Book Club: A Guide To Living

Jul 22 2014 @ 1:19pm

The stroke of genius in Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne is that she framed his biography as a guide to life. You could justify this as a way to appeal to a distracted 21st Century audience otherwise highly unlikely to read about a sixteenth century French essayist, but she makes that entirely unnecessary. What she shows is why Nietzsche had such a fondness for the diminutive and inquisitive skeptic: everything he wrote was really about his own life, and how best to live it, and he does it all with such brio and detail and humanity that you cannot help but be encouraged to follow his lead. He proves nothing that he doesn’t simultaneously subvert a little; he makes no over-arching argument montaigne.jpgabout the way humans must live; he has no logician’s architecture or religious doctrine. He slips past all those familiar means of telling other people what’s good for them, and simply explains what has worked for him and others and leaves the reader empowered to forge her own future – or, rather (for this is Montaigne), her own present.

It’s a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. You can see its eccentric power by considering the alternative ways of doing what Montaigne was doing. Think of contemporary self-help books – and all the fake certainty and rigid formulae they contain. Or think of a hideous idea like “the purpose-driven life” in which everything must be forced into the box of divine guidance in order to really live at all. Think of the stringency of Christian disciplines – say, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and marvel at how Montaigne offers an entirely different and less compelling way to live. Think of the rigidity of Muslim practice and notice how much lee-way Montaigne gives to sin. This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. And it is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”. And of course it begs the question that Pascal posed: how can skepticism not be skeptical about itself? Is it, in fact, a self-refuting way of being?

Logically, of course it refutes itself. And you can easily torment yourself with that fact. When I first tried to grapple with philosophy, the need to force every text I read into the rubric of “is this the truth about the world?” dominated everything. And in retrospect, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do not have a desire to figure out the truth about the whole, you’ll never start the philosophical project at all. And you can find in philosophy any number of clues about how to live; you can even construct them into an ideology that explains all of human life how-to-live-sdand society – like Marxism or free market fundamentalism or a Nietzschean will to power. But as each totalist system broke down upon my further inspection, I found myself returning to Montaigne and the tradition of skepticism he represents (and that reached one of its modern high points in the thought of Michael Oakeshott). Maybe we need to start with what little we actually do know – through experience, narrative, anecdote and conversation.

And here’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism. You can see why it has scarcely any resemblance to the fanatics, ideologues and reactionaries who call themselves “conservative” in America today.

But what Bakewell helped me see better is that Montaigne’s Stoic disposition really was influenced by a couple of epiphanies. The first was the loss of his dear friend, Etienne de la Boétie. The second was his own near-death experience in a riding accident. What he’s grappling with in both cases is loss. And what he seeks to do with his friendship is to understand what he lost more completely, which makes his essay “On Friendship” the greatest treatment of that theme ever penned. But his near-death experience – which he subsequently wrote down with eerily modern skills of careful observation – could be seen as the window onto his entire body of work. He works back from this reality – our inescapable finitude – to construct a deeper and more humane understanding of what life is for. By seeing the limits, he seems to say, we actually live more vividly and well and can die at peace with the world.

If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be this staringbookclub-beagle-tr-2 of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching. It is what our culture refuses to do much of the time, thereby disempowering us in the face of our human challenges. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.

Is this enough? Or is it rather a capitulation to relativism, a manifesto for political quietism, a worldview that treats injustice as something to be abhorred but not constantly fought against? This might be seen as the core progressive objection to the way of Montaigne. Or is his sensibility in an age of religious terror and violence and fanaticism the only ultimate solution we have?

Email your thoughts to And let the conversation begin.


Sherlock Holmes writes:

I’m gonna go with … America.

Another gets more specific:

Outskirts or small old town enveloped by Pittsburgh.

Another questions our motives:

Okay, you know you set me up. Sports Authority and Home Depot in the same center … should be easy, right? After screening out obvious “not possible” states: Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, etc, I concentrated on all the others and did a Google Street view of each Sports Authority (they have fewer stores) and could not find one single match. I’m betting that was a red herring because you would never make it that easy …

Another also ended up empty-handed:

I thought I had a chance this week. Not to win, but at least, maybe, to get a location right and build up my credentials. I knew everyone would froth at the bit this week. So many clues! I started with the Sports Authority website and either cross referenced the location with Home Depot, or later, just started looking up the Sports Authority addresses on Google Maps. Do you know how often they are practically right next to each other like in your photo? Too many. Of course, none of those were the contest site. And FYI, other places that Sports Authority likes to cozy up next to are Best Buy and Target.

In the end, I failed. I couldn’t find it. Not even with all those clues. I must have missed one. The right one. But I bet you get a lot of right answers this week. Just not mine.

Another yawns:

The Home Depot, Sports Authority, Exxon? Really? Seldom have I been less inspired to make even my standard random guess.

But this one gets pretty close:

I was convinced this was in eastern Canada – an Esso gas station, deciduous trees, a one-way sign (so not Quebec). But a few searches convinced me Home Depots in Canada are built in sprawling power centres with no trees anywhere. And maybe that is an Exxon sign. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in the New England, an industrial-ish town, near a canal, in a place long-enough established to have an old stone church. Massachusetts.

It’s a beautiful day here in Montreal. I’m going for a walk.

Another nails the right city:

Read On

Putin Creates His Own Reality

Jul 22 2014 @ 12:45pm

The Russian leader continues to deny any wrongdoing:

Putin’s government also held a news conference [yesterday], in which it denied that Russia had supplied the separatists with a BUK missile system “or any other weapons,” and suggested that the Ukrainian government is the prime suspect in the crash. Air Force Lieutenant General Igor Makushev said that Russian radar detected the presence of Ukrainian fighter jets close to the Malaysian flight, suggesting that one of them may have shot down the airliner.

Margaret Hartmann unspins Russia’s spin:

Unfortunately for Russia, the scant evidence available doesn’t appear to support its fighter-jet theory. Photographs of wreckage riddled with holes have begun surfacing on social media, and experts say that suggests the plane was targeted by a missile that exploded nearby. After analyzing photos taken by New York Times reporters, IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy, concluded that the damage was consistent with that caused by a Buk system. The missiles are designed to explode below a target, increasing the likelihood that a fast-moving Western military aircraft will be damaged even if it avoids a direct hit.

Which makes the entire spectacle riveting. What happens when a Tsar’s propaganda becomes completely untenable in a porous media world? What he can get away with at home is not as possible when your drunken proxies take down a plane from the civilized world? Watching that video statement from Putin in the early hours of the morning gave me some solace. Just look at the body language, the deflected gaze, the nervousness:

A Tsar never had to do this, or felt compelled to. He’s hanging by a thread, and we should take some pleasure in watching him struggle. Alex Altman examines Russia Today’s absurdist coverage:

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Why Russia Wants A Cease-Fire

Jul 22 2014 @ 12:20pm

It’s a tactical move Russia has used before:

Putin supports a cease-fire, as he has all along, because that leaves the Russian-sponsored forces in control of Ukrainian territory, a status quo that suits Russian interests. This is precisely why the Ukrainian authorities originally ended the cease-fire, and why they have continued operations even after the downing of the aircraft. They suspect that the longer the territory remains in Russian hands, the more likely it is that it will never be returned.

To see why a cease-fire works to Russia’s advantage, the Ukrainian leadership need only look to Ukraine’s western border, where a slice of its neighbor Moldova known as Transnistria has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 1992. The conflict began when a group that did not want Moldova to secede from the Soviet Union took up arms, with extensive support from the Soviet/Russian military. A cease-fire was declared in July 1992, and the conflict has remained “frozen” ever since.

Anna Nemtsova reports that fighting in Donetsk has heated up:

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Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini scrutinize the logic by which Israel treats virtually any building in Gaza as a legitimate target and any civilian killed as a “human shield”:

All civilians in Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, which is considered a war crime and a gross violation of international law governing armed conflict. This, then, provides legal and moral justification against the accusation that Israel is the one killing civilians. Presumed human rights violations carried out by Palestinians against Palestinians – taking hostages and human shielding – thus become the legitimization of lethal and indiscriminate violence on the part of the occupying force. Hence, the use of human shields is not only a violation. In contemporary asymmetric urban wars, accusing the enemy of using human shields helps validate the claim that the death of “untargeted civilians” is merely collateral damage. When all civilians are potential human shields, when each and every civilian can become a hostage of the enemy, then all enemy civilians become killable.

And, critically, Israel is absolved of any moral responsibility for any of it. That’s what worries me. When military might is expended on crowded civilian areas and all civilian casualties are presumed the responsibilities of others … you get well over 500 dead, including countless women and children, including attacks on hospitals and families breaking the Ramadan fast in their own home. You get this:

Monday morning, the Abu Jameh family pulled 26 bodies, 19 of them children, from the rubble of their home near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, the largest toll from a single strike since the battle began July 8. Four people were killed at Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, the main one serving the center of the crowded coastal enclave. An airstrike Monday night destroyed the top five floors of an apartment building called Al-Salam — the Peace — in central Gaza City, an area that had been seen as a safe haven, killing 11.

And yet some even argue that this horrifying spectacle is actually a moral necessity:

The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

When you are killing scores of children, it is not enough to argue self-defense (even though the Iron Dome has given Israel about as robust a defense against home-made rockets as you can get). You have to argue for something grander to nullify the corpses of children. And the dehumanization of those living in Gaza – to the point at which spectators with popcorn cheer their deaths – has led to Israeli indifference to the deaths of human beings that, if they were Jews, would be regarded as the harbinger of calamity. Can you imagine the response in Israel if over 200 Israeli children were killed by a rocket attack by Hamas? Can you imagine anyone saying that the Israelis did this to themselves? That tells you everything about how deep the moral rot has gone, how this kind of zero-sum war and brutalizing occupation over decades cannot but destroy a country’s soul.

Larison, meanwhile, tackles the trope that Gazans forfeited their right to be treated as innocent civilians by voting for Hamas and allowing the group to operate in their communities:

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Anti-Zionism And Anti-Semitism

Jul 22 2014 @ 11:40am

Pro Palestinian Demonstrations Are Held Throughout Europe

Some of the protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza have veered definitively into the realm of rank Jew-hatred. The NYT has a decent round-up of the worst today, and it’s especially troubling in France. As the world responds to Israel’s latest incursion in Gaza, Brendan O’Neill remarks on what he sees as the ever-thinning line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism:

[I]n the latest rage against Israel, it isn’t only the Israeli state or military that have come in for some loud flak from so-called radicals – so have the Israeli people, and even the Jews. In Paris on Sunday, what started as a protest against Israel ended with violent assaults on two synagogues. In one, worshippers had to barricade themselves inside as anti-Israel activists tried to break their way in using bats and planks of wood, some of them chanting ‘Death to Jews!’. Some have tried to depict such racist behaviour as a one-off, a case of immigrants in France losing control. But on that big demo at the Israeli Embassy in London last week some attendees held placards saying ‘Zionist Media Cover Up Palestinian Holocaust’, a clear reference to the familiar anti-Semitic trope about Jews controlling the media. On an anti-Israel protest in the Netherlands some Muslim participants waved the black ISIS flag and chanted: ‘Jews, the army of Muhammad is returning.’

His theory as to why this happens:

Why does being opposed to Israel so often and so casually tip over into expressions of disgust with the Israeli people and with the Jews more broadly? It’s because, today, rage with Israel is not actually a considered political position.

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Apnea You Can Test At Home

Jul 22 2014 @ 11:33am

I’m still happily hooked up to my sleep machine, but for those of you who wonder if you might have sleep apnea and are deterred by the thought of an overnight hospital stay hooked up to countless wires and cameras to test it, there’s another option.

Borderline Politics On The Left

Jul 22 2014 @ 11:20am

Josh Kraushaar casts doubt on the notion that immigration reform is a winning issue for the Democrats:

The conventional wisdom has long held that immigration is the equivalent of Kryptonite for Republicans: If they don’t pass comprehensive reform, their party is writing its own extinction. Indeed, GOP officials have been publicly telegraphing their own vulnerabilities on the subject for years, highlighted by a 2013 RNC-commissioned report where immigration was the only policy area where the authors recommended the party moderate its positioning.

But what if that isn’t the case? A look at the current politics surrounding immigration suggest that Democrats are facing as much conflicting internal pressures from the current border crisis as Republicans face from their own base when it comes to “amnesty,” or legalizing illegal immigrants. President Obama is caught between his base, which has been pushing him to treat the migrants as refugees and settle them in the country, and the majority of voters, who believe that most should be returned to their home countries.

If the House Judiciary Committee’s numbers are correct, the base is winning that particular fight. Byron York relays the new figures, which show that “the ‘vast majority’ of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum are granted it before even appearing before a judge”:

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Martin Longman isn’t buying Israel’s claim that its warning shots are a humane gesture:

What’s clear is that these operations have a different purpose than killing individuals who belong to Hamas. The purpose is to make it clear that belonging to Hamas will cause your family to lose their home and quite possibly their lives. Even living in the same building as a Hamas member or maybe even in the house next door or across the street is a threat to your whole family.

This policy, then, is designed to turn the Palestinian population against Hamas.

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Richard Gunderman argues in favor of concierge medicine, a system in which patients pay hefty fees to spend more time with their doctors:

The concierge model of practice is growing, and it is estimated that more than 4,000 U.S. physicians have adopted some variation of it. Most are general internists, with family practitioners second. It is attractive to physicians because they are relieved of much of the pressure to move patients through quickly, and they can devote more time to prevention and wellness….

Of course, there are drawbacks to concierge practice. For one thing, some patients cannot afford it, and others will choose not to pay the fee. Critics also see such models as promoting a two-tiered system of healthcare, in which those with more money get better care.

“But we have always had a two-tiered system,” [internist Frederic] Becker counters, “and it is better to care for 600 patients well than just adequately for three or four times that number. Someday patients, physicians, and healthcare payers will recognize that slower-paced but truly high-quality medical care is a better value than the fast medicine many physicians feel pressured to practice today.”

Meanwhile, Christopher Flavelle fears the rise of specialists who demand cash payments:

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