Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is home to the last community of Shakers on earth. Their sect, formally known as the United Society of Shakers, is well over two hundred years old. When I visited Sabbathday Lake in the summer of 2017, I met the only two Shakers who remained: Arnold, blue-eyed and stooped, aged sixty-two, and June, small and shy, aged eighty.
Arnold and June live together in the village Dwellinghouse, but sleep in separate beds. They are not married, nor are they lovers. They pray, read Scripture, and sing. They eat together but don’t take communion; to them, every meal is the Eucharistic feast. They maintain their land and buildings, and though Arnold can do some of the physical work, they must also hire outside help. Arnold and June use computers and cellphones—the Shakers, unlike the Amish, are not averse to technology. They invented paper seed packets, the circular saw, the flat-bottom broom, and clothespins.
Arnold and June are celibate, own property in common, and confess their sins to each other. These are the essential “three Cs” of the Shakers, modeled on the chaste, communal life of Christ. To become a Shaker, you must be debt-free: no mortgages or student loans. You must also be a pacifist. Shakers are wary of nitpicky dogma, and their theology is simple: God is love; Christ’s return is experienced spiritually by anyone open to the “anointing spirit of God.” Shaker faith seems to be more an emulation than a rigid creed. Arnold and June, like the Shakers before them, believe they have found the best way of living, a literal heaven on earth.
Most of the “world’s people” know Shakers for their woodwork: cabinets, chairs, tables. Shaker artifacts are displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Shakers are also known for numerous scratch recipes, and a Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” inspired Appalachian Spring. James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all wrote about Shakers; Ralph Waldo Emerson was an admirer.
Popular tradition relates saudade to the feeling of distance and loss suffered by the families of men off at sea during the age of Portuguese discoveries. While this folk history captures the term’s poetic ambivalence, its etymology is unclear. The archaic form soidade appears in 13th-century troubadour verses recounting the laments of distant lovers. Most scholars suggest that this form derives from the Latin solitate (solitude), and was possibly later influenced by the Portuguese word saudar (‘to greet’) before arriving at the present form. But some scholars have offered alternative etymologies, including one that traces saudade to the Arabic sawdā, a word that can denote a dark or melancholy mood. It is a high-stakes debate: saudade is integral to Portuguese self-understanding, and the question of the word’s origins reflects deeper concerns about Portuguese ethnicity and identity.
Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity. Founded two years after the 1910 republican revolution that ended a centuries-long monarchy, Saudosismo promised cultural renewal during a time of uncertainty. In ‘The Making of Saudade’ (2000), the Portuguese anthropologist João Leal writes that Saudosistas sought to restore the ‘lost splendour’ of Portuguese cultural life, ‘replacing foreign influences – held to be responsible for the decline of the country since the Age of Discoveries – with a cult of “Portuguese things”, reflecting the true “Portuguese soul”.’ Hailing saudade as the authentic expression of the ‘Lusitanian spirit’, the movement put the emotion at the cult’s centre.
For me, the image (artifact?) of the baby girl engulfed in branches, perhaps being digested by them, conjures Victorine Meurent, the model Manet used in Olympia and Déjeuner sur l'herbe vanishing after immigrating to America. Vanishing to Manet, perhaps. Subsumed and transposed, more likely.
Reason, Clark insists, is rooted in faith. He argues as follows: Relativists, skeptics, and pragmatists claim we can’t reach “Truth-in-fact.” We can never know what is actually the case. Some say we don’t need to. Such denials are self-refuting. Is “truth is relative” a relative truth? Can we know that “we cannot know”? Should we accept “truth is what works” only because it works? We cannot avoid the question, “Are these claims truth-in-fact?” Insofar as they dodge that question, relativism, skepticism, and pragmatism don’t solve the problem of knowledge. On the contrary, they abandon the quest for knowledge. They’re epistemologies of despair.
To reason at all, we need assurance that we can know Truth-in-fact, but where does that assurance come from? It isn’t an axiom of logic or an inference from experience. Clark concludes thought can’t get off the ground unless we “believe that if we seek the truth in accordance with certain standing assumptions about probability, about what sort of world this is, we shall be rewarded.” Rational inquiry depends on faith that the world is susceptible to rational inquiry. To be reasonable, reason must be founded on something other than reason.
Concern for the world is a function of love. Clark finds inspiration in Franciscan spirituality, which “is founded . . . on a strong awareness of the inwardness of things.” Franciscans aren’t practical in that they don’t look for ways to bend the world to their own purposes. Their delight in creation is like falling in love. “The love experienced for all created things,” Clark suggests, “even in their weak and fallen state, even when the broken reflections of the glory cannot now be pieced together, is the only sure basis from which to care for the world.”
It’s worth recalling that the Greeks saw the city as a living organism, a source of action and historical change—and superior to the individual in those respects. It is evident that, even under modern individualism, we remain committed to most of that understanding of cities, no matter how unconsciously. Cities, for us, have certain personalities—hard to grasp but each distinct. That explains why we feel duty-bound to preserve cities’ histories, ways of life, and urban characters, even amid rapid economic and population growth. Lenin once called the state the “machine,” and it’s true that as the state grew in size and bureaucratic impersonality, we have often reserved for the city all the human qualities that the state lacks. It is frequently the city, not the state, that becomes the object of our deepest affections and memories, our signal preferences and most treasured adventures.
Can that organic, natural reality of the city be transformed into something artificial? At first glance, it is easy to see how various contemporary developments might point toward a reevaluation of the city as something made or produced. Until recently, industrial culture organized itself around the production of inert commodities. Today, however, we live in the era of the smart gadget—a much better image or metaphor for a city than, say, industrial products like home appliances or automobiles. Or consider social networks such as Facebook. One could think of Facebook as a virtual city. Those who have mastered the technology of connecting people online might be forgiven for thinking that a next step would be to do something like that in the real world. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been pursuing its own “urban living laboratory” in Toronto, in a district where it can experiment with new smart systems and advanced planning techniques. Announcing the project in 2017, Eric Schmidt, then Alphabet’s executive chairman, noted that the project’s impetus came from Google’s founders getting excited about “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”
Above all, the Chinese have pushed furthest the notion of the city as product. One of the most important aspects of China’s recent economic development is the profusion of new cities being built from scratch. These aren’t expansions of existing communities but fully master-planned, manufactured centers of economic and social life, often built on newly developed land such as artificial islands or reclaimed desert. On some estimates, China has built more than 600 new cities since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Some of these manufactured cities have been extraordinary successes. Shenzhen rose from a rice paddy into one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises—its economy is the size of South Korea’s—in just three or four decades. But even Shenzhen pales, compared with the plans for Xiongan in Hebei province, a new city that covers over 770 square miles, more than twice the size of New York City. A 2017 Morgan Stanley report estimated the cost of relocating the area’s current residents as new infrastructure gets built to be $287 billion over the first 15 years.
The ascription of powers to individual beings is a radical rejection of modern physics, which locates causality in fundamental forces and fundamental particles. Physics sees individual beings, the things of the world around us, as like eddies in a river, arising from underlying immutable causes and only appearing to have a persistent being of their own. What permits these neo-Aristotelians to turn against this doctrine, which has been responsible for so much scientific and technical progress in the modern world?
The answer is that the last century of science has partially recapitulated Aristotle’s teachings on nature, for the most part unwittingly. Since roughly the turn of the twentieth century, the scientific enterprise has focused not only on the elemental, but increasingly also on large-scale phenomena: solids, fluids, organisms, ecosystems, human behavior, and computing machines. Scientists have often maintained that these systems cannot be understood solely in terms of action at the lowest levels of organization. Thus one hears of “systems theory” or “the theory of complex systems,” of “holism,” “irreducibility,” “downward causation,” “information theory,” and other musings from scientists that assert, to quote the physicist Philip Anderson, that “more is different” — that “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.”
These challenges have unknowingly echoed Aristotle. For Aristotle’s science was concerned primarily with the difficulties that arise when we try to discern the causes of beings, of wholes. A return to his ideas, then, is no mere conceit of the fusty halls of academic philosophy, but a clamor coming from science itself. Seen in this light, the claims in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science do not seem quite so radical. Indeed, one could claim that the authors are attempting to make more explicit what many scientists have been dancing around for a century.
That this trend, and especially its connection to Aristotle, has gone largely unrecognized by scientists is due to several factors. First, science and the philosophy of science have become increasingly departmentalized and siloed, not only from each other but even within disciplines. Second, fewer and fewer students are engaging in any meaningful way with historical texts. Third, practicing scientists are facing increasing demands to turn out original research that attracts funding, leaving little time to reflect on perennial questions about nature. And so scientists return again and again to the same Aristotelian themes — parts, wholes, causes, purposes — reinventing the wheel without gaining traction on the critical question over causality.
A meditation from Hauerwas on friendship and the disabled:
Hans Reinders identifies another problem in his important book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. We often assume the profoundly disabled will be cared for because by doing so those providing the care become better people. Reinders argues such a justification is perverse because it is a denial that we—that is, each of us—receive our lives as gifts. No human can merit a greater humanity for herself. And it is dangerous to suppose otherwise. We can become more human, but we cannot become better humans. The difference hangs on whether we receive our life as gift. Whether disabled or abled, we receive our humanity it is from this posture of reception that our shared human dignity springs.
Brock argues his way of describing people who are intellectually disabled is entailed by a theological perspective. He observes that Christian communities often offer rival understandings of the roles and gifts of those called to be the church. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the disabled have a role to play in God’s story of his people. Brock’s book is an extended exercise to perform that project by focusing on his down syndrome/autistic sixteen year old son, Adam. Brock understands his task is to witness to Adam’s witness by telling the stories of what it means for Adam to be “wondrously wounded.”
Brock is admirably clear that his argument is theological all the way down. Accordingly, he understands the Christian gospel to offer a way of life that enables our ability to live as vulnerable beings who have made peace with our limits and are able to delight in the unexpected. Such a way of life can be joyous and free because we no longer seek to be gods but are content to be creatures whose flourishing does not mean that we will not suffer. As the stories of Scripture often make clear, it is through suffering that we discover our place in God’s story.
My review essay on 'Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)' is in the Winter issue of American Affairs, which is available online now:
To understand the bleeding edge of the corporate workspace, we need to turn to a thinker like Byung‑Chul Han. Han begins his book The Burnout Society with the enigmatic line, “Every age has its signature afflictions.” Our age, he argues, is marked by afflictions arising from an excess of positivity and action: ADHD, depression, borderline personality disorder, and burnout. These are neurological conditions which arise, not from base exploitation (something Han might instead have associated with the immunological afflictions of the Cold War era), but from people willingly participating in their own exploitation.
If we can locate the disciplinary society within previously mentioned Victorian institutions—schools, prisons, factories—then we can associate the current landscape of self-exploitation with the liberation from physical space itself. The factory, in other words, has been replaced by the internet as the symbol most resonant with current social consciousness concerning the nature of labor.
Han argues that this self-exploitation is an essential part of a culture which engages in an excess of positivity—an economy which finds it more efficient to emphasize affirmation (“Yes we can!”) over the negativity of prohibition. “To heighten productivity,” Han writes,
the paradigm of disciplination is replaced by the paradigm of achievement, or, in other words, by the positive scheme of Can; after a certain level of productivity obtains, the negativity of prohibition impedes further expansion. The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can. The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than the obedience-subject.
Echoing again Lasch’s notion of the citizen transformed into the consumer, one of the results of auto-exploitation is the cultivation of compulsion. If your desires can be harnessed for economic exploitation, it’s more efficient for those desires to be rationalized into quantifiable units of compulsive acts. Hence we obsess over views on social media, viral videos, and the like. The figure most representative of our new working conditions might not be the American warehouse worker forced to wear a diaper, but gaming junkies who choose to wear diapers so as to maximize their screen time.
“In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances”: the author invites us to consider the implications of this mirror, from which “men usually infer . . . that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication)?” One is perhaps on safer ground in observing that the Library is itself an only superficially faithful duplication of the actual world, traces of which are occasionally visible in the story. Like the image in a mirror, a two-dimensional projection of three-dimensional objects, the Library is curiously flat; the hexagons, interconnected by hallways on opposite sides and staircases up and down, all occupy the same plane. The author calls the two inadequate lamps found in every hexagon “spherical fruit”—but where would he have seen anything like an apple tree? (Here there is also the echo of a book--the Book: these artificial lights are dim reflections of the Trees of Knowledge and Life, whose fruit seduced human beings with the promise of godhood.) Now an old man, he explains that his corpse, thrown over the railing by “pious hands,” will “sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall”: somehow there is atmosphere and gravity in these infinite spaces, as on Earth. He compares the shelves of the Library to “a normal bookcase,” as though some other, everyday lifeworld were the measure of the one and only universe of the Library. His handwriting crudely reproduces the “organic letters” of the books; more mysteriously, these “punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical” letters are said to imitate “the twenty-five natural symbols.” (One is reminded that the Greek words grammata and syllabai mean “letters” and “syllables,” but also “elements” and “compounds.”) Finally, it cannot escape notice that the mirrors in the hallways linking the hexagons reduplicate the librarians as well as their surroundings—that they literally see themselves in the Library. It was Hegel who observed that the scientific theoretician who attempts to penetrate the veil of appearances, positing laws, forces, and elementary forms of matter and motion, enters an “inverted world” of hypothetical objects in which he encounters only his own thoughts.
In brief, Borges allows us to see that the Library is the literary image of a historically particular intellectual construction that imperfectly reflects and significantly distorts the reality it is supposed to describe. That construction was inaugurated by the founders of modern science, who believed, with Galileo, that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics, and who sought knowledge that, in Descartes’ optimistic and ambitious phrase, would make human beings “the masters and possessors of nature.” The modern project of “practical philosophy” does not conform to, or even recognize, the natural order Aristotle so prudently attended to, much less the scala naturae, or Ladder of Being, of the medieval Christians. It seeks to replace the biblical Logos with another sort of logic: to begin not from the old, creative Word of God, but from the new, analytic and synthetic word of man. Borges’s author insists that “no book can be a ladder,” but the books of the moderns are nothing if not the mechanism by which man would storm the heavens.
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