Friday, April 08, 2005

Switching to a new blog site

This hosting service, Blogger, has been so unreliable and frustrating that I have switched to a different service, TypePad. I'm hoping it will be better. Hard to see how it could be worse ...

My new blog site is .

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Soul of the Age

I recently read an announcement of a possible film on the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Why is this of interest? Well, de Vere is today's most popular candidate for the role of the "real" Shakespeare - the nobleman who wrote the plays attributed to the man from Stratford. And the proposed movie, The Soul of the Age, dramatizes this theory by showing de Vere as the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the Bard's masterpieces.

As I discussed in an earlier post, there are pluses and minuses to the "anti-Stratfordian" position - the contention that someone other than Will Shakespeare wrote the works. I am an agnostic on the subject, leaning slightly toward the heretics but by no means committed. One thing I am sure of, however, is that de Vere's life offers plenty of material for an exciting drama. And there are enough parallels between his biography and the life of Hamlet (among other Shakespearean characters) to make the film version intriguing, at the very least.

Of course, all this may be premature. The film's would-be director, Roland Emmerich, has not secured funding yet. And he seems to have two or three other irons on the fire, including a movie about King Tut. Whether or not The Soul of the Age actually makes it to the screen remains to be determined. The script was written in 1998 and shelved when Shakespeare in Love went into production. Will it have better luck this time?

I hope so. Valid or invalid, the Oxfordian theory is so clever and so intriguing that it deserves to reach a wider audience.

Monday, April 04, 2005

More on God and Albert Ellis

My previous post discussed rational-emotive psychological theorist Albert Ellis and his strange reluctance to pass judgment on anybody - even Adolf Hitler!

I tossed out the speculation that perhaps Ellis, an ardent atheist, was worried by the prospect of being judged himself, either by others or by God.

Since then I've reflected a little more on the issue, and I think there may be a better explanation of Ellis's thinking. Possibly he believes that if we define a person as bad or evil, then we are saying that this person is irredeemable - that he can never be anything but bad or evil. So in calling him a bad person, we are denying his humanity by foreclosing any possibility of atonement and redemption.

This interpretation would seem to be more in line with Ellis's comments. If this is his view, however, it is still much mistaken. Calling someone a bad person in no way logically entails saying that he cannot be redeemed. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the Christian tradition, a person must declare himself to be a sinner before he can begin to atone for his sins and seek redemption. Being a sinner is not the end of the matter, but only the beginning.

The same idea is at work in the twelve-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, which has proven highly effective. A member of the program must declare himself to be an alcoholic - not "a person who exhibits alcoholic behavior," mind you, but an alcoholic. Only be confronting this fact about himself can the person then move on to overcome his addiction, with the help of a "higher power" (another part of the program).

Ellis would presumably object to both steps - the statement "I am an alcoholic" and the trust in a higher power. Yet the AA program gets results, and these steps are integral to it. In fact, when some AA branches removed the "higher power" step in an effort to qualify for government funding (which was not offered to religious programs), they found that the resulting eleven-step program did not work. They had to restore the "higher power" step, even though it meant giving up any hope of government support.

This leads us to another criticism of Ellis's position. Throughout his book, he writes as though religion is adopted by weak-minded people who are drawn to it by their neuroses - neuroses which are then exacerbated by the religious belief system itself. If his view were correct, religious people would be more neurotic and more unhappy than the secular population.

But subsequent studies (not available at the time Ellis wrote his book) have shown the opposite. People who say that religion is important in their lives are, as a group, happier and better adjusted emotionally than their secular counterparts. Moreover, they are less likely to suffer from substance abuse or other addictions, and more likely to be in good health for their age. Religious practices like prayer and meditation have been shown to be especially effective in maintaining a positive outlook and the ability to deal with stress.(These studies, which are pretty well known, are discussed in Patrick Glynn's God: The Evidence, among many other books.)

So Ellis appears to have gotten things exactly backward. Religion (unless it degenerates into fanaticism) actually promotes happiness and good mental and physical health. And the ability to say "I am a bad person," far from cheating us of any hope at self-improvement, turns out to be the first necessary step on the road to self-improvement - just as all those religious texts and traditions always said.

Gee. How about that?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

God and Albert Ellis

Recently I tracked down the long out-of-print book Is Objectivism a Religion? by Albert Ellis. Published in 1968, the book criticizes Ayn Rand's philosophy of rational egoism, dubbed Objectivism, arguing that the philosophy encourages neurosis by making unrealistic demands on its adherents.

Ellis, the founder of a school of cognitive psychology called rational-emotive therapy or RET, is concerned that his views may he mistaken for those of Objectivist therapists. He therefore wants to draw a clear dividing line between the two approaches. He also wants to get in the last word after having publicly debated Nathaniel Branden (at the time the leading theorist of Objectivist psychology, although he was soon to be booted out of the movement). As Ellis tells it, the debate became something of a free-for-all, with obnoxious Objectivists in the audience booing and hissing his comments and making it difficult for him to speak.

Although he occasionally seems to misunderstand Rand's views on particular topics, Ellis makes a number of cogent points about Objectivism's essential unreality and perfectionism. But what I found more interesting - and more troubling - was his exposition of his own viewpoint. Ellis has a positive horror of passing moral judgment on other people. He regards a propensity for judging others as a sign of neurosis. He thinks there is no such thing as a bad person, only bad behavior. For him this is not a platitude but a profound and compelling truth. He goes so far as to say that even Adolf Hitler must not be judged as evil. Indeed, Is Objectivism a Religion? ends with a ringing peroration on the ''bigotry" implied in morally condemning Hitler.

... although Hitler was a person who committed abominable deeds, it is unscientific and misleading to call him an abominable person. And just as Hitler himself was bigoted – because he called a person who has non-Aryan heredity a non-Aryan person, and then condemned this whole person because he happened to dislike his non-Aryan background – so Nathaniel Branden is a person with bigoted ideas if he labels Hitler as "an unqualifiedly contemptible human being" instead of a human being with many contemptible traits. The mere fact that Hitler's crimes included many murders of innocent people does not gainsay the fact that he was a person who did wrong things, rather than, as Branden implies, a werewolf or a devil.

The main point is that there are no humans who are vermin, werewolves, or devils. There are just humans who are human; and who, being human, often do the damnedest deeds. To accept this fact is to be scientific, humane, and irreligious. To refuse to accept it is to be unscientific, inhumane and religious. (p. 308; excerpt from the final paragraphs of the book)

This viewpoint strikes me as simply bizarre. I'm willing to concede that one should not condemn another person as evil on the basis of a single, isolated act - unless the act in question is especially heinous and calculated. (And Objectivism is all too willing to condemn people willy-nilly, not only on the basis of a single act but even on the basis of a single statement, single thought, or single emotional reaction.) In combating such knee-jerk moralism, Ellis is on solid ground.

But when a person commits a series of evil acts over a long period of time - when his character and his life are centered on evil acts - then it becomes absurd to say that his behavior is evil but he is not. It is a distinction without a difference.

Suppose someone performs countless acts of kindness throughout his lifetime. Would we hesitate to call him kind? Or if he performs numerous acts of bravery, doesn't he quality as brave?

Ellis might object that no one is brave - or kind, or evil - all the time. This is true. But surely we judge a person not by his incidental acts but by his typical or characteristic behavior. Adolf Hitler no doubt had moments of kindness and humanity (he is said to have loved his dogs), but these acts don't mitigate the essential malignity of his record, a record of premeditated mass murder and war and terror, extending over decades.

I find Ellis's view too eccentric to justify a more detailed rebuttal, but it may be worthwhile to ask what motivates him to take such an untenable position – and not only to take it, but to defend it vehemently and make it a centerpiece of his argument, thereby weakening his entire book.

The answer seems to lie in Ellis's furious, sustained, almost pathological hatred of religion. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that his zeal on this subject is itself "religious" in the worst sense of the term.

For Ellis, all religion is mere ''supernatural nonsense," all the varieties of God merely "invented" by human beings who are motivated by a sense of their own "worthlessness." Potshots at religion litter the book's pages, indicating an abiding contempt for all things religious, a contempt that borders on the obsessive. Indeed, "religion" may be the most pejorative term in Ellis's vocabulary, as the very title of his book makes plain. And perhaps predictably, most of his rhetorical firepower is directed at ''Judeo-Christian religion," his bete noir.

Apparently what Ellis despises most about religion is its moralistic quality - all this talk of good and evil, of sin, of guilt. He would do away with all that. His conception of humanism requires him to hold that every human being has value, and therefore no human being can be written off as fundamentally bad. To make such a judgment is to abandon humanism and enter the realm of religion – i.e., to abandon reason and become an abject irrationalist.

But clearly it is possible to hold that all human life has value, and therefore to condemn someone like Hitler, who went out of his way to spoil and destroy human life. Indeed, if we do value the lives of individual human beings, then we can hardly place much value on the life of a mass murderer, who has extinguished so many lives.

This objection is so obvious that it's hard to see how Ellis could overlook it. Perhaps the answer is that valuing human life is not, after all, the root of his position. I suspect that Ellis's actual motive is somewhat different from the motive he ascribes to himself. It's not that judging others is such an awful prospect. The awful prospect is that of being judged oneself.

In his description of his debate with Branden, Ellis claims that the harsh reaction of the largely pro-Objectivist audience did not discomfit him in the least. "As I teach my RET patients, human beings only become 'insulted' when they take seriously the barbs of others, and essentially agree with these others that, yes, they (the 'insulted' ones) are somewhat worthless individuals. [A rational person who was the target of such barbs] would surely not take [the] accusations very seriously ... and would listen to the rest of [the] accusations with equanimity." (p. 289)

Like Queen Gertrude, Ellis protests too much. In reality, being condemned and criticized is surely going to ruffle most people's feathers, no matter how much cognitive therapy they may have had. Yes, a person of high self-regard may be less easily flustered by criticism, but the idea that anyone can listen to insults and condemnations "with equanimity" is just as unrealistic and perfectionistic as the Objectivist doctrines that Ellis decries.

Only a person with a strong fear of criticism would work so hard to prove that criticism can't possibly bother him. Only someone intensely worried about being judged would rail so vehemently against the very idea of judgment.

Opponents of religion often argue that religionists believe in God merely because it makes them feel good and allays their fears. But the argument can be turned around. Some of those same anti-religionists may hold their position because to believe in God would make them feel bad. It would, perhaps, scare the hell out of them. Atheism may in fact be their way of feeling good and allaying their fears.

After all, it's bad enough to be judged by one's fellow human beings. How much worse is it to be judged by some ultimate and implacable Authority?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Shakespeare: who was he?

I have a certain fascination with the much-debated Shakespeare authorship question, as demonstrated by the three essays I've posted on the topic (which can be found here). Now a new book has entered the fray, an attractively produced volume titled Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare, by Bertram Fields.

In a nutshell, the authorship controversy centers on whether William Shakespeare, a not-very-well-educated lad from a small farming town, could have acquired the range of knowledge, the life experience, and the massive vocabulary (21,000 words, almost three times the vocabulary of John Milton) that are evident in the plays and poems published in his name. Stratfordians - i.e., those who insist that Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the works, say that Shakespeare's innate genius allowed him to overcome all obstacles. The doubters, clumsily dubbed anti-Stratfordians, say that even genius is not a sufficient explanation for the playwright's apparent familiarity with Greek, Italian, and French, with European locales, with high-flown metaphysical speculations, with legalisms, with military and nautical terminology, with aristocratic pursuits like falconry (forbidden to the middle class), and with the intricacies of life at court. They also see in Shakespeare a distinct preference for the upper classes (nearly all of his major characters are nobles or royals) and a disdain for commoners, who are typically depicted as comical louts or dangerous mobs.

Bertram Fields revisits all these issues and more in his readable, user-friendly volume. The great virtue of his book is its evenhandedness. Fields carefully presents both sides of all the major arguments, never sliding into dogmatism or insisting he has all the answers. This approach may frustrate the absolutists on both sides of the debate, but it allows for an intelligent assessment of the claims and counterclaims, without emotion or invective.

In a book that covers such a large subject, there are bound to be some lapses. Fields makes a few mistakes; for instance, he says in passing that Shakespeare's four major tragedies - Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello - did not appear in print until the First Folio of 1623. Actually, three of the four were published in earlier quartos (the exception is Macbeth). He says that the Earl of Oxford's arms depicted "a rampant lion shaking a spear," when it would be more accurate and less tendentious to say that the lion is holding a broken spear. (Did the lion break the spear by shaking it too hard? Oxfordians - those who think the earl was the real Shakespeare - like to think so.) He also quotes Gabriel Harvey's tribute to Oxford, "... thy countenance shakes a spear," without mentioning that the tribute was written in Latin and the words can be translated in other ways.

These are minor points. What bothered me more was the paucity of citations to other scholars. The book has only three or four footnotes, no endnotes, and most surprising of all, no bibliography. Fields owes most of his arguments to earlier writers, but they are only intermittently acknowledged. His analyses of both Henry V and The Merchant of Venice seemingly owe much to Harold Goddard's superb commentary The Meaning of Shakespeare, but Goddard is never mentioned. He gives little or no indication of the sources for his information on Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Derby, among others. More citations would have been helpful to readers who wish to pursue this subject further, and would have been appropriate in giving credit where it is due. (For those who are interested, my essays - linked above - do provide a list of sources, including Web sites.)

These caveats should not detract from the overall value of Players. Fields has done a commendable job of summarizing a vast amount of information in a clear, straightforward way, and exhibits a level of common sense often absent from this contentious dispute. His own theory, put forward tentatively at the end, is not terribly convincing (at least to me), but he does not demand allegiance to it. It's just one possibility among many.

In the end, what Fields's book and others like it demonstrate is that the case for "the Stratford man" is relatively weak, and that other contenders can and should be taken seriously. At the same time, they also demonstrate that no single contender fits the bill. Oxford died too early, and the poetry that survives under his own name is not of Shakespearean quality. Marlowe can be a candidate only if he faked his own death in 1593 - not an impossibility, but surely an obstacle to plausibility. The Earl of Derby left no writing in his own name, giving us no way to judge his talents as an author. Francis Bacon had a worldview radically different from Shakespeare's, and his multifaceted career kept him busy enough without penning 37 or more plays on the side. Other proposed candidates are even more unsatisfactory.

The riddle may never be solved. The great value of Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare is that the book is content to raise the questions and leave them, ultimately, unresolved. Sometimes the most honest answer is none at all.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Was Ayn Rand evil?

Years ago I was involved in Objectivism, the movement that grew out of the writings of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. In an essay called "Shrugging Off Ayn Rand," I discussed how the philosophy didn't work for me and why I eventually moved on.

Lately, though, I've been looking at Ayn Rand from a different - and even more unflattering - perspective. I just read The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, a nonfiction book that argues that sociopaths of a predominantly nonviolent type are more prevalent than we realize. And, by coincidence (or is it synchronicity?), I happened to look up the out-of-print book Therapist by Ellen Plasil on . Therapist tells the story of an Objectivist psychotherapist, Lonnie Leonard, who was highly regarded by leaders of Rand's movement in the 1970s - but who was secretly mistreating his female patients, abusing them emotionally and sexually. One of the reader comments on the Amazon page was left by Scott Ryan, author of Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Ryan remarks:

And the fact that the morally corrupt Leonard was able to pass for so long as "one of them" says something crucially important about the movement's standards and purposes: namely, that it is awfully hard to tell a devout Objectivist from a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath. I wonder why. (Hint: it was hard to tell Rand from one too.)
Acerbic though this comment is, it got me thinking. Was Ayn Rand "a narcissistic, manipulative sociopath" - or at least a borderline case?

Well, consider the portrait of Rand drawn by two biographies - Nathaniel Branden's My Years with Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand - and by Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult. These are, admittedly, hostile sources, but in the absence of any biography by Rand's admirers, they are the only ones we have.

Anyone judging by these books would have to say that Rand was narcissistic in the extreme. She lacked empathy. She could be intensely charming (charm and charisma are common features of sociopathy) but was also prone to outbursts of rage and frustration.

She exploited young, emotionally vulnerable people and frequently sabotaged their self-image with her vindictive cruelty. She claimed to love her husband but carried on an affair with a younger man right in front of him, a situation that drove her husband to alcoholism.

She was a hypochondriac. She showed signs of paranoia. She had an addictive personality, smoked two packs of cigarettes daily, and gobbled handfuls of diet pills (amphetamines).

She despised "average" people, whom she regarded as ugly and stupid and irrational, while viewing herself in exalted terms as the greatest writer in history and the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.

She was concerned with no one's needs or wants or suffering except her own. She was able to claim in print that no one had ever helped her, when in fact she had benefited for years from the charity and goodwill of relatives and business associates and friends. She alienated nearly all her friends and allies by the end of her life, and died nearly alone.

She literally drove people crazy; ex-Objectivist Edith Efron once remarked that if you spent any time with Rand, you had to ask yourself if you were insane, or if she was (quoted in Walker). She was a megalomaniac. She was probably manic-depressive. She created heroic fictional characters who are deeply repressed, incapable of normal human interaction, and typically angry or disgusted with the world.

This is hardly a person who should be seen as the epitome of rationality and benevolence - yet this is how her followers do see her. In my Objectivist years I once hesitantly suggested to a fellow Objectivist that there might be a few character flaws to be found in Rand, only to be met with a blank stare and the appalled question, "Character flaws - in Ayn Rand?!" In Objectivist dogma it is always other people who were at fault in their dealings with "Miss Rand" (as they like to call her). Somehow it was always those irrational others who abused, deceived, and hurt Ayn Rand, and her rages and bitterness were entirely justified, entirely rational. How could they not be? Rand was the personification of reason, so by definition whatever she thought, felt, or did just had to be rational - Q.E.D.

When I look at the portrait of Ayn Rand drawn by a variety of people who knew her best, I see a person who is certainly larger and more theatrical than the run-of-the-mill sociopaths in Martha Stout's book, different from them in degree - but not very different in kind.

And I wonder how a movement founded by a woman with such serious disorders could ever have been seen as a way to personal happiness or to a better world.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


I just finished reading The History of Torture, by Daniel P. Mannix, and I have to say the book's relentless chronicling of man's inhumanity to man was pretty depressing. I had liked to think that we are making moral progress, but Mannix's book made me wonder if I was wrong, and if my optimism abour humanity was misplaced. I ended up writing some notes to myself, in which I came to some sort of understanding of the perennial problem of human cruelty. Rather than tidy up these notes, I'm going to reproduce them with only minor editing and abridgments. Maybe some of you have gone through the same thought process and will recognize yourselves here.

Here's what I jotted down:

The thing that haunts me is the fact of human evil. The use of torture, the cruelty, the demonic aspect of people - what is it, if not Original Sin? And yet I don't believe in Original Sin. I like to believe in moral progress. But if someone held the Roman "games" today, wouldn't people show up? They enjoy the emotional pain and humiliation of reality-TV shows, even the surgical disfigurement of The Swan (a show in which contestants are put through plastic surgery). They attend cockfights, dogfights, bullfights, boxing matches, car races that end in deadly crashes. There seems to be something inherent in human nature that responds to blood sport. Maybe we haven't made so much progress, after all. Or perhaps it's better to say that whatever progress we've made is painfully slow, painfully hard won.

I used to think this kind of cruelty was an outgrowth of materialistic culture. The Romans, after all, were materialists who believed in nothing but sensual gratification. On the other hand, the Inquisitors believed they were saving souls, and the Aztecs believed they were placating the gods. It's not a simple matter of "materialism bad, spirituality good." It goes deeper. Any belief system is compatible with torture - as if the lust to kill is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it can be rationalized under any system of thought. If so, it's incorrect to "explain" cruelty by reference to ideology or philosophy or culture. Ethics can mitigate cruelty, but the potential for cruelty is always there, and we are all capable of it.

We all mistreat people, abuse people, insult people. No one is ever blameless. When I was a big sports fan, I used to root so hard for my team that I actually hoped the opposing players would be injured.

And why was I rooting so hard? Because my ego was invested in the team. Their victory was my victory, and their defeat was my defeat - my humilation.

The ego is the key. The small-minded, petty, grasping, insecure, defensive part of us that wants to be superior, wants to control others, wants dominance and power and safety. Only by getting beyond the ego can we escape from violence and cruelty.

The Roman mob rooted for slaughter because they were powerless and frustrated, and it pleased them to see someone worse off than themselves. The Inquisitors were willing to torture because of their egoistic conceit that they, and only they, were in possession of absolute truth. The Nazis worshipped Hitler, a megalomaniac, the personification of ego. The Aztecs, too, were operating on an ego level - they were terrified of the gods, and to propitiate these deities they engaged in wholesale massacres. (The ego is all about fear and vigilance and saving oneself regardless of the cost to others.)

Religious and ethical traditions have always opposed the ego. Greek myths warn of "hubris," or overweening pride, and the myth of Narcissus is a critique of excessive self-love. In the Bible, violence enters the world (Cain's murder of Abel) right after humanity acquires an ego (Adam and Eve's defiance of God). The Ten Commendments stress the need to subordinate the willful self to God, to parents, to social norms. Do not covet = don't be envious or jealous (ego qualities). Do not put any false gods before God = don't elevate the ego to godlike status.

The ego is part of human nature and can't be eradicated. The best we can do is keep it in check. Moral systems teach us this truth. If we have made progress since the days of the Roman "games" or the Inquisition, it's only because we have a long ethical tradition that attempts to put some restraints on the ego.

So it looks like there really is such a thing as Original Sin - and it's the ego. It's part of us all.


That's the end of my notes, but as a coda, here's a quote that just occurred to me. It's from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play about cruelty and hubris:

But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
(His glassy essence), like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep ...

Measure for Measure, II, ii. 122-127

Big bucks

Last night I saw a news report on the federal government's latest budget, which is said to be 2.6 trillion dollars. This got me wondering how I could visualize such a large sum. I decided that by breaking it down into smaller pieces I could make more sense of it. Here are my seat-of-the-pants calculations.

The government spends $2.6 trillion in a year.
There are 52 weeks in a year.
Therefore the government spends $50 billion per week.
There are seven days in a week.
Therefore the government spends $7.14 billion per day.
There are 24 hours in a day.
Therefore the government spends $297 million per hour.
There are sixty minutes in an hour.
Therefore the government spends $4.9 million per minute.
There are sixty seconds in a minute.
Therefore the government spends $82,600 per second.

I should add that the federal budget does not include so-called "off-budget items," which are also very costly. And it does not count state, county, and municipal government spending.

I'm not saying that this amount of spending is necessarily excessive. The United States is a military, industrial, and scientific colossus, with a population of 300,000,000, and it is fighting a global war on terrorism while engaging in massive programs that involve economic subsidies, medical research, and the maintenance of infrastructure, to name just a few.

But when we hear members of Congress insist that government programs are being starved and shrunken, remember this:

The federal government currently spends $82,600 every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of the year.