An Illustration of a String

Imagine you are holding the end of a long string in your hand. The string travels off into the distance, out of sight, and is attached at its other end to something you desire. You are required to roll the string into a ball in order to attain the object on the other end of the string.

There are two possible routes: the first is to pull the string and the object toward you, wrapping it as you do so. The second is to move yourself toward the object, wrapping the string as you do so.

These are the ways we navigate life.

Inspired by an excerpt from William Blake’s Jerusalem:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball

Thoreau, On Walking

Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is without question one of the fundamental works of the American literary canon. Its influence was expansive, inspiring the likes of Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, E. B. White, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many, many more. His Civil Disobedience (1849) was a pivotal work in the formation of the views of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Comparatively few have read one of his shorter works, Walking (1862), which I will be reflecting on.

As the title suggests, Thoreau begins this work with a panegyric about “the Art of Walking.” For Thoreau, walking is not an intentionally planned trip from a predetermined point A to point B; he means something entirely different than a looping walk around the neighborhood, park, or city. To emphasize this distinction, he uses the word sauntering, which he would describe as a free, uninhibited walk through uncultivated lands (woods, meadows, swamps), in which one’s direction is guided by their instincts alone. This activity, for him, is crucial to his livelihood:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The benefits of sauntering, as he sees it, are:
     1)  Health, mental and physical
     2) Detachment from ‘worldly engagements’ and ‘obligations to Society’
What business have I in the woods, if I am myself thinking of something outside of the woods?
     3) Time for thinking
When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”
He then critiques the sedentary habits of modern society:
I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

And then, going further:

I confess to say that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.
To call this moral insensibility seems extreme, but it is understandable when read in context of the larger picture of Thoreau’s thought. For Thoreau, Man is fundamentally a piece of Nature:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Nature is man’s home, the soil from which man emerged, the marrow from which he lives. For this reason, it is important for humans to, in some cases, return to wilder, more natural habits. Society and civilization, and the accompanying lifestyle changes they have produced, are sometimes beneficial, sometimes harmful.

Nowadays almost all of man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.
In an analogous way, Thoreau sees that mankind is also being deformed, becoming more and more tame and cheap. Thoreau exhorts us to fight this drifting, to return to wildness, and to prevent ourselves from becoming wholly cultivated. As he says,
I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.


Animal Farm, Pig Politics, and the Success of the Trump Campaign

The success of Trump’s campaign for the presidency came as a shock — even to those who were optimistic about his chances. His campaign has been frequently pegged as nontraditional; and retrospectively, some have even pointed to that quality as an explanation for why it succeeded. In truth, the fundamental principles and methods of the Trump campaign were quite traditional. It employed many of the age-old strategies of messaging that have always been used by political movements in their successful campaigns to overtake power. In my view, it was not necessarily the new media (Twitter, YouTube live, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) the Trump campaign used that made the difference, or the manner in which they used these platforms; rather, it was the old message, repackaged, that they were able to deliver to the American people through these new media, that propelled them to victory.

While reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I noted several of these traditional tactics, as they were used by the campaigning animals in their revolution to overthrow Mr. Jones and seize the farm for themselves. I will put their illustration in Animal Farm side-by-side with examples from the Trump campaign. (The clips I will use will be Trump’s platform campaign speech in New York on June 22, 2016).

Identifying the injustices —

In the opening pages of Animal Farm, the animals gather together secretly after their owner, Mr. Jones, goes to sleep. Old Major, the prize Middle White Boar, highly respected among the animals, inspires the animals to revolt with a speech about the injustices they have faced in life:

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

Trump’s injustice: The system is rigged!

Trump always kept his chosen injustices at the forefront of his messaging: The system is rigged and the country abounds with problems — infrastructure is collapsing, we are losing jobs to other countries — due to politician corruption and incompetence.

The crumbling roads and bridges, dilapidated airports and the factories moving overseas to mexico or other countries — I know these problems can be fixed…jobs, jobs, jobs. Everywhere I look, I see the possibilities of what our country could be.

Establishment of the ‘Enemy’ as the cause of the injustices — 

Old Major continues his speech by identifying Man as the cause of all of the aforementioned problems the animals have faced in their lives.

Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word — Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.

Is it not crystal clear, then, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings? Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost overnight we could become rich and free. What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! That is my message to you, comrades: Rebellion!

Trump: Politicians (including Hillary Clinton) have caused our problems!

Trump, like Old major, begins by establishing a general enemy: Politicians. They are corrupt, greedy, and incompetent — and they have created a system that serves themselves alone, at the detriment of the country and its people.

We will never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who have rigged it in the first place.

But since I am not a part of the rigged system — I am not a politician! — I can be our political savior. Here he has established a general Enemy (Politicians), and identified himself as the leader of their opposition.

This election decides when we are ruled by the people or the politicians. Here is my promise to the american voter: If I am elected president, I will end the special interest monopoly in Washington, d.c. Very important.

Transition from a general to a specific Enemy —

In Animal Farm, it is not all Men that are causing the miserable conditions of the animals on Manor Farm, it is Mr. Jones, the man who runs it. Nonetheless, Old Major uses the general — all Men are bad, since they created this unjust system and profit by it — to ignite the animals’ opposition to a specific man, Mr. Jones.

Trump uses this same progression, as he connects the rigged system, the abundance of problems, etc. to the specific enemy: Hillary Clinton. He attempts to establish her as among these awful ‘Politicians’. She is complicit in these political maneuvers. She caused your problems — do you really think she would now fix them? 

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our economic problems:

Hillary Clinton supported Bill Clinton’s disastrous NAFTA. We have lost nearly one third of our manufacturing jobs since these two Hillary-backed agreements were signed. Among the worst we have ever done. Among the most destructive agreements we have signed. Our trade deficit rose 40% during the time Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. She should not be congratulated for that, but rather scorned.

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our Foreign Policy problems:

It is not just our economy that is being corrupted but our foreign policy, too. The Hillary Clinton foreign policy cost america thousands of lives and trillions and trillions of dollars, and unleashed ISIS across the world. No secretary of state has been more wrong, more often, and in more places than Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our jobs disappearing:

Hillary Clinton gave china millions of jobs, our best jobs, and effectively let china completely rebuild itself. In return, Hillary Clinton got rich.

He is attempting to establish her as the particular instance of the general enemy group ‘Politicians’. Framed in this way, she then can bear all of the populace’s frustration and anger if they themselves have experienced any the repercussions of any of these national problems. She is established as the root cause.

Present your Presidential pursuit as an act of service ‘out of the goodness of your heart’.

Another interesting political maneuver is to present yourself as seeking office merely out of charity, for goodness’ sake. It is quite a common tactic in political history, and it gives the illusion that you would be a trustworthy leader, one that is magnanimous, in contradistinction to the Politicians who only look out for themselves while they scheme to rob the pockets of the people. In Animal Farm, this tactic presents itself following the initial revolt, after Napolean drives out Snowball and ascends to unilateral leadership. Squealer, his Propagandist, is sent around the farm to ensure the animals that the stepping into power is a ‘sacrifice’ and an act of charity.

Afterwards Squealer was sent round the farm to explain the new arrangement to the others.

“Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

Trump: ‘I am running for President to give back.’

People have asked me why I am running for president. I built an amazing business that I love and I get to work side-by-side with my children every single day. We come to work together and turn visions into reality. We think big and then we make it happen. We absolutely make it happen. I love what I do. I am grateful beyond words to the nation that has allowed me to do it. So when people ask me why I am running I very quickly answer: I am running to give back to this country which has been so very good to me.

Establish group unity through collective song or chant:

Perhaps the most obvious tactic to establish political unity is the adoption of a collective song or chant. In Animal Farm, it is the ‘Beasts of England’ song, which is sung to conclude every meeting:

Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the golden future time.
Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone.

Trump’s chants: 

Drain the Swamp!

Lock her up!

There remains much more in Animal Farm that is worthy of comparison, but that’s all for now. Perhaps, someday, I’ll continue with a Part 2. Maybe in 2020.

Love in Disguise: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night


A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid:
love’s night is noon.
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act III. Scene II) 

Love is a growing, or full constant light, 
And his first minute, after noon, is night.
John DonneA Lecture Upon the Shadow 

William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601-1602) begins with two twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by shipwreck. Viola is rescued by a captain, who brings her to shore in a foreign land, Illyria. She believes her brother Sebastian is dead, but the Captain encourages her:

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself,
Courage and hope both teaching him the practice,
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

The captain then tells Viola of the Duke of Illyria, Duke Orsino,

A noble duke, in nature as in name,

and helps Viola craft a plan to disguise herself in her brother’s likeness and, in doing so, gain access to the Duke by representing herself as a male eunuch (named ‘Cesario’) for his service. The plan is successful, and Viola (as Cesario) gains enough favor with the Duke to be appointed a special task: to send messages of love to Countess Olivia, the woman with whom the Duke is infatuated.

A tangled, comedic love-circle builds from this: Viola (as Cesario) develops affection for the Duke Orsino, who is attempting to woo Olivia; but Olivia falls in love with Cesario, whom the Duke sends to woo her on his behalf. Therefore, Olivia’s messages of rejection given to the Duke are good news to Viola-dressed-as-Cesario, who herself loves him. The Duke develops a deep appreciation for Cesario, his faithful courier of love messages, without knowing that his delivery of the messages actually hinders their desired effect: Olivia ignored the Duke and his messages in her attraction to the messenger.

Naturally, the cross-dressing and the affection between characters of the same sex (the Duke’s intense admiration for Viola-as-Cesario, Olivia’s attraction to Viola-as-Cesario), have led to many discussions of homo-eroticism, sexuality and gender identity in the scholarship surrounding Twelfth Night. I will steer clear of all of this, instead commenting on the role of disguise in the successful development of love by integrating  John Donne’s philosophy of love as depicted in his poem A Lecture Upon the Shadow.
For Donne, disguise is a natural and necessary aspect of the development of love. Using the image of two people walking together as a metaphor for a relationship’s progression, he writes:

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
         These three hours that we have spent,
         Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.

The two members of the relationship, Donne makes clear, are responsible for producing their own disguises; just as shadows are invariably produced on a sunny day, so are disguises in the beginning of relationship, as he says further on,

So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares;

There is a tendency for us to consider all disguise as total falsity, and therefore immoral or wrong; Donne would adamantly disagree. Disguise in the early stages of a relationship is natural, inevitable, and therefore good. We all present our best in attempting to find a romantic partner–or we try to, at least. My experience on dating apps suggests that perhaps some people may not be very skilled at presenting their best to romantic prospects. But they still try to, and rightfully so.

Disguises, however, only play a limited role: they must carry the lovers to the edge of the reality; at some point, in Donne’s philosophy of love, there must come a great unveiling. The lovers are then laid bare, disguises are permanently dropped, and they walk in brave clarity from then forward.

But, now the sun is just above our head,
         We do those shadows tread,
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.

In Twelfth Night, this great unveiling comes at the very end of the play. The disguises, which comedically served love by severing it, are removed: Sebastian, Viola’s brother,  who survived the shipwreck after all, arrives in Illyria. Viola then takes off her Cesario disguise (which looks just like Sebastian), revealing her true identity. In a dramatic twist, the Duke then marries Viola; Olivia marries Sebastian (since she was so attracted to Cesario), and Maria marries Sir Toby. The disguises kindled the love between the characters, but the removal of the disguises consummated it. 

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s play ends with the lovers’ weddings. We never learn what becomes of their marriages, what follows the dropping of disguises. We can, however,  continue with Donne.

Disguises, though necessary in the beginning of a relationship, destroy it if they enter in following the unveiling (when ‘to brave clearness all things are reduced‘):

If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
         To me thou, falsely, thine,
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.

Simultaneously romantic and realistic, Donne warns of the fleetingness of love. Following the infancy stages of love, even small shadows ‘grow longer all the day,’ and cause ‘love’s decay,’ for

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.

And Olivia echoes,

Love’s night is noon.

Lessons from an Emperor


Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. His diary, Meditations, is an unprecedented glimpse into the private thoughts of the most public, powerful figure of the time. Influenced by Epictetus, Plato, and Socrates, Marcus Aurelius tries to expound his own philosophy of life: Man is a social and rational animal, and must act in accordance with his nature if he would live a virtuous, valuable life.

First, what would Marcus Aurelius say to John Marcher of Henry James‘s The Beast in the Jungle? (See previous post)

John Marcher, we recall, was consumed by his Fate. He and May Bartram speculated maddeningly about what it would be, and when they weren’t speculating, sat in watch for Fate’s unfolding, forsaking the present in waiting for the future. Then, when the special event came and passed without John Marcher realizing it, he spun around and traded the present for the past, speculating on what it could have been.

That Marcus Aurelius, too, believed in Fate is quite clear in his Meditations, and it is not surprising given the prevalence of the idea in ancient Greek and Roman thought. At one point he writes,

Has anything happened to you? Well, out of the universe from the beginning everything that happens has been apportioned and spun out to you.

and again,

that which happens to every man is fixed in a manner for him suitable to his destiny.

Marcus Aurelius, however, has a different perspective than Marcher (but maybe not Henry James) on how an individual should posture themselves in relation to their Fate. He would undoubtedly condemn John Marcher for sacrificing the present for the vaporous future and the past, trading reality for unreality.

Throughout his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius affirms that the present moment is all that, in truth, exists; therefore, he who dies young and he who dies old both lose the same thing: the present moment. They have nothing else to lose. Past and Future are only imaginary abstractions from the Present, and therefore should be subservient to it, not superior.

How then would Marcus Aurelius instruct John Marcher? He would likely tell him,

Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present.

And more,

Do not disturb yourself by thinking of the whole of your life. Do not let your thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles that you may expect to befall you: but on every occasion ask yourself, What is there in this that is intolerable and past bearing? For you will be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains you, but only the present.

This, however, is only one of the lessons that Meditations offers. Here are a few more of note:

Humans are social and intellectual animals, and are obligated to act according to this dual nature. 

Marcus Aurelius is hyper-rational, and for him the intellect is absolutely supreme. He believed in a rational force that orders and governs the universe, and which has elevated humans among the animals by endowing them with their own spark of Reason, to be their guardian and guide, to enable them to pursue virtue; in other words, to

say and do everything in conformity with the soundest reason.

What, exactly, does he mean by that? For one, he proposes the importance of living by ruling principles.  These rational principles must be true, and they serve to stake your rational perspective into your lot, so that you are

like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

Pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, death and birth, honor and dishonor — nothing can harm a man who is directed by ruling principles on the pursuit of virtue.

Since all men share in Reason, Marcus Aurelius reasons, they all are kinsmen, for they

participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity.

In this, they share in something stronger than ties of flesh and blood. This shared nature is what binds them into a social body.

For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away.

He uses an analogy similar to that of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

Therefore, since nature has fashioned mankind as an intelligent and social collective, it is contrary to nature to act otherwise.

The only things of your concern are those which you can control.

What other people think is out of your control; how they behave is out of your control; illness and disease are out of your control; economic swings are out of your control; geopolitical decisions are out of your control; the timing of a natural or accidental death is out of your control. The vicissitudes of life are inexorable: the tide comes in and the tide goes out, and you can either struggle against it or ride with it.

Therefore, Marcus Aurelius exhorts, it is foolish to waste time and effort by attempting to control what cannot be controlled. Instead we ought to focus on what we can control: We can control our own choices, our own opinions, our own behavior, and, in sum, our own character, for

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

For this reason, it is crucial to Marcus Aurelius to form habitual thoughts that are rational, true and social, that he might be a rational, true, and social man; and that he might be immovable in a world in constant flux. He continues,

Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.

Nothing that is perceived comes into direct contact with the mind, but rather is filtered through opinions or judgment. These color the images of experience. As Aurelius writes,

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

We can reframe our opinions and judgments in such a way that

the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and an obstacle on the road helps us along this road.

Attention is a limited resource, and its use should be guided by reason. 

Marcus Aurelius writes,

it is necessary to remember that the attention given to everything has its proper value and proportion.

Not all things are equally worthy of our attention. The marketing arms race is occurring between companies fighting to develop ways to capture more of our attention; as a result, much of our attention is stolen from us without our awareness. We check our phones 50 times a day, scroll through social media obsessively, play video games and watch Netflix for hours on end. The question Marcus Aurelius beckons us to ask in all activities is, What is the value of this? and to give it the amount of our attention proportional to the answer to that question.