In Loving Memory of Charles Hill

Yesterday I moved apartments. All day, while transferring my belongings, I was looking for a card that I knew had to be in my apartment somewhere. It was a Yale ID card for library privileges, one of those cards you get specially made for the research assistant job. The staff at Sterling Library have to scan it when you pick up a book for your supervisor. But I couldn’t find it anywhere.

I thought to myself: Don’t panic. Everything that gets put down somewhere gets picked up somewhere else, unless it’s been thrown away. Surely the card would turn up. Nobody else lived in my apartment, and it would have been extremely unlike me to throw it away. I have never thrown out anything else Charlie Hill has ever given me. One time I ran to his office in the snow because I was convinced I had figured out Tibetan Buddhism. By the time I got there, my hair was plastered to my head and covered in snow. This vexed him, and he wordlessly got up from his desk, dug around in the little library-slash-knickknack-hoard in the back of the room, and pulled out a Yale baseball hat. (He really liked baseball.) He put it on my head, fussed over it for a minute, and told me to never lose it. And I never did.

I’m a symbolic thinker, always looking for the proper metonym. Maybe that was why the loss of the library card bothered me so much. We are defined by the people who yoke us, the people for whom we are willing to act in uncharacteristic ways. Those are the ones we love. Getting books from the library, having things printed at Tyco: these are wildly un-Tessa-like things to do. Usually I don’t even remember to do them for myself. But for almost three years I ran these errands for Charles Hill. It was worth it to sit and hear him lay his plans, explaining what grand project justified needing the books in the first place. Being his RA was an eclectic mixture of responsibilities. Mostly, he wanted me to write essays, annotate bibliographies, curate lists of sources. But even when I was doing menial tasks, I got paid fifteen bucks an hour to watch my personal hero string Odysseus’ bow. It was the best deal I ever made.

I took the RA position at the close of my sophomore year. The first year and a half of my membership in the Charles Hill cult were just like anyone else’s—just like yours, probably, if you’re reading this. I went to his office hours religiously, asked him to be my sophomore advisor (he said he’d be “honored,” like he says to everyone), came to him with curated questions that I knew he would find interesting. I quoted him in the articles I wrote for the Yale Free Press. I memorized Edmund Burke’s “On Conciliation with the Colonies” to impress him.

But by early 2017, it had become apparent that I wasn’t interested in politics. (Here, Professor Hill would draw a distinction between “politics” and “Politics with a capital P, and say it was the former that I didn’t care for. We would all nod good-naturedly.) I didn’t want to study global affairs. I knew then that I would not end up taking any of his courses in foreign negotiations, diplomacy, grand strategy. When he discussed those things in office hours, I let my eyes glaze over, waiting for the neocons to leave so I could go back to listening to him talk about how DuBois sets up The Souls of Black Folk in the tradition of the Homeric epic.

That’s why he offered me the job, I think. I would have fallen through the cracks otherwise. Charlie Hill was an incredibly observant person, and a very warm one. He was always running tabs on his people, subtly checking in on them when he thought it would have been an imposition to ask outright. It made him happy to hear the steady Turing machine clicks and be reassured everyone was okay. I think this—I know it—because I’m like that too. I don’t know which came first: whether he picked me to be part of his world because he saw that I was like him, or whether I made myself in his image because his picking me was the best thing that ever happened to me.

There’s a crosswalk stoplight in New Haven (corner of Elm and York) that skips time when it counts down. It tells you in electric red letters how many seconds you have to cross—“30, 29, 28,” and so on—like a lot of digital walk/wait signs do. But unlike those other signs, this one skips from “60” directly to “20,” and I, a 24-year-old woman who has been living independently for years, am always thrown off by this. When I was an undergrad this was a serious impediment to my crossing the street. I just thought I had more time.

Another metonym: I just thought I had more time seems like a strange response to the death of someone old. But people live to 90 now. All the grandparents I have who were alive when I was born are still alive now. I didn’t see this coming.

Not a metonym: I was sometimes late to meetings with Prof. Hill because of this stoplight. The reason that I was disturbed by something as irrelevant to most people as a malfunctioning pedestrian walk sign is that I have serious attention problems. (That’s how you have to put it. You can’t say “I have ADHD” because people think it’s like saying “I have a splinter.”) I have a hard time taking my medication regularly because I’m afraid of getting addicted: I have a history of substance abuse. Alcohol. Sometimes I wonder if my professors knew—if Charlie knew. I went to his office, as usual, the week I quit drinking. He cleared his throat, told me he liked my new rosary, and said offhandedly, “You look healthier than I’ve ever seen you.”

Much of my life is defined by that struggle, with alcohol, with functionality. I see it now in the fifty-page commentary on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that I wrote for Prof. Hill the summer after my senior year. He did ask me to write it, although he probably regretted it when he saw how long it was. One paragraph I keep looking back at is this:

There is a pleasant romantic delusion, which is extremely pernicious and to which I subscribed for much too long, that the genius is ontologically sick. This is the theorem penned by Mann about Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Their sickness, beyond providing fodder for their creativity, was their creativity: its basis and its completion. Without illness, the argument goes, they would be nothing. Mann’s tragic hero Adrian Leverkuhn was the personification of the unstable genius, the starving artist who is simultaneously a madman and a creator, and indeed is an artist only inasmuch as he is a madman. His bouts of creativity are bouts of mania or psychosis, engendered either because he is insane (mental illness) or in a rush of productivity caused by his knowledge that his days are numbered (physical illness).

The reason I ever bought into that theory at all is that I wasn’t put together in undergrad. Quitting drinking didn’t fix that: I’m still not. I oversleep classes and appointments. I delay things and take extensions. Even the most put-together iteration of me is an incredibly fragile equilibrium. (My apartment was too noisy a few weeks ago. I had to move to retain functionality.) So it was charming, the idea that there’s a degree of intelligence beyond which it’s fundamentally impossible to execute basic functionality. It’s reassuring to believe that. You get to be Einstein, or Godel, or whatever famously not-cut-out-for-life-under-contemporary-capitalism intellectual you want to be. You get to shout “I’M SICK! I’M SICK!” like in that scene from Synecdoche, New York, and toss around in bed and do nothing. But in the end, of course, it’s a silly thing to think. You need accomplishments to call yourself a genius. And you can’t get those without doing work.

I tried to work when I worked for Professor Hill. I did my best for him, but I am not a reliable person. I struggled to get things done when he wanted them, to reply to emails. He understood this pitfall about me, and he made me want to work. He knew I needed direction and firm deadlines but not to be yelled at. And he took me on as a research assistant for three years, even though I was not the best choice. Research assistants don’t have to be creative or smart. They have to get stuff done. Being enveloped in his world transformed my life for the better, but it must have inconvenienced him, at least at the beginning.

Sometimes the whole thing seems so illogical I’m not even sure it happened. Charles Hill walked around campus enshrouded in reverence and awe. There were members of my class much more functional and accomplished than I—it was Yale, for goodness sake—who wanted the kind of relationship with him that I had, the way he would brush it off when I dropped the ball. Why me and not them? Maybe, what I lacked in diligence and responsibility, I made up in enthusiasm. Or maybe I just needed him more than they did. Hospitals are for the sick, after all.

Like I said: I thought I had more time. I didn’t see this coming. Around New Year’s, Professor Hill emailed me comments on a magazine piece I’d written, and I never replied.

Well, I never replied yet. We carried out correspondences over months, not days. This is to some extent attributable to the fact that when he wrote me, it was usually with instructions for a project: “Write something about X.” His plans were both specific enough to be interesting and open-ended enough for me to be creative about the approach. Over the past two years, he had been thinking a lot about the future of artificial intelligence, so I had been writing about it. What I sent him in December was about how to interpret the AI advent in light of American religious history. It was exactly the kind of spin he loved to put on things.

He was full of zany ideas, really—like a sitcom character getting up to shenanigans. One week I’d be checking out books on originalism from Sterling and writing commentaries on Keith Whittington’s books. The next week I’d be writing about baseball (I emphasize again that Prof. Hill really liked baseball) and its relationship to the future of artificial intelligence. Could a machine, he wanted to know, get good at baseball the way it could get good at chess? In the process of brainstorming, he suggested something I thought was a very evocative Turing test: “explain why some people are dog people and some people are cat people.”

He loved being interdisciplinary, and the idea of interdisciplinary students serving as translators between fields. I have a degree in mathematics; naturally, Prof. Hill wanted me to learn Greek to translate Plato’s mathematical dialogues. He loved adding an interdisciplinary bent to something and seeing if it made sense. It reminded me of something Borges wrote in Tlon, about the poets of noun-less languages stacking together adjectives to create a resultant theoretical “poem-object.” Charlie would do this—add “mathematics” to something and pitch it to me as an idea.

“The mathematics of the Constitution,” he intoned slowly, watching carefully for my response. “Do you think that’s anything?”

I frowned. “No.”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

It was hard to keep emailing him regularly after I graduated, although I stayed a degree better connected to him than I did to anyone else from the university. The one in-person meeting we had set up—February of last year—fell through because my flight got cancelled. But I don’t feel wrong about not responding to his New Year’s email. He knew I would get back to him, that I was writing something for him. He saw me as always working, spinning the wheels. Slowly, sometimes, but the work I’d output would end up the better for it. His email at the close of 2020 gave me some direction: separate out an idea I had into a few discrete concepts before I ran the next draft by him. And I was going to do that. I still will, now that he’s gone. Charlie Hill motivated me to see myself the way he saw me, the way he was: always spinning.

I was in and out of his office more than usual, my last few weeks of undergrad. One time I fell asleep there. I even went to his office hour every week, which was very unlike me. Mostly I was just bracing myself for being without him: taking a deep breath of his world before venturing outside it. But I came up with plenty of post hoc questions to justify my extra there-ness. I was trying to decide where to go to grad school, so Professor Hill drew one of his famously incomprehensible diagrams to help me. (The different programs were different convex solids in threespace.) When my chronic illness got worse over the summer, I called him a lot, asking if I should maybe take some time off. He was adamantly against it. He told me—these words ring in my ears always—that if I took time off I’d never go back to school. He didn’t mean this as a general rule. He meant it about me, because he knew me that well. Care dripped from his words, always, but especially when he invoked the advisorial right to deliver that kind of honest counsel. There’s this canard about watchful, strategic people that they’re cold and detached. But Professor Hill’s strategic nature was one more vessel for his warmth, for his long, protective wingspan.

I will never have another advocate like Charles Hill. The way he knew his students—learned about them, carefully, the better to be able to fight for them—was extraordinary. He was the perfect storm of planning and perception. I was confused and disorganized (and constantly under disciplinary investigation), but being able to collect all the data and bring them to him like a covered wicker basket, to watch him map them out for me, saved me.

Professor Hill understood the importance of being tethered to people, to projects. He spent his life studying Buddhism and Paradise Lost—his two graduate school specializations. He was freewheeling, eccentric, yes, but never rootless. He’d turn away from you in his office to pick up the phone and take a 45-minute phone call from Henry Kissinger to talk about their dogs (he loved to do this) but then he would always put down the phone, clear his throat, and look at you expectantly.

Life according to Charles Hill wasn’t about being continuously functional, or even reliably functional. I couldn’t manage those things sometimes, and I know that sometimes frustrated him. But he never made me feel like a failure. To him, success wasn’t about always already being there. It was about coming back. I can do that, I thought as an eighteen-year-old. I can do that, I still think now.

Professor Hill didn’t advise my thesis. It wasn’t in his wheelhouse. I had one other mentor in undergrad whom I loved dearly and who was an expert in the topic, so Prof. Hill ended up serving as a secondary advisor. But an entire chapter of it is a nod to him: an examination of Tibetan Theravada Buddhism.

My senior year, one of his other mentees asked him to put together a course on Tibet. Professor Hill was overjoyed. As his RA, I helped with the course planning—the last course I’d ever help him design. My fall term was spent in the new English translation of the Bardo thodol and weekly discussions where Prof. Hill and I would bash our heads against a wall trying to figure out how to avoid Evans-Wentz’s corruption of Tibetan Buddhism by Western sensibilities. It was my favorite semester.

I think about Tibetan Buddhism a lot of the time now, and how wrong Carl Jung was about it. And I think about George Bernard Shaw. And John Milton. And baseball, and Operation Passage to Freedom, and constitutional originalism, and Plato’s mathematical dialogues. I fell in love with the Commedia before I met Professor Hill, I remember—but everything since has been seen through his lens.

This is to say: I suspect we all secretly think we are Charles Hill’s true intellectual heir. It’s hard not to. I know I’m a harder sell than some of the others because I’m violently anti-pragmatic, and I don’t really understand or want to understand foreign relations. But we can all agree that he made us want that, right? I know he made me want to be viewed as his disciple, as one of the members of his tradition. The leader of the cult, the high priestess of the World According to Charlie. And I am better for that. “Leading by example” is often a vacuous phrase, bereft of normative meaning. But Charles Hill made it mean something.

I’ve often said that my idiosyncratic brand of kinship egoism lends primacy to three particular virtues: loyalty, authenticity, and discipline. In that order. These qualities are the things I most appreciate in others and seek to cultivate in myself. Professor Hill made me want to want those things, to have the correctly aligned desires for self-improvement. The hardest part is making the map. I didn’t have to do that—he did it for me.

I’m done feeling strange about writing this. Yeah, the essay—the blog post essay, for goodness sake—is an inherently narcissistic medium. I know that. I spent yesterday trying to conspicuously “not make this about me” and resenting other people I thought were doing that. But within a day, I broke, and now here I am, same as them. I feel like it is about me. Because the thing about Charlie Hill was, he made you feel like the word revolved around you. And honestly, in those moments when you found yourself appreciated, loved, protected by the man who was so clearly one of the greatest intellects alive, it did.

I found the library card today. The mountainous relief that crashed over me felt strange: while looking for the card, I had been repeating to myself that he wouldn’t be upset with me for losing it (it expired in 2018!), that I didn’t need his paper trail in my life to prove that we were important to each other, that he was gone whether the card turned up or not. And all those things are still true. But when I found it, I cried.

Sometimes I say my life happened the way it did because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad things have happened to me—awful things. I have suffered. Weirdly, There but for the grace of God go I works both ways; the near-misses were misses because God meant them to be, and the collisions were willed by Him, too. I almost switched out of my first-year seminar with Professor Hill, before I knew who he was, because I (incorrectly) thought it conflicted with my math class. But I didn’t, so here I am.

The library card sits before me. My unsmiling photo is labeled with “c/o Prof. Charles Hill.” How apt. I sit here looking at it, and looking at the baseball hat, and notes and diagrams that look distinctly geometric, and archives of Overleaf documents, emails, scrawled letters: dispatches from my life in the care of Charles Hill. And I am sad, very, but also staggered, and I mean that—staggered by how lucky I am. There for the grace of God go I.


Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius: A New Translation

I’ve rendered a new translation of Tlon, striving to first match Borges’ style and second his content.

I owe to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia the discovery of Uqbar. The looking glass disturbed the depths of a corridor in a farmhouse on Gaona Street, in Ramos Mejia; the encyclopedia erroneously claimed to be The Anglo American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917), and was a faithful, albeit inadequate, reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Presently it will have been five years since it all happened. Bioy Casares had dined with me that night, and we dallied in a vast dispute concerning the proper execution of a first-person novel, whose narrator would delete or distort events and implicate himself in myriad contradictions, permitting only a few readers—scant few readers—the ascertainment of any true detail, outrageous or trivial. From the remote end of the corridor, the mirror spied upon us. We discovered (in the wee hours, such discoveries are inevitable) that mirrors possess some monstrous quality. Then Bioy Casares remembered that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominations, for they multiply the ranks of men. I queried as to the source of this striking observation, and Bioy answered that it was registered in the Anglo American Cyclopaedia, in the article regarding Uqbar. The farmhouse (which we had rented already outfitted) contained a copy of this work. In the final pages of Volume XLVI we found an article about Upsala; in the first of Volume XLVII, one concerning Ural-Altaic Languages, but not a word about Uqbar. Bioy, rather embarrassed, scrutinized the index. He exhausted in vain every conceivable spelling: Ukbar, Ucbar, Ooqbar, Ookbar, Oukbahr…Before leaving, he told me that Uqbar was a region of Iraq or Asia Minor. I admit that my assent was accompanied by some distrust. I figured that this clandestine country and its anonymous heresiarch were an extemporaneous artifact of Bioy’s modesty in order to justify his aphorism. The profitless perusal of one of the atlases of Justus Perthes strengthened my doubt.

The next day, Bioy called me from Buenos Aires. He informed me that he had before him the article about Uqbar in Volume XLVI of the encyclopedia. It did not betray the name of the heresiarch, but did convey a note on his doctrine, devised in words almost identical to those spoken by Bioy, although—perhaps—rhetorically inferior. Bioy had said, Mirrors and copulation are abominations. The encyclopedic text explained: For one of these Gnostics, the visible universe constituted an illusion, or in particular, a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominations because they multiply and extend it. I told him quite honestly that I should like to see the article. A few days later, he brought it to me. I was surprised; the conscientious cartographic catalogues of Ritter’s Erdkunde were thoroughly ignorant of the name “Uqbar.”

The volume brought by Bioy was, in effect, Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia. On the false cover and spine, the alphabetical marking (Tor-Ups) matched that of the aforementioned copy, but instead of that encyclopedia’s 917 pages, Bioy’s consisted of 921. These four additional pages comprised the article concerning Uqbar; they were not merited (as the reader will have been advised) in the alphabetical listing. We confirmed afterwards that there existed no other difference between the two copies. Both (as I believe I have mentioned) were reprints of the tenth Encyclopaedia Britannica. Bioy had acquired his copy at one of many auctions.

We read the article with considerable care. Bioy’s remembered quotation was perhaps the only surprising one. The rest were downright true-to-life, in continuity with the general tone of the entry, and (as is common) a tad boring. On a rereading, we found under the scrupulous script a prevailing vagueness. Of the fourteen names that figured into the geographical section, we recognized a mere three—Khorasan, Armenia, Erzurum—interpolated into the text in an ambiguous manner. Of the historical figures, we knew just one: Smerdis the impostor magician, invoked only as a sort of metaphor. The article seemed to specify the borders of Uqbar, but its indistinct reference points were rivers and craters and mountains therein. We read, for instance, that the lowlands of Tsai Jaldun and the delta of Axa defined the southern border, and that the islands of that delta were the mating grounds of wild horses. All this we found on the top of page 918. In the historical section (page 920), we learned that following the religious wars of the thirteenth century, the orthodox claimed refuge in the islands, where their obelisks still remain, and where it is not unusual to unearth their flinted mirrors. The section “Language and Literature” was brief. Only one feature was memorable: an annotation that the literature of Uqbar was of the fantastical persuasion; the epics and legends did not concern real events at all, but rather the two imaginary realms of Mlejnas and Tlon…The bibliography enumerated four sources that neither of us had previously encountered, although the third—Silas Haslam’s Hystory of the Land Called Uqbar, 1874—is featured in the catalogues of Bernard Quaritch’s bookstore [1]. The first source, Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen uber das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien, dated to 1641 and is authored by Johannes Vantinus Andrea. This fact is crucial: a few years later, I found his name on an unlooked-for page of De Quincey’s Writings, the thirteenth volume, and learned that he had been a German theologian who, at the turn of the seventeenth century, sang of the mythical brotherhood of the Rose Cross—a society later rendered real by the work of others, in imitation of the one he imagined.

That night we went to the National Library. In vain did we exhaust atlases, catalogues, annuals of geographical societies, memoirs of travelers and historians: not one had ever been in Uqbar. Neither did the general index of Bioy’s encyclopedia register its name. The next day, Carlos Mastronardi (to whom I had referred the matter) spotted on a bookstore in Corrientes and Talcahuano the gold and black spine of the Anglo American Cyclopaedia…He went in, and consulted Volume XLVI. Naturally, he did not find even the slightest mention of Uqbar.


Some slight and shrinking memory of Herbert Ashe, engineer of the southern railroads, endures in the hotel at Adrogue, between the gushing honeysuckles and the illusory background of the looking glasses. In life he suffered from fantasy, like so many Englishmen; in death, he is not even the phantasm that he was then. He was tall and torpid, with what was once a red rectangular beard. To my understanding, he was a childless widow. Every few years, he went to England, to visit (I surmised, from some photographs that he showed to us) a sundial and some oak trees. He and my father had been close (the word is too strong) in one of those English friendships that begin without trust and proceed without conversation. They were wont to exchange books and newspapers; they were wont to meet for silent games of chess…I remember him in the hotel corridor, with a mathematics text in his hand, occasionally glancing towards the irretrievable colors of the sky. One afternoon, we spoke of the duodecimal numerary system (in which twelve is written as 10). Ashe said that he had just been translating some duodecimal tables (I do not know which) to sexagesimal (in which sixty is written as 10). He added that this work had been entrusted to him by a Norwegian in southern Rio Grande. Eight years I had known him, and he had never mentioned his stay there…We discussed the pastoral life, the plantation workers, the Brazilian etymology of the word “gaucho” (which some old orientals still pronounce “gaúcho”), and no more was said—God forgive me—of duodecimal systems. In September 1937 (when we were not in the hotel), Herbert Ashe died of an aneurysm rupture. Days before, he had received from Brazil a sealed and certified package. It was a book in large octavo. Ashe left it in the barroom, where—months later—I found it. Beginning to leaf through it, I felt a speechless, weightless vertigo that I will not waste words describing, for this is the history not of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlon and Orbis Tertius. In Islam, there is a night called the Night of Nights in which the disguised doors of heaven are thrown open, and water sweetens in the canteens; if these doors were to open, I would not feel the fulness of that which I felt that afternoon. The book was written in English and totaled 1001 pages. On the flaxen leather spine I read those curious words restated on the false front: A First Encyclopaedia of Tlon, vol. XI: Hlaer to jangr. There was no indication of the date or place. On the first page, and on a silken sheet of paper that covered one of the colored lamellas was stamped a blue oval with the inscription Orbis Tertius. It had been two years since I had discovered in a volume of a certain corrupted encyclopedia a dim description of a spurious country; now, something yet more precious and punishing awaited me. Now, I held in my hands a massive, methodical fragment of the complete history of an undiscovered planet, with its architectures and its tarot cards, with the terror of its mythology and the whispers of its languages, with its emperors and its oceans, with its sacred stones and its fowl and its fish, with its arithmetic and its flame; with its controversial theologies and metaphysics: all eloquent, expressive, without any observable gestures to doctrinal propaganda or satirical tone.

In this eleventh volume of which I treat there are allusions to tomes anterior and subsequent. Nestor Ibarra, in a now authoritative article in the NRF, has denied that there exist these companion volumes; Ezequiel Martinez Estrada and Drieu la Rochelle have refuted, and perchance prevailed over, his doubt. The truth is that until now, even the most earnest examinations have been barren. In vain have we disheveled the contents of the libraries of both Americas and Europe. Alfonso Reyes, fed up with these inferior sleuthing expeditions, proposes that together we commit ourselves to the work of reconstructing the many and mountainous tomes that we lack: ex ungue leonem. He estimates, in a tone between satire and seriousness, that a generation of “Tlonistas” could suffice. This risky reckoning brings us back to the fundamental question: Who are the inventors of Tlon? The plural is certain, as the hypothesis of a singular architect—one limitless Leibniz working in darkness and diffidence—has been unanimously discarded. Instead, the common conjecture is that this “brave new world” is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicists, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers…guided by some murky man of genius. Individuals who have mastered these diverse disciplines abound, but none of those are of the visionary sort, let alone capable of subjecting the visionary impulse to a strict and systematic design—a design so vast that the contribution of any one participant is infinitesimal. At first, we thought Tlon to consist of mere chaos, of an irresponsibly permissive imagination; now, it is known that it is a universe, and that the deepest dictums that govern it were well-defined, even by provision. It suffices to recall that the conspicuous contradictions of the eleventh volume are the hallmark which proves that the others must exist as well, so cogent and condign is the order that has been observed within it. Popular magazines have exposed, with pardonable sensationalism, the zoology and topography of Tlon; I wonder if its transparent tigers and towers of blood deserve the continued attention of all men. I dare to request a few minutes to explain Tlon’s concept of the universe.

Hume noted for posterity that the arguments of Berkeley do not allow the slightest refutation, nor do they cause the faintest conviction. This dictum is thoroughly reliable in its application to Earth, and completely false on Tlon. The peoples of that planet are congenitally idealists. Their languages and the cultures derived from these languages—religions, letters, metaphysics—are dependent upon idealism. The world, for them, is not a collection of objects in space; it is a sundry string of independent acts. It is successive; temporal—not spatial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlon, from which developed the prevailing tongues and dialects: there are only impersonal verbs, qualified with single-syllable suffixes (or prefixes) of an adverbial value. For example, no word corresponds to the English word “moon,” but there exists a verb which might translate in English “to moonize” or “to moon.” Where we would say “The moon rose above the river,” they say “hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo,” or in our understanding, “upwards and behind the constantly-flowing it mooned.” (Xul Solar translates briefly: “Up and behind where it onstreamed, it mooned.”)

The former refers to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (the native Ursprache of which is very little treated of in the eleventh volume), the primordial feature is not the verb but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun forms through accumulation of adjectives. One does not say “moon”: one says “aerial-clear-light on the dark-round” or “orange-dim in the sky” or some other construction. In this case, the lump of adjectives corresponds to a real object, but this fact is purely a fortuitous coincidence. In the literature of that hemisphere (and the subsistent world of Meinong) ideal objects abound, summoned and dismissed in an instant, according to the poetic necessities. They are determined sometimes by their mere concurrence. There are objects composed of two terms, one of a visual character and the other auditory: the color of birth and the distant call of a bird. They are made up of multitudes: the sun; the waves crashing against a swimmer’s chest; the vague, vibrating rosiness that can be seen on the underside of closed eyelids; the sensations experienced by those who allow themselves to be carried by the current of a river and of a reverie. These second-rate objects can be combined with still others; the process, compounding by means of certain concatenations, is effectively infinite. There are famous poems composed of one unending word, which constitute the poetic “object” created by the author. The fact that nobody supposes the reality of nouns causes, paradoxically, that the number of these nouns becomes interminable. The languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon possess all the nouns of our Indo-European dialects, and many more.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to claim that the classical culture of Tlon concerns itself with only one discipline: psychology. All other subjects are subordinated to it. I have said that the men of this world envisage the universe as a series of mental methodologies, which proceed not in space but rather sequentially in time. Spinoza attributes to his infallible God the qualities of extension and thought; on Tlon, not a soul could fathom the juxtaposition of the former (typified only in certain states of being) and the latter (a synonym for the selfsame cosmos). The claim must be made in other words: the residents of Tlon do not believe that space persists in time. The sight of smoke on the horizon, then of a smoldering field, then of the half-extinguished cigar that produced the blaze, is considered just one of many possible associations of ideas.

This monism, or total idealism, invalidates the sciences. To explain or consider an event is to connect it to others; this interdependence, on Tlon, is a retroactive state of the subject, which cannot affect or account for the prior state. All mental states are irreducible: the simple act of naming them—i.e. of classifying them—brings to bear a falsehood. From this, it is fitting to conclude that there exist no sciences on Tlon—nor so much as reasons. The incongruous truth, however, is that such reasons do exist, and indeed are but innumerable. To systems of thought occurs the same process that occurs with nouns in the northern hemisphere. The fact that all philosophy is a priori a dialectical game, a Philosophie de Als Orb, only serves to further multiply them. Fantastical systems abound, always of an agreeable or sensational structure. The metaphysicists of Tlon seek neither truth nor even plausibility, but rather wonder. They view metaphysics as an arm of fantastical literature. They are aware that a system is nothing but the subjugation of all aspects of the universe to any mere one. Even the phrase “all aspects of the universe” is dubious, because it assumes the impossible: summation of the present moment and of previous ones. Neither is the concept “previous ones” admitted; it attempts another impossible operation…One of the Tlon traditions rejects time altogether, reasoning that the present is ill-defined; the future, only real as present hope; the past, only real as present memory [2]. Another school claims that all of time has already elapsed, and our life is a scant memory or mirror in the gloam, doubtless garbled and mutilated, an artifact of an irrecoverable process. Still another professes that the history of the universe—and these our lives, down to the most delicate detail—is the work of an auxiliary god seeking concord with a demon. Another, that the cosmos is comparable to those cryptographies wherein not all the signs are reliable, and that only the events of one out of every three hundred nights are true. Another, that while we sleep here, we are awake somewhere else; thus, each man is two men.

Of all the Tlonist doctrines, none has merited such infamy as that of materialism. Many thinkers have derived it, with less perspicuity than passion, like one who proposes a paradox. To facilitate the fathoming of this inconceivable thesis, a heresiarch of the eleventh century [3] constructed the casuistry of the nine copper coins, the scandalous renown of which is equal on Tlon to that of the Eleatic Aporias. Of this “specious argument” there are several versions, which differ in the number of coins and in the results. Here is the most prevailing:

On Tuesday, X traverses a deserted road and loses nine copper coins. On Thursday, Y finds on the road four copper coins, somewhat rusted from Wednesday’s rain. On Friday, Z discovers three coins in the road. On Friday morning, X finds two coins in the hallway of his house.

The heresiarch wished to deduce from this story the reality—in particular, the continuity—of the nine recovered coins. It would be absurd, he affirmed, to believe that four of the coins did not exist between Tuesday and Thursday; three between Tuesday and Friday afternoon; two between Tuesday and Friday morning. It is logical to conclude that the coins have existed—even in some mysterious manner, the fathoming of which is forbidden to men—in every moment of those three periods.

The language of Tlon resisted the formulation of that paradox; most did not understand it. The proponents of common sense at first limited themselves to denying the accuracy of the anecdote. They reiterated that it was a verbal fallacy, originating in the temerarious application of two neologisms, the use of which was unauthorized and alien to all rigorous thought: the verbs to find and to lose, which beg the question in presupposing the identity of the first nine coins and the following. They reminded others that any noun (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) carries only a metaphorical value. They denounced the duplicitous conjuncture “somewhat rusted from Wednesday’s rain,” which presumed that which it meant to prove: the perseverance of the four coins between Tuesday and Thursday. They explained that equality is one thing and identity quite another, and formulated a sort of reductio ad absurdum: the hypothetical case of nine men who, on nine consecutive nights, suffer a vivid pain. Would it not be preposterous, they challenged, to purport that the pain is the same? [4] They declared that the heresiarch had been driven only by the blasphemous proposition of ascribing the divine breed of Being to a few silly coins, and that he sometimes refuted plurality and other times accepted it. They concluded: if equality implies identity, it would be furthermore requisite to acknowledge that the nine coins were one.

Incredibly, these refutations did not definitively settle the question. Some hundred years after the parameters of the problem were set forth, a scholar no less brilliant than the heresiarch, but of the orthodox tradition, developed an audacious hypothesis. His happy conjecture vindicated the existence of only one subject, that this indivisible subject is each one of the beings of the universe, and that these beings are the organs and veils of the divine. X is Y and Z. Z discovers three coins because he recalls that X lost them; X finds two in his corridor because he remembers that the others have been recovered…The eleventh volume allows one to understand that for three crucial reasons did idealistic pantheism emerge thoroughly victorious on Tlon: first, the repudiation of solipsism; second, the possibility of preserving the psychological principal of the sciences; third, the possibility of retaining the worship of the gods. Schopenhauer—passionate, precise Schopenhauer—devises a similar doctrine in the first volume of Parerga und Paralipomena.

The geometry of Tlon comprises two rather discrete disciplines: the visual and the tactile. The latter concurs with that of Earth and is subsidiary to the former. The basis of visual geometry is the surface, not the point. This geometry disavows parallel lines and declares that a man displaced disrupts the forms around him. The basis of their arithmetic is the concept of indeterminate numbers. They emphasize the importance of the concepts of greater than and less than, which our mathematics represent with the symbols “<” and “>”. They attest that the operation of counting alters the sum, and renders determinates of indeterminates. The fact that many individuals who count the same quantity attain identical results epitomizes for the psychologists a case of association of ideas or of good use of memory; as we know, on Tlon the subject of knowledge is unified and eternal.

In the literary tradition too is the idea of the single subject supreme. It is unusual for books to be signed. The concept of plagiarism is nonexistent: it has been established that all books are the artifacts of a single author, anonymous and abiding. It is the wont of literary critics to invent authors, by choosing two unrelated works—say, Tao Te Ching and The 1001 Nights—attributing them to the same writer, and then examining charitably the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres

The books of Tlon are distinctive as well. Those of fiction encompass one plot with all imaginable permutations. Those of philosophy unfailingly contain a thesis and its antithesis, the rigorous cases for and against a doctrine. The book that does not include its own counterbook is considered incomplete.

Centuries upon centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlon, the duplication of lost objects is not uncommon. Two people search for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second encounters a second pencil, no less real but better adjusted to his expectation. These secondary objects are known as hronir, and are, although ungainly in shape, somewhat longer. Until recently, these hronir were the occasional offspring of distraction and neglect. It seems incredible that the dawn of their methodical manufacture was barely a hundred years ago, but so says the eleventh volume. The first attempts were feckless. Nonetheless, the modus operandi warrants mention. The director of a state prison notified the inmates that under the old riverbank were certain tombs, and promised freedom to whoever brought in a valuable finding. During the months leading to the excavation, they were provided with photographs of what they were meant to find. This first trial demonstrated that hope and avarice are inhibitions; a week’s hard work with shovel and spout succeeded in unearthing no hron but a rusty wheel, dated to after the experiment. The secrecy of the experiment was maintained, and it was repeated afterward in four schools. Three yielded near-total failure; in the fourth experiment (whose lead architect had died in a freak accident during the first excavation), the students exhumed—or produced—a gold mask, an ancient sword, two or three clay urns, and the moldering and mutilated torso of a king, whose chest bore an inscription that has still not been deciphered. Thereby was discovered the unsuitability of participants familiar with the experimental nature of the excavation…Mass investigations produce contrary objects; these days individual and nearly improvised assignments are preferred. The systematic development of hronir has been of tremendous use to archaeologists. It has allowed the examination and even the revision of the past, which is now no less plastic and pliant than the future. A curious fact: second- and third-degree hronir­—a hron derived from another hron, hronir derived from the hron of a hron—amplify the aberrations of the first degree; those of the fifth degree verge on uniformity; those of the ninth degree can be confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of lines not even found in the original objects. The process is periodic; already the twelfth-grade hron begins to decay again. Stranger and purer than any hron is, sometimes, the ur: the product of suggestion, the object of hope. The great golden mask I have mentioned is a well-known example.

Objects duplicate in Tlon; they also possess the propensity to blur and lose detail when people forget them. A classic example is that of a ridge that persisted while visited by a beggar, but was lost from view after his death. On occasion, some birds, a horse, have rescued the ruins of an amphitheater.

1940, Salto Oriental

Postscript, 1947. I reproduce the above article as it appeared in Anthology of Fantastical Literature, 1940, with no excisions save for those of some metaphors and of a sort of derisive summary that now rings frivolous. Many things have happened since that date…I will confine myself to relating them.

In March 1941, a letter by Gunnar Erfjord was discovered in a Hinton book that had belonged to Herbert Ashe. The envelope carried the postal stamp of Ouro Preto; the letter explained entirely the mystery of Tlon. Its contents corroborated the theory of Martinez Estrada. The splendid history began in a night in Lucerne or London, at the turn of the seventeenth century. A benevolent secret society (which, among its affiliates, boasted Dalgarno and later George Berkeley) arose to invent a country. “Hermetic studies,” philanthropy, and the Kabbalah figured into the vague initial scheme. From this first era dates Andrea’s curious book. At the conclusion of a few years of councils and premature syntheses, they understood that a generation could not suffice to compose a country. They resolved that each of the experts involved in its integration should choose a student for the continuation of the creation. This hereditary provision prevailed; after a hiatus of two centuries, the persecuted brotherhood reemerged in America. Until 1824, in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the affiliates communicated with the ascetic millionaire Ezra Buckley, who allowed him to speak with some disdain—and chuckled at the modesty of the project. He told the affiliate that in America, it is absurd to invent a mere country, and proposed instead the invention of a planet. To this titanic idea Buckley added another, child of his cynicism [5]: that of guarding the enormous empire in silence.

At that time circulated the twenty tomes of Encyclopedia Britannica; Buckley suggested a meticulous encyclopedia of the illusory planet. He would loan them his gold-bearing mountain ranges, his navigable rivers, his pastures trampled by bull and bison, his Blacks, brothels, and bullion, under one condition: “The project will have nothing to do with that impostor Jesus Christ.” Buckley did not believe in God, yet wished to prove to the nonexistent God that mortal men might be capable of constructing a world. Buckley was poisoned in Baton Rouge in 1828; in 1914, the society sent to its three-hundred-some collaborators the final volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlon. The edition was secret; the forty volumes it comprised (the greatest project men have yet undertaken) were meant to be the guide for another even more minute, written not in English but in one of the languages of Tlon. This study of an imaginary world was provisionally christened Orbis Tertius, and one if its modest makers was Herbert Ashe—I do not know whether as an agent of Gunnar Erfjord or as an affiliate, though his receipt of a copy of the eleventh volume ought to favor the latter. But what of the other volumes? By 1942, the progression of events had intensified. I recall with singular clarity one of the first, and I believe I felt even then something of its foreboding character. It transpired on a section of Laprida Street, in front of a clear, tall balcony that faced the sunset. The princess Faucigny Lucinge had received silverware from Poitiers. From the vast depths of a crate plastered with international stamps, splendid sedentary objects were emerging: silverware from Utrecht and Paris with the heraldic faunal crest, a samovar. Between them—with the visible and tenuous tremor of a resting bird—a compass was pulsating unexplainably. The princess did not recognize it. The navy needle pined for magnetic north; the metal cage was concave; the letters on the sphere corresponded to those of one of the alphabets of Tlon. So went the first intrusion of the imagined world into the real one. It unsettles me yet that a coincidence rendered me witness also to the second. It occurred a few months later, in a Brazilian grocery in Cuchilla Negra. Amorim and I were on our way back from Sant’Anna. A flood of the Tacuarembo River compelled us to chance (and to suffer) the grocer’s primitive lodgings. He provided us crisp cots in a large room, clogged with casks and cowhides. We lay down, but the drunken delirium of an unseen neighbor, who mixed inescapable insults with gusts of milonga songs—or rather, gusts of one unending milonga—prevented us from sleeping until dawn. As to be expected, we attributed the insistent shouting to the sharp cane licquor of the owner…In the early morning, the man was dead in the hallway. The rough tone of his voice had deceived us: he was a young man. In his delirium, he had dropped a few coins and a lustrous metal cone, the diameter of a die, from his belt. In vain, a boy attempted to recover the cone. A grown man barely managed to lift it. I held it in the palm of my hand for a few minutes: I remember that it was of intolerable weight, which persisted after the cone was taken away. I remember, too, the perfect circle it engraved in my flesh. This trace of an object so small yet at the same time so heavy left me with a disagreeable affect of disgust and dread. A local proposed that we throw it into the fast-flowing river. Amorim acquired it by means of a few dollars. Nobody knew anything concerning the dead man, except that “he came from the border.” Those tiny, incredibly heavy cones (made from a metal not of this earth) are effigies of the divine in certain religions of Tlon.

Here, I give pause to the personal component of my narrative. The rest lies in the memory (if not in the hopes and fears) of all my readers. Bear with me as I remember or mention the subsequent facts, with a reticence in words that the hollow collective remembrance will enrich or enlarge. Around 1944, a reporter from the newspaper The American (out of Nashville, TN) unearthed in a Memphis library the forty volumes of A First Encyclopedia of Tlon. From that day to this one, it is still debated whether the discovery was accidental or the leaders of the still nebulous Orbis Tertius authorized it. The second is more probable. Some far-fetched features of the eleventh volume (for instance, the proliferation of the hronir) have been deleted or diminished in the Memphis version; one might imagine that these deletions follow the plan to present a world not too incompatible with the real world. The circulation of objects from Tlon in various countries would enhance such a plan… [6] The fact is that the international press gave voice to this “find” interminably. Manuals, miscellanies, summaries, word-for-word copies, reprints authorized or pirated of the Great Project of Man crowded, and continue to crowd, the earth. Almost immediately, reality collapsed in more than one place. The truth is that we longed for it to. Ten years ago, any symmetry mimicking order—dialectical materialism, antisemitism, Nazism—sufficed to enchant men. How could we fail to submit to Tlon, to the ponderous and punctilious evidence of a structured planet? It is useless to protest that reality too is structured. Perhaps so, but it is in accordance with divine laws—that is, to inhuman laws—that we can never fully discern. Be Tlon a labyrinth, but a labyrinth woven by men, and a labyrinth destined to be decoded by men.

The contact and custom of Tlon have disintegrated the world. Enchanted by its intricacy, men forget again and again that it is the intricacy of grandmasters, not of God. Already the conjectural “prime language” of Tlon has infiltrated schools; already the teaching of its harmonious history (full of thrilling events) has obliterated that of the one that commanded my childhood; already in memory our past is replaced with a fabricated past, of which we are certain of nothing—not even of its falsehood. Already have numismatics, pharmacology, and archaeology been reformed. To my understanding, biology and mathematics too await its intervention…A dispersed dynasty of hermits has altered the face of the world. Their mission carries on. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years ago someone will discover the hundred volumes of A Second Encyclopedia of Tlon.

Then will they be gone from the earth, English and French and trifling Spanish. Earth will be Tlon. I pay that no mind; in these quiet days at the Adrogue Hotel, I proceed revising an irresolute translation (which I do not intend to have printed) of Urn Buriall by Browne.

[1] Haslam has published A General History of Labyrinths as well.

[2] Russell (The Analysis of Mind, 1921, pg. 159) supposes that the planet was created mere moments ago, provided with a human population that “remembers” an illusory past.

[3] “Century,” in accordance with the duodecimal system, indicates a period of 144 years.

[4] Today, one of the churches of Tlon maintains the Platonist view that such a pain, such a greenish shade of yellow, such a temperature, such a sound—are the only reality. All men, in the vertiginous instant of coitus, are the same man. All men who recite a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.

[5] Buckley was a freethinker, a fatalist, and a defender of slavery.

[6] There remains, naturally, the problem of the substance of such objects.


Library of Babel: A New Translation

Frustrated by the ambiguity regarding the combinatorics textbook excerpt, I set about rendering a new translation of Biblioteca de Babel.

The universe (which some call the Library) is composed of a quantity indefinite—perchance infinite—of hexagonal balconies, interspersed with great chasms of open air, encircled by stout railings. From within each balcony, one sees higher and lower floors, iterating interminably. The allocation of the balconies’ interiors is unfailing: twenty shelves, five spanning each side excepting the last two; their height slightly greater than that of your typical archivist. One open side extends into a tapered foyer, which leads to the next balcony, whose setup is identical to that of the former and of every other balcony. To the left and right of the hallway stand two little cabinets. One allows a man to sleep while standing; the other permits him to fulfill his human essentials. Between them rises a spiral staircase, ascending and descending into the distance. Also in the foyer sits a mirror, which bears faithful witness to all these sights. Men are wont to take the existence of the mirror as signifying that the Library is not truly infinite: if so, whence the need for artificial duplication? I prefer to hope that these glistening surfaces configure and cultivate the infinite…Light originates from spherical orbs we describe as lamps. Two of them bridge each hexagon, crosswise. The glow they produce is paltry, but perpetual.

Like all men of the Library, I spent my youth traveling through it; I have quested after books, perhaps even after the Catalogue of Catalogues, but now that my eyes can scarcely decipher my own prose, I expect to die a mere few leagues from the balcony in which I was born. Once I am dead, an abundance of pious palms will hoist me over the railing; my tomb shall consist of the bottomless air, my body falling forever, decaying and dissolving in the wind produced by the interminable plunge. I assert that the Library is infinite. The romantics claim that the hexagonal layout of the rooms constitutes a necessary truth about the notion of space, or at least of our interpretation thereof. They reason that triangular or pentagonal rooms are unthinkable. (The mystics, in their ecstatic pretensions, profess to have seen a circular sanctum with walls ringed by the unending spine of an enormous, circular book, but their declarations are dubious, their words obscure. That round book, they say, is God.) Bear with me for the moment as I echo the universal opinion: the Library is a sphere centered at any given hexagon, with unknowable circumference.

Each wall of each hexagon contains five shelves; each shelf girdles thirty-two books of unvarying appearance; each book has four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, some eighty letters of black ink. There are letters, too, on the spine of each book, which do not betray the contents of its interior. I know that this disconnect once portended mystery. But in advance of sketching the solution—the discovery of which may constitute the crucial deed of history, despite its traumatic implications—I must call to mind a few principles.

First, the Library has existed ab aeterno. No sensible mind can doubt that fact (from which follows, immediately, the entire future of the world). A man, a flawed librarian, may owe his existence to luck or to a cruel creator; the universe, consisting of its dignified display of shelves, its unfathomable volumes, its tireless stairs occupied by travelers and lavatories occupied by men at rest, must embody the handiwork of a god. To discern the distinction between the human and the divine, it suffices to contrast these crude, quivering symbols, scrawled in my errant hand on the cover of a book, with the consilient characters inside: even, intricate, pitch black, uniquely symmetrical [1].

Second, there exist twenty-five orthographical characters. The ascertainment of this fact permitted the formulation, some three hundred years ago, of a general theory concerning the Library and the satisfactory resolution to the question that no hypothesis had yet proved capable of explaining: the formless, chaotic makeup of almost every book. One, which my father found in a hexagon on the 1594th circuit, comprised the letters MCV, perversely recited from the first line to the final. Another, much-examined in this region, is a mere maze of letters, but on the penultimate page contains the phrase “O time thy pyramids.” As you have certainly by now guessed, each straight line or linear account is vastly outnumbered by meaningless cacophonies of linguistic potpourri and inconsistency. (I know of a vulgar place in which the librarians disavow the naïve, myopic custom of parsing books for meaning, equating it with searching for sense in dreams or in the disorderly designs of the wrinkles on one’s handThey concede that the creators of the writing system appropriated the twenty-five organic characters, but nonetheless maintain that the connection is accidental and that the books, taken by themselves, mean nothing. This belief, as we shall soon see, is not altogether inaccurate.)

For some time, men believed these unyielding tomes were relics of ancient or faraway languages. Certainly, it is true that our predecessors, the early librarians, used a system of communication quite different from that which we use now; certainly, a few miles west, the local language is dialectic, and ninety floors overhead, it is unintelligible. Of course, all this still stands true—yet four hundred ten pages of immutable MCVs cannot possibly represent any language, however dialectic or vulgar it may be. Some suggested that each letter may influence the following, and thus that the meaning of “MCV” on the third line of page 71 may differ from that of the same sequence on another line and page, but this imprecise theory did not spread far. Others attempted cryptography, an algorithm that has now been widely accepted, although not in the manner its inventors intended.

Five hundred years ago, the chief of one of the higher hexagons [2] discovered a book for the most part as confusing as any other, but containing almost two pages of lines of uniform spacing. He proffered his find to an itinerant decoder, who informed him the pages were phrased in Portuguese. Others told him the sheets were in Yiddish. Before a century had passed, the language was conclusively established: a Guarani dialect of Samoyed-Lithuanian, with classical Arabic inflections. The content too was deciphered: a theory of combinatorics, demonstrated by examples of permutations with unlimited repetition allowed. These examples enabled a librarian of great genius to pen the fundamental law of the Library. He first noted that each book, however different its contents may be than those of any other, admits no variation in its parameters: spaces, periods, commas, the twenty-two graphemes. He had also adopted a theorem confirmed by every traveler: in all the vast Library, no two books are identical. From these principles he deduced that the Library is complete, and that its shelves constitute the sum total of possible combinations of the twenty-some characters (a number which, though enormous, is not infinite), or, equivalently, contain everything that can be expressed in any tongue. Everything: the diligent documentation of events to come, the archangels’ autohagiographies, the authentic catalogue of the Library, thousands upon thousands of errant catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the false catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, its commentary, the commentary on its commentary, the accurate account of your death, the reproduction of all books in every language, the insertion of the text of each book into that of any other, the treatise that Bede might have written, but did not, concerning Saxon mythology, the lost tomes of Tacitus.

When it was realized that the Library encompassed all books, the first response was one of soaring bliss. Every man at once considered himself guardian of a complete and clandestine treasure. There existed no problem, personal or global, whose resplendent resolution could not be found in some hexagon. The Universe seemed justified; immediately, it absorbed the unlimited dimensions afforded it by hope. Before long, men spoke often of Vindications, books of augury and apologetic, which continually corroborated the actions of each man in the Universe and safeguarded the spectacular secrets of his future. Insatiable throngs fled the comfort of their natal hexagons and scrambled up the stairs, driven by their determination to discover their Vindications. Those pilgrims brawled in the cramped corridors, traded heinous maledictions, strangled one another on the sacred stairs, hurled the duplicitous books down the columns of air, and were murdered by the inhabitants of the faraway regions they explored. Some lost their minds. The Vindications are real (I have seen two, which refer to people of the future, people perchance not fictional), but the pilgrims failed to recall that the probability of a man’s encountering his own Vindication—or even some perverse variation thereof—is effectively zero.

Some faithfully awaited answers to the ultimate mysteries of humanity: the origins of the Library and of time. That these solemn secrets may be explainable in words is tenable; if the language of the philosophers proves inadequate, the multifarious Library will have fabricated whatever unprecedented language is required, and constructed its vocabulary and syntax. For the past four centuries, men have taken up the project of exhaustive exploration of the hexagons. Some such men are official questers, inquisitors. I have observed them as they go about their duties. They arrive greatly fatigued, raving of a stairless staircase that nearly killed them. They converse with the resident librarian about the balconies and stairways. Once in a while, they will seize the nearest book and leaf through it in search of fabled words. Of course, no one expects to find anything.

When the years of boundless hope ended, crushing despondency naturally followed. The confidence that some shelf of some hexagon cradled precious books—and that those precious books were thoroughly inaccessible—seemed almost unbearable. One blasphemous cult proposed that men cease searching and instead jumble the letters and symbols until the construction—a preposterously unlikely event—of those blessed books. The authorities were forced to implement severe orders, and the sect dissolved. In my childhood, however, I sometimes saw old men who hid in the lavatories, covertly juggling metal pieces in a forbidden tumbler, feebly attempting to reproduce the disarray of the cosmos.

Others believed the opposite: that the paramount project was the removal of nonsense books. They stormed the hexagons, flashed badges—not always forgeries—flipped furiously through one volume and doomed entire shelves: to their barren, puritanical rage one can attribute the senseless perdition of millions of books. The name of their cult is anathema, but those who mourn the “treasures” destroyed by their hysteria disregard two crucial facts. First, the Library is so enormous that any reduction wreaked by human hands is imperceptible. Second, while each book is unique and irreplaceable, there forever exist—by the completeness of the Library—hundreds of thousands of flawed facsimiles, works differing by a mere comma or letter. Despite the ubiquitous opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers’ pillaging have been magnified through the horror inspired by their fanatic ways. They were beckoned by the allure of conquering the contents of the Crimson Hexagon: books smaller than the typical ones, powerful, mystical, enlightened.

I also know of another legend of that time, that of the Man of the Book. In some shelf of some hexagon, the argument goes, there must exist a book that constitutes cipher and compendium of all the rest. Some librarian has studied it, who might as well be a god. In my region the vestiges of His cult are still apparent. Many took up pilgrimage to find Him; for a century, they vainly exhausted the most eclectic courses. How would one find that covert and consecrated hexagon that housed Him? A regressive method was submitted: to find Book A, consult beforehand Book B that describes the location of A; to find Book B, consult beforehand Book C, and so on ad infinitum…In pursuits like these have I wasted my years. To me it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe sits the canonical book [3]; I pray to the abandoned gods that some man—one only, who lived (for all I care) thousands of years ago!—has studied and read it. If such honor, wisdom, and jubilation cannot be accorded to me, I wish them for others. May heaven truly exist, even if I am destined for hell. Though I be weathered and annihilated, I hope that in a moment, in a being, Your Library is vindicated.

The evil attest that senselessness is the norm in the Library, and that logic (even the humble standard of pure coherence) is a virtually miraculous deviation. They talk, I know, of the “frenzied Library, whose arbitrary tomes forever threaten to morph into one another, and meanwhile confirm, reject, and confuse all claims, like a babbling god.” These words, which decry disorder while simultaneously engaging in it, are known to prove the poor taste and hopeless vanity of their speakers. In essence, the Library encompasses all syntactical structures, all permutations of the twenty-five orthographical characters—but not one instance of true nonsense. Of the many hexagons over which I preside, it is feckless to note, the premier volume is titled “Thunder, combed”; another, “The plaster cramp”; still another “Axaxaxas mlo.” These concepts, at first blush incoherent, doubtless are possessed of validation cryptographical or allegorical; such validation consists in words and ex hypothesi is formed already, somewhere in the Library. I cannot assort the letters “dhcmrlchtdj” without that the Library has witnessed them and endowed them, in one of its tranquil tongues, with a monstrous meaning. No syllable may yet be voiced that is not replete with tenderness and terror, that does not spell in some language the powerful name of a god. To speak is to invoke tautology. This useless, long-winded letter already takes form in one of the thirty tomes upon the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons, and its refutation too. (Suppose some quantity n of potential languages use identical vocabulary. In some, the symbol ‘library’ summons the notion ‘collection of ever-present, enduring hexagonal galleries,’ but the word ‘library’ means bread or buttress or what have you, and the six words by which I have defined it, those too have different meanings, so I must ask, reader: are you confident you understand my language?)

My methodical writing has distracted me from the current condition of my fellowmen. The certainty that all has been written incenses and invalidates us. I have heard of districts in which children bow before the books and bestow bestial kisses upon their pages, yet do not know how to interpret even one character. The hysterical epidemics, the controversies, the expeditions which inexorably lapse into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides—growing in number each year. Perhaps my anxiety and advancing years deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the only species—will soon perish while the Library persists undying: illuminated, isolated, infinite, immobile, incorruptible, intimate, ineffective, laden with precious volumes.

I have just written the word ‘infinite.’ I have inserted this adjective not for rhetorical convention; instead I say it is plausible that the world is infinite. Those who deem it finite claim that in some distant district, the balconies and passageways and staircases—impossibly—stop, which is absurd. Those who envision it without bound forget that the number of possible books is bounded. I shall hazard a guess toward the solution of this ancient paradox: the Library is countless and cyclical. If a timeless tourist crossed it in any direction, he would observe after centuries that the same volumes would reappear in the same incessant disorder—which, repeated, would constitute an order: the Order. In my solitude, I rejoice in so elegant a hope [4].

[1] This original manuscript contains no numerals or capitals. Its punctuation has been limited to the comma and the period. Those two symbols, the space, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet constitute the twenty-five basic symbols enumerated by the anonymous author.

[2] Before, there existed a man for each three hexagons. Suicide and sickness of the lungs have decimated this proportion. A memory of unmentionable melancholy: at times, I have traveled many nights through corridors and burnished stairways without encountering even a single librarian.

[3] I reiterate: it suffices that a book be conceivable for it to exist. All that is excluded is the impossible. For instance: no book is simultaneously a staircase, though doubtless there exist books which discuss and deny and demonstrate this prospect, and others whose structure resembles that of a staircase.

[4] Letizia Alvarez Toledo has observed that the vast Library is wasteful: strictly speaking, merely one volume of the standard size would suffice, printed in nine- or ten-point typeface, which would consist of an infinite number of infinitely fine pages. (Cavalieri, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, claimed that all solid matter consists in the superposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silken almanac would not be facile: it is imaginable that each sheet would unfurl into indistinguishable others; the unfathomable central page would have no verso.

Make Apologetics Crazy Again

These days I bristle increasingly against the Christian apologists. I worry, even, that apologetics as it stands now is a doomed discipline. Nobody is being convinced; if anything, apologists are being convinced out of their own positions. The discipline has an unpleasant tendency to embrace equivocation, to back down from strong but unpopular claims, to view concessions as a necessary feature of spinning a compelling story.

The problem isn’t really with apologetics, one might protest. Their audience is unfairly unreceptive. Frankly, it’s mostly hecklers. This is objectively true, but it seems like a silly redescription of the situation. If a stand-up comedian bombs, he has failed his audience; they have not failed him. His job is to alter his methodology to suit their tastes. If they didn’t laugh, then he didn’t tell the right jokes. Instead of taking their silence in stride and updating on the fly, he doubled down and subjected his listeners to an hour more of what all his evidence already suggested wouldn’t be interesting or compelling to them. “Tough crowd,” he might complain–but that doesn’t make him any funnier, and it doesn’t change the fact that he did not win them over. Most importantly, he’s had this information–“they’re a tough crowd”–since the first minute of his set, but he took it as an out from his responsibility unto them rather than as a reason to try doing it differently.

The root of the matter is the wrong idea that apologetics is a kind of debate like those of politics or philosophy. It’s not. Any kind of pursuit to get someone on your side admits success defined only in terms of the other person. But the other person’s leeway in setting this marker depends on what kind of convincing is going on. Debates and papers do not allow their readers and listeners, with fundamental and radical freedom, to set an arbitrary starting point. They assume presuppositions; disputing the premises is seen as a lower form of engagement than critiquing the argument itself. There are unstated rules governing what standards are reasonable for the reader to set. I am not clever or sophisticated for rebutting Schlick by saying, “Metaphysics are important.” Nor have I outgunned St. Anselm when I proclaim that necessity isn’t actually true of God. I just have a different opinion about the matter and therefore I’m contracted from the set of people his paper considers to be its audience in the first place. I have to buy in before I can criticize. Does this device drastically limit philosophical discussion? Of course! More importantly, though, it severely weakens the demands to which the author is yoked when he begins to write, weakens them at least to a point where he is willing to take upon himself the project of writing. Imagine a world in which for a paper to be publishable, it was required to respond to every objection levied to it in the Library of Babel! Objections, objections to the author’s replies, misreadings of those replies… The author would have to answer just about every question anyone’s ever asked. Even if people had begun to philosophize before the time of Socrates and proceeded to colonize space, by the time of the collapse of the universe still no paper would be published. Philosophers are equipped with a notion of natural or reasonable objections to an argument; these are the objections to which a high-quality paper is expected to respond. They are not merely finite in number, but few. Limiting the scope of objections this way is crucial. If not for this cordon around engagement, nobody at all might write.

This is how politics and philosophy work. Apologetics is not like politics or philosophy. It’s more like a stand-up show or a concert or an art exhibit. Art, unlike argument, is unbelievably permissive of its audience to set the terms of engagement. A debater is told, “Make this well-defended.” An artist or apologist is told, “Make this palatable to my sensibilities.” Such mores, wildly dependent on the whim of the interlocutor, subject the presenter to radical and constant pressures. If your goal is to preach, then absolutely give yourself a pat on the back for simply making your ideas clear. But if your goal is to proselytize, you must be malleable. You are an algorithm; you must update, in real time, to the inputs of your interlocutor. You must equivocate. You must make yourself acceptable to them. No prior standards of their, well, priors are in place. Art is the playground of the critic, not the artist. “Is this funny?” means “Do find this funny?” The majoritarianism is undeniable. “Is this beautiful?” means “Does this adhere to my aesthetic sensibilities?” And yes, “Is religion true?” means in apologetics “Should I be religious?” Subjectivity reigns.

This is ridiculously unfair even in art, but at least there, sensibilities have some reasonable claim to precedence. In apologetics–ostensibly a fact-driven field–equivocation is just bananas. Yet equivocation is exactly what modern apologetics teaches us to do. We have a theory of apologetics now that says success is judged in terms of the palatability of our content to the sensibilities of our listener. We are mandated, broadly, to make ourselves sympathetic.

Apologetics is a proselytizing field. “Deal with us” obviously isn’t a useful approach, so I cannot totally dismiss all this subjectivity, unfair as it is. So here’s my solution. I want to instead see a theory of apologetics where we are told not “Make your position believable,” but rather “Make your opponent believe it.”

Yes. Let your opponent set the terms, and convince them anyway without relinquishing any of yours. It can be done. I can’t show you how, but I can tell you why. Existence, not construction–I’m doing my best.

Believability and belief are different–not just to the individual, but on a wide scale. If they weren’t, the epistemology of disagreement wouldn’t be a flourishing philosophical field, the subject of worries as horrifying to a Bayesian as the melan genie was to the skeptics. One of the consensuses of the field is that believability depends heavily upon prior experiences and sensibilities in a way that makes it sometimes untouchable by arguments, or at least by certain rational argument strategies.

Not all that is believable is believed. If I have two alternate theories, each supported by substantial evidence but mutually contradictory, I can suspend judgment, but I can’t believe both. This isn’t just coherentist; it’s logically obvious. Believing both makes me irrational. Assuming some deviation in priors, I will ultimately throw my support behind one of the theories; subsequently changing my mind and believing the other requires relinquishing my belief in the first.

This, of course, is not the part of the disjunction that I have to defend. The natural reply would be that the believed is a strict subset of the believable. My substitution–credence for credibility–would then constitute a restriction, which can’t possibly help the apologists. It would only further limit the terrible strategies already available to them.

Luckily, though, I think this subset idea is wrong. The believed, I say, can venture outside the realm of the believable without violating rationality. The wildest, most intuitively bizarre and incredible truth claims of Catholicism have always been the ones I accepted most eagerly. The Virgin Mary was assumed, bodily, into heaven? Sure. I’m literally eating Jesus every Sunday? Absolutely. Christ was fully human and also fully divine, but only one full being? The math checks out. I was disposed to believe these bizarre ideas before I was fully disposed to believe in God at all. Well, that sounds logically wrong. I rather mean: the minute I accepted the existence of God was also the minute I accepted these strange entailed propositions, even though they required further, weirder assumptions. I was fully on board with the biconditional “God exists iff priests can literally transform unleavened bread into His body” long before I accepted the left-hand side as part of my belief set. The veracity of these bizarre propositions, from a standpoint outside the Catholic framework, was precisely as certain to me as the baby steps toward accepting the framework to begin with.

Why? Why on earth could I possibly find most compelling the truth claims that seem objectively most likely to be false? The ones that involve not only coincidences, not just mere miracles, but Knuth-arrowed power towers of miracles–absurdity, contradiction, confluences upon confluences of crazy? The answer, like many helpful answers, can be found in William James’ “The Will to Believe.” Simply put, hypotheses possess a set of binary properties. They are either live or dead: acceptable in some world to the listener or else nowhere acceptable. They are either forced or avoidable: a listener must choose between them, or else may avoid doing so altogether, suspending judgment or holding no doxastic attitude at all. Finally, they are either momentous or trivial. A trivial hypothesis is one in which the decision “opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later proves unwise.” Momentous hypotheses satisfy none of these: they are now, critical, and binding. James argues that the adoption of religious faith is to many listeners live, forced, and momentous, and proceeds in a masterful argument to demonstrate that hypotheses with these predicates often admit of cases in which belief without supporting evidence is rational.

The truth claims of religion constitute, for many people, hypotheses that are dead. To me, the veracity of Christianity–under the various descriptions usually afforded to it by my apologist interlocutors–was a dead hypothesis for many years. The notion of God described in layman’s terms was not compelling to me. The “first cause” argument was not troubling–I found an expert’s counterargument, familiarized myself with it, and then thought no more of the affair. Many nonbelievers make light work of deconstructing the theologians’ best. A prime mover is believable. Extratemporal grounding for absolute morality is believable. I discarded these relatable, believable claims and all the baggage contained within them. They were dead. Much later, I would find that the brazen absurdities of the Gospels, the unexplainable behavior of the devout, the unshrinking insanity of the apocrypha, the hair-tearing complexities of the theological picture, were not. Or, rather: They had been dead. They were revived.

People tend to rely on expert testimony in defusing claims that they have been led to believe, by majoritarian opinion, are wrong, but are not interested in falsifying for themselves. They believe the favorable opinion relatively strongly, quite strongly even, and can adequately regurgitate an argument for it that is parsable to them. On the other hand, most of the people who have thought a lot about a hypothesis have either much more moderate opinions or else extreme opinions, including toward the unfavorable side. Yes–some experts strongly hold the opinion the less-informed public believes is obviously wrong. The proponents of the Steady State Theory definitely know more physics than I do!

This is a very weird trifurcation of belief states. It results in a strange world where the hierarchy of research (let alone of intelligence) does not reflect the hierarchy of information states. Consider two individuals both of whom possess the same information set about the United States government. One of them spends many dedicated hours researching the Tuskegee experiment and develops sympathy for some government conspiracy hypothesis–say, that the moon landing was faked, or that the government is conducting human experimentation in Area 51. His justification for this position is a careful outline of factors relevant to past cases of systematic governmental population abuse, which he identifies rigorously and applies to the present situation. The other person seeks no further information than what he has and holds strongly to the status quo opinion. Person 1’s disposition and slate of experience certainly weighed into his conclusion, but they cannot fully explain it. Person 2 is more likely to be right, his belief set is closer to the truth, and his information state is more accurate–but he is not better informed.

The ready separability of reciting (even understanding) expert testimony from reacting to a proposition is why I care about the crazy theories. Banal theories, I think, are the ones that tend to produce the “outsource to an expert” epistemological problem. Ask me my opinion on a dead, but not shocking, hypothesis–again let’s say the Steady State Theory–and I’ll recite the conventional arguments against it without seriously parsing them myself as they leave my mouth. I am convinced of its falsity, convinced enough to have reviewed the arguments for the particular purpose of arguing the point with you, but not so wildly convinced that I consider your claim not deserving of a counterargument. This was my reaction, roughly, to the first cause argument, and it is a dangerous state in which for a hypothesis to lie. Someone who possesses a strong argument against a claim, but doesn’t care about the claim all that much in the first place, can consider the claim safely killed. The claim, now settled, leaves his mind. Because he does not view it as a threat, a source of interest, an oddity, or an active debate, nothing about it sticks with him. It does not enter his mind again unless placed there by another interlocutor, and even then is not revived because he has an argument to deploy.

This is not the case with ridiculous hypotheses, and in particular, ridiculous hypotheses that upset our sensibilities without upsetting our emotions. These are the kinds of hypotheses that can be enlivened again in a listener to whom they are dead. They never merited the surface-level recite-and-forget maneuver that choked off all posterity for his interaction with them. Dead hypotheses can be revived; dead, momentous hypotheses especially; but dead, banal hypotheses–the ones the existence of which he ceases to recall the instant he is not defending his live hypotheses against them–are beyond saving.

Dead, shocking hypotheses, rather than setting in motion a deterministic fixed-action pattern of reciting a counterargument, render a listener completely verklempt. These hypotheses are very specific in nature. They are completely lifeless to us prior to our engagement with them; they radically disagree with our sensibilities; and their being presented does not offend or upset our first order emotions–it just baffles us. I will remember for the rest of my life the first time someone mentioned Christians believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I was in sixth grade at a summer camp. I remember the room I was in and the look on my interlocutor’s face. It is my only clear memory of that summer or that year. I had no prepared counterargument, because it was a thought that had not previously occurred to me as being within the realm of possibilities. I did not come to believe it that day or for a long time thereafter. But I believe it now. I will never believe the Steady State Theory.

I came to believe the virgin birth hypothesis without its plausibility ever entering the picture–because it isn’t plausible. Miracles are not credible hypotheses. They just aren’t. They lack the features that make theories believable under modern epistemology. They are not simple. They do not resemble the world we know. Often, they’re difficult to process. Yet they are very, very hard to permanently kill–and this gives an interlocutor more chances to convince you of them.

Some dead hypotheses that are shocking cannot be revived because they’re horrifying not just to our sensibilities but to our emotions. Anti-vaxxing is a position that comes to mind, as are eugenics and racism. I don’t think this is incidental. Our first-order emotions are a natural, moral defense against what is evil. I worry somewhat here about the “emotionalizability” of more neutral hypotheses, which I expect is a point that can be brought against me. Sensationalism is mainstream now, someone might reply; how do we tell the difference between genuinely deontological horror and manufactured horror? I’m not too worried, because manufactured horror passes, and most constructed things can be deconstructed anyway. Even so, a related heuristic can be created here. There is an important distinction between the emotional horror of radical consequentialism and that of the abstract idea of radiation poisoning. A philosophy student horrified by the idea of chopping up a healthy person to provide five necessary transplants is not reacting this way because of the experiences and sensibilities that are peculiarly his, whereas those who react strongly against getting an X-ray are disproportionately those whose families have been affected by radiation events. Should we assign weight to the attributability of emotional responses to personal experience? It’s worth thinking about, although I suspect that emotional responses to things like this are heavily populated near the mean.

We ought, then, to revive our apologetics. We must begin with the crazy and conclude with the sane. G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I think, was the last great work in an apologetic tradition that shared this idea. “Christianity even when watered down,” wrote Chesterton, “is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” How bold! How exciting! How vastly disparate from the claim of modern apologists: “What we’re saying isn’t crazy–it’s reasonable! It’s believable!” But it is crazy! It is breathtaking, astonishing, shocking, glorious–not banal, typical, or often even easily reconcilable with what we know of the world. And how bizarre indeed that this is what I find so compelling about it.

The long and short of it is, I think, that minority beliefs will always be considered stupid by the majority, and often they’re right to think so. But this is precisely what should allow apologists to exhale in relief from their self-imposed palatability constraints. Perhaps you worry that opening an apologetic piece by defending your most radical claim will stop people in their tracks to gape at your stupidity. Well, worry no more. They were already gaping at your stupidity. Adding audacity doesn’t make you seem any stupider. I’d rather be considered audacious, crazy, and stupid than reasonable and still stupid. The first set of predicates is certainly more interesting and probably more consistent.

Watered-down theology is not our theology, and gentleness is not our game. Warming someone up, “opening” someone, is what pickup artists and cultists do. I shall tie my anchor to radical authenticity.

Reflections on Reading the Commedia (Again)

Below is an expanded version of my description of how I felt about the second greatest story ever told, four years after first finding it, at the conclusion of a year-long seminar. Quotations italicized, from Durling or Borges.

I have never felt impostor syndrome like this, but that is how it goes with me and Dante. I remember with great clarity what I felt as I closed the Mandelbaum translation for the first time. Less than a dram of blood was left me that was not trembling. I thought: How many other people, upon reading this text, knew instantly that they had to follow it forever? For that was, indeed, what I knew. There was nothing else in the world more worth doing.

I have been obsessed with that beatific vision since I was 18, and I have often felt like a casualty of the poem—as if it is unfortunate that I feel this way. I have been angry, frustrated, desperate, doomed, as if to be inclined to follow Dante is an unlucky genetic predisposition, as if I have been wronged by the vaulting cosmos. I keep telling myself that I cannot study the Commedia forever. In a more nascent field, I might be able to emerge as exceptional, but if I were to jump into the ring with even just those Dante scholars currently alive, no dice. My other great literary love, Borges—himself one of the greatest Dantisti—wrote hundreds of stories, each, ironically, finding a new way to say that there is nothing new to say. Would he have been driven to such desolate creativity, I wonder, had he never heard of Dante Alighieri?

“Dante, let’s settle this, you and me,” I found myself thinking each time I flipped through a frustrating canto. I thought we could work it out. Like a parking lot fistfight, an honor duel at dawn. I held fast for the omega, for the catharsis. “Mass has ended, go in peace.” I followed him in and out of classrooms and laboratories; we teetered together on the sinusoidal curve of virtue and vice. Dante, ever circuitous, played peekaboo from behind institutions–the academy, Christianity, romantic love. I sighed and stood and stole after him, waiting, as if in ante-Purgatory, for my timely release.

It would be absurd to claim that my travails this year have solved the Comedy for me, and that is the end of it. There are still so many moments I don’t understand: the placement of various individuals, the greater intricacy of Hell than Purgatory or Heaven, the arrangement of the outer spheres of Heaven regarding deficient forms of the virtues, Virgil’s role. Why the omnipresent allegory of the Montefeltros? Why Lucia? What methodology is there to Dante’s strategic placement of friends and foes, pagans and believers, in the various spheres of damnation and paradise?

To me, the study of the Commedia is often about sorting, and to read the poem through discussion with peers has provided me ample opportunity to conduct research. I have learned that everyone has his “guy” in the Inferno, the one with whom he most sympathizes—or rather, whose trials most affect him. The usual suspects include Francesca, Cavalcante, Piero della Vigna, Brunetto Latini, Vanni Fuci, Ulysses, Guido da Montefeltro, Count Ugolino, and Frate Alberigo; I have been trained to discern which of the condemned will appeal most to which of my friends. I have learned to characterize Dantisti by which of the questions Dante asks in Paradiso 4 they more seek the answer for: the apparent unfairness of punishing the inconstant for circumstances outside their control, or how to understand the phenomenological veil rendering the placement of souls in heaven. I have learned to draw conclusions from who it is that they think “made the great refusal,” Celestine or Pilate, and whether they prefer Sordello or Statius, Buonconte or Manfred. To some extent, I now know what the Commedia is; my remaining questions concern why and how. To have heard the battles my classmates picked with Dante along the way taught me their whys and hows, and helped me to discern my own. Therefore, I have the firm conviction that this is how the poem is supposed to be read: over a year, over biweekly discussions, a slow climb up the mount. What my classmates have done is to confirm the existence of that secret society that is the Dantisti: dark symbols, white flourishes, Borges’ “iron scimitar.” In the Library, we seek the Crimson Hexagon. I feel no longer alone, because, as Dante did, we are meant to make the pilgrimage together and guided. As he was, so I am among friends.

The moment, I think, that makes the most sense to associate with the way that I have felt about this experience is that of Dante’s witness of the divine flower. Beatrice disappears; he asks Bernard where she has gone; he looks up and sees her “making herself a crown by reflecting from herself the eternal rays.” He is distraught by her absence, but consoled that he sees her clearly even across the great distance. In this moment, he is heeding her rebuke–turning back toward her and away from others, his vision of her untarnished by the separation between earth and heaven.

Despite this symbolism, the scene strikes me as a particularly odd one. It seems that Beatrice is absentmindedly messing around, amusing herself, in an intimate moment not meant to be seen by Dante. It is a strange moment—a moment in which she is not focused—for Dante to have chosen to look at her. He may as well have been peeping on her in the shower. Yet he describes it, even though he too must be confused by her behavior, even though he must be pondering the “why” as he dutifully relates the “what.” Such is the task of the poet. Throughout the poem, Dante is baffled by the beauty he observes. When he questions function, he reports form. He provides a detailed overview of the likeness of the world to come, if not its metaphysical content. The way I feel about this room, the people in it, the project we are now concluding, is like Dante looking up at Beatrice in that intimate vignette. Before, he asks Bernard for an explanation. Then he witnesses the mystery. There is an overwhelming joy, then a confusion, and then a faithful reproduction of events. In the end, he succumbs to a kind of peaceful resignation. This is not an exhale of hope, not a Lasciate ogne Speranza, but a “Stay awhile.” And as he calls, so I will—even now, I recognize the signs of the ancient flame.

Religion and Humility: Rationality, Diagonalization, and the Hardness Criterion

This summer I had a good old-fashioned Crisis of Faith.

It became apparent that I’ve let myself go a little in terms of having a ready retort on hand for spontaneous atheist arguments. I spent some time this summer at a conservative think tank, full of minds like mine (if significantly more libertarian) and blest with a high degree of Catholic literacy. Although I was regaled there daily with requests to mathematically prove God’s existence, thankfully the majority of the religious arguments my classmates took up with me ran along the lines of “Is the seat of Peter empty?” rather than “How can you believe in miracles?”

My return to New Haven engulfed me in the world of mathematics, leaving little time for theological debate. Mathematics departments nationwide run the gamut from very religious to Dawkinsian (it’s hard to be a Humean mathematician, and impossible to be a Humean statistician). Ours enjoys a variety of religious viewpoints, with the majority falling secular agnostic. Thus, when a mentor posed a new and unusual atheist argument to me, I was caught unprepared.

The Problem

I’ve seen all the inane, readily neutralized atheist claims–“Do you really believe in virgin birth?,” “Haven’t terrible things been done in the name of Christ?,” or “Religion was established to keep citizens complicit.” SSC raises a hilarious one about whales not being fish.

Nonetheless, arguments from epistemology are more compelling. Not the “argument from unknowability,” per se. I’ve long considered the existence-of-God problem undecidable. This doesn’t bother me, because I’m not a logical positivist; physical facts are not the only important components of a system. I don’t care that atheists and I don’t disagree on any physical matters that can be finite-time decided, and I don’t think the criterion of falsifiability is useful.

The counterargument with which I was presented was much slicker, and imbued with all that meta-level, logically contradictory, late-Inferno-style contrapasso of which I am so fond: “Throughout history, people have realized how much they don’t know. The more we learn, the more there is to learn. Religion, in presupposing the ultimate answers, is the Platonic form of hubris.” Steelmanned: “Religion is prideful, but prides itself in being humble.”

That got to me. My discipline of choice is a field in which we constantly know less than we did before, in a certain sense, because every answer prompts questions that didn’t previously occur to us. We learn “calculus” in high school and think we know what integration is, then learn vector analysis in college and think this time we really know what integration is, then learn Lebesgue theory and realize we’ll never know what integration is. Humility is both necessary and proper to the discipline of mathematics, as it is to the discipline of theology. But mathematicians don’t claim to have solved the (perhaps undecidable) Collatz conjecture, whereas theologians do claim to have solved the (probably undecidable) God problem.

Religious sensibilities are more insidious than religious confession. My mother, an evolutionary biologist and enthusiastic Dawkinsian atheist, is terrified by The Exorcist and has admitted to me that she’d never attend a LaVeyan meetup because she could not sign her soul over to Satan even though she believes him nonexistent. She’s one of many nonreligious I know with religious sensibilities ranging from the theological to the social to the moral, yet I know no believers who have the faith but lack the sensibilities. I believe these inclinations precede confession; they are a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite to genuine faith. So what happens when religious sensibilities undermine religious conviction? What happens when the truth claim of religion is at least in some sense hubristic, but the sensibilities of religion are humble?

I go to a highly-regarded research university and thus constantly make use of the immediately available option to knock on the office door of one of the smartest people in the world and demand answers. My theology thesis advisor wasn’t in, so I stopped in at the first office I could find: that of a professor specializing in the intersection of religion and political theory. Perfect–exactly the kind of person who’d know all about the theory of the “opiate of the masses.” I walked in, introduced myself, and explained my problem: the priors for religion are heavily dependent on humility, but the truth claims of religion are hubristic. How can I be both Bayesian and Catholic? Help!

A Helpful Digression

The paradox with which I confronted the professor is related to signaling theory and what I’ll describe as the “hardness criterion.”

Definition 1. Hardness Criterion. A map F defined from the set of tuples on the space of choices to the space itself, where F(a,b,…) = argmax{difficulty(a), difficulty(b),…}.

In other words, the Hardness Criterion is the belief: “When presented with multiple options of action, I should do the one that is most difficult.” Naturally, “difficult” can mean a bunch of different things, some of which may be contradictory. For example, being a doctor is more technically difficult than being a garbage disposal worker, but the latter is more psychologically difficult for an Alpha on the alpha island in Brave New World.

The Hardness Criterion seems obviously wrong at a first glance, but I urge my readers to consider it more carefully. Steelmanned, it tells us that Man has a duty to pursue the highest spheres of work, self-analysis, and the search for truth, and to reject hedonism, which seems observably true. It doesn’t beget any of the silly fallacies detractors would like–“But everyone can’t do the universal hardest thing; some people have to do something else, or else we have a society of doctors” and “If everyone does the hardest thing, no one will be good at his job”–because what’s difficult differs by person, and how hard something is, in my experience, is orthogonal to how good I am at doing it. I’ve never been able to gauge how good I am at mathematics because it seems roughly equally difficult no matter how good you are at it, like cross-country running but unlike music or politics.

Those who deride religion for providing cushiness and a “Heavenly Daddy” figure are unknowingly, implicitly employing the Hardness Criterion in a way similar to Occam’s Razor. The argument goes like this: Religion permits an emotional solace in the form of the promise of eternal life, whereas atheism does not permit such solace. Therefore atheism is more difficult and I should do it.

Of course this requires the Hardness Criterion, because there is no other grounds for rejecting religion on the basis of its provision of emotional solace. One can only reject this solace if they believe the solace to be bad, which requires the Hardness Criterion, because in theory, whether a belief provides emotional solace is orthogonal to whether it is true. Sure, emotional solace might discredit the epistemic honesty of one’s acceptance of the framework, but it bears no consequences for the truthfulness of the framework itself–unless you’re willing to categorize “things that provide emotional solace” as “things I should not believe,” which utilizes the Hardness Criterion.

To reject the Hardness Criterion properly requires diagonalization. It’s noticeable that “hardness” generalizes to the meta-level, which prompts the question, “Is the algorithm ‘do the action that is hardest’ the hardest algorithm? Doesn’t doing the easiest thing all the time place me in opposition to the Hardness Criterion, which is, if I believe in the Hardness Criterion, an intellectually difficult space in which to operate?” This counterargument works beautifully, because at the meta-level, “choose the most difficult thing all the time” is a very easy algorithm, in that there aren’t any hard choices, given that your options are well-ordered. It seems to me that one could prove the Hardness Criterion is not well-defined in much the same way one can prove the halting problem is undecidable.

This is the reason the Hardness Criterion argument against religion is easily deflated. On the meta-level, “believing the thing that is harder” provides a degree of emotional solace that stems from finding one’s beliefs to be in accordance with the Hardness Criterion, while being religious is “harder” in that sense. Similarly, while atheism is “harder” than religion in terms of lacking the component of emotional solace, religion is “harder” than atheism in terms of a meta-level hardness factor: the difficulty the religious face in rationally justifying their beliefs given their first-order apparent rejection of the criterion. This ultimate point–that under the Hardness Criterion, the most contrarian seems always to win–deals a death blow to its acceptance as a useful algorithm.

The Solution

I ended up talking to the professor for about thirty minutes, and she did not disappoint (how I love this school!). We had a fruitful discussion about the fallacy described in the digression section, and she forwarded me an article she’d written arguing that support of Islamic political parties in Muslim-majority countries is rational insofar as the emotional support provided by religion eases stress. Naturally, I and my Dante-meets-Borges-meets-Bostrom mindset loved this because of its seeming counterintuitiveness: as strange as it is to accept, the emotionally easier option is of course the more rational one, in the sense of utility maximization.

I went home and thought about this for hours. Hours turned into weeks, which turned into months. And finally I figured it out. Would it be possible to create an inverted Hardness Criterion labeled the Ease Criterion, affiliated with a straightforward Kahneman/Tversky-type utility function, yielding a bijective relationship between Ease Criterion rankings and outputs of some rational choice function? Definitely. Pick the option with minimal difficulty.

But does this Ease Criterion collapse as obviously as its negation does? In one sense, the Ease Criterion is easy on the meta-level because the choices it provides are well-defined. There’s no simple, Berry-paradox-type situation in which the Ease Criterion falls apart. For all intents and purposes, the Ease Criterion is at least as good as Occam’s Razor, because I can imagine some situation exists in which the algorithm that uses simplicity to pick a course of action is not the simplest algorithm. Does there exist one in which an algorithm that uses ease isn’t the easiest (if we admit “emotional solace” as a stand-in for “ease”)?

Indeed there does. The Ease Criterion on two variables always picks what the Hardness Criterion doesn’t pick, so the inverse diagonalization produces a contradiction. I can readily imagine somebody emotionally tortured by the notion that he’s always choosing the easiest option! A theorem of this flavor feels like it ought to follow:

Theorem 2. No operator that definitionally outputs a single choice from a choice set by a metric of difficulty or complexity is consistently defined.

I don’t think the generalization to multidimensional operators works, but that isn’t really relevant here, as no one claims two religions. The conclusion: if we allow difficulty, ease, simplicity, or complexity to serve as a stand-in for “rationality,” then we cannot consistently behave rationally. (Aside: I know rationality isn’t everything, but it still benefits us to create a more nuanced notion of what rationality is.)

The contradiction my mentor voiced was, as you may have by now realized, isomorphic to the problem with the univariate criteria described above. I could now see that the problem he had presented was that the Humility Criterion is inconsistent, and his claim was definitely legitimate. The Humility Criterion makes truth claims! Of course, on the meta-level, it isn’t humble.

Central Question: Does Christianity actually make use of the Humility Criterion?

Naturally, the only way to disarm the paradox of the humility of faith versus the pride of faith is to reject the notion that Christianity uses a so-called “Humility Criterion”–e.g. while humility is a virtue, it is not the methodology one uses to arrive at Christian conclusions.

Virtues are not algorithms. Consider the algorithm “Do the thing that is virtuous, or if multiple virtuous options exist, the one that is most good” (so phrased because I don’t like the notion of “most virtuous”). If you’re an effective altruist, it’s clear this algorithm is virtuous, which is not self-contradictory. But performing this algorithm is not a virtue any more than entering a convent is a virtue. They’re both methodologies used to pursue virtue. (This is why I love that Christianity enumerates so specifically what the virtues actually are.)

Not convinced? Consider the following argument why virtue is not meta-level. Take the action of “cultivating an environment in which I can better pursue the virtue of almsgiving.” It’s clear that an almsgiving person who cultivated such an environment and an almsgiving person who didn’t are both almsgiving, and thus are both manifesting the virtue of charity. The person who didn’t cultivate such an environment might even be a better person, by dint of emerging triumphant against more temptation.

Similarly, I recently posed the following thought experiment to a Catholic close friend: Mr. Brown doesn’t want to give alms. Which is worse: for Mr. Brown to falsely tell mendicants he doesn’t carry his wallet, or for Mr. Brown to deliberately leave his wallet at home so he doesn’t have to lie when he tells that to mendicants? We agreed that it was the latter, because it eliminates the possibility of repentance (cf. Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno XXVII).

Humility is not an algorithm; it is consistent for Christians to use algorithms that are not themselves humble in order to maximize their humility. And because humility is not an algorithm, it is not used to discern truth, and thus it cannot be a contradiction that the “lux” part of faith is so glorious. The centrality of the nonexistence of a Humility Criterion is paramount! Without it, “do the things that are humble” does not imply “believe the things that are humble.”

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” -James 4:10


The Libertarian Theodicy

There is an eminent tautology that emerges when we consider where federal power ends. All powers that are not claimed by the national government are left to and reserved for the subsidiary bodies of government, especially the states. The question of where, exactly, federal power ends has been one of much controversiality in American history, from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to the Civil War to the Seventeenth Amendment to the civil rights movement.

Tremendous swaths of people have fought bitterly for legal decisions to be made closer to home, whether home was Texas or Massachusetts. Indeed, it’s a common misconception that states’ rights were the Southern battle cry during the Civil War. The Northerners used those arguments too–especially in their rally against the Dred Scott decision and Fugitive Slave Act, which they saw as federal infringements upon their states’ illegalization of slavery. The claim “on our land, you follow our rules” has further manifested in recent times, surrounding the Obergefell decision. Even today, the legality of state nullification and secession is an open question.

States’ rights’ advocates will tell you that the argument against these extensions of federal power is orthogonal to any metric of virtue. Small-government enthusiasts claim not to oppose the federal enfranchisement of minorities or gay people out of racism or fear or even the belief that these laws are wrong. They won’t defend their desires to have the matters relegated to state courts for any ideologically-based reason. Rather, they’ll tell you they fight such measures because of their nefarious sweeping scope. Libertarians detest the notion that the national government is settling what they see as intra-state affairs on states’ behalf.

1865 libertarians wanted the issue of slavery left to the states. 1965 libertarians wanted the same for civil rights. Abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage, marijuana? Advocates and detractors alike of the individual issues have argued for the legality of these actions and products to be determined on a smaller scale.

In a world where righteous indignation has always been the motivator of activism, it seems remarkable that so many have crusaded for the right to be wrong–not, in fact, believing themselves to be correct, but rather seeking the opportunity to determine their own stance; to have moral choices not prescribed unto them.

Why fight for states’ right to decide, even if that means some states won’t legislate the way I want them to? At first blush, the problem looks isomorphic to that of non-natural theodicy, the consideration of why men commit acts of evil in the world. The canonical answer is that free will and perfect goodness are mutually exclusive. God had to pick one.

While the natural world is an object-level entity, the realm of the divine ought be considered as the meta-level whose principles manifest in the world that we see. In the eyes of the divine, when is free will better than goodness? Clearly, if there is either something good in free will exercised in and of itself, or something bad in permanent and immutable goodness. Object-level goodness is not the same as meta-level goodness; choosing the option that maximizes the amount of good is the correct solution, and free will both allows individual choice (meta-level good) and results in some people who perform acts of virtue (further instantiation of object-level good). Instilling perfect goodness allows only the latter. It is better for Man and for God’s glory that humans have ownership and possession of the acts they perform.

Now is the part where I show my cards and say that there’s an enormous logical fallacy taking place in the application of human theodicy to government. The two are not isomorphic, because states’ rights constitute a case in which ownership can differ greatly from possession, involvement, and agency, all of which need to be present to justify free will.

Can a Texan claim that he has more ownership of local politics than of federal–that a court decision made locally is more his than one made by SCOTUS? Probably. He has a small chance of sitting on a Texas jury, and none of sitting on a federal one. He has some tiny margin of influence on ballot propositions in his home state, again narrowly beating out his influence vector for federal propositions. Any positive epsilon is greater than zero; given infinite time, our Texan will, sooner or later, find himself the determining vote in an issue important to him. So his state’s decisions belong to him more viscerally. So far, so good.

Is his home state more likely to side with him in terms of deciding legal matters? Definitely. Statistically, the population of Texas is likely to look more like him than the voter base of the nation at large, as there is some self-segregation due to shared state values. His ten neighbors are more likely to agree with him politically than ten people selected at random from the United States voter base, by sheer dint of the fact that they chose to live near him, which they probably wouldn’t have done if his politics were anathema to them. This also makes his state’s decisions more his, because they are more likely to resemble his own decisions.

But does the Texan have more involvement in his state’s decisions than in national ones–that is, more of a say? Not really. It is more likely that the outcome will turn out in a way he’d find agreeable, but his participation had near nothing to do with it. In terms of issues, he has narrowly more of a say in state matters, but not so in elections. In Boolean terms, the influence of individual voters within a state (especially a small one) is just about as negligible as that of voters in a federal election.

Does the Texan have more agency in his state than in the nation? No–that one’s just ridiculous, because agency is concerned more with actions than results. Not that the results of his political activities are really that different in the discrete spheres. He can write an angry letter to his Congressman, to his governor, or to the President. None of those people is significantly more likely to read the letter than the others. (One of his congressman’s staffers will probably read it, but won’t be able to do anything about it. So in each case, he took the same actions and got the same null results.)

So the Texan has more ownership of his state’s politics, but no more involvement or agency in their determination. The free will argument doesn’t hold up, because even if God predetermines our actions, they still belong to us, and the culpability is ours. Calvin, the father of determinist theology, argued in Institutes of the Christian Religion that in the predeterminist worldview, Man retains full ownership of his actions. For Man to have free will, he needs something greater than ownership–involvement and agency, which the Texan gets no more out of Texas than out of the U.S.A.

Thus I conclude that he wants the issue at hand to be left to the states not out of a want of self-sovereignty but because he concludes, not incorrectly, that the population of his state is more likely to vote his way. That seems pretty likely when you realize that none of the approximately three Green Party members in Texas wants the issue of abortion determined closer to home.

Is there a saving grace for the states’ rights argument? Yes! The empirically validated belief that communities themselves make the rules that work best for them. But this is clearly an argument from epistemic modesty, rather than from the lofty rhetoric of freedom as its own good. Groups of people should be self-governing because they are more likely to do a good job than their detached overseers, not because their freedom is viscerally important in the abstract.

This understanding, radically different in its first principles, doesn’t change political results all that much. It does, however, alter the approach with which we view the negative externalities I mentioned above: that some states won’t legislate the way want them to. For issues that are one-size-fits-all, we no longer need gaze upon our fellowmen in different territories with sympathy at the unfortunate political results their freedom has prompted. We might instead assume their model works better for them, and wonder whether it would for us, too.

The Virtue Transduction: Reflections on Ash Wednesday

“The majority of signal transduction pathways involve the binding of signaling molecules, known as ligands, to receptors that trigger events inside the cell. The binding of a signaling molecule with a receptor causes a change in the conformation of the receptor, known as receptor activation.” -The Wikipedia article on signal transduction

Before I was a Catholic convert, I was an atheist missionary.

Well, an ineffective one. I didn’t stand on street corners handing out bottles of water and copies of On the Origin of the Species to clubgoers. I didn’t go door to door asking Cleveland residents if they’d heard of our lord and savior, David Hume. If you’d asked me why not, I would’ve said, “I don’t go door-to-door telling people not to believe in Santa Claus either. The burden of proof is on the religious, as it should be.”

I would’ve been lying. For all my feigned reticence from activities antireligious, I eagerly climbed atop the pulpit when safely nestled within my steadfast circuit of militantly atheist friends. Together we’d scorn the blind credence of the faithful, not bothering to hide our laughter when someone said grace at the neighborhood Easter party.

So, I repeat: I was an atheist missionary, albeit an ineffective one. I chose to push effortlessly at open doors, rather than fruitlessly at locked ones. For the same reason, I had my most ardent political debates within the confines of my school’s Green Party club, opening discussions by repeating the words we all already knew we espoused.

There’s a cultural notion that each individual is a missionary, peddling his worldview. In some ways, this idea is correct. The soapbox orator seeks to attract passersby with flashing lights, bright colors, and raised voices. His beliefs are his signal, presented to the outside world, eagerly awaiting reception. He particularly enjoys preaching to the choir, because this process is more likely to result in a pleasant cacophony of go-ahead lights. Because he doesn’t care if the receptor’s admission of his signal was ready or hard-earned, there is no point in wasting his time converting the heathens.

Therefore, these orators more resemble cell ports than peddlers in their signaling. They await a predictable response light–a signal of “Well done, keep going”–rather than attempting to persuade a reluctant buyer. With this in mind, I posit the following theorem: the missionary-to-convert ratio will always be high. Why? Because we are all more concerned about our capable transmission of the signals we project than we are about their reception in unlikely places. Fittingly, then, we are least concerned with our own reception of others’ signals.

Has value transfer itself become a process of virtue signaling? Are we doomed to forever be ineffective missionaries, more concerned with demonstrating that we are missionaries–a procedure forwarded by the green-light sign from the community of believers–than with actually converting anyone? Echo chambers are safe, warm, and comforting, but they’re no place for politics. If this phenomenon exists as I’ve diagnosed it, we must stop it.

My computer hood is unfashionably bare. It doesn’t contain the requisite effective altruist stickers or space colonization decals typical of laptops belonging to those of like minds. But how far must I take this ideological purity? Most of the time that I wear a rosary or walk around with a conspicuous copy of Borges or Losing Ground or Global Catastrophic Risks, it’s thoroughly accidental and not meant to signify anything. Is intent the level on which the wrongdoing is occurring–and if so, is this the level on which it ought to be corrected? (Those two statements are not equivalent.) Must we engage in exhaustive good-faith meta-analysis of all our signaling mechanisms, whether unconscious, directed, or just preening? There are multi-level operators at work: perhaps I bought my brand-name shirt to ally myself with a cause, but wear it for convenience, or vice versa.

This morning, I will go to an early mass and participate in an age-old Catholic ritual: a cross of ash, blaring loud on my forehead. Why am I doing this? Because it’s in accordance with my faith. Why is it in accordance with my faith? Various reasons, some theological, others practical. I won’t get into the theological here–it’s important and beautiful, but not related to my point. Practically speaking, the Church is reasonable to demand this small act of devotion from its constituents. Technically I’m allowed to wash off the ash, but many Church officials encourage Catholics not to do so, as a public declaration of faith. Indeed, it is good to have the kind of faith that makes an individual proud to have a cross of ash on Ash Wednesday. Unfortunately, this virtue of proud faith has the inadvertent corollary of being a signaling mechanism, easily trivialized by a poorly understood notion of why one has ash on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday–“because I’m supposed to.”

Imagined conversation between Catholic 1 with no ash on her forehead and Catholic 2 with ash on his:

C1: “Why are you wearing ash on your forehead?”

C2: “Because I am a Catholic and I want everyone to know it, and it is traditional to present that devotion in this way.”

C1: “Yes, but can you defend the particular act of wearing ash on your forehead, as a distinct and special indicator of your faith? You don’t wear a Catholic T-shirt every day, or very conspicuously bless your food before eating. Why is this a good method of engaging in an easily corruptible signaling procedure? Given that people might be wont to misinterpret the theological and practical implications of your wearing ash in a way that they wouldn’t misinterpret a large-font sign hung around your neck containing Catholic doctrine, why are you doing this particular thing? And given that the gesture of having ash on your forehead is immediately interpretable to other ash-wearing Catholics, with whom you exchange a response signal, but not to non-Catholics who perhaps have never seen it before, this can’t be an effective missionary mechanism. Are there other virtuous purposes of loudly stating your beliefs to the world that aren’t just about converting people?”

C2: “I could answer all your questions with some version of ‘I do what I’m told because of the mystery of faith,’ but I don’t think that’s the correct answer here. No, the ashes are not a missionary mechanism. Placed on my forehead, they encourage me and perhaps subconsciously others to engage in meaningful reflection; that makes them a better manner of engagement than, say, a T-shirt. Whenever I look in a mirror, I will remember that to dust I will return, and celebrate the good news of the Lord. But ultimately, I wear them because outwardly declaring my love for Christ is an end in itself. Saint Peter’s mistake in denying Christ thrice was to eschew that end.”

Thank you, Catholic 2! I love it when the attacked person in my imagined conversations is able to simply and elegantly defend himself. Yes–there are several brands of signaling here that we ought to separate.

  1. Creating a signal so that others will join your cause (e.g. handing out fliers for veganism).
  2. Creating a signal so that others will notice that you self-affiliate with a cause; social signaling, virtue signaling (e.g. linking an article without providing commentary).
  3. Creating a signal because manifesting your devotion to the cause is helpful to the cause. (This one’s trickier; e.g. wearing a work uniform so you can be identified by clients who need your help, which will cause the business to be more successful.)
  4. Doing something signaling your devotion to a cause, as an end in itself (e.g. wearing ash on Ash Wednesday).

1, 3, and 4 seem to me to be good-faith manners of engagement, and constitute the ways in which we should think about our signaling.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” ” -Matthew 6:5-6, NIV

The hypocrites love to be seen by others–but this fact in itself is not the source of their problem. They pray only to be seen by others, manifesting virtue without needing to enact any. In proclaiming devotion to a cause as an end in itself, we can avoid this hypocrisy and signal a virtue that is thoughtful, deliberative, and, above all, felt.