Suggested readings, #136

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

Reality is what you make of it. I open my eyes and a world appears. I’m sitting on a plastic chair on the deck of a tumbledown wooden house, high in a cypress forest a few miles north of Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s early morning. Looking straight out, I can see tall trees still wreathed in the cool ocean fog that rolls in every night, sending the temperature plummeting. I can’t see the ground, so the deck and the trees all seem to be floating together with me in the mist. There are some other plastic chairs, a table, and a tray arranged with coffee and bread. I can hear birdsong, some rustling around in the back — the people I’m staying with — and a distant murmur from something I can’t identify. Not every morning is like this; this is a good morning. I have to persuade myself, not for the first time, that this extraordinary world is a construction of my brain, a kind of “controlled hallucination.” … (Boston Globe)

‘Moral molecules’ – a new theory of what goodness is made of. Plato argued that there were four virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Aristotle said that there were 14 – including generosity, magnanimity, friendliness, honesty and modesty. The ancient Egyptians promised to refrain from the 42 sins of Maat. Judaism distilled 613 commandments into the famous 10, including prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and lying. Christianity added faith, hope and charity to Plato’s list to make seven heavenly virtues (along with seven corresponding deadly sins). Confucianism endorses virtues such as filial piety, trustworthiness and wisdom. The 20 laws of Aberewa, a spirit figure of the Akan of Ghana, encourage paying your debts and accepting requests for help, and discourage disobeying chiefs and ‘carrying firewood in bundles into town’. The philosopher W D Ross identified seven prima facie moral duties: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, beneficence, self-improvement and justice. More recently, psychologists have argued that there are variously three (community, autonomy, divinity), or four (unity, respect, equality, proportionality) or five to six (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and perhaps liberty) basic moral principles. … (Psyche)

Why philosophy needs myth. In 1872, at the age of 28, Friedrich Nietzsche announced himself to the world with The Birth of Tragedy, an elegiac account of the alienation of Western culture from its spiritual foundations. According to Nietzsche, the ancient Greeks had once mastered a healthy cultural balance between the ‘Apollonian’ impulse toward rational control and the ‘Dionysian’ desire for ecstatic surrender. From the 5th century BCE onward, however, Western intellectual culture has consistently skewed in favour of Apollonian rationalism to the neglect of the Dionysian – an imbalance from which it has never recovered. … (Aeon)

The failure of American secularism. Long before New Atheists stalked the earth, the cause of secularism possessed a peculiar missionary zeal. In part, this was thanks to the broader mood of social uplift that accompanied the rise of modern skepticism: Loosing the surly bonds of superstition and myth was, by the lights of rationalist dogma, all but certain to deliver humanity into a golden age of liberty, equality, and sober self-improvement. With this sort of serene confidence propelling the great cause of secularism, it’s little wonder that its apostles cribbed a pronounced millennial fervor and evangelical certitude from their Christian foes. … (New Republic)

Where demons come from. Halloween brings a familiar array of spooky characters: ghosts, witches, zombies, goblins, and demons. But what is a demon, anyway? Christians today often describe them as fallen angels, minions of the most famous ex-angel of all, Satan. But New Testament scholar Dale Basil Martin writes that there was no such connection in ancient Jewish thought, or even among the first Christians. According to Martin, the ancient Greeks used the word daimon to refer to gods, especially minor gods or intermediate supernatural beings, as well as the souls of the dead. A daimon might also be a supernatural entity that causes disease, or the disease itself. Daimons could possess humans, causing madness. But philosophers generally saw daimons as exclusively good. And even regular people viewed them not as evil incarnate but as capricious creatures who needed sacrifices to mollify them. … (JSTOR Daily)

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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.

2 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #136”

  1. The Globe piece? Well, for everybody in the world of philosophy popularization touting Anil Seth as a brilliant new thinker? That wasn’t it!


    Copying from your FB group on the secularism piece:
    I wonder if not having a state religion at the federal level, and eventually at any state level, made American religious belief more sociologically vital than in Europe? That said, a couple of points:
    1. By religious service attendance and a couple of other metrics, America and Europe were dead even until World War I and fairly close until the end of World War II. Pace Steve Pinker, perhaps the actual violence of those contests, which left America relatively untouched, is a factor.
    2. How much of this is Samuel Huntington type clash of cultures “Christianism” rather than actual Christian belief? Per sites like Pew and related, as of 2019, a greater percentage of alleged Christians did not go to church once all year than the percentage who attended once a week.

    One other thought on this, per American “nones” not necessarily being metaphysics-free, and the word itself as used by Pew et al, really being about sociology of religion, not metaphysics.
    While “None-ism” is high in Europe, I don’t think all of them are metaphysics-free, either. Neopaganism and New Ageism are both prevalent.
    Or, in corners of Eastern Europe, not even a “neo” on the paganism. Several years ago, I read a book on the history of the Baltic lands. And, it quoted some Lithuanians as saying that paganism helped with the breakaway from the dying USSR, and they made clear it wasn’t “neo,” but traditional Baltic religion that never fully died out. Maybe so? I mean, that was that last place in Europe officially Christianized, and it didn’t happen for good at the ruling level until 1387. That said, Baltic paganism would have continued to evolve, and whatever it is today would have definite differences from 650 years ago.


    Moral molecules ignores that cultural evolution isn’t genetic and … fill in the rest. One egregious wrong in that piece? Since property rights aren’t “ancient,” as in they’re not “eonic,” there can’t be an ancient genetic coding for them.

    And, showing how bad that lynchpin is, is enough.

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    1. Agreed about the moral molecules thing. It’s an interesting approach because I do believe – as an ethical naturalist – that the basic building blocks of morality are evolved and instinctual. But yeah, not taking cultural evolution and language into account is a no-starter.


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