Suggested readings, #120

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Want to know, even if it hurts? You must be a truth masochist. Good points, some bad examples. (Psyche)

The idea that trees talk to cooperate is misleading. It’s a romantic notion, but pretending they’re like humans could actually harm the cause of conservation. (Scientific American)

Ignorance by design. On Jason Stanley’s “How Propaganda Works.” (Philosophical Salon)

The divine Dante. At 700, Dante’s Divine Comedy is as modern as ever – a lesson in spiritual intelligence that makes us better at being alive. (Aeon)

Stoicism vs Self-Help. How self-help and Stoicism remain incompatible. (Medium)

Published by


Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

3 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #120”

  1. Re Dante? Everybody, when they say “Divine Comedy,” means “The Inferno.” The “Purgatorio” is … OK … and the “Paradiso” is bland pablum. And, I’ve read all three. The observation has been made that this isn’t just Dante; rather, hells always excite the human imagination, but Elysian Fields do not. Look at the demons in Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon religion they likely came from. Or Tertullian’s talk of Christians taking sweet comfort from seeing the torments of the damned. (Twain’s “Captain Stormfield” is the rare exception to this, and precisely because it mentions Christian stereotypes of the blessed heaven.)

    Second, no, Dante doesn’t still matter today, that much. Instead, The Inferno matters, as much as insight on Dante’s late-medieval view on the political economy of an Italy interfacing with yet detaching from the Empire, and who Dante regarded as the biggest sinners. Related is that Dante’s Platonic-tinged medieval Catholic insight on the religious economy of Catholic belief matters … again, for understanding Dante.

    (Dante obviously “still matters” for the author, who uses him, at the end, to name-drop Sufism and Vedanta, of course, but that’s far different than “Dante still matters,” full stop.)

    Five bucks says that Mark Vernon, the author of the piece, who it says is a psychotherapist, is a Jungian. And the link to his first book, which includes “depth psychology” of Xn origins, only confirms:

    Side note? Surprised that John Ciardi’s translation, which generally preserves the meter, and keeps the rhyme on the outer lines of each tercet, isn’t mentioned by the author. That’s what I read, decades ago, and I think it continues to be touted as one of the best.


    THANK you, Kathrynn Flinn. I thought the same thing on the “donor tree” nonsense, that, instead, fungi were the “root cause,” all for their own evolutionary gain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Coincidentally, I’m reading Finding the Mother Tree right now. It’s pretty good.

    *Rant Mode On*

    It isn’t a book meant to be read like a scientific article, so a little creative anthropomorphizing is not a problem IMHO. It’s a story. A story about how she came to realize (the truth) about mycorrhizae. I don’t think anyone disputes the scientific findings anymore, and if it took a little omni-present intergalactic oneness to get there, so be it. I half expected the review to end with a disclaimer that “this review was funded in part by the Benevolent Wood Extraction Partnership, formerly known as the Environmental Rape Society.”

    Simard is trying to counter the reductionist paradigm that monopolizes modern science. Ever since the Enlightenment, scientists have believed that the way to understand a system is to break it into its constituent parts, understand each part, and then put it back together. Fine, but we forgot one thing–to put it back together! For example, we realized that a lack of nitrogen in the soil is often a limiting growth factor for certain cash crops. So we spray on lab-created nitrogen. That solves one problem but the nitrogen kills a particular worm that was aerating the soil. So we apply lab-created soil aeration chemicals. great, but now the soil has lost the water-holding capacity that worm-created aeration allowed, so we must create, in a lab, GMO replacements for the veggie that do not require wet feet. And on and on. The scientists and shareholders get rich while the farmers are required to buy an ever-more dangerous concoction of chemicals and license ever-more expensive seeds from Monsanto as the people they feed ingest more and more chemicals instead of proper food.

    It’s just like after we linked sun to skin cancer, so they told us all to start mopping on sunscreen whenever we go outside. Now we all have vitamin D deficiency. The solution? Take vitamin D supplements. And when it turns out that your body uses vitamin D that you eat differently than that which your body makes with the help of sunlight on your skin, there will be a simplistic, reductionist solution to that as well. We have to think not only of the consequences, but of the consequences of the consequences. And until we do, we should do no harm rather than constantly pushing forward with the next new thing.

    Parts are not interchangeable, even though our simple minds can’t differentiate. You can’t replace old growth firs with cash crop pines and expect the system to behave as before. We don’t understand the systems. We can’t, our simple little minds glommed on to the reductionist viewpoint because we could understand one thing at a time, or two things interacting, but we don’t understand the incredibly complex world in which we find ourselves. We’re like a dog trying to do a Rubik’s Cube. We know this about scientists from 100 years ago, but we forget that in 100 years (or 10), they will be thinking the same things about us. How foolish we were, how smart we thought we were!

    As to anthropomorphizing specifically, I don’t think we do it nearly enough. Every passing year reveals more truths about how similar we are to other living beings (even rats demonstrate empathy, for example); we are not special, we are not above them, we are not unique, except perhaps in our penchant for destruction and how close we are coming to ending what may be all life in the Universe. We may have more of an ability for abstract thought than other animals, but goldfish swim better, sparrows fly better, and cheetahs run faster. Of course, the swimming of goldfish has not brought the entire world to the brink of destruction the way our abstract thinking has. The idea that we are special, or better is a vestige of religious ideas about souls and the impartment of knowledge. Anthropomorphizing is a way to diminish these inaccurate and destructive beliefs.

    Think of Descartes performing vivisections on dogs, calmly remarking how interesting it was when you sliced off the sharp part of their still-beating heart and put your finger in the sputtering hole. He was NOT anthropomorphizing. Now we have Simard talking about how trees “talk” to each other, how the fungi and the tree roots have complex relationships (sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent). She IS anthropomorphizing. I’ll choose to err on the side of anthropomorphizing as she does over Descartes’ approach any day. Of course, one might respond that now we know that Descartes was wrong; well do we really think that in relatively short order we will not suffer the same fate in judgement from the future? We finally have everything figured out now? Hubris.

    This is the point that Simard and people like Vandana Shiva are making. Without ascribing motives to those who disagree, I would note that the clear-cutting logging companies, those who still do vivisections on dogs, Descartes, Big Timber (the companies, not the lovely town in Montana), Big Ag, the 1%, and many others in power all want you to forget about mycorrhizae, forget that we are merely one part of the global ecosystem that we don’t understand and are in no way capable of micromanaging, while Simard, Shiva, and real environmentalists everywhere want us to remember. I know which side I’m on.

    *Rant Mode Off*

    Buon weekend a tutti!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Montana, I agree on several of your points. But I think you are shortchanging scientists, and particularly ecologists, who spend their careers precisely trying to understand how things are interconnected. That’s different from the self-serving reductionism of big pharma, for instance.

      As for anthropomorphizing, I’m going to disagree, there is already too much of it, and I explain why here:

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply