At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

The book’s full title is At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Strike the “apricot cocktails” and that pretty well sums it up.

Sarah Bakewell found some fame and fortune with her previous book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I read and enjoyed that one. As usually happens, it made me want to read some of the subject’s writings: the 16th century essays of Michel de Montaigne. 

At the Existentialist Café made me curious about the writings of some of its subjects, but less optimistic about enjoying or even making sense of what they had to say. Reading Bakewell’s descriptions, explanations and quotations of works by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre left me relatively clueless about what reading hundreds of pages of phenomenology or existentialism would be like.

In addition, except for Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, I didn’t find the life stories or idiosyncrasies of these thinkers especially interesting, certainly not as interesting as Bakewell does.

On Carrying a Camera Everywhere

There have probably been a billion words written on how most of us are now carrying a little camera with us everywhere and how that’s changing our lives for better or worse. 

But think of all the events that could have been photographed if everyone had a cellphone in decades past. We’d have more pictures of UFOs (but not flying saucers). We’d have more photographs of the Kennedy assassination and more views of Marilyn Monroe on that subway grate. From certain decades, we’d have many more pictures of people looking at themselves in their bathroom mirrors.

There was a story in the news today about an actress being handcuffed in Southern California after she apparently refused to identify herself to police officers. She wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time and wasn’t arrested. There are photographs of her in tears standing next to a cop, but not of what happened earlier. We’ll probably have to wait a while before it’s common to film every moment of every event that seems like it might be worth filming.

Anyway, I was walking into the grocery story this evening and stopped to take a picture with my phone. Future historians can study it if they want:


American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation is an excellent summary of what Ellis calls “the Founding Era”, defined as the 28 years between the start of the War for Independence in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The author’s method is to focus on six key periods or events: the 15 months between the violence at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge, “a pivotal moment” when George Washington realized he could not win the war by winning full-scale battles with the British; the political battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution; the approval of the Treaty of New York in 1791 between the United States and the Creek Nation; the beginning of party politics with the creation of the original Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, mainly in response to Alexander Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States; and finally the Louisiana Purchase, when President Jefferson doubled the size of the United States but set the stage for the Civil War by ignoring the issue of slavery’s expansion to the new territory.

Being relatively ignorant about the history of this period, it was especially surprising to read about Thomas Jefferson’s checkered career and the creation of the first Republican Party, which later became the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually split into two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs (it’s ironic that the current Republican Party is known as the Grand Old Party, even though the Democratic Party is 30 years older). Jefferson and his follower Madison engaged in all kinds of bad behavior premised on the bizarre idea that people like Washington and John Adams wanted to restore monarchy to America.

The other especially surprising story is the attempt by members of Washington’s administration to create a policy that would protect the interests of the Indians east of the Mississippi. The Creek Nation occupied much of the American South and was lead by Alexander McGillivray, an expert negotiator who was only one-quarter Indian. McGillivray eventually agreed to the Treaty of New York, which reserved a large part of the South for the Indians and included the promise that Federal troops would stop any further settlement in the area by American colonists. As with most treaties between the United States and the Indians, the agreement was immediately broken by the Federal government, mostly because there weren’t enough Federal troops to enforce it.   

One of Ellis’s principal conclusions is that the struggle over the balance of power between the central government and the states was built into the Constitution from the beginning and has defined much of American history, even to the present day. My conclusion is that we’ve been lucky to do as well as we have, given the political and economic conflicts that have existed since the Founding Era and will apparently never be resolved.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot might be disturbing for Christian readers. Its author was born into a Muslim family in Iran. After his family emigrated to the United States, he became a Christian for a while. After closely studying the origins of Christianity, however, he became “a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ”.

As Aslan tells the story, Jesus was born in the humble village of Nazareth, not in a manger in Bethlehem (despite what the Bible says, the Romans never conducted a census that forced everyone to stop work and travel to their birthplace). Jesus was illiterate, worked as a laborer and was probably married (almost all young Jewish men got married in those days). When he was roughly 34 years old, he left Nazareth and began preaching a politically-charged message to his fellow Jews.

At the time, there were lots of angry but hopeful Jews in Palestine. They were anticipating the arrival of a messiah, someone who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and get rid of the Romans. Some claimed to be the messiah. Others were thought to be the messiah by their followers. Some, including Jesus, were said to have performed exorcisms or miracles. What the various preachers, dissidents, rabble rousers and zealots had in common was their nationalistic desire to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore Israel to its former glory. 

None of these supposed messiahs claimed to be divine, however. The Jews, of course, were strictly monotheistic. It was enough that the messiah do God’s work by overthrowing the Roman oppressors. Many also hoped for economic reforms, like lower taxes. Jesus, in particular, apparently had a very low opinion of the wealthy priests and merchants who cooperated with the Romans.

Crucifixion was a common punishment for Rome’s enemies, so it was no surprise that Jesus was found guilty of sedition after a few years and executed. Being crucified, however, showed that Jesus wasn’t the messiah after all. The Romans were clearly still in power. Jesus had failed to institute the Kingdom of God. Aslan suggests that some of Jesus’s followers wanted to explain away his apparent failure. They spread the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and would one day return to finish his work. That’s when the Romans would finally be overthrown.

We know that the various books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. We also know that almost all of it was written by men who never met Jesus, never heard him speak and never saw him perform any miracles. Aslan points out lots of inconsistencies and omissions in the New Testament and plausibly argues that many stories told about Jesus were designed to satisfy political and theological agendas. For example, claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was a way to make his birthplace consistent with earlier prophecies about the messiah.

What I found especially interesting in Zealot was Aslan’s discussion of the apostle Paul, who wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen who is said to have encountered an otherworldly Jesus on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Whether or not Paul had a vision while traveling to Damascus, he doesn’t seem to have written anything saying that he did (the road to Damascus story is now attributed to Luke, who was apparently one of Paul’s disciples). But, according to Aslan, Paul was mainly responsible for the birth of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism.

Jesus, of course, was hardly a Christian himself. For example, Aslan says there is no evidence that Jesus ever referred to himself as the “Son of God”. That was a title reserved for the past kings of Israel, like David. It was Paul who promoted the story that Jesus was divine and began referring to Jesus as “Jesus Christ”. Paul also founded churches in other parts of the Roman empire. In fact, more than half of the New Testament was either written by Paul or is about Paul.

Paul’s distinctive views were rejected by the other apostles (the ones who had known Jesus and were still alive), including James the Just, the younger brother of Jesus and the leading figure among the apostles after Jesus’s death. Since Paul couldn’t convince the other Jews that Jesus was divine, he concentrated on convincing the gentiles, some of whom were receptive to his relatively monotheistic message.

Of course, the historical record is extremely spotty with regard to Jesus. Some scholars no doubt disagree with Aslan’s interpretation of the evidence. A Christian, being convinced that Jesus was a unique individual who actually did perform miracles, actually was resurrected and actually was (and is) God’s son, might say it’s pointless to try to understand Jesus from an historical perspective.

In addition, Aslan never really explains why he holds Jesus of Nazareth in such high regard (even if Jesus was anti-Rome and a champion of the poor). Aslan doesn’t even emphasize Jesus’s role as a moral teacher, arguing that the idea of turning the other cheek, for example, didn’t apply to people in general – it only applied to one’s Jewish enemies (and certainly not to Romans, for whom the sword was more appropriate). But I found Aslan’s account extremely interesting and very plausible. Here is part of his concluding summary:

Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem [by the Romans in 70 C.E.] was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and require nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers…

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.

A Guide to Reality, Part 2

A couple days ago, I stated my intention (you might even say I promised) to work through Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without IIlusions right here at WOCS. That was in part 1. Believe it or not, this is part 2.

In his preface, Professor Rosenberg explains that he wrote the book for people who are ready to face reality. By that he means people who believe there is no God (atheists) or have serious doubts (agnostics) and who want to know what science has to say about a few perennial questions that keep some of us awake at night. He thinks the scientific view of reality has certain consequences:

The book is about those consequences. It provides an uncompromising, hard-boiled, no-nonsense, unsentimental view of the nature of reality, the purpose of things, the meaning of life, the trajectory of human history, morality and mortality, the will, the mind and the self (ix).

Rosenberg scoffs at attempts to reconcile science and religion. He holds that “an unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism” (viii), which explains why most of America’s leading scientists are atheists and those who aren’t atheists are mostly agnostics.

I don’t think it makes any difference to Rosenberg whether science leads us to atheism or atheism leads us to science. He started out in physics, ended up in philosophy, branched out to biology and economics, and somewhere along the way became an atheist. But someone might proceed in the other direction: doubting God’s existence and then looking to science to explain why the world is the way it is. His contention is that science and atheism are compatible, while science and religion (or theism) aren’t.

In my opinion, however, he exaggerates the conflict. You don’t have to deny God’s existence in order to be an excellent scientist. Instead, what you need to do is put thoughts of God aside when you’re doing science. Science is the search for natural explanations, not supernatural ones. Invoking God as the explanation for the existence of the human eye, for example, amounts to throwing up your hands and choosing a different subject. If you want to speculate about some god or other creating the universe and initializing the fundamental constants (like the mass of an electron) to values supportive of life, you’re not doing science. In this methodological sense, a scientist has to be an atheist.

But despite what Rosenberg says, nobody knows why or how the universe came into existence; or if it’s always existed in some form or other; or whether our universe is one of many. Even if scientists eventually figure out the answers to those questions, we’ll never be able to rule out the possibility that some creator or creative force beyond our universe got the cosmic ball rolling. Nor will we ever be able to prove that God, Zeus or Santa Claus isn’t watching right now to see if we’ve been naughty or nice. What evidence could there be to prove that kind of negative?

What we can say is that, historically speaking, science has shown a vast number of previously mysterious phenomena to be natural processes. There is no reason to think we need an entity outside space and time to explain why there are stars and galaxies, or why there are birds and bees, or why the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth. As fewer phenomena have seemed to require a supernatural explanation, it has seemed less and less likely that there is Anyone Up There. As we’ve learned more about our world, ancient stories have become much less plausible. So far as science is concerned, God is a dead letter.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean God is dead, however implausible that he, she, it or they either are or ever were “alive”.

Next time: stories and scientism.