February 16, 2008


Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Since Monday is President's Day and last Tuesday was his birthday, this seems like a good time to pay respect to President Lincoln.

It's amazing how large his image looms in American life. But it's not limited to America.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy told the story of traveling in a remote region of the Caucasus, where he entertained a tribal chief along with his family and guests with stories of famous people.

At length, however, the chief interrupted:

But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock...His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.

He complied, and his host was so grateful that he gave him a magnificent horse as a present.

Reflecting on Lincoln, Tolstoy said:

This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.

Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country -- bigger than all the Presidents together.

We are still too near to his greatness...but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.

His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.

February 15, 2008


Welcome to the final day of Spinoza Week at Goat Rope. Aside from links and comments about current events, the guiding thread this week has been the thought of that great and humane 17th century philosopher. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

There seems to be a paradox at the center of Spinoza's thought. First, he makes a strong case for determinism, the idea that there is no freedom of the will and that everything happens of necessity--indeed, from the necessity of the nature of God. On the other hand, he believes that through proper understanding and awareness, we can free ourselves from the grip of negative emotions and misguided ideas.

It seems to El Cabrero that if everything happens of necessity, there would be no way of overcoming negative emotions and bad thinking and, conversely, if we could do that, then maybe everything isn't determined. But I like Spinoza too much to push the point.

At the opening of Part IV of The Ethics, he writes

Human lack of power in moderating and checking the emotions I call servitude. For a man who is submissive to his emotions does not have power over himself, but is in the hands of fortune to such an extent that he is often constrained, although he may see what is better for him, to follow what is worse.

It's hard to argue with that. But Spinoza was no Spock who thought all emotions were bad. He believed all beings have a drive to persist in being and increase their power. He called that conatus. Things that increase our potential and strengthen us are good and give us pleasure (rightly understood) and things that weaken us or harm us cause pain. By pleasure, he seemed to mean something more like self actualization or the eudaimonia of the Greeks.

The problem is false reasoning, obsessions, and negative emotions--meaning emotions that have a negative affect on us and other. He called this "inadequate thinking." To the extent we are captive to these, we are really passive and helpless in their grasp.

He believed that by thinking clearly and distinctly about how the world and our minds work, we could gain power over these negative patterns and live a life of reason. That means enjoying in moderation the good things of the world, doing what we can to improve things, and accepting those things we can't change. People living the life of reason want nothing for themselves that they don't wish everyone to have and look after both their own interests and the well-being of society.

This isn't altogether different from the Buddhist idea of overcoming negative attachments and delusional thinking through right understanding and mindfulness or the modern psychological approach of cognitive therapy that helps people learn about and correct irrational ideas.

To the extent we do that, we begin to look at live sub specie aeternitas or from the viewpoint of eternity. The highest level of serenity was something he called "the intellectual love of God," which means reverence for the universe and acceptance of the nature of things. He even seems to suggest that to the extent we do this, our minds approach a kind of immortality, although he probably didn't have a heavenly Disney World in mind.

Of course, it's easier said than done but we can make progress in that direction. Here are the last words of The Ethics:

...it is clear of how much a wise man is capable and how stronger he is than an ignorant one, who is guided by lust alone. For an ignorant man, besides being agitated in many ways by external causes, never possessing true contentment of mind also lives as it were unaware of himself, God, and things, and as soon as he ceases to be passive, ceases to be. On the other hand, the wise man, in so far as he is considered as such, is scarcely moved in spirit: he is aware of himself, of God, and things by a certain eternal necessity, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true contentment of mind. If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be hard when it is so seldom found. For how it could it be that if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty it should be neglected by almost all? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.

I don't know about y'all, but I've got a long way to go.

SAD NEWS from Illinois.

WHAT WE DIDN'T GET. Here's an item on the kind of economic stimulus we really need.

THE AFTERMATH OF WAR. Sometimes the violence doesn't stop when veterans return.

RITTER ON IRAN. Here's an interview with Scott Ritter about the Bush administration's intentions towards Iran.


THE ONE AND THE MANY. Is a beehive one big organism or a bunch of little ones?


February 14, 2008


Image of woman teaching geometry courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to the fourth installment of Spinoza Week at Goat Rope. Aside from the usual links and comments about current events, the theme this week is the life and work of that great 17th century philosopher. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

As mentioned before, Spinoza developed his pantheistc and deterministic views of the universe at length in his magnum opus The Ethics. In his view, all the universe is in God and in a sense is God. His God is not humanlike in any way and all things follow from the necessity of his nature.

There's no free will to be found anywhere in this system, including ourselves and our emotions, which are only a tiny part of the whole.

As he wrote at the beginning of Part III,

Most who have written on the emotions and on the manner of human life, seem to have dealt not with natural things which follow the universal laws of nature, but with things which are outside the sphere of nature: they seem to have conceived man in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom. For they believe that man disturbs rather than follows the order of nature, and that he has absolute power over his actions, and is not determined by anything else than himself.

He wasn't buying it. Why should be be any different than anything else?

...an infant thinks that it freely seeks milk, an angry child thinks that it freely desires vengeance, or a timid child thinks it freely chooses flight

when in fact all are driven by causes and passions of which they are not fully aware.

He treats of human emotions the same way he does everything else: like propositions in a geometry book:

...I shall regard human actions and appetites exactly as if I were dealing with lines, planes, and bodies.

The weird thing is that he does a pretty good job of it. He has come up with some amazingly succinct definitions of common human emotions and passions, breaking them down to their most basic level. Here are a few examples :

LOVE "is nothing else but pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause"

HATE is "pain accompanied by the idea of an external cause."

REPENTANCE "is pain accompanied by the idea of oneself as a cause"

SELF-CONTENTMENT "is pleasure accompanied by the idea of oneself as cause."

HOPE "is an inconstant pleasure arisen from the idea of a thing past or future, the outcome of which we still doubt to some extent."

FEAR "is an inconstant pain arisen from the idea of something past or future of whose outcome we doubt somewhat."

COMPASSION "is love in so far as it affects a man so that he rejoices at the happiness of another and is saddened at the harm he suffers."

PRIDE "is over-estimation of oneself by reason of self-love."

And so on.

The heart and paradox of The Ethics is the idea that by understanding the nature of the universe and of human emotions, we can gain a degree of freedom.

About which more tomorrow.

MORE ON THE CREDIT MELTDOWN from Business Week. Factoids: only 31% of American consumers pay off credit card debt each month, while 61$ don't and only 7% do without cards. Mean household credit card balance is around $7,000 (although I've seen higher figures).

R-E-S-P-E-C-T and how the US can regain it after the disastrous Bush years is the subject of this item from Alternet.

A 20,000 YEAR LAYOVER. Here's an interesting item on the latest scientific evidence about the peopling of America.

LESSONS FROM KILLER WHALES. Here's a review of what an animal trainer learned that works at home as well.

ARACOMA CASE. A worker from Massey Energy's Aracoma Mine has received immunity from federal prosecutors in exchange for testimony.


February 13, 2008


Welcome to Spinoza Week at Goat Rope. You'll find links and comments about current events here, but the guiding thread this week is the thought of that great 17th century philosopher. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

As mentioned previously, Spinoza's unorthodox religious views got him excommunicated from the Jewish community and aroused the ire of many Christians. But those who called him an atheist were sadly mistaken. If anything, the German writer Novalis was right when he called him "a God-intoxicated man." In fact, Spinoza's universe was so full of God that there wasn't room for anything else.

The most complete elaboration of Spinoza's theory of God, the universe, and everything (which were all pretty much of the same in his view) is in his 1677 masterpiece The Ethics.

The thing that hits you right away about the Ethics is its format, which is right out of Euclidean geometry. The book consists of definitions, axioms, corollaries and proofs. One of the first things you run into is his definition of God:

By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

He conceives God as essentially the same as the substance or nature of the universe, both material and mental:

Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.

However, there is nothing anthropomorphic about his view of God:

those who confuse divine with human nature readily attribute human passions to God, more especially if they do not know how passions are produced in the mind.

Rather than being like a person with whims and changeable moods, much less like a granter of wishes or punisher of sinners, God acts eternally from the necessity of "his" nature and "does not act from freedom of the will."

In the universe there exists nothing contingent, but all things are determined by the necessity of the divine nature to exist and operate in a certain way.

This is the God of Spinoza's admirer Albert Einstein, who "doesn't play dice with the world." This is the source of the uniformity of nature's (God's) laws, which could not have been other than they are:

Things could not have been produced by God in any other way or order than that in which they were produced.

In such a world, there is no chaos or chance, but rather

all things were predetermined by God, not through his free will or absolute pleasure, but through his absolute nature or infinite power.

In such a system where even God acts from necessity (even if it is his own), it's not surprising that there's no room for free will for people, although he believed we can become freer by understanding the necessity of things. Surprisingly, however, he wasn't a bad psychologist, but that will--of necessity--have to wait until tomorrow.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER is the Economic Policy Institute with their latest snapshot, which is all about manufacturing.

OWNING TO RENT. Here's progressive economist Dean Baker with a really interesting idea of helping the most vulnerable homeowners through the recession and housing meltdown.

WV ON NPR. This just keeps getting better and better. Here's NPR on John Grisham's latest novel, which was inspired Supreme Court Justice Massey--I mean Blankenship--I mean Benjamin.


VIRTUALLY NOTHING. This item from Business Weeks suggests that current border policy is a flop.

DOH! According to The Week Magazine, a British retail chain had to withdraw a bed targeted for young girls that it called "Lolita." Apparently people at the company were unfamiliar with Vladimir Nabokov's book of the same title. According to a company source, "We had to look it up on Wikipedia."


February 12, 2008


Welcome to Spinoza Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post. You'll also find the usual mix of links and comments about current events.

As mentioned yesterday, Spinoza's unorthodox and rationalist views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community. His views on religion and politics, most fully expressed in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus were very advanced for his time. And maybe ours.

Most controversial at the time was his interpretation of biblical stories as metaphorical and designed to inspire ethical conduct. He wrote that "Scripture does not aim at imparting scientific knowledge," a point lost on fundamentalists of all stripes. He rejected miracles as supernatural events. And his view of God, as we'll discuss later, was fairly pantheistic, meaning that he came pretty close to identifying God with the universe rather than as an anthropomorphic figure outside it.

His work was a plea for religious and philosophical toleration. He wrote

Freedom of thought and speech not only may, without prejudice to piety and the public peace, be granted; but also may not, without danger to piety and the public peace, be withheld


That state is freest whose laws are founded on sound reason, so that every member of it may, if he will, be free; that is, live with full consent under the entire guidance of reason.


Everyone is by absolute natural right the master of his own thoughts, and thus utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions.

He was an early defender not only of democracy but of the view that the state had a responsibility to guarantee a degree of economic justice for the poor and disadvantaged. As he wrote in his masterpiece The Ethics

Men, moreover, are won over by open-handedness, especially those who have not the wherewithal to purchase what is necessary for sustaining life. However, to give aid to every poor man is far beyond the power and the advantage of a private man. For the riches of a private man are far too little for such a thing. Moreover, the ability of one man is far too limited for him to be able to unite all men to himself in friendship: for which reason the care of the poor is incumbent on society as a whole, and looks to the general advantage only.

Not too shabby for the 17th century. Or the 21st.

A TIDAL WAVE. This article looks at the massive misery and displacement caused by the Bush administration's unnecessary war in Iraq.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, a new study by the Rand Corporation commissioned by the Pentagon finds "U.S. military intervention and occupation in the Muslim world" is "at best inadequate, at worst counter-productive, and, on the whole, infeasible."

GREEN JOBS, GOOD JOBS. Labor unionists and environmentalists are increasingly working together to promote green jobs to benefit working people and the world they inhabit.

MORTGAGE MESS. The nation's housing and debt crisis is spreading beyond sub-prime loans.

MIMICRY WORKS pretty well when it comes to persuasion.

CAN I HAVE ONE? Scientists have discovered a cute little pterodactyl with a wingspan of about a foot. You gotta click the link to see it. If I can have one, I promise to feed it every day and make sure all the other critters at Goat Rope Farm are nice to it. Except maybe the goats.

PHILOSOPHY AND POPULAR CULTURE are the topic of this essay.


February 11, 2008


Baruch Spinoza, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero recently took the plunge into the serene but bracing waters of one of history's greatest philosophers, Baruch aka Benedict Spinoza, who lived from 1632 to 1677.

Despite having lived over 300 years ago, his thought is strikingly modern. His view of the universe influenced Einstein and many other scientists and thinkers and is in some respects very similar to Buddhism. He has been called both an atheist and a "God-intoxicated man." (Official Goat Rope verdict: he was definitely the latter.)

Spinoza descended from a Jewish family forced to flee the persecutions of Inquisition in the Spain or Portugal. He was born in Amsterdam at a time when Holland was a relative bastion of religious freedom and a haven of safety for Jews.

He attended the Rabbinical School and studied the Hebrew Bible and Talmud as well as the works of Jewish and Arab medieval philosophers who were influenced by Aristotle, Plato and the neo-Platonists. Spinoza learned Latin in order to read the philosophical, scientific and mathematical works of Renee Descartes, who was widely considered to be the founder of modern philosophy.

His rabbinical teachers were disturbed by his lack of interest in traditional studies as well as his embrace of unorthodox ideas and his rational treatment of the supernaturnal stories of the Bible. In all probability, they were also concerned about testing the limits of Christian tolerance--which has often been an oxymoron--in one of the few places tolerant of Jews. After repeated warnings, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community.

And what an excommunication it was. Here's a sample:

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

In other words, they were kind of upset with him.

The excommunication also included the following warning to the faithful:

That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.

After that, Spinoza lived an austere life of reclusive scholarship, supporting himself by grinding lenses until his death by consumption at the age of 45. Some of his main works were not published until after his death.'

More about his thought next time around.

WE'RE ALL KEYNESIANS NOW from the near consensus on the need for some kind of economic stimulus. But as this item from the UK Guardian argues, we're leaving out the main part of the great economist John Maynard Keynes' ideas: the need for shared prosperity.

A MISSING PIECE in the debate about dealing with recession and stimulus is the role of debt. Harvard law professor and debt expert Elizabeth Warren points out here that never has a recession occurred in American when so many people were so much in debt. Factoid: in 2006, credit card companies collected $90 billion in fees, interest and late charges from American families.

STATING THE OBVIOUS. An AP poll shows most Americans think the best way to stimulate the economy is to get out of the Iraq war.

HARD TIMES FOR VETERANS. From the Chicago Tribune:

Strained by war, recently discharged veterans are having a harder time finding civilian jobs and are more likely to earn lower wages for years due partly to employer concerns about their mental health and overall skills, a government study says.

The Veterans Affairs Department report, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, points to continuing problems with the Bush administration's efforts to help 4.4 million troops who have been discharged from active duty since 1990.

The 2007 study by the consulting firm Abt Associates Inc. found that 18 percent of the veterans were unemployed within one to three years of discharge, while one out of four who did find jobs earned less than $21,840 a year. Many had taken advantage of government programs such as the GI Bill to boost job prospects, but there was little evidence that education benefits yielded higher pay or better advancement.

There's more to the article.

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE OF THE LEDGER, it looks like two baby Komodo dragons were born without male fertilization.