How Society Comes To Know Stuff

I read another of those “how could they vote for him?” articles today. As usual, the author offered an explanation that fit his own political and cultural leanings. But he cited an article that includes a nice summary of how an enlightened society should work. This is from “The Constitution of Knowledge” by Jonathan Rauch:

Some Americans believe Elvis Presley is alive. Should we send him a Social Security check? Many people believe that vaccines cause autism, or that Barack Obama was born in Africa, or that the murder rate has risen. Who should decide who is right? And who should decide who gets to decide?

This is the problem of social epistemology, which concerns itself with how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth. It is a fundamental problem for every culture and country, and the attempts to resolve it go back at least to Plato, who concluded that a philosopher king (presumably someone like Plato himself) should rule over reality. Traditional tribal communities frequently use oracles to settle questions about reality. Religious communities use holy texts as interpreted by priests. Totalitarian states put the government in charge of objectivity.

There are many other ways to settle questions about reality. Most of them are terrible because they rely on authoritarianism, violence, or, usually, both. As the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said in 1877, “When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”

As Peirce implied, one way to avoid a massacre would be to attain unanimity, at least on certain core issues. No wonder we hanker for consensus. . . .

But that is not quite the right answer, either. Disagreement about core issues and even core facts is inherent in human nature and essential in a free society. If unanimity on core propositions is not possible or even desirable, what is necessary to have a functional social reality? The answer is that we need an elite consensus, and hopefully also something approaching a public consensus, on the method of validating propositions. We needn’t and can’t all agree that the same things are true, but a critical mass needs to agree on what it is we do that distinguishes truth from falsehood, and more important, on who does it.

Who can be trusted to resolve questions about objective truth? The best answer turns out to be no one in particular. The greatest of human social networks was born centuries ago, in the wake of the chaos and creedal wars that raged across Europe after the invention of the printing press (the original disruptive information technology). In reaction, experimenters and philosophers began entertaining a radical idea. They removed reality-making from the authoritarian control of priests and princes and placed it in the hands of a decentralized, globe-spanning community of critical testers who hunt for each other’s errors. In other words, they outsourced objectivity to a social network. Gradually, in the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the network’s norms and institutions assembled themselves into a system of rules for identifying truth: a constitution of knowledge.

Though nowhere encoded in law, the constitution of knowledge has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously). The members of the community that supports and upholds the constitution of knowledge do not have to agree on facts; the whole point, indeed, is to manage their disagreements. But they do need to agree on some rules.

One rule is that any hypothesis can be floated. [Note: not any hypothesis] That’s free speech. But another rule is that a hypothesis can join reality only insofar as it persuades people after withstanding vigorous questioning and criticism. That’s social testing. Only those propositions that are broadly agreed to have withstood testing over time qualify as knowledge, and even they stand only unless and until debunked.

The community that follows these rules is defined by its values and practices, not by its borders, and it is by no means limited to scholars and scientists. It also includes journalism, the courts, law enforcement, and the intelligence community — all evidence-based professions that require competing hypotheses to be tested and justified. Its members hold themselves and each other accountable for their errors. When CNN, in 2017, fired three senior journalists for getting a story wrong, President Txxxx gloated that the “Fake News” media’s dishonesty had been exposed. (His tweet: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC?”) In fact, the opposite was true: By demanding evidentiary accountability, CNN showed that, unlike Txxxx, it adheres to standards of verification.

On any given day, of course, we won’t all agree on what has or has not checked out. The speed of light is widely agreed upon, but many propositions are disputed . . .  The community that lives by the standards of verification constantly argues about itself, yet by doing so provides its members with time and space to work through their disagreements without authoritarian oversight.

The results have been spectacular, in three ways above all. First, by organizing millions of minds to tackle billions of problems, the epistemic constitution disseminates knowledge at a staggering rate. Every day, probably before breakfast, it adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo’s time. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents. What is often called the marketplace of ideas would be more accurately described as a marketplace of persuasion, because the only way to establish knowledge is to convince others you are right. Third, by placing reality under the control of no one in particular, it dethrones intellectual authoritarianism and commits liberal society foundationally to intellectual pluralism and freedom of thought.

Together, these innovations have done nothing less than transform our way of living, learning, and relating to one another.


Yet, according to this month’s exit polls, 92% of White Txxxx voters think climate change is not a serious problem, while 87% think the US is handling the pandemic well and wearing a mask is a personal choice, not a matter of public health.

Is there a way to share more knowledge with them? I don’t think anybody knows.

“The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality” by Morgan Meis

This is a strange little book. It begins with the author explaining that he was living in Antwerp, in Belgium, because his wife was working on a project there. He had nothing in particular to do, but after realizing that the 17th century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had once lived in Antwerp, he decided to write a book about Rubens. It’s not a biography of Rubens though. It’s a series of brief meditations on the art of painting, ancient history, Greek mythology, Greek tragedy, hundreds of years of European history, especially Europe’s wars, and Rubens’s family, in particular the affair that Rubens’s father Jan had with Anne of Saxony, who was William of Orange’s wife, and how William of Orange and Rubens’s mother Maria reacted to the affair. There’s a lot about Friedrich Nietzsche, too. And other things.

The book’s central thread goes something like this. Silenus was a minor god in Greek mythology with a gift for prophecy. He was the very wise tutor and companion of Dionysus, the much more important god of the grape-harvest, wine, fertility, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater. Silenus is best-known for something he once told King Midas (who was apparently a real person, but couldn’t turn anything into gold). Midas asked Silenus what is the most desirable thing for a human being. Silenus told him the best thing is not to have been born.  But if you have been born, the best thing is to die quickly.

Peter Paul Rubens’s father Jan was the legal advisor to Anne of Saxony. They had an affair, the affair was discovered and Anne’s husband William threw Jan in jail. Jan eventually got out, was forgiven by his wife Marie, but died a broken man. Their son Peter Paul grew up to become the most influential artist of the “Flemish Baroque” tradition. 

Around 1616, Rubens painted “The Drunken Silenus”. It shows Silenus stumbling along, surrounded by some of Dionysus’s retinue, which included nymphs and satyrs.


A couple years later, Rubens painted “Two Satyrs”, two more of Dionysus’s pals.


A lot of history went by. Millions died during the Thirty Years War. Hapsburgs and Bourbons went at it. The nations of Europe slowly assumed their current positions.

Then, in 1872, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Wikipedia says:

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. . . .

. . . Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered  . . . versus reality as ordered). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.

Which brings us back to Silenus and Dionysus, the nymphs and satyrs, especially the satyrs. And goats. The author of The Drunken Silenus thinks Nietzsche valued the wild and crazy Dionysian approach to life more than the calm and collected Apollonian. I think the key chapter of The Drunken Silenus is “Is God a goat? What possibly could that possibly mean?” 

The way Nietzsche tells it, when Silenus finally reveals to Midas the greatest thing for man, that it is best for man never to have been born and second best for a man to die quickly, Silenus lets out a shrill laugh. Silenus laughs because in telling King Midas the best thing, he actually tells him the worst thing . . . 

Nietzsche thinks the ancient Greeks — the Greeks of the satyr plays and the songs in the forest, the Greeks who came before the classical period of Plato and the brilliant days of Greek rationalism — those Greeks were bold enough to make a health of their pessimism. . . .

The olden Greeks, the ancient Greeks, thinks Nietzsche, understood life under the principle of the goat, the young goat kicking and bucking in the woods. . . Even to ask the question of what is good or bad for a man is to lose touch with the primary intuition that God is a goat. That’s to say, God is not transcendent, imperturbable, untouchable, unknowable. God is none of those things. God, if God is the God of the world, has to have the characteristics of the goat, the randiness and unpredictability, even the stupidity of the goat. . . 

And so, the question of good and bad for man is canceled before it can be asked. It is preempted. The satyr would never think to ask that question. . . . Goats don’t ask questions like “what is the best thing for goats?” Goats just go out and express goatlieness [35-38].

Getting back to Rubens, I suppose Rubens’s father and Anne of Saxony (who was also imprisoned by her husband) were the Dionysians. Rubens’s forgiving mother Marie was the Apollonian. And Rubens himself, the great artist, was a proto-Nietzsche:

When Rubens took to painting Silenus he wasn’t grabbing randomly at the bits of ancient mythology floating around in the intellectual breeze. Rubens had a whole program of satyrs and Dionysus and Silenus. . . Rubens was being very Nietzschean here, if we can be anachronistic — literally anachronistic, since it was . . . Rubens who came first and Rubens who first painted Silenus as a central figure within this story of Dionysus.

So that’s The Drunken Silenus. You might find it interesting, but I should mention that, even though it’s a short book, it’s repetitious. The author likes to repeat himself, often in the same paragraph. It also gets tedious near the end, as he starts getting more abstract and paradoxical, suggesting that life is death, and reality is unreal, that kind of thing (I’m not quoting here). It’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down until it’s easy.

Creeps or Idiots?

My immediate reaction to this election was succinct:

Almost half of American voters are creeps or idiots. It’s not polite to say so, but that’s how it looks from here.

I wondered at the time whether I should change it to “creeps and/or idiots”, since that would have been more accurate, but decided to leave it alone.

Alex Guerrero, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University (the state university of New Jersey), offers a similar analysis, but more detailed and nuanced. He ends up at an interesting, although implausible, place:

Four years ago, I wrote that whoever won, half the country would feel “some combination of anger, alienation, shame, sadness, despair, fear, impotence, rage, and hopelessness.” We—the millions of members of the two parties—were far apart then and have moved even further apart under Txxxx.

If you are one of the almost 77 million Americans who voted for Biden, what should you make of the almost 72 million Americans who voted for Txxxx? Let me distinguish two broad views.

The first is to see Txxxx supporters—or at least many of them—as bad like Txxxx: as people who are racist, or xenophobic, or sexist, or don’t mind that Txxxx is; people who spent four years saying “fuck your feelings”; people who don’t mind Txxxx’s willingness to make up electoral fraud and to disregard norms of law and democracy; people who ignore or embrace Txxxx’s cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes. These people might be Txxxx die-hards who worship him, quasi-nihilistic fans who enjoy his talent for enraging the left, or pragmatists who see Txxxx as a cruel but effective means to their ends.

Whichever category they fall in, they are morally culpable for supporting Txxxx—particularly once it was clear exactly who Txxxx is and how he would govern—and likely to be what we might colloquially call bad people. Furthermore, this is not something that is easily changeable. These views and values are now deeply held and unlikely to be modified, at least not in the near future, at least not for the vast majority of them. Call this the moral deplorables view.

The second is to see Txxxx supporters as not nearly as bad as Txxxx himself. These 70 million Americans might be people who have been misled into viewing Txxxx in unrealistic ways: as a patriot, a leader, a staunch ally of Black and Latina/o communities, a religious person who cares about all people, a skilled businessman who can support employment and economic recovery, an ally of freedom and justice. These are people whose values—we are to imagine—are not that different from our own. They are not racists, bigots, or sexists, or not deeply so, and perhaps not much more than many of Biden’s 77 million supporters.

But they have a large set of false non-moral beliefs about Txxxx himself, and another large set of false non-moral beliefs about the views and character and positions of those on the left, including Biden. Let us imagine, further, that those false beliefs themselves are not culpably held—they result from the evidence they have encountered in the echo chambers that they find themselves in, and that they find themselves in these positions is not their fault [Note: in many cases, that’s hard to imagine]. There are more modest and more extreme versions of this view—maybe people are somewhat morally responsible for their false views, rather than being completely off the hook. But the basic view suggests that Txxxx supporters could be productively engaged, that they could change their views. Call this the epistemic reformables view.

(I will leave aside the view that asks us to think that Txxxx himself is not as bad as he seems to be, although of course that is what Txxxx supporters would urge us to think.)

The first view focuses on the deep moral character of Txxxx supporters. The second view focuses on the contingently bad epistemic situation of Txxxx supporters. The correct view probably involves some complex mixture of these.

Many who support Biden will see the moral deplorables view as correct and see the epistemic reformables view as misguided and naïve. The idea of trying to empathize with and constructively engage Txxxx supporters—something that they almost never do for us—is pointless and morally misguided. We are done with the countless thinkpieces that try to understand the disaffected white Txxxx voter. If you support Txxxx, we don’t support you, we aren’t going to try to understand you, we aren’t going to go out of our way to engage you, we are going to fight you tooth and nail, and we are going to defeat you. What that means is not entirely clear. More on that in a moment.

On the epistemic reformables view, we assume that many of Txxxx’s supporters are not as bad as supporting Txxxx would seem to require. Something else must have gone wrong. Many put blame at the doorstep of the misinformation ecosystem that exists on the right, led by Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, OAN, Gateway Pundit and others at the extreme edge, and Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, Fox News, and others at something somewhat less extreme—all of this swirled together and shared by the output from smaller operations and individuals through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter . . . This is how people end up believing QAnon, how they end up seeing Biden as a “child sniffing, demented liar,” and how they end up thinking everyone in the Democratic party is secretly a socialist (indistinguishable from a communist) hellbent on destroying America. 

There are other explanations, too. . . .  Their apparently racist and bigoted attitudes are not deep; they reflect lack of education, fear of what is unfamiliar, and being a bit behind rapidly changing social norms. . . .

On this view, the things to push for are reform of our institutions: educational, political, informational [Question: How does one go about reform Fox News?]. With those kinds of reforms, we will come to see that millions of Txxxx supporters are very much like us—people we cannot only tolerate and respect, but also love and embrace. . . . 

We will get more information about which view is correct in the coming years as we see how people change (or don’t) in response to Biden’s presidency and Txxxx receding (we can hope) into the background. But when I incline toward the second, one reason is because of the relatives of mine who I know both support Txxxx and, although not perfect people, are not like Txxxx—and I can see how they have come to believe what they believe, even when that seems like a mistake.

If one thinks the first view is correct, one must think about what other moral obligations come along with that view. Among other things, I think that view should come with a commitment to dissolving the United States political community.

If one is elected to represent a political community, one should be committed to taking seriously the preferences and values of the whole community, compromising with (and certainly not just ignoring) views held by large percentages of the population, and making law and policy that is responsive to the full electorate, not just 51% of it. But one should ignore morally deplorable views and citizens who hold such views. But one cannot do so if that means ignoring the views of millions of people in a systematic way. In that context, the options are either a kind of omnipresent moral paternalism or simple political domination—neither is compatible with basic democratic values, at least not if one expects that situation to be durable over time. . . . 

Txxxx got near 60% or more of the vote in the contiguous states of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. That deep red stripe can pick up other softer red states if they want to join. The Western and Eastern states could be two separate countries, or one. Maybe even raising the possibility results in some change.


Of course, it is true that views do not go away if one simply divides the political community. What one faces then is the situation we are in with respect to many foreign countries with what we perceive to be serious problems—we try to influence them to change and open our borders to those who would like to leave their community and join ours.

To the extent that this response seems excessive, it is perhaps because we still have hope that we are in the epistemic reformable situation. But—I conclude once again, four years later—perhaps we should be more open than we seem to be to talking about whether and why we all want to remain in a country together.


We should keep in mind that preferring right-wing propaganda to reality-based journalism is revealing in itself. For most people, it’s not a totally innocent choice. Also, “informational institutions” like Fox News are not exactly susceptible to reform. I’m less forgiving and less optimistic about these matters than Prof. Guerrero.

As the map shows, the Electoral College result did create three contiguous zones, but for poor isolated Georgia (assuming we consider the Great Lakes more like wide rivers — as far as Georgia is concerned, we could do the same with the Atlantic Ocean).

Aside from the accounting complexity, the main reason against splitting up the United States is that it would condemn millions of people who aren’t creeps or idiots to living in a country run by too many people who are.  


Beyond Moral Judgment by Alice Crary

Sometimes you (I mean me) finish a book and decide you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not sure about this one.

It began with an interview. Richard Marshall spoke with philosophy professor Alice Crary as part of his End Times series. This is part of what she said (or wrote, since the conversations are at least partly via email):

“Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that . . . the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that . . . lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything [related to] human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. . . .

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified . . . I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. . . .

 I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values. . . .

I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze. . . .

The upshot is that [for many philosophers, or most] there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

So I bought and read her book.


To sum it up, if I can, Prof. Crary says that being ethical and understanding ethics both require us to pay more attention to our feelings or “sensitivity”, what might be called our human reactions to what we experience as we go about our lives, and less attention to strictly ethical propositions, concepts and rules. She discusses cases in which people’s pre-existing ethical views (for example, that ethical people must follow certain rules) make it impossible for them to properly appreciate and evaluate people’s behavior, including their own. 

I’m not sure if her views are controversial among philosophers. The idea that feelings underlie ethics has a very long philosophical history, going as far back as ancient Greece (or consider, for instance, the title of Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments). That’s one reason I’m not sure I should have read her book.

Another reason is that the book isn’t well-written. It’s repetitious, with lots of descriptions of what she has already argued and what she’s going to argue next. Her sentences also tend to go on and on, requiring frequent backtracking to see how the various clauses relate. I kept reading party because I expected her to show how her approach to ethics yields different ethical views. But the chapters that primarily provide examples amount to saying that various characters in literature deserve more understanding than they get from other characters (works by Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James portray people who are too “moralistic”) and that feminism requires awareness of the social, cultural and economic contexts of women’s lives.

But Prof. Crary may have the (edited) last word (almost):

The idea is that, if the person’s thinking . . . expresses her moral outlook, then, even where it deals with what we are inclined to think of as a “non-moral” topic, it is rightly brought under the heading of moral thinking. . . [Being indifferent] to subject matter . . . allows [moral thought] to range over . . . any topic (e.g. the ways in which humans live and work with animals, the role of luck in human life, the role of . . . games in the cognitive development of children, the manner in which sibling rivalries . . . affect major life choices, etc.) . . . I submit that once we remove ourselves from the artificial atmosphere of academic moral philosophy , where a preoccupation with moral judgments is generally granted the status of a disciplinary requirement, this broad understanding of moral though will strike us as entirely natural . . .

Within contemporary moral philosophy, it is generally assumed that moral differences take the form either of disagreements about whether to apply a moral concept or of disagreements about whether some moral concept . . . is one we ought to operate with in the first place. In contrast, . . . moral differences may exist between people who inherit and develop different ways of thinking and talking about the world even where there is no question of a disagreement of either of these types. . . . 

Once we acknowledge the possibility of these additional kinds of moral differences, we are obliged . . . to consider not only individuals’ moral judgments but also mode of thought and speech that do not employ moral concepts, and the sensibilities that inform these additional modes of thought and speech. What becomes apparent is that proper respect for . . . moral conversation involves concern with . . . individuals’ entire personalities, the whole complicated weave of their lives [44-45].

I don’t disagree.

Another Damn Book To Read

Just what I needed.


I’d seen advertisements for The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, a new book by Morgan Meis. Then I saw a review by Leanne Ogasawara for Dublin Review of Books. Here’s half of it:

A man finds himself in Antwerp with nothing to do. Then he remembers, among other things, that this is the town where the painter Peter Paul Rubens made his home. At first, this annoys him, because he has no interest whatsoever in the painter. But then he thinks, why not write a book about Rubens.

Why not, indeed?

Essayist and critic Morgan Meis sets out to develop a new style of writing about art, one that is informed by a passionate looking. . . .

So, what is the painting in question? Well, it should be said that Rubens’s Drunken Silenus is not even in Antwerp anymore, since the city is now much too small for its golden boy. The painting is now in Munich. Meis travels there and stands in front of it. . . .

Meis is a philosopher. And so, standing in front of the drunken, out-of-control figure of Silenus, he immediately thinks of Nietzsche. . . .

According to Meis, Rubens was bowled over by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne   and who wouldn’t be?   in which the character Silenus can be found, playing a minor role in the back of the picture. You can see him slumped over asleep, presumably in a drunken stupor, being carried along on a mule. Rubens gravitates to this plump figure and brings him centre stage in his own painting, where naked Silenus seems ready to spring right off the canvas.

In case you don’t remember   and why would you?   Silenus was the tutor of Dionysius, and member of his wild and crazy entourage. He was also the goat-god who got tangled up with King Midas. Famously, the king asked Silenus to tell him what was the best thing in the world for men? “The best thing in the world for men is to never have been born,” declares Silenus. “And the second best thing is to die early.”

You get the idea: this is what my son would call a buzz kill. But this profoundly pessimistic message deeply affected Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who was so fascinated by opposing ancient Greek impulses – one toward order (the Apollonian) and one toward frenzy and the irrational (the Dionysian), could not help but be impressed. As Meis tells it:

All this talk (Nietzsche realised) of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anyone else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look.

When I studied Nietzsche in university, we read Dodds’s 1925 work The Greeks and the Irrational. The book was revelatory, illuminating all that was irrational about ancient Greek society. We tend to idealise the Greeks for their devotion to reason   in law, in mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy, for example. But the Greeks, said Dodds, were also deeply driven by irrational forces expressed in religious and other social practices. . . .

According to Nietzsche, Silenus was the greatest hero because he embraced the violent irrational forces that are at our core. And indeed, this is the way he has long been viewed, even in Rubens’s sympathetic depiction.

But what is a goat-god anyway? Nietzsche responds to this question, in Meis’s words that:

God is a goat because God is truth and the real truth of the matter is that life is a matter of running and jumping in the forest and rushing after something to screw and something to eat and, according to Nietzsche in what he thought he learned from the Greeks, even the life of the mind, the intellectual life of the sad-thinking-creature known as man, this creature who must think and make art and make culture, insofar as man does those things, ought to be done with the pure life-expressing power of the goat.

Have you heard of the old joke that, Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!

More than anything, The Drunken Silenus is about the “tears of things” (lacrimae rerum). Underneath the beauty of Antwerp   underneath the beauty of all cities, he says, is the irrationality of violence, chaos, and war. A world of tears.

This is the deeper truth that Nietzsche uncovered in the figure of Silenus. And in Meis’s telling, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, this same impulse toward war and violence is what connects civilisations through history. This Dionysian horde that Nietzsche surely imagined battering the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870 was the same Dionysian horde that devastated Europe in the Thirty Years War in Rubens’s time. . . .

In this telling, history is not a love story. But I do think there is something healthy about Nietzsche’s pessimism. To dwell on transience, in the tears of things, in decay and ruins, is ultimately an empowering practice. In Japan, it is referred to as “scattering flowers and fallen leaves” 飛花落葉 or . . . “dewdrop loves and our dewdrop selves”. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all that appears before us is as a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. All is like the dew or lightning. It should thus be contemplated that nothing has reality. That everything is in flux and that all must eventually perish is a sad but inevitable fact . . .


And then a purchase was made.

Peter Paul Rubens painted Silenus another time. Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs shows Dionysus’s companion and tutor getting a little help from his friends. We all need assistance sometimes, especially in what Ms. Ogasawara calls “our current time of worry and sickness”. Am I right or am I right?

Two days.