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Dieting without being hungry

Rump roast plus some less-guilt-inducing things. Click here for high-resolution version.

In eleven years of blogging here, I don’t think I’ve ever written about cooking beef before. I’m 98.6 percent vegetarian, but diets change things (for a while).

During my adult life, my weight has bounced back and forth from about 147 to 157 pounds. Why it bounces is easy to explain: If I weigh 147, I gain weight. If I weigh 157, I feel fat, and I start dieting. My motivation for my current diet, however, though I did feel fat, is getting ready for doing some traveling and hiking in the Scottish Highlands near the end of this summer.

As an experienced dieter, my rules are simple: Keep carbs down. But keep protein, potassium, and fiber up. Concentrate on low-inflammation foods (beef is not one of those). My maximum daily calorie consumption while dieting is 1,200. The calorie rule could be honored, of course, on my usual lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. It would just mean eating less of the usual things. But I’m afraid that a 1,200-calorie diet of the usual things would leave me deficient in protein, potassium, or fiber.

Fortunately, I don’t have to diet often. Once I’m at the lower-level marker of 147 pounds, it takes me more than five years of eating whatever I want to get me back up to the red line of 157 pounds. Nor do I have to obsess about weighing myself. My belt tells me all I need to know. I resort to the scales only to confirm that I’m back at 147 again. Then I eat whatever I want and repeat the cycle.

The easiest healthy way I know to get 60 grams of protein a day while meeting a reasonable potassium and fiber target is to concentrate on fish (or meat) and low-carb vegetables. After eating enough beef to meet the protein target, and enough broccoli and fresh tomatoes to meet the potassium and fiber target, I’m foundered long before the calorie maximum is reached. Grilled salmon is my main source of protein on this diet. I grill two pieces at a time — one for today, and one to put in the fridge for a salmon-vegetable curry tomorrow. Beef is just a novelty. After one meal, I’m sick of beef, even though I have leftovers to deal with.

Since I’m also hiking to train for the Highlands, it won’t take long to get back to 147. Then, once I’m in Scotland, it’ll be all about oyster bars, ale, and potatoes, calories be damned. And I’ll be on my way to 157 again.

Walnut pâté

Raw walnut pâté in pocket bread, cucumber slaw, homemade refrigerator pickle, garden tomato. Click here for high resolution version.

A good maxim for good health would be, eat more walnuts. Believe it or not, here in the Blue Ridge foothills, I can sometimes find local black walnuts for sale in late summer. You have to know whom to ask. Walnut trees are common. There are a few people in these parts who (like me) hate to see walnuts go to waste (though the squirrels rely on them) and who (unlike me) are willing to do the work of shelling them. They fetch a good price, too.

Otherwise, if you buy walnuts from California, you need to buy from a source that sells a lot of them, to be sure that they’re fresh. Whole Foods sells excellent walnuts in bulk. Trader Joe’s has them pre-packaged, and at affordable prices. Store them in the fridge, and keep them sealed against oxygen.

To make walnut pâté, first soak the walnuts for at last an hour to soften them. Purée them in a food processor. I add a dab of tahini to hold the purée together. After the walnuts are mushed up, pulse in some onion and celery and seasonings, but leave the onion and celery a tad coarse.

I love bread, but if I always had it, I would gain too much weight. When the craving for bread becomes irresistible, I sometimes make myself one flatbread. It’s easy. The people of India are the best at it. Just watch a YouTube video to see how it’s done. I use nothing but flour and water, and I bake the flatbread in a dry skillet. It doesn’t always “pop,” but I’m much better at that than I used to be.

Though the pâté in the photo was incredibly tasty, it was the tomato (one of the first ripe ones of the summer) that blew me away.

The evolution of morality

The Evolution of Morality, by Richard Joyce. MIT Press, 2006. 272 pages.

Our best universities have philosophy departments, but what the heck are philosophers — particularly moral philosophers — up to these days? Is it mischief? Certainly some think so.

Occasionally, a philosopher from some university or other writes an op-ed in the New York Times on some narrow subject. But, as far as I can tell, academic philosophers seem to have very little to say to the public, though they write quite a lot for each other. It wasn’t always like that. During the Enlightenment, according to a book I recently reviewed here, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, the oyster bars of Edinburgh were packed with people eating oysters, drinking ale, and talking philosophy (and politics and science). Even we dull Americans have quite a lot of dialogue with, say, our scientists and historians. As evidence, just check out the number of documentaries on science and history available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. But with philosophers, not so much. Why might that be?

I can think of a possible reason, though I can’t testify to the truth it. It’s that philosophers know that we might not like what we hear.

Recently, I asked a friend in academia if he could point me toward a good starting source for a survey of contemporary moral philosophy (and to heck with historical moral philosophy). He sent me this link from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with the comment, “Well, the big breakthrough of the last 20 years, it seems to me, is the marriage of evolutionary biology and morality/ethics.” (Thanks, DCS.)

This work was popularized back in 1995 with a book by Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, which I read at the time. Wright is more a journalist than an academic, but his 1995 book was on the mark and, though I have not reread it, it probably holds up well today.

The history of moral philosophy interests me very little. Immanuel Kant is near impossible to read, but, based on secondary sources, I dismiss him as just another Christian who thought he was being rational and scientific. Philosophers such as David Hume made progress, but David Hume died before Charles Darwin was born. It was Darwin who started the work of upending everything.

More than a hundred years after Darwin, moral philosophers are still working out the consequences of evolutionary psychology. But Joyce tells us that even some of Darwin’s contemporaries understood the disruptiveness of what Darwin had done. Joyce quotes Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). She was an Irish social reformer, and she was clearly kind and brilliant:

A Darwinian explanation of conscience, she wrote, “aims a … deadly blow at ethics, by affirming that, not only has our moral sense come to us from a source commanding no special respect, but that it answers to no external or durable, not to say universal or eternal, reality, and is merely tentative and provisional, the provincial prejudice, as we may describe it, of this little world and its temporary inhabitants, which would be looked upon with a smile of derision by better-informed people now residing on Mars.”

But it wasn’t just Darwin who shook things up and smashed the furniture. E.O. Wilson, who is often called the father of sociobiology, finished the job that Darwin had started. Wilson studies social insects, the class hymenoptera — bees, ants and wasps. From Wilson and those who followed him, we have learned a great deal about social species and the genetics of social behaviors. Human beings are highly social animals, so much of the work that applies to hymenoptera also applies to human beings.

Frances Power Cobbe, who died in 1904, pretty much anticipated what Richard Joyce has to say a hundred years later in 2006. That is that our moral sensibilities and capabilities are products of our evolution; that nature accomplished this by working with our emotions; and that the point of it all was to enable our evolution as a social species primed to cooperate with other human beings.

“Social Darwinists” get it wrong about “the survival of the fittest.” Evolution is not that simple and brutish. Altruism and cooperation (and cheating) exist in nature, and altruism and cooperation (and cheating) serve important purposes in social species. Cooperation and keeping the peace (and punishing cheaters) are — and have been for ages — critical to human thriving. Happiness matters — a lot. Nature, it seems, encourages altruism and cooperation (and the punishing of cheaters) through the genetics of kin selection and group selection. Evolutionary biologists have worked out the mechanism of kin selection and group selection, and those mechanisms are no longer controversial. Where behavior is concerned, these mechanisms are especially important to social species. The work on kin selection and group selection was just getting under way in the 1960s. The implications were enormous, so moral philosophers went to work on it. These developments in moral philosophy are relatively new, which is why anyone with an interest in moral philosophy has some catching up to do. Today, reading Hume or Kant or John Stuart Mill is largely just reading history.

Where does this leave us? As Frances Power Cobbe suspected, does it mean that our human sense of morality is completely arbitrary? Would it mean that a species that evolved in a different way on another world might have a completely different moral framework that is very different from ours, but just as valid?

Who knows! The work is ongoing. But it gives us a great deal to think about. I have neighbors who write letters to the editor saying that, without biblical morality, human beings would revert to being savages and cannibals. That, of course, is bunk. There is plenty of work in even historical moral philosophy that (in my view) far surpasses anything ever achieved by theology. That’s also a reason why the work of John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) intrigues me. It’s entirely possible to do abstract moral reasoning with an entirely decent level of confidence.

Joyce also has got me thinking about whether I need to modify my claim (see my posts What’s wrong with conservatives and The paradoxes of purity) that the moral “foundations” of conservatives are inferior to those of liberals. I don’t think I would have to modify my claim much, though. I might end up claiming that the moral foundations of conservatives are inferior because they serve only a privileged in-group and the status quo, while the moral foundations of liberals are applicable equally to all human beings (indeed, to all living things) and lead to moral progress.

There is a point or two about which Joyce is adamant and about which I would quibble. He seems to me to be too keen on drawing sharp lines between humans and animals. He believes, for example, that a moral sensibility requires language, and that thus animals cannot be said to have moral sensibilities. I am not convinced. We know, for example, than animals have a sense of fairness. If food or other rewards are not allocated equally, animals know, and they protest. I strongly suspect that cats not only are skilled at intentionally evoking human pity, but that they feel pity (a moral emotion) for themselves (as when they are abandoned).

For those who crave, as I believe Frances Power Cobbe craved, a morality with claims to principles that are universal or eternal, must they abandon all hope? I’m aware of one possibility. I’ve written a number of times about Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science whose work intrigues me. Penrose is a Platonist, and he has proposed a theory of consciousness in which our minds are not just computers. Rather, Penrose proposes that consciousness arises from quantum effects within the brain and that the quantum capabilities of consciousness give our minds access to a Platonic world which contains elements that we might say are universal and eternal — the truths of mathematics, for example. In Shadows of the Mind (1994, pages 416-417) Penrose writes that, though abstract concepts such as ethics, morality, and aesthetics are not a part of his argument, that there is no reason to dismiss such moral axioms as not being as real (in a Platonic world) as mathematics.

Now let’s use our imaginations!

As a reader and writer of science fiction, I find it impossible not to apply ideas and their consequences to imaginary worlds. I was delighted to come across the Frances Power Cobbe quote about Mars in this book, because I already had perceived the extraterrestrial consequences of a morality that is human-specific and not universal. E.T. morality may be nothing at all like ours, for better or for worse. In a galaxy with thousands or millions of different, and possibly conflicting, systems of morality, how would it be possible (for example) to write galactic law? Would the differences and antagonisms be so great that we might as well abandon the idea of such a thing as a galactic government?

I came across another fascinating concept with galactic implications in a book on the commons that I was reading. The quotation comes from E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973):

“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace. Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.”

This is a warning about what happens when communities, when they are deprived of their commons and lose the knowledge that allowed them to be self-sufficient, become dependent on money and distant trade to meet their needs. They find themselves in great danger if they lose access to money, or if trade is disrupted. They will find themselves exploited. Just ask Trump voters.

Science fiction (as in Star Wars, for example) almost always imagines a galaxy with advanced technology, high levels of trade with rich trading centers, and a capital planet that is one great city. Inevitably in such a galaxy, some will have great power, but many won’t. There will be war, dangerous politics, and rebellion. To maintain order, galactic police forces and a military would be necessary. In other words, the history of these imagined galaxies would look like the sorry history of earth.

I can imagine a galaxy in which interstellar travel is possible and in which advanced civilizations share knowledge and cooperate. But what if the E.T.’s are too wise (their morality may be entirely different from ours, after all) to have allowed things to go wrong in the way that things have gone wrong on earth? What if they foresaw that if a planet gave up its self-sufficiency and became dependent on money and trade, then even temporary disruptions might starve and destroy entire civilizations? Maybe they learned that not everything should be “monetized” and traded. Maybe they applied their moral philosophy to the almighty market and reached different conclusions than we earthlings. I can imagine how good galactic law might actually prohibit, rather than encourage and regulate, trading among planets. If, say, food cannot be traded throughout the galaxy without the risk of dangerous consequences, then is there anything that can be safely exchanged? If so, what? (In my novels, earth’s cats are traded and exchanged throughout the galaxy, and the cats, at least, seem to do no harm.)

I can imagine a future — and wiser — earth in which globalization is reversed. I can imagine the relocalization of needs that are essential to people’s livelihoods. I can imagine a far smaller population, with much greater quality of life. I can imagine, as E.O. Wilson has proposed, half the earth set aside as a natural reserve.

We have looped back, haven’t we? It was E.O. Wilson who is heavily responsible for the furniture-smashing discoveries that are leading to sweeping changes in moral philosophy and therefore to sweeping changes in how we see ourselves in relation to each other, to the planet, and to other species. Wilson probably was among the first to see the desperateness of our predicament, moral and otherwise. Maybe we have no choice but to smash some old furniture, and to go home and rethink our lives, if we are to save the earth. Regular readers here know that I put religion at the top of the smash list. In any case, in proposing solutions, E.O. Wilson is way ahead of us. His Half Earth idea is breathtaking in its boldness and beauty. I’d almost think that he is in touch with aliens who are far, far wiser than we are.

Count me among those who dare to hope that a rethinking of everything that is important will lead us not to nihilism or cannibalism but to new ideas good enough to save the planet, and maybe even to ideas good enough for us to hang out in oyster bars with E.T.’s.

Look who’s a mommie!

Click here for higher-resolution version.

The white deer has been around for several years now, bless her heart. It’s possible that there are even two white deer in this little hidden valley. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her with a fawn. The photo was taken from an upstairs front-facing window. I got a good look at her this morning. She’s a very pretty deer, and she looks healthy.

Click here for higher-resolution version.

If you’ve got too much of it, baba ganoush it

Are we tired of squash and okra yet? It could happen.

Baba ganoush is not just for eggplant. Any vegetable that likes to be roasted can be turned into baba ganoush. This one is made from roasted yellow squash and roasted okra.

Are we tired of pesto yet? I hope not, because the basil is the most vigorous thing in the garden now that the usual July heat stress and water stress are setting in.

This was a very rich meal. I couldn’t eat it all.

A boys’ answer to #metoo

Yes, #metoo has exposed some ugly abuses of male power and male impunity. But most men are not like that. And there is nothing wrong with boys.

I won’t waste any words of my own. These young men sing the point quite beautifully.

In French:

Abandon entouré d’abandon, tendresse touchant aux tendresses…
C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même, par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème du Narcisse exaucé.

I cannot find either a literal or poetic translation of the French that I like very much. So I will have a go at a poetic translation of my own:

Wildness surrounded by wildness, tenderness touching tendernesses …
It is your own self that ceaselessly caresses you, one might say;
Caressed inside yourself, lit by your own reflection.
Thus you find the answer to the prayers of Narcissus.
One might say, one might say, one might say …

The poem is by the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926. The poem ostensibly is about a rose. But like most poems about roses, I don’t think it’s about roses at all.

Hiding in the woods indeed

I watched this doe for a good while yesterday. She couldn’t see me. I was at a window facing the orchard gate. She skulked out of the woods and made for the nearest patch of clover. Then she tore at the clover as though she was starving.

Though her ribs were slightly visible, I don’t think she was eating so fast because she was starving. It’s a lush summer; there is plenty of food. Rather, she was trying to pound down a good meal of clover before she skulked back into the cover of the woods. There’s no clover in the woods! She has to venture out for it. I’m almost certain that she has a fawn. Her udder is visible in the photo. She probably left the fawn in hiding in the woods, though I often see does and fawns in the yard.

I felt sorry for her. She’s not a particularly pretty deer. If I were a poet, I’d have written her a little poem. I’d have told her: Take your time. Eat all the clover you want. Don’t be so jumpy. No one will shoot you here. You and your little one can relax for a while. Help yourself to the other stuff, but mightn’t you leave the day lilies alone?

Some of the local menfolk who hunt joke about why the deer like this place so much. Not only is there good food here, they feel safer here (though clearly they never feel truly safe). “They know,” the hunters say.

Then as the poem that I didn’t write wound back on me, I saw into the metaphor. I’m hiding in the woods, too, just like she is. I skulk out of the cover of the woods sometimes, too, when I don’t have any choice. We’ve lost the Supreme Court. It was stolen. The right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has urged right-wing vigilantes to start gunning down journalists. Every day, we find ourselves farther down the slippery slope toward fascism. Pundits urge us to be “civil,” even as savages double down on the work of destroying the American democracy.

But the metaphor doesn’t hold. Deer have only one defense: to run and hide. We are not deer. We have other options. And I am not feeling civil.


Here’s one of the little scamps who helped eat my day lilies, standing in the now-bloomless day lily patch. The photo was taken from an upstairs, front-facing window.

There is a grove of trees between the house and road, and the deer families spend a lot of time there. I think this is because the grove is mostly open on all sides, and thus any predators would have to cross open space to get into the grove.

Old Scotland and the modern world

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world and everything in it. By Arthur Herman. Random House, 2001. 472 pages.

The title and subtitle of this book contain quite a lot of hyperbole. Of course the Scots didn’t create the modern world and everything in it. But the Scots did have a great deal to do with lifting Western Civilization out of the darkness of Calvinism and into the Enlightenment. This is an excellent book that aims to tell that story.

The book covers two centuries. The story is complicated, too complicated to try to summarize here. The cast of characters is large, but I will name some of them: John Knox, Francis Hutcheson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), James Boswell, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, James Watt, John Loudon McAdam, David Livingstone, and many more.

Why was it that Scotland punched so far above its weight during such an important period in history? If you had to choose one word for it, then that word would be education. The Scottish emphasis on education probably has its roots in Scottish Calvinism and the view that everyone ought to be able to read the Bible for themselves. Early on, Scotland invested not only in public education, but also in its universities. It would be impossible to talk about the Enlightenment without talking a great deal about the University of Edinburgh. During the Enlightenment, a hunger for learning somehow became a part of the national character. Even for people of humble origins, paths based on merit existed for attaining higher education. The Scottish universities also tilted toward pragmatism much more than the classicism (and classism) of England’s universities. That set the stage for Scottish advances in science and engineering.

For those like me with a particular interest in Britain and Ireland, there is a lot of good stuff in this book — the tension between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the tension between Scotland and England, affinities and tensions between Scotland and Ireland, some history of Highland culture, and cultural factors relating to language and dialect.

This history actually brings us as far forward as 1981, when Scotland’s economy had fallen apart. Between 1979 and 1981, Herman writes, Scotland lost 11 percent of its industrial output and 20 percent of its jobs. That was the Scotland I encountered on my first trip to the British Isles in 1983. Edinburgh was lovely (and affordable). But upon getting off the train in Glasgow, I felt so overwhelmed by decay and dreariness that I got back on the train and returned to England. That was 35 years ago. In a few weeks, I will be passing through Glasgow on the train, going from Edinburgh to Oban. Glasgow, I believe, has changed a great deal since 1983.

Tourism is a big part of many economies. The World Travel & Tourism Council says that travel and tourism contribute about $2.3 trillion to the global economy each year and accounts for 109 million jobs worldwide. Those parts of the world that strive to remain old, so that the rest of us can go there and thus better imagine the past, are doing us a huge favor. Scotland’s Highlands are particularly suited for that. There is no shame in trying to preserve as much of the world as possible as a museum. Sir Walter Scott’s novels, actually, were a much earlier effort to preserve and romanticize Scotland’s Highland history. After a few days in Edinburgh, most of my trip to Scotland will be spent on the isle of Mull. With luck, I might be able to hear Scottish Gaelic spoken for the first time. As always, I will pay particular attention to language, food, and culture. And of course I’ll have lots of photos when I get back home in mid-September.

The paradoxes of purity

Jakub Józef Orliński, YouTube. What is he singing? Please don’t play the video yet. We’ll watch it in a second.

Far more than we realize, the idea of purity affects how we see, and how we react to, the world. Yet we’re barely conscious of our reactions based on purity. We can’t talk about purity without also talking about disgust, which is what people feel when their idea of purity is violated. Disgust is not a rational, thinking response. It’s an emotion, and it arises without conscious control. Disgust also has a milder form — mere discomfort. Conservatives care a great deal about purity. Liberals care far less.

I have posted in the past about Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Haidt posits that the predominant moral values of liberals are caring and fairness. For conservatives, the predominant moral values are loyalty, authority, and purity.

Purity, it seems, is very divisive as a moral value, possibly even the most divisive. Purity and disgust feed heavily into our politics. My guess would be that this is because disgust is unconscious and irrational — not to mention powerful. People usually assume that their feelings of disgust or discomfort have moral meaning. Rational people who examine and question their feelings will find that that is not always true.

Psychologists actually have studied how the social divisiveness of purity works. Think about, for example, the American controversy around which bathrooms transgender people are expected to use. Conservatives, with their much more rigid views about sex, sexuality, and gender, can get whipped into a white-hot rage over the bathroom issue. Liberals couldn’t care less. I am old enough as a Southerner to remember “white only” restrooms. Trump’s wall on the Mexican border reeks of purity. Brown-skinned people threaten the identities of, and evoke fear in, conservative white people. Those white people want to be separated from brown-skinned people to preserve the purity of their white culture, even if that means putting brown-skinned children in cages. They would never put white children in cages out in the Texas sun. Purity is the primary moral value that right-wing propagandists and right-wing politicians use to motivate followers.

Liberals feel disgust, too, but for very different reasons. Putting children in cages, for example, is disgusting to liberals, because it’s unjust, unfair, and uncaring. Appealing to purity will get you nowhere with liberals.

I often wonder why I have such undetectable reactions where matters of purity — social purity, at least — are concerned. Is something wrong with me? Or is something wrong with conservatives?

For decades, actually, I have reflected on the idea of purity. For sport, many years ago, I used to carry on debates with a friend who considered himself a Christian and a Calvinist. He was very smart and loved a good debate, though. He has since lost his religion, by the way. I noticed back then that he had an odd fixation on purity — for example, the purity of Christian orthodoxy, as well as sexual purity. (He was, at the time, struggling to retain his virgin purity until marriage. I believe he lost that battle, too.)

I tried to reach him with a metaphor. Imagine, I said, that the earth is one large diamond, utterly enormous and utterly pure. Purity, I argued, is inert. If the earth was pure diamond, it would be hopelessly dead. Interesting stuff can happen — stuff such as evolution and transformation, or life — only in a messy, volatile environment. The elements and molecules of life are extremely reactive. Purity, I said, stands in the way of reactions of every type. Purity leads to inertness. Life is inherently impure. Evolution can occur only in an environment of complexity, experimentation, mixing, and the new things that come of it. Give me messiness and ebullience, I said, and to hell with purity. As for God, I argued, if God loved purity, then he could have created a pure universe of diamond, gold, helium, and all sorts of inert things. Instead, the universe is explosively reactive. It would seem to me, I said, that God abhors purity.

This brings me to Jakub Józef Orliński. He is Polish. He’s 27 years old. He is a superb, heart-stopping singer, trained in Europe and at the Juilliard school in New York. He’s obviously athletic and masculine. My radar would identify him as straight. But:

Now click on the YouTube link at the top and listen to him sing.

Does it make you uncomfortable?

Orliński is a countertenor. The natural voice of a countertenor is usually baritone. But through certain techniques of managing the vocal chords, countertenors can sing in the mezzo-soprano range, which is natural to the female voice. Countertenors with operatic training can do it superbly, but any human male can do it. Orliński is singing an aria from a Vivaldi opera (1724). In 1724, this female part would have been sung by a castrato. The castrati were, of course, castrated males. They were preferred as musical performers partly because the stage was seen as inappropriate for women and partly because the sound that the castrati could produce had a timbre and power that the female voice could not attain. The last castrato singer died in 1922. Countertenor singing is largely a 20th Century development. The idea is to do the best job possible of reproducing early music without castrating children. That’s moral progress, though the sound is not quite the same.

To the degree that we are slightly uncomfortable with an athletic, masculine young man imitating the female voice (for the sake of art), we probably have unexamined (and socially constructed) hangups about gender and sexuality.

But the more I’ve thought about the issue of purity, the more I encounter a paradox.

A conservative might feel that a man sounding like a woman contains an element of disgrace and unmanliness, though Orliński is probably more manly that most of the men who feel that way. Conservatives are greatly offended by anything that violates their binary values of gender and sexuality. But those are socially constructed values. If we look beyond the socially constructed values, might we glimpse a higher, more Platonic form of purity, a purity with a whiff of something universal and cosmic that relates to human expressiveness and the transcendent qualities of art? What about the ideal purity of the sound of a soprano voice, abstracted from the singer who produces that sound? The socially constructed binary values of gender and sexuality are being challenged today from many sides, by many varieties of people who didn’t get a fair deal under the old rules. There’s the issue of fairness versus purity again. And that, of course, is why these are such controversial issues in today’s culture wars. Identity, by the way, clearly has a problematic relationship with purity, which helps explain why we are learning that identity politics can be so destructive and divisive.

What about race? The actual biological differences are trivial and meaningless, and yet the socially constructed differences are enormous. If we look beyond the socially constructed differences, might we glimpse a higher purity? We are all humans, after all.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have not made a secret of my belief that conservative moral values are not just weaker moral values, but that they are applied in ways that are dangerously wrong. So this is my claim: The conservative fixation on purity is not about purity at all. Rather, it’s about sorting and segregating. It’s about a vast raft of socially constructed hoo-hah about differences. It’s about us versus them. It’s about fear. It’s about privilege, discrimination, and inequality. But beyond all that lies a higher form of purity. And in the direction of that higher, archetypal form of purity, precisely because of the mixing and messiness, lie evolution and progress.

For extra credit, here’s another Jakub Józef Orliński. I hope it doesn’t make you quite as uncomfortable this time.

As an interesting musical aside here, listen to the bass voice. (In music, the word “voice” is used for any line of music, whether sung or from an instrument.) The bass voice here is played pizzicato (plucking) on a cello. Notice how the bass line moves constantly, supplies a melody of its own, and provides a bass counterpoint to Orliński’s mezzo-soprano. Vivaldi was a genius.

The lingering darkness

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Catherine Nixey, Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 316 pages.

It is remarkably difficult, even with rational and educated contemporary minds, to challenge the belief that the church and the Christian religion have been a force of steady moral progress in the world. Yet that belief is easy to challenge. The opposing claim — that the church is, and always has been, an impediment to moral progress, a destroyer of superior systems, and all too often an engine of evil — is far from impossible to defend.

Early on in this book, Nixey writes, “Little of what is covered in this book is well known outside academic circles.” That is certainly true. The power and monopoly of the church flooded the world with church propaganda and suppressed the voices of any who dared to dissent. The church, and church people, wrote history. Yes, there have been movements such as the Enlightenment that have brought great moral and intellectual progress. But, where the church exists, there will be (and always has been) active resistance. American fundamentalism’s project of rolling back the Enlightenment (we now use the whitewashed term “evangelicalism”) shows clearly how the church operates to impede moral progress, to embed itself with the worst kind of political authority, and to maintain the power of the church.

It is inevitable that a book like this would attract criticism. Some critics have said that the book is one-sided. It’s not. Some have said that it’s a polemic. It’s not. Sneakier and more sophisticated critics have attacked the book for not being an academic book, as though that somehow discredits the book’s sources. But with 21 pages of notes, it’s easy enough to check Nixey’s sources. As I mentioned above, academics already know. What was lacking was a popular history to bring this historical material to the many who don’t yet know. Based on the Amazon rankings, the book is selling quite well.

Just what does the church have to offer to justify its existence, other than “salvation,” the bestselling product of charlatans (and not just Christian charlatans) for centuries?

It’s important to keep in mind that the New Testament contains no moral teachings that were truly new. All of the New Testament’s moral teachings are easily traced to earlier cults or philosophies, as I learned 50 years ago in Religion 101 and Religion 102. (That was a required course then at High Point College, now High Point University. I have written about my religion professor here.) The church’s early writings merely borrowed from other cults such as the Gnostics, or from pagan philosophy. Nor were those teachings state of the art, even then. The pagan philosophers of Athens and Antioch and Alexandria, and the intellectuals of Rome, correctly saw the Christian cult as embarrassingly hickish and backward. The church’s early texts were sorry work, poorly written by uneducated men. One of the services provided by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), and one of the things that established Augustine as such an important figure in the early church, was that Augustine was among the first to bring a state-of-the-art education to the writing of Christian texts. That, given that Augustine was one of the foremost whack jobs in history, only made things worse.

In one important sense, though, the Christian religion and the church did innovate. Judaism was monotheistic, but Judaism did not proselytize. But not only did Christians proselytize, they also set out to destroy the competition. In the classical world, there was room for many gods and many philosophies. Philosophical inquiry was ongoing and ever-evolving. But the church insisted that there was one god and one true religion. Its truths were fixed, permanent, ossified, and unchallengeable. Everything else had to be eliminated. Even worse, anything was permissible to accomplish the elimination. That meant burning books, destroying pagan temples, and building a highly evolved system of persecution. To torture or burn a heretic’s body to save his soul was thought to be a Christian kindness. To burn books, to tear down temples, to destroy art, to force people to convert to Christianity (or else) was to serve God. This destruction and persecution is the subject of this book.

It is estimated that only 10 percent of classical literature survives. For Latin literature, the estimate is even worse — only 1 percent survives. Much of this was systematic destruction. Some of it was neglect.

At this point, I’m going to digress from the subject of Catherine Nixey’s book and indulge, just for amusement, in some existential speculation.

The church has been such a regressive force for so many centuries that we are obliged to use our imaginations to understand the scope of what the church has done. Just for the fun of it, here are two directions in which I let my own imagination run.


The cosmos is an awfully big place. An article in Scientific American writes:

“If life can only arise under a narrow set of initial conditions, Forgan estimates there should be 361 advanced, stable civilizations in the Milky Way. If life can spread from one planet to another through biological molecules embedded in asteroids, though, the number jumps to nearly 38,000.”

Keep in mind that our own Milky Way galaxy is only one of something like 100 billion galaxies in the universe. In that context, what can we earthlings say about “God”? Some existential and intellectual modesty are called for here. And yet the Christian religion has taught every little mediocre-minded fundamentalist preacher in the American South to believe that he is qualified to instruct us on the mind of God. I can only laugh, though it isn’t funny.


What might the world be like if Christianity had never existed? We can never know, of course. But Christianity’s systematic destruction of the classical world, as well as its systematic destruction of the provincial cultures of western Europe (for example, the Celts), clearly imply that those cultures would have continued to exist and would have continued to evolve. Western civilization today would be much more classical and Celtic. Philosophy — and therefore moral progress — would have evolved much faster. It is impossible to imagine what our artists would have accomplished, in a world of philosophy and moral progress rather than dogma. Peace would have been easier to negotiate where plurality and reason are valued, so I think there would have been less war. Science would have advanced much more quickly. Yes, the ancients had slaves. So did we, until 150 years go. But without the church and its regressive influence, the arc of justice would have bent much more readily. Nature, earthly happiness, and life in general, would be honored rather than devalued and “fallen.” I doubt that the continued existence of our planet and species would be threatened as it is today.

I don’t propose book-burnings and persecution, though frankly that is just the kind of payback that the church has earned and deserves. But I do believe that civilized people have a moral, philosophical, and even religious duty to imagine the church and its products out of existence, to render the church forgotten. I believe that the Christian era was the worst wrong turn that history has ever taken. As rational, breathing, connected, upward-striving living creatures in a very large cosmos, we pay the price every day. “Where there is terror,” wrote Augustine, “there is salvation.” It’s hard to imagine a theology more depraved than that, and more deserving of oblivion.