Handyman Kevin Series II Premier

I rarely post updates here for my YouTube show, Handyman Kevin–mainly because it has its own dedicated blog. I thought I should mention, however, that the first episode of my second season premiered a few minutes ago:

 

The first season focused mainly on general Handyman skills. This season will have more of a focus on workshop tools and techniques. As before, we are planning to release thirteen fifteen to twenty-five minute episodes, each with an accompanying blog post.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

On The Nature of the Universe by Titus Lucretius Carus

On the Nature of the Universe (aka Of the Nature of Things) book cover, Penguin edition

The entire universe is constantly moving. Objects, images, even souls are really unending streams of atoms, eternally reconfiguring themselves. Everything contains the seeds of its own creation and destruction. No sooner have the atoms assumed a form than it starts to decay–whether that thing is a person, a world, or a universe. This is the world view of first century Epicureanism, which the poet Lucretius tried to spread to the masses by casting it in the form of a book-length philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura. As a poem, it was apparently a hit when it was published posthumously about 55 BCE (possibly after having been edited by Cicero, although this story is usually considered apocryphal). Nonetheless, Epicureanism never really took off in the Roman Empire. The claims that there was no afterlife, nothing except matter, and that the gods, if they existed, had no interaction with the world of men, held no resonance with the people. The takeaway point, that the philosopher should live simply, enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding ambition and the pursuit of wealth, was anathema to Roman society, which was, if possible, even more bourgeoisie than our own. Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophies of Rome, until both were replaced (and largely absorbed by) Christianity.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and their fellows were centuries before their time; it was not until Spinoza, their natural scion, rediscovered and built upon their ideas in the 16th century that Western Civilization began to seriously incorporate these ideas in its main stream of thought.

In Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, George Santayana writes the Epicurus was primarily a moral philosopher who adopted and adapted the natural philosophy of Democritus to support his moral platform, “Epicurus, the Herbert Spencer of antiquity, was in his natural philosophy an encyclopaedia of second-hand knowledge.”  Lucretius, on the other hand, puts the natural philosophy in the foreground in his poem, striving to present a well justified, internally consistent system–a grand unified theory, if you will. When I read it, I was surprised how many things he got right, well before his time. For instance, his understanding of air resistance is fairly sophisticated. He also correctly identified smells as being composed of tiny particles which slowly diffused through the air. He was half right when he advanced a similar explanation for light (photons sometimes behave like a particle, and sometimes like a wave depending on circumstances) but makes up for it by correctly arguing that light will move faster in a vacuum than in a medium like air or water. He also correctly identifies that the shapes of particles are an important determinant of the physical properties of substances. At times he brushes tantalizingly close to a notion of entropy.

Of course he gets plenty of things wrong, mainly because he is mistaken about some of his fundamental axioms. For instance, his anatomy suffers from the fact that he thinks the mind is lodged in the upper abdomen. He does not question that the earth is the center of the solar system. Most importantly, because he feels everything is made up of matter, he advances completely erroneous explanations for many phenomena which really involve energy. For example, he believes that lightning is a concentrated form of the kind of matter which is found in fire. He sees the human brain as being composed of a multitude of microscopic moving particles which shift around rapidly, sort of like a very complex pachinko machine.  He believes that magnets extrude microscopic fibers of iron to entangle other iron pieces. He believes that what we would call chemical bonds are caused by a physical hooking together of the shapes of atoms. Many of these errors were unavoidable, however, since he had no instruments with which to detect energy or fundamental forces. And on one level he was absolutely correct: Einstein would eventually prove, with his famous E=mc2, that everything is matter, or at least convertible into matter.

Despite these occasional quaint misconceptions, On the Nature of Things is a fascinating piece of work. To me, the epicurean viewpoint is much more intuitive that that of Plato and Aristotle, whose books I have recently been studying. I attribute this to the fact that, since my early training was in engineering, I have taken quite a few science classes in my life, so it is very easy for me to slip into the materialist/naturalist viewpoint. Then again, Spinoza–who, as I said, is the Epicureans philosophical heir–has long been one of my favorite philosophers. That being said, I find that I just can’t accept Lucretius’ contention that there is nothing beyond the material world. As fabulous and infinite as the universe (multiverse?) is, I just can’t accept that this is all there is. Lucretius seems to have been unquestioning in his atheism. For myself–even if I were not a Christian–I just find it hard to be that sure about anything.

Note About Editions:

Lucretius’ original poem was written in Latin in dactylic hexameter, a meter which isn’t compatible with English (or Latin, really–Lucretius literally couldn’t use certain words and phrases because they wouldn’t fit). English translations are either in verse or prose. The poetry translations give more of a sense of the original experience, but the prose translations are much easier to read. Project Gutenberg has William Leornards’ blank verse translation. Penguin’s prose translation (by Ronald Latham) is sold as On the Nature of the Universe. It would be preferable, of course, to read the poem in the original language, but that would require a better recollection of high school Latin than I can boast.

Off to Grad School Again: The Second Essay

The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.

Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.

Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.

With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.

Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.

Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.

Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.

Word Frequency Analysis – The Most Common Words

There are any number of reasons why you might need a list of the most common words in the language. In my case, I was working on a piece of software to speed the process of building indexes for my print books. My program reads the book and suggests a list of words that the author might want to include in the index. It needed a list of the most common words so it would know not to bother suggesting them. I’ll post that script in a couple of days. For now, though, I thought I would give you a very simple piece of Python code that reads a directory full of text files, counts how many times each word occurs, and prints a list of those which show up most often. I set it to give me the most common 1000 words. You could generate a list of any length, though, just by changing one number in the code.

If you don’t care to look behind the curtain and just want to cut and paste my word list, feel free to scroll down to the bottom of the post.

For raw data, I used a sample of 37,358 Project Gutenberg texts. PG is kind enough to offer an interface for researchers like me to harvest books. Note that this would work nearly as well with a much smaller sample. But I had already downloaded the books for another project, so I figured I might as well use them. If you use a PG harvest for your data set, make sure and remove the Human Genome Project gene sequence files (a full dump contains at least three copies of the full human genome). Otherwise, this script will have major grief when it tries to count each gene as a word.

Note that, as currently written, this script requires GNU Aspell and a system that works correctly with pipes. This means it should run fine on nearly any Unix-like system, but you Windoze people are on your own.

The first part of the script loads a a few standard modules. Then it gets a listing of the current directory and starts looping through each text file in it. With each iteration it prints a status message with the file name and percent completion. With scripts like this that take a day or two to run I like to be able to see at a glance how far along I am. As an aside, if you access your computer through a terminal like I do you will probably want to use GNU Screen or a similar utility to protect yourself from accidental disconnects while it’s still running.

#! /usr/bin/env python

'''Word frequency analyzer'''

import os, stat, string, subprocess

wordcounts={}

filelist = os.listdir('.')

counter = 0
for f in filelist:
    
    counter += 1
    
    if os.path.splitext(f)[1] == '.txt':
        print f+'t', str(counter)+' of '+str(len(filelist))+'t', 
        print str((float(counter)/float(len(filelist)))*100)[:6]+'%'

The next portion opens each book file and reads it in. Next, because I’m using PG books as a data set I need to trip off all of the boilerplate license text which occurs at the beginning and end of the files. Otherwise, because similar text appears in every file, it will skew the word distributions. Luckily, PG marks the actual text of the book by bracketing it in the words “START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK” and “END OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK”. The front part is easy, we just do a string find to get the location of the first line-feed character after the start text appears. The end part is a little trickier; the easiest way to get it is to reverse the whole book. This means, however, that we also need to flip the search text. Pretty neato, huh?

   with open(f, "rb") as infile:  book=infile.read()
    
        #try to determine if this is a Gutenberg ebook.  If so, attempt
        #to strip off the PG boilerplate 
        if "PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK" in book:
    
            a = book.find("START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK")
            if a <> -1:
                b = book.find('n', a)
            c = list(book); c.reverse()
            book = string.join(c, '')
            
            d = book.find('KOOBE GREBNETUG TCEJORP SIHT FO DNE')
            if d <> -1:
                e = book.find('n', d)
            c = list(book); c.reverse()
            book=string.join(c, '')
            book = book[b:len(book)-e]

The next step is to check the book text for words that aren’t in the dictionary, simply because there is no reason to count words that aren’t part of Standard English. The easiest way to do this on a Linux system like mine is to run the system’s spellcheck, Aspell, on the file. We also want to eliminate duplicate words from this list, since it will save iterations later.

        #see which words aren't in the dictionary
        oddwords = subprocess.check_output(
                    "cat "+f+" | aspell list", shell=True).split()

        #find unique words
        u_oddwords = []
        for w in oddwords:
            if w not in u_oddwords: u_oddwords.append(w)

Next, we go through the book text and strip out most of the punctuation. The string containing the punctuation to be removed looks a lot like the string you get by calling string.punctuation. Note, though, that I left in the “‘” and “-” characters because they are actually a part of contractions and compound words, respectively. I also split the book text, which at this point is one big string, into a list of words and capitalize them.

        #strip out most of the punctuation
        book2=''
        for i in range(len(book)):
            if book[i] not in '!"#$%&()*+,./:;<=>?@[\]^_`{|}~':  
                book2=book2+str(book[i])
                
        book=str(book2).capitalize().split()

In the final segment of the script we count how many times the words occur and update the counters, which are kept as a dictionary object. Then we convert the dictionary to a list, sort it, and print the 1000 most common words to a CSV data file. If you need a different number of words, just change the 1000 to another value.

        for w in book:  
            if w not in u_oddwords:
                if w not in wordcounts:
                    wordcounts[w] = 1
                else:
                    wordcounts[w] += 1
                    

final_list = []
for w in wordcounts:
    final_list.append([wordcounts[w], w])

final_list.sort()
final_list.reverse()

                    
with open('wordcounts_pg', 'w') as wc_output:
    
    for i in range(min(1000, len(final_list)-1)):
        wc_output.write(final_list[i][1]+', '+str(final_list[i][0])+'n')
        

That’s all there is to it. Pretty easy, huh? Now set it to run, detach the terminal, and ignore it until this time tomorrow. My machine can count words in about 1500 books per hour, so it takes about 25 hours to make it through the full sample.

And now, finally, here is the list of words. Feel free to cut and paste it to use for your own projects:

Word Occurrences
the 149164503
of 81154540
and 73797877
to 60771291
a 47925287
in 41773446
that 26590286
was 24584688
he 24462836
i 24025629
it 22795878
his 20173668
is 18378165
with 18081192
as 17645451
for 17473870
had 14408612
you 13939609
be 13252982
on 13207285
not 13181744
at 13015022
but 12718486
by 12438046
her 11878371
which 10826405
this 10263128
have 10196168
from 10088968
she 9778689
they 9715080
all 8819085
him 8771048
were 8314601
or 8143254
are 7787136
my 7572900
we 7412199
one 7373621
so 7203582
their 7018823
an 6518028
me 6419080
there 6267776
no 6185033
said 5938853
when 5899530
who 5878132
them 5808758
been 5787319
would 5689624
if 5655080
will 5166315
what 4895509
out 4556168
more 4440752
up 4416055
then 4222409
into 4129481
has 4000893
some 3929663
do 3914008
could 3749041
now 3747314
very 3630489
time 3571298
man 3559452
its 3544086
your 3522411
our 3517346
than 3494543
about 3349698
upon 3337366
other 3316391
only 3285019
any 3236410
little 3183383
like 2993385
these 2979508
two 2943507
may 2934056
did 2915540
after 2853393
see 2852408
made 2842273
great 2839852
before 2774768
can 2746279
such 2734113
should 2708032
over 2672597
us 2651042
first 2553483
well 2517899
must 2484839
mr 2465607
down 2433044
much 2428947
good 2376889
know 2372135
where 2353232
old 2291164
men 2286995
how 2261780
come 2217201
most 2188746
never 2160804
those 2135489
here 2122731
day 2071427
came 2061124
way 2042813
own 2037103
go 2009804
life 2007769
long 1992150
through 1989883
many 1982797
being 1976737
himself 1941387
even 1915129
shall 1890432
back 1865988
make 1852069
again 1848115
every 1845835
say 1817170
too 1810172
might 1807261
without 1781441
while 1759890
same 1701541
am 1696903
new 1687809
think 1665563
just 1660367
under 1649489
still 1643537
last 1616539
take 1614771
went 1595714
people 1593685
away 1582685
found 1574065
yet 1563963
thought 1556184
place 1543300
hand 1500131
though 1481938
small 1478723
eyes 1469270
also 1467931
house 1438223
years 1435529
1433313
another 1415606
don’t 1381480
young 1379348
three 1378462
once 1377940
off 1376942
work 1375035
right 1360201
get 1345597
nothing 1344419
against 1325938
left 1289397
ever 1269433
part 1261573
let 1260289
each 1258840
give 1258179
head 1254870
face 1253762
god 1249406
0 1239969
between 1225531
world 1219519
few 1213621
put 1200519
saw 1190392
things 1188437
took 1172602
letter 1167755
tell 1160034
because 1155609
far 1154860
always 1152942
night 1152416
mrs 1137055
love 1121812
both 1111644
sir 1100855
why 1097538
look 1095059
having 1069812
mind 1067461
father 1062643
called 1062190
side 1053255
looked 1051044
home 1036554
find 1036485
going 1034663
whole 1033731
seemed 1031466
however 1027701
country 1026854
got 1024945
thing 1022424
name 1020634
among 1019175
seen 1012779
heart 1011155
told 1004061
done 1000189
king 995498
water 994392
asked 993082
heard 983747
soon 982546
whom 979785
better 978434
something 957812
knew 956448
lord 956398
course 953585
end 947889
days 929530
moment 926478
enough 925144
almost 916006
general 903316
quite 902582
until 902333
thus 900738
hands 899106
nor 876106
light 869941
room 869532
since 864596
woman 864072
words 858824
gave 857475
b 853639
mother 852308
set 851757
white 850183
taken 848343
given 838078
large 835292
best 833941
brought 833270
does 826725
next 823345
whose 821731
state 820812
yes 817047
oh 815302
door 804702
turned 804433
others 800845
poor 800544
power 797133
present 792424
want 791194
perhaps 789201
death 788617
morning 786748
la 783512
rather 775384
word 774340
miss 771733
less 770410
during 763957
began 762442
themselves 762418
felt 757580
half 752587
lady 742708
full 742062
voice 740567
cannot 738450
feet 737299
order 736997
near 736832
true 735006
1 730887
it’s 727886
matter 726818
stood 725802
together 725703
year 723517
used 723293
war 720950
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And here is the complete script:

#! /usr/bin/env python

'''Word frequency analyzer'''

import os, stat, string, subprocess

wordcounts={}

filelist = os.listdir('.')

counter = 0
for f in filelist:
    
    counter += 1
    
    if os.path.splitext(f)[1] == '.txt':
        print f+'t', str(counter)+' of '+str(len(filelist))+'t', 
        print str((float(counter)/float(len(filelist)))*100)[:6]+'%' 
    
        with open(f, "rb") as infile:  book=infile.read()
    
        #try to determine if this is a Gutenberg ebook.  If so, attempt
        #to strip off the PG boilerplate 
        if "PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK" in book:
    
            a = book.find("START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK")
            if a <> -1:
                b = book.find('n', a)
            c = list(book); c.reverse()
            book = string.join(c, '')
            
            d = book.find('KOOBE GREBNETUG TCEJORP SIHT FO DNE')
            if d <> -1:
                e = book.find('n', d)
            c = list(book); c.reverse()
            book=string.join(c, '')
            book = book[b:len(book)-e]
                
        
        #see which words aren't in the dictionary
        oddwords = subprocess.check_output(
                    "cat "+f+" | aspell list", shell=True).split()

        #find unique words
        u_oddwords = []
        for w in oddwords:
            if w not in u_oddwords: u_oddwords.append(w)
            
        
        #strip out most of the punctuation
        book2=''
        for i in range(len(book)):
            if book[i] not in '!"#$%&()*+,./:;<=>?@[\]^_`{|}~':  
                book2=book2+str(book[i])
                
        book=str(book2).capitalize().split()
        
        for w in book:  
            if w not in u_oddwords:
                if w not in wordcounts:
                    wordcounts[w] = 1
                else:
                    wordcounts[w] += 1
                    

final_list = []
for w in wordcounts:
    final_list.append([wordcounts[w], w])

final_list.sort()
final_list.reverse()

                    
with open('wordcounts_pg', 'w') as wc_output:
    
    for i in range(min(1000, len(final_list)-1)):
        wc_output.write(final_list[i][1]+', '+str(final_list[i][0])+'n')
        
 

Off to Grad School Again

The past year and a half of focusing entirely on my writing has been intensely rewarding, but it’s time to start thinking about my formal education again. This morning I took the first steps in applying to CSUDH’s External MA in Humanities (HUX) program. The program seems flexible yet rigorous and I expect to write a thesis which will form the first draft of a future book.

So, fingers crossed and let’s hope that they will admit a business school guy/hack sci-fi writer like me.

One section of the CSU application asks for a personal statement describing my reasons “for pursuing graduate or postbaccalaureate study.” After looking at my statement I realized that it is pertinent to this blog, particularly my ongoing Great Books project, so I decided to post it here:

    During the first half of my career I mainly saw education as a process of training in skills. I earned three business degrees, took years of engineering coursework, and completed several professional certifications–learning how to do many useful things. As time went on, however, I became aware of what I was missing. True education, as distinct from mere training, should be general and liberal. The vocational degrees and training programs I completed did little to teach me about the culture, history, and language of the society in which I live. All the knowledge I acquired was specific and targeted at getting and succeeding in specific jobs. It did not address larger more general questions of the human condition.

 
As I entered my thirties and began spending an increased portion of my time writing, the gaps in my knowledge were made obvious, especially in the areas of literature, history, and philosophy. In order to function, a writer needs to be able to draw from a broad and deep background of cultural knowledge. But my background was unbalanced and primarily technical. To address the problem, I then spent several years deliberately expanding my reading, especially of the so-called “great books” of the Western Cannon. I was aware from the beginning that this would be a poor substitute for a true liberal education. Autodidacticism, however personally rewarding, is inefficient. I know I can learn about the humanities much more effectively if I have teachers and a program with structure.

 
I am now ready, both financially and intellectually, to dedicate two years of my life to the full time study of the humanities. The external MA program at CSUDH is ideal, both because of the content and because I have always done well with distance learning in the past.

The second stage of the application, which goes to the department itself, requires a longer analytical essay which I will probably also post in a few days when I am finished writing it.

Writing From Your Subconcious

Where do stories come from?  For the past few weeks I’ve been a little stuck on my current nonfiction book.  This is unfortunate, but it has given me time to workshop and revise several short stories and fiction chapters write new ones.  Since I have been hopping around in a portfolio of pieces rather than focusing on a single piece it has given me an interesting chance to compare and contrast a cross-section of my work.  One of the things that I have noticed is that I have at least three discrete mechanisms for generating story ideas.

Writing From Experience – I have been working on a novel off an on for the past five years.  While it is definitely a work of fiction, not a memoir, it is set in the Mountain Northwest, where I grew up, and is inspired by events which I participated in or heard about in my twenties.  The challenges have been to impose a coherent and interesting plot on a series of what would otherwise be unrelated vignettes and to remix the character traits of a large group of real people into a smaller group of fictional characters.  I’m currently happy with the state of the project, yet I suspect I have done more work than if I had created a plot and setting from scratch.

Writing from Concepts – Sometimes, and particularly when I write SpecFic, I start with a particular concept and build a story around it.  For instance, I might be reading one of the histories on my Great Books List and ask myself “How would this story have been different it <historical figure> was actually a disguised alien from another dimension?”  or I might read about a new technology on the science blogs and decide to write a story about it.  In this case, the plot is designed to showcase the idea and the characters are created because the plot requires them.  It is still easier than writing from experience, because I have free rein to do what I want with the story structure.  The challenge, though, is to avoid a result that feels contrived or artificial.

Writing from the Subconscious – By “the subconscious”, I mainly mean dreams.  Looking at my fiction output over the past four years, I realize that the majority of my stories originated as dream sequences.  I have always had extremely vivid dreams and I am often able to remember them when I wake.  This method has the advantage that I essentially get to start with a complete, or at least nearly complete, story which I need only write down to have a first draft.  The challenge of this method is that, since the dreaming mind works in a multi-threaded mode, a particular dream will often have several different stories overlaid in one sequence and it can be difficult to separate them.  I often write down one of these dream stories only to realize that the resulting piece has two or three unrelated stories running through it.  Still, as time goes on this increasingly becomes my preferred method of story generation and I will focus on it for the remainder of this essay.

In his Sandman series Neil Gaiman, possibly the most “meta” of all living SpecFic authors, returns repeatedly to the idea of stories coming from dreams.  His protagonist Morpheus has the sobriquet “Lord of Stories” and has the power to send dreams to mortals to inspire them to artistic greatness, or even to punish authors by driving them insane by sending them more story ideas than they can physically write down. In his introduction to the second Sandman TPB, Clive Barker contends that Gaiman is special because he is able to write in a state of consciousness between dreaming and waking. To me, this seems to be the ideal to aspire to as a dream inspired writer.

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Devian Art]

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Deviant Art]

Of course Neil Gaiman is hardly the only famous writer to use dream techniques.  H.P. Lovecraft was well known for it and, like Gaiman, frequently used if for a theme in his works.  This is elegantly expressed in his story Celephais, among many others.  In this story the characters “money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and  write if his dreams,” clearly a sentiment held in some measure by Lovecraft himself.  Or consider the later work of James Joyce, particularly Finnegan’s Wake, which is essentially one long, raw dream sequence.

Nor are writers the only ones who can benefit from dream inspiration.  The Indian mystic Srinivasa Ramanujan, possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century.  Ramanujan is far less famous than he deserves for two reasons.  First, because he had almost no access to the work of Western mathematicians in his early career he was forced to derive a hundred years worth of mathematical theory independently, leaving him less time to create new work.  Second, he died in his early thirties.  During the few years he spent at Cambridge before his death, however, Ramanujan wrote down hundreds of theorems, nearly all of which came to him in dreams.  Now, a century later, physicists and mathematicians are still studying and struggling to understand his notebooks, which may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of string theory and other “21st century” mathematics.

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

So how does one get started?  There is a large body of material available on lucid dreaming, and I will not try to recreate it here.  However, I will try to convey a few pointers for a writer who wants to start tapping into subconscious dream states for inspiration.

Mindfully remember your dreams and write them down.  All writers about lucid dreaming agree that this step is critical.  When you wake up in the morning, before you even get out of bed, take a few moments to concentrate on remembering as much as you possibly can about your dreams.  Write it down in a dream journal as soon as possible.  Avoid censuring yourself at this stage or trying to force your dreams into a story plot; there is plenty of time for that later when you mine your dream journal for story ideas.

Employee conscious programming when you go to sleep.  If you are already working on a project, especially if it is giving you problems, it is helpful to spend a few minutes before sleep calling it to mind so it will be easily available for your subconscious to work on.  If you do not have a current project then review your dreams of the previous night, or simply clear your mind and concentrate on an intention such as “Tonight I will have wonderful, vivid dreams and in the morning I will remember them.”  This step works even better if it is combined with a nightly meditation practice or if you assume a light autohypnotic trance first.

Get enough sleep.  It sounds obvious, but the more you sleep, the more you will dream.  I had great difficulty convincing myself that my afternoon siesta was part of my writing “work”.  When I finally accepted it, though, I found that I get some of my best dream ideas during this period.  Periodically sleeping in is also helpful.

Become familiar with meditation and autohypnosis.  The more experience you have functioning in altered states of consciousness, and especially in alpha and beta brain states, the more comfort and control you will have when you are actually dreaming–eventually leading to an ability to control your dreams and focus on particular aspects which interest you.  The two practices are very similar.  Meditation is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state and clearing your mind so as to temporarily lose your sense of self and become one with the universe.  Autohypnosis is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state so that you can access deeply buried memories or issue suggestions and instructions to your subconscious.  I think of autohypnosis as being similar to dropping to a command line interface on a computer so I can launch background tasks or read system files.  Numerous books and classes are available to learn both practices, so I won’t attempt to offer specific instructions here.  The best advice I can give, though, is that the more you engage in a practice, the easier and more natural it will become for you.

Be extremely cautious with psychedelic drugs.  Drugs can be a shortcut to the sort of altered states which are reached with dreaming, meditation and hypnosis.  In general, repeated drug use breaks down certain barriers between the conscious and subconscious, which can lead to more vivid dreams.  However, there is a massive risk that you will become dependent on the drugs and not be able to write without them.  Add in the possible health and legal risks, and experimentation with psychedelics can be a VERY BAD IDEA.  That being said, there are certain circumstances in which psychedelic drug use can be justified, but only for specific reasons and under the guidance of a qualified Shaman or other practitioner.  You should never use them habitually or without a guide who knows what they are doing.  And remember trying to justify recreational drug use as being beneficial to your art is just sad.  Remember the words of the band Alabama 3, “The righteous truth is, there ain’t nothin’ worse than some fool lyin’ on some third world beach in spandex psychedelic trousers smokin’ damn dope and pretending he gettin’ consciousness expansion.”

In conclusion, dreams can be a wonderful source of story ideas for a writer and anyone who makes a conscious effort can improve the quality, quantity, and recall of their dreams.  Dream on!

American Politics According to Kevin

Before I begin, I must make a confession:  I rarely follow day-to-day American politics.  Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it.  That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up.  In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.

Conservatives vs Liberals

With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions.  While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important.  It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction.  Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other.  Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more.  In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US.  The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government.  Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.

The real issue is change (in any form).  Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change.  Liberals favor actions to accelerate change.  Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded.  All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference.  The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.

The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed.  It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way).  The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.

Culture is changing.  Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected.  History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead.  Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications.  Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon.  Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired.  I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s.  The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.

Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century.  Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society.  Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself.  Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.

Finally, the economy is changing.  The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy.  There are very few true economic liberals.  Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.

Social Class

Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it.  For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money.  However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role.  For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom).  Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people.  Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages.  The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order.  This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”).  This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.

It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century.  History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies.  At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans.  Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.

Wealth Distribution

Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards.  However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top.  Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation.  Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution.  It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people.  Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point.  It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels.  If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini.  Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.

Geopolitics

The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe.  However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one.  Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it.  And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.

My Own Platform

As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics.  As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”

However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes.  I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise.  I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.

In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets.  My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.

A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population.  However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time.  One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians.  A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.

I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes.  People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).

Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes.  Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude.  No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.

As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes.  The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation.  The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US.  The middle class is shrinking on its own.  I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.

I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon.  To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”.  Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.

How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.

Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.

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