You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance

Alan Jacobs offers some advice (that he is confident will not be taken but that is another matter):

What I’m asking you to do is to act like a grown-up.

Don’t just cherry-pick the one number that seems to fit your narrative. Do a comparative study. Look at numbers from all over. Add and divide.

Discover how many people have died in this country from COVID–19 and over what period of time. Now compare that to deaths in the last few flu seasons, and ask yourself this: How long is a flu season? This page might give you a hint. Do the adjustments to correct for differences in the lengths of time you’re looking at, because that’s what grown-ups do.

He ends this mini-rant with a literary flourish which I quite like (hence this post):

C. S. Lewis’s old tutor, whom he called Kirk or Knock or The Great Knock, was an irascible old Ulsterman who would regularly get exasperated by people who lacked intellectual discipline and even basic curiosity. He would sometimes say to such people, “You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance.” That’s you. You can do better, and God help your sorry-ass soul if you don’t try.

As Jonah Goldberg has said, this virus should be known as “reinforces my priors” virus for they way everyone immediately began to use the economic, cultural, and political implications and potential impacts as further proof that they were right all along.  Social media has always been like this to some extent but the seriousness and stress of this seems to have ramped it up a couple of notches or ten.

I personally have no interest in trying to master the data or argue about it, but if you choose to wade into those waters then acting like an adult seems appropriate.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs

I know what you are thinking (pun intended): a 150 page book on “How to Think” ought to be pretty straightforward.  Do this, don’t do that, avoid this, do more of that, etc.  Just like a million other self-help books.  A few anecdotes, a nice dash of pop-science and evolutionary biology and Boom! best seller and TED talks galore.

Alas, How to Think by Alan Jacobs offers a different approach. First off, Jacobs starts with something of a buzz kill: most of us don’t really want to think and for good reasons. Thinking is hard, it can be stressful, uncomfortable and result in conflict with friends and relatives.

What our brains really crave is socially approved consensus.  We like to pick a group and stay comfortably within their perspective.  Every time we toe the line we get a jolt of pleasure. Every time we stray we get angry feedback.

Not sure about what to say or think?  Don’t know or don’t know enough? Stick with the group!

Ah, I can hear you saying.  The trick is to be independent.  “Think for yourself.” Have an open mind.

No so fast, again Jacobs punctures these cliches by outlining how thinking is inescapably social and that there is not a clear connection between ‘independence” and being correct.  Having an open mind only gets you so far if it doesn’t eventually close around something.

So this is all a set-up for a three step process to proper thinking, right?  This is where Jacobs reveals his heretofore undiscovered key (which happens to be available as an online course for a low, low price for readers).

Nope. In fact, Jacobs says that you can’t get to good thinking through a set of invariable rules.  Thinking is an art not a science.  Some self-help guru!

Instead, what Jacobs (who, to be fair, is a cultural critic and teacher) does is poke and prod and circle and ruminate on things like virtue, character, and prudence; and the experiences of thinkers and writers, and yes, sometimes even scholars.  People like C.S. Lewis, John Stuart Mill and Henry James (plus, a contrarian discussion of Wilt Chamberlain).

But here’s the thing.  If you are a literate and humane person, you soon begin to enjoy Jacobs’ admittedly oblique, discursive and conversational approach.  You give up the need for a overly simplified 12-step program with handy lists and catchy acronyms. You appreciate the style of an engaging conversation with a smart friend at a comfortable coffee shop instead of the lecture slash informercial.

And what Jacobs tells you is that there are traps and hurdles in the way to better thinking.  Group thinking is a real temptation.  It is easy to act as if everyone not comfortably in your group is the Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO).  On the flip side, it is easy to pretend that science is the solution (or that better thinking is nearly impossible) and that getting rid of your emotion, your bias and your stereotypes will set you free.

But, contra some, Jacobs thinks real progress is possible.  To do so, one must first seek to develop a certain kind of character; to be a certain kind of person.  Logic and analysis, yes, but also emotion and social commitments.  A whole, healthy person thinks best.

Self-awareness plays a role as well.  Recognize when you are placing someone in the role of an RCO. Recognize when you are in a group that brooks no dissent, that punishes free debate and opinion from people of goodwill.  Seek membership in a community  of like-hearted people not necessarily those that think alike.

And there are tactics and processes that can help.  Look for the best of those you disagree with; the best arguments, the most attractive messengers, the most sensible perspectives, etc.  Look to accurately and fairly describe their arguments before offering your own.  Try out their language and perspective as a way to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes. Like a method actor, understand how if you were in their shoes you might see the world the same way.  Plus, if you get rilled up and want to launch into refutation mode before the person has even finished speaking, wait five minutes. Don’t comment angry.

Recognize that the world we build out of keywords, metaphors and myths are necessary in many ways.  A world without these building blocks, shortcuts or mental furniture is a exhausting and maddening one.

But they can be dangerous, so develop a healthy skepticism and sense of humility about your worldview and opinions.  Don’t allow the narratives and mythology of your community to so fade into the background as to be invisible and never questioned.  Think about the blindspots of your patterns and habits.

And this brings us full circle. Thinking is hard.  Finding the balance between “intractably stubborn” and “pusillanimous and vacillating” takes time and effort.  You can’t be paralyzed by indecision or constantly be reinventing your mindset, but you also don’t wan’t to be so rigid that you can’t learn, change or adapt.  It is again, more art than science.

What in many ways lies at the bottom of How to Think is risk.  Are you willing to risk being wrong?  Are you willing to risk the ostracization of your group?  Are you willing to risk learning that the heretofore labeled RCO is closer to you than you would like to admit?

The penultimate chapter ends with what strikes me as a fundamental step in this journey/process: cultivating a healthy skepticism about our own motives and generosity towards the motives of others.

Oh, and for those of you that just have to have one. In the Afterword, Jacobs offers The Thinking Person’s Checklist with … yep, 12 steps.

But he didn’t say they were easy.


The Sword of Six Worlds (Book 1) by Matt Mikalatos

I have been reading children’s, middle grade, and young adult fiction for a while but now that my daughter (8) is reading more seriously I am more focused on what she might like and what seems a good fit.

So when I heard Matt Mikalatos had published a middle grade fiction book as part of a planned longer series I was intrigued.  I managed to get a copy of The Sword of Six Worlds, Book One in the Adventures of Validus Smith at the local library (I have since purchased the Kindle version).

sword of six worldsFor centuries the paladins protected the Earth from a creeping darkness known as the Blight. That all changed when a new enemy destroyed the paladins, plunging the free worlds into danger. Validus Smith—an ordinary girl in an ordinary town—is next in line to become the paladin. Untrained, unsure of her destiny, and hunted by monstrous forces, she must recover the fabled Sword of Six Worlds, the only weapon capable of defeating the Blight. The Sword, however, is not on Earth, but in a strange fantasy world connected to her own. In an unfamiliar world of monsters, talking animals and living rocks, can an ordinary girl like Validus survive?

I finally got around to reading it recently and found it to be a creative start to what feels like a promising series.

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Chesterton's Orthodoxy as the Antidote to Modernity

Celebrations of G.K. Chesteron’s birthday resulted in my finding this interesting take from Matthew Lee Anderson on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  He makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument for the book as “the most important work of the twenty-first century” (even thought it was written in the twentieth):

Cover of "Orthodoxy"
Cover of Orthodoxy

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, then, differs from Lewis’ Mere Christianity precisely in its attempt to ground Christianity not in the propositions of natural law, but in the elemental human and artistic experiences that we begin to neglect as we grow old. It is an attempt, dare I say, to defend and engender a faith that exudes wonder and astonishment at the mystery of reality. But Chesterton had told us as much at the beginning. Orthodoxy is not a “series of deductions,” as he says at the outset, but an attempt “in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures, to state the philosophy in which [he has] come to believe.”

It is this approach that I would argue is perfectly suited for our post-modern age. Chesterton is the anti-Nietsche—a poet-philosopher who understands that unless truth exists, the enterprises of art and beauty are rendered meaningless. What’s more, his method is consistent with his argument: he artistically defends the existence of the truth and grounds Christianity in the pre-rational experience of story without jeopardizing truth’s existence or fallaciously opposing reason and emotion.

I will confess to never having finished Orthodoxy (having briefly started it on a few occasions) and I am not a big fan of Mere Christianity (for which I might lose my conservative evangelical card).  But this makes me want to read both books through this lens.

The Narnia Code by Michael Ward

Like many evangelicals – heck, like a great many people period – my introduction to what you might call fantasy fiction was C.S. Lewis. I have read a decent amount of his writing as well as books about him.

I wouldn’t say I am quite as taken with him as some (there is an almost cultish aspect to many of his fans within evangelicalism) but I am a big fan of the Narnia series.

So when I heard about Planet Narnia by Michael Ward I was intrigued. Was there really a hidden code behind this famous series?  But the book was academic in nature not to mention long and expensive – so I never got around to reading it.

But the folks at Tyndale publishers had the bright idea to bring out a sort of slimed down introductory version called The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens.  I figured this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Here are the basics:

Millions of readers have been captivated by C. S. Lewis’s famed Chronicles of Narnia, but why? What is it about these seven books that makes them so appealing? For more than half a century, scholars have attempted to find the organizing key—the “secret code”—to the beloved series, but it has remained a mystery. Until now.

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward takes the reader through each of the seven Narnia books and reveals how each story embodies and expresses the characteristics of one of the seven planets of medieval cosmology—Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus and Saturn—planets which Lewis described as “spiritual symbols of permanent value.”

How does medieval cosmology relate to the Christian underpinnings of the series? How did it impact Lewis’s depiction of Aslan, the Christlike character at the heart of the books? And why did Lewis keep this planetary inspiration a secret? Originally a ground-breaking scholarly work called Planet Narnia, this more accessible adaptation will answer all the questions.

Seems outrageous and interesting, right? Well, it is sort of both. I found the book interesting in concept but less successful in practice.

More thoughts below. Continue reading