thinking grew from the minoritarian place of German Jewish culture (Jewish German culture?).

Why doesn't Arendt talk much about the Jewish roots of Western
culture in The Human Condition? I don't think it's because she
treats it elsewhere – I actually think it's because she doesn't
know much about the philosophical elements of the Jewish
cultural tradition. Arendt was raised a secular Jew in Germany,
a very assimilationist culture. Her works that engaged with
Judaism involved meditations on the particular culture of
Jewish people in Europe, in Germany most specifically. That's
a very different way of engaging with Jewish heritage than is
capable through the ethical tradition of a majority Jewish
I know now, and I didn’t understand then, that the best people to explain those other traditions were those who grew up in those other traditions. I’ve downloaded the classics of Confucius, pre-ordered the latest book by Leanne Betasamosake-Simpson, and I’m looking eventually to get hold of key Indian and African writers too.

I’m not about to argue that only people from particular traditions have the right to speak about those ideas. No, that would be a very limiting cultural relativism. Presuming that there can be no communication between

But you understand a culture better when you grew up in it. Because you can see all the subtle ways that complicated traditions of thinking impact everyday habits when you see those everyday habits in your everyday life.

Growing up in India, you can better understand how ancient ideas survive and shape cultural presumptions and ideas of modern India. An Anishnaabe will understand how their traditional ideas shape their culture today in the small details of ordinary life. Despite the genocidal destruction that culture has faced for centuries now.

So a European will have a better idea of how foundational cultures of the West continue their influence over everyday thinking of European-descended communities. One of the central influences of Polis Greek thinking at the centre of Arendt’s inquiry in The Human Condition is the yearning for glory.

What is glory? There are plenty of terrible definitions for glory in our society. But Arendt is interested in a peculiarly Greek sense of glory. No, let me rephrase that. A peculiarly Polis sense of glory.

This kind of glory is a matter of remembrance. Polis Greek culture and thought, as Arendt understands it, was focussed on a division of being between the mortal and the immortal – the linear and the cyclical. Nature was immortal in that it moved in cycles. The seasons would repeat just as they always have.*

Nature appears immortal to us, especially when it's big enough to dwarf
us. The tragedy of Polis Greece was that mortal humanity was aware
of our mortality and could only fight against it as best we could. The
tragedy of modern humanity is that we built our civilization presuming
nature to be immortal, and once we realized that it wasn't, we were
probably too late to prevent so much destruction.
* Forget that we now know this to be false. This is a function of modern human knowledge of the contingent and finite nature of the universe. We know that the universe had a beginning in time, is of a particular age, and will one day fade into cold emptiness. Forget about this for now. You might want to.

Each human life, in contrast to nature, was finite. But in that finitude, it was remarkable. Natural bodies like trees, animals, and mountains may be awe-inspiring, but to the Polis Greeks, such bodies didn’t have the singularity of human life. To be mortal was to be unique.

But there was a tragedy to this uniqueness because the unique is mortal. The immortal, the cyclical, consisted of indistinguishable identicals – trees, mountains, animals, all the beings of nature.**

** Again, forget that we now know this to be false, that all beings are unique, that all beings are fundamentally processes – contingent and singular at once. The Polis Greek understanding of mortality and time never understood this because the singularity of existence is a conclusion from several hundred years of modern scientific work.

Yet there was one way to escape this tragedy – engagement in the Polis. The Polis, according to the era’s Greek thinking, was immortal. It was a human creation, but its existence survived the lives of any of the particular people who lived there.

So by engaging in the political life of your Polis, you could distinguish yourself through your remarkable acts. You could be remembered in the histories of your own city-state. That’s the glory at the heart of Polis Greek aspiration – unique acts in the leadership of your community could make some part of you immortal.

You’d live far beyond your death in the memory of your own people. That was the immortal fame for which Greek people strove. It was why they gave up all the wealth they’d acquired and spend it all living in cities leading the people. For the only immortality accessible to mortals.

Of course, as you can tell from my asides this post, things were much more complicated. For one thing, Polises themselves turned out to be quite mortal. The rise of the imperial Macedonian state proved that much.

Now the question of our Greek heritage becomes this – How does our yearning for immortality survive in a mortal world?