29 December 2009

Blah, Blah, Blah

Mark Steyn wrote an excellent online article called “Cross the River, Burn the Bridge,” in which he skewers the Obama/Reid plan to socialize medicine – a plan that will eviscerate American medical care. Steyn uses his familiar acerbic wit in presenting examples of the consequences of socialized medicine in Canada and England, and makes a good case that the plan the Senate pushed through on Christmas Eve (while citizens’ attentions were diverted) will be even worse than the Euro-style systems. “Whatever one’s philosophical objection to the Canadian health system,” Steyn wrote:

it is, broadly fair: Unless you’re a cabinet minister or a bigtime hockey player, you’ll enjoy the same equality of crappiness and universal lack of access that everybody else does. But, even before it’s up-and-running, Pelosi-Reid-Obamacare is an impenetrable thicket of contradictory boondoggles, shameless payoffs and arbitrary shakedowns.”[Note 1.]

The thing that struck me most, though, was not the article itself, which is so on target that it is obvious to me, but one of the reader’s comments following the article. I am generally so disgusted by the low level of discourse in online newspaper comments, I avoid them, but in this case my eye was drawn to the sheer typographical pattern. A commenter identifying himself as “goodgame” wrote in response, the following:


I’ve abbreviated the comment to spare my readers; the original actually consisted of 262 iterations of “BLAH” – enough to wallpaper a six-inch by three-inch area of my screen.

There is something entirely fitting about this comment.

First of all, “blah, blah, blah” may in fact be all today’s leftists hear when presented with ideas. (I have no way of knowing what the political opinions of “goodgame” are, but if the commenter is hostile to Steyn’s article criticizing socialism, it is reasonable to guess that he leans left.) Anything beyond the direct perceptual level, including abstractions, concepts, and integrations, seems to be entirely beyond the grasp of the leftist mentality. To be sure, there are a select handful of high-level concepts that seem to take hold in such mentalities – every platitude out of the mouth of Barack Obama, for instance – but these banalities are held as if they were direct percepts, unquestioned and unintegrated. [Note 2.]

The second fitting aspect of the “blah, blah, blah” comment is that it has utterly no content. The author made the effort (small as it is) to post a comment online and added literally nothing. Behind its general snarkiness, which like-minded readers probably snigger at with approval, is a double confession of intellectual bankruptcy: not only does “goodgame” have nothing to say, but he admits – even boasts – that he does not grasp what he has read.

My final thought on the comment that I find appropriate is the capitalization of “BLAH.” In netiquette (i.e. network etiquette), capitalization is typically used to indicate a shout. This completes the perfect image of the modern leftist: a lout with nothing to say . . . and shouting it to drown everybody else out.


1. Mark Steyn, “Cross the River, Burn the Bridge,” The Orange County Register, 27 Dec 2009, http://www.ocregister.com/opinion/columncolumn-225898-mark-steyn.html.

2. I am indebted to Harry Binswanger for this idea. He presented this insightful observation in a lecture last summer.

25 December 2009

Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine

Merry Christmas!

I found this recording of Gabriel Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine on YouTube. I like it very much because having only person for each of the parts really emphasizes the individual voices of this lovely work.

24 December 2009

Berlioz' The Shepherd's Farewell

To celebrate the holiday, I present two pieces that we sang in our Christmas choral group.

First, is the lovely Shepherd's Farewell of Hector Berlioz. Near the end of each of its three repetitions, it has a tonal modulation of almost staggering beauty.

Tomorrow: Gabriel Faure!

20 December 2009

Dipping Chocolate Without Losing Your Temper!

Mark Bittman is here to help with any chocolate tempering you may have to do over the holidays . . .

I had no idea temperature was that critical in melting chocolate: First, bring it to 115 F, then seed it down to 91 F. At 88 F, it's too cool and needs to be heated again.

What surprises me is the tiny tolerance of the temperature measurements that is implied by this procedure. If 91 F is correct and 88 F is too cool, the tolerance must be in the vicinity of +/- 1 F or better. In other words, 91 F means 91.0 F! I have no hope of reading that on my conventional analog thermometer, and I'm a little skeptical that even the digital thermometers made for the kitchen are that good. (I would have guessed the temperature gradient in the double boiler would be at least a few degrees.) No wonder I've had so much trouble in the past.

18 December 2009

Ute Lemper Sings Michael Nyman

Ute Lemper, who is probably known best for her dramatic interpretation of Kurt Weill's music, here sings a haunting song by minimalist composer Michael Nyman - his "Chanson Einer Dame im Schatten" (No. 1 from Six Celon Songs).

11 December 2009

Roxy Music - Out of the Blue

This is probably my favorite Roxy Music tune. It has a great violin solo by Eddie Jobson at the end.

08 December 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 14

(Note: This is Part 14, the final installment, in the series started here. The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #14:

"Without God," Dostoevsky famously wrote, "all is permitted." There has been plenty of evil committed by believers in God, but the widespread cruelties and the sheer number of innocents murdered by secular regimes -- specifically Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes -- dwarfs the evil done in the name of religion. [Note 1.]

Mr. Prager has this exactly backwards. It is with unfounded or arbitrary premises, including that of God, that all is permitted. With God, anything goes.

But what exactly is Dennis Prager’s meaning here? What is it about God that is supposed to inhibit men from doing evil? Prager invokes Fyodor Dostoyevsky to indicate his meaning. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Miusov explains the idea that torments Ivan Karamazov:

‘I ask your permission to drop this subject altogether,’ Miusov repeated. ‘I will tell you instead, gentlemen, another interesting and rather characteristic anecdote about Ivan himself. Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbors. That there was no law of nature that men should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth before this, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That’s not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law. He said that egoism, even to crime, must become, not only lawful but recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome. From this, gentlemen, you can judge about the rest of our eccentric and paradoxical friend Ivan’s theories.’[Note 2.]

Thus, to Ivan Karamazov (and by extension, Dostoyevsky himself), it is only the fear of eternal punishment that inhibits men from doing evil deeds. In this view, man is an inherently malevolent creature that must be restrained. One thing, and one thing only, prevents an individual from murdering his parents, raping his neighbor’s wife, and selling his children into slavery: a fear of God’s wrath. Believers in God may kill the occasional witch or infidel, indicates Prager, but men without a God to restrain them will quite naturally murder millions of Jews and kulaks.

There is a further implication of this idea. Absent faith in God, reason is not only powerless to uphold the good but actually demands evil. Egoism and selfishness, Dostoyevsky tells us, drives men to literally and figuratively eat each other. Crime is rational. Honor is achieved with deceit and trickery. Reason consists of cudgeling one’s neighbor when his guard is down. Logic demands slavery, wholesale murder, extermination.

Prager is apparently of this opinion himself. By calling Nazi, fascist, and communist regimes “secular,” he is attributing the mind-numbing horrors of socialism to the secularity of these institutions - to their (alleged) rejection of religious faith. It is an oft-repeated mistake of religious conservatives to focus on the nominal atheism of communism, a mistake at least as old as the Cold War. Some conservatives may be innocent in the error, but it is nonetheless devastating. To attempt to advance an evil by lauding its true nature is to expose the evil to thinking minds, which minds will eventually be prepared to defeat the evil. But to seem to denounce an evil by misidentifying or concealing its true nature – in this case, by means of emphasizing an incidental, non-fundamental attribute – is to paralyze minds, which serves to advance the evil.

However well-intentioned he may be, Dennis Prager is obscuring the essence of socialism and its variants, which he must do if he is to distinguish his religious viewpoint from that of his enemies. He cannot permit himself to recognize the shared roots of the religion he favors and the totalitarian regimes he criticizes: irrationality and sacrifice.

The philosophical error expressed by Dostoyevsky and Prager is as deadly as it is possible to be. In one stroke, man is severed from his means of survival - reason and self-interest - and enticed to hold faith as his guide. Faith in what? Damnation.

Let us consider the full meaning of the surrender of reason contained in the religious argument: the implication that rationality is on the side of killers, theives, and cannibals. That anyone would attribute the horrors of collectivism in any of its forms (fascism, communism, socialism, racism, tribalism, etc.) to reason is an absurdity that I simply cannot fathom; it is a psychological confession so ghastly, I cannot believe a civilized person could hold it consciously once he grasps its meaning. To see actual reason, logic, and science in the Schutzstaffel, the gulag, and the killing fields is to be a monster. Of course, if one uncritically swallows the terms of leftist intellectuals, the evils of collectivism embody what they, the intellectuals, call “reason” and “logic.” But to accept these claims at face value - to permit the corruption of concepts upon which mankind depends - is to concede all ground to the killers. We must not let intellectuals redefine reason to mean irrationality, logic to mean rationalization, and science to refer to systematic, brutish mysticism. To do so is to engage one’s enemy by first disarming onself and accepting the enemy’s terms of battle - a prospect perilous in the theatre of war and hopeless in the realm of ideas. One may as well defeat one’s murderer by preemptively committing suicide.

Having unwittingly or deliberately abandoned men’s minds to thugs, Dostoyevsky and Prager proceed to make their case for God’s existence. Or do they? These are two very intelligent religious men: Prager is one of the most articulate conservatives today and Dostoyevsky was a man of vast and rare intellect, one of the finest novelists of all time. What exactly is their argument?

In the article that gave rise to this series of essays, Dennis Prager has presented fourteen points predicated upon “If there is no God . . .” In this, his last and most compelling point, he turned to Dostoyevsky, who surely has agonized over the absence of God as much as anybody has. Indeed, if there is a religious question I can consider sensible, it is this one: Doesn’t man need to know right from wrong? How does one answer, “Without God, all is lawful”? I can understand how decent people in the modern world, who have been told time and again that science cannot give them morals, would prefer to cling to fables than to drop into what they believe is a yawning chasm of chaos and crime. If letting go of God means dispensing with morality, then I sympathize with people who hold tightly to superstitions.

It is Dostoyevsky himself who could have given Dennis Prager a fifteenth and overarching point. In The Brothers Karamazov, the solemn and precocious boy Kolya utters the words that explain why sensible people in the modern world could possibly believe in God:

“If there were no God He would have to be invented.”

This is the only refuge of those who do not believe one can find morality in the real world. And indeed, Mr. Prager says this himself in his article. He says of his fourteen points, “none of this proves, or even argues for, God’s existence. It makes the case for the necessity, not the existence, of God.”

As I pointed out in Part 3, though, the mere fact that one wants or needs something to be true does not make it true. Necessity does not bring things into existence.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dennis Prager are correct to see that men need a guide to their actions, but they make the mistake of treating morality and religion interchangably. The principle that Prager and Dostoyevsky should have put forward is this:

Without morality, all is permitted.

Despite two millennia of insistence to the contrary, religion and morality are not the same thing. In fact, because religions are based upon faith, I regard them as inherently immoral. (This is not to say all religions are equally immoral. The degree to which a religion rejects reason and embraces faith is the degree to which it threatens a man’s life - which is to say, the degree to which it is evil.)

Fortunately, the rational man need not despair. Thanks to Ayn Rand, morality has been rescued from religion. She is alone among philosophers in having completely connected ethics to the facts of reality. As she explains in “The Objectivist Ethics,” she started out not by asking which code of values men required, but by asking a more fundamental question: why does man need a code of values in the first place?

Ethics is not a mystic fantasy - nor a social convention - nor a dispensable, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival - not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.[Note 3.]

It is beyond the scope of this post to cover Objectivist ethics in detail, but happily, the text of Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” is made available online by the Ayn Rand Institute.

The survival and happiness of men requires their grasp of the world. Through centuries of plodding advances and bloody setbacks, the minds of men built up a knowledge of nature and created the works and institutions from which we now enjoy the fruits: science, technology, industry, governments of law, individual freedom. Today, liberty is perishing at an appalling rate at the hands of politicians who themselves follow dominant intellectual trends. It is easy to see the political left as the culprit, with its overtly statist agenda, its rejection of absolutes, and its general contempt for values. What may be harder to see, especially for religious conservatives, is that for all the superficial differences between the left and right, religious faith holds no answers.

Hopefully, this series has reached a mind or two, and perhaps encouraged someone to check his premises.


1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, Signet Classics, New York, 1957.

3. “The Objectivist Ethics,” from The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964.


I fixed a minor error: I had referred to Mr. Prager as a Christian when he is in fact Jewish.

04 December 2009

Glenn Gould - Prelude in C minor, BWV 847

The incomparable Glenn Gould plays a prelude from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

The liner notes of my excellent CBS Masterworks recording explain the significance of Bach's use of the "well-tempered" tuning system in this set:

Johann Sebastian Bach was probably the most important, albeit not the first, avant-garde Baroque musician to recognize immediately the advantages of tempered tuning and the expanded scope of new harmonic frontiers thereby opened to the musical imagination. In 1722, he finished a collection of twenty-four preludes and fugues in which he systematically utilize every single major and minor key, ascending and so forth until reaching B Major and B Minor.[Note 1.]

The well-tempered tuning was an innovation of a 17th century German music theorist, Andreas Werckmeister. He figured out a practical way to tune instruments so that one could transpose any tune into any key. Up until that time, the notes of scales were not evenly spaced, which is to say, the frequency ratio from one note in the scale to the next was not constant. Werckmeister's system defines twelve evenly-spaced chromatic tones in the scale, the frequency of each tone being related to the previous one by a factor of the twelfth root of two.

What's so special about that? Well, for one thing, since every half-tone is available, every tune is entirely transposable; if the key is shifted up or down, all the relative notes can still be played accurately. (In other tuning systems with irregularly spaced notes, shifting the tonic tone of a song could make some of the notes fall noticeably sharp or flat.)

But what is special about the twelfth root of two? This is the neat part! If you construct such a scale in a spreadsheet, you can notice some interesting relationships between the frequencies of the chromatic tones. For instance, since everything is relative to the (tonic) tone I, let's start with 1.000 for it, then increase each subsequent row by the factor 2^(1/12). I've done this below, labeling the notes I, II, III, etc. corresponding to the conventions for do, re, mi, etc.

I 1.000
II 1.122
III 1.260
IV 1.335
V 1.498
VI 1.682
VII 1.888
I 2.000

I remember being stunned when I first did this many years ago. Some of the numbers in the list, particularly the cluster from III through V, absolutely jump off the page! For instance, the ratio of V:I is almost exactly 3:2. Similarly, the ratio of IV:I is very nearly 4:3, and the ratio of III:I is closely approximated by 5:4. In other words, the significant intervals in the scale are related by simple integer ratios, which must account for the pleasing consonance to the human ear. The factor of 2^(1/12) works well because its evenly-spaced tones just happen to fall near these "golden" ratios!

These observations can be extended. A major chord, I-III-V, can be constructed with the ratios 5:4 and 3:2 (III:I and V:I). A minor chord, I-IIIb-V can be constructed with intervals 5:4 and 4:3 (V:IIIb and 2I:V). And so on. Very cool!


1. Liner notes from "Glenn Gould: Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier," CBS Records Masterworks, M3K 42266, 1986.

30 November 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 13

(Note: This is Part 13 in the series started here. The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #13:

Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver. [Note 1.]

Here we see the lethality of a morality based in religion. This is why religious conservatives are unable to defend liberty against the “liberals” who are openly driving us headlong into collective slavery and death.

Mr. Prager is correct that rights derive from a moral source; rights are moral principles. (Ayn Rand defined rights with her usual clarity: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”[Note 2.]) To place the source of rights outside of nature is to deny that men have natural rights. It is an admission by the religious that they believe individual rights do not exist in the real world; if the source of rights were natural, the religious would not need to reach into the supernatural realm to find it. Thus, in aiming to defend rights against those that deny them, the religious concede all fundamental premises to their enemies.

Contrary to Mr. Prager’s claim, there is no “rights giver,” natural or supernatural. Rights are not gifts bestowed by governments or gods. The very idea of a giver contradicts the inalienable nature of rights; a God that giveth rights may also taketh them away.[Note 3.]

Claims unmoored from reality are free to drift according to any whim. Some religious people assert that God gives us individual rights; others assert that God denies us individual rights. We have Dennis Prager on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. One is clearly civilized and one barbaric, but both parties stand on the same murky ground: faith. This is not to equate the two; Dennis Prager, who claims to stand for rights, happens to be on the correct side of the argument. But to be on the correct side for the wrong reason is at best unreliable, and at worst, weakens the case of those that have gotten it right. For actual defenders of individual rights (like me), the presence of Republicans and religious conservatives who combat the left by championing God-given rights is appalling. The old saying comes to mind: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

The best possible way for me to articulate a defense of individual rights based on the facts of reality is to insert, verbatim, the text of Ayn Rand’s essay, “Man’s Rights,” which is referenced in Note 2. Since the essay is available for free on the internet, I’ll assume anyone interested in such a defense will pause here to read it. Nothing else is needed.

Beyond Ayn Rand’s essay, I can add no content that is not mere repetition (and an impoverished repetition at that). However, since the intent of this series is to provide guideposts for the honest thinker who currently holds religious premises, I’ve added something that may be helpful. Figure 1 shows a sort of map that I constructed, representing a logical hierarchy. This chart is a recreation of my own work that I did years ago for my own satisfaction in validating individual rights.

Here is some background: Humans are capable of creating abstractions from direct observations, and beyond this, may create abstractions from abstractions. Such concept formation can continue to higher and higher levels with no particular limit. But in order to validate these abstractions, one must be able to work - that is to say, think - one’s way back to the bottom of the hierarchy, to fundamental axioms and direct observations. A break in the chain indicates an error; an ungrounded premise indicates an invalid argument (even if the conclusion is incidentally correct).

Without such a path from concepts to a foundation, abstractions are necessarily floating. Even for concepts like liberty, honesty, and justice, for instance, that are of such obvious value that they seem self-evident - indeed, especially for such concepts - it is necessary to be grounded in reality. Ultimately, it is a tragedy that America’s Founders expressly regarded such truths as a man’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness to be self-evident. These values are truths, but they are not self-evident. The Founders identified individual rights . . . but left the concept floating.

Figure 1. Logical hierarchy for individual rights.

Figure 1 is not a proof, nor is it a substitute for thinking; each proposition and branch requires careful thought on its own. I purposely retained a pencil-on-paper format to emphasize its informality. Its purpose is to provide a rough guide tracing individual rights from high level abstractions (at the top of the page) to axioms (at the bottom). “The source of man’s rights,” wrote Ayn Rand, “is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and Man is Man.” She formulated the unbroken connection between individual rights and metaphysical axioms.

I cannot vouch for the complete suitability of this type of map in representing logical structures. It strikes me as reasonable, and it appeals to my own personal organizing habits. (I am a circuit designer and firmware developer, so my professional success requires good hierarchical thinking.) I tried to retain all the major steps in the sequence, though there is always a trade-off between the level of detail and the encapsulation of particulars.[Note 4.] I am fairly certain that if I kept fiddling with the chart, I would find ways to improve it. My purpose is not to create an airtight graphical representation, but to illustrate the basic guideposts for the main point - that individual rights derive from the facts of reality.

(Note: The final installment in the series is here.)


1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” from The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, Penguin Group, New York, orig. 1964, p.110. This essay, which the Ayn Rand Center makes available for free here, is the most complete and concise articulation of reality-based individual rights I have ever seen.

3. The Founders were precise in their use of the term “inalienable,” meaning that rights could not be taken away, not even by God. They were students of John Locke and advocates of the political theory of natural rights. That being said, the Founders were not moral philosophers; they were political theorists who adopted, by default, the conventional moral theory that was available at the time. (For an excellent treatment of this material, I recommend Craig Biddle’s lecture, “Moral Rights and Metaphysical Law,” which will hopefully be made available soon at the Ayn Rand Bookstore.) The Founders acheivements are nonetheless remarkable. In the context of their time, it is impossible to expect them to completely throw off the vestigial superstitions that had so thoroughly infested moral thinking for centuries. One cannot blame Adams, Jefferson, and Madison for not being Ayn Rand.

4. To pick just one example, I’ll point out the step labeled “Pursuit of values must be chosen by organisms with free will,” which followed from humans having free will. One might object here that just because a person has free will, it does not follow that he must use it. Indeed, as I was constructing the chart, I had penciled in an intermediate step of “Pursuit of values may be chosen,” but it degenerated trivially into the “must be chosen” branch and an “is not chosen” branch that fed back into non-free-willed organisms. This intermediate step might be of interest to an anthropologist or primatologist tracing the development of a species that evolves from non-free-willed to free-willed, but it adds an unnecessary and distracting complication to this study. My purpose is to demonstrate that humans have individual rights, and Homo sapiens has unambiguously evolved to the point in which he must use his mind in order to survive.

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 12

(Note: This is Part 12 in the series started here. The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #12:

Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being. [Note 1.]

Of course man is the supreme being!

Man is supreme because among all living things, he has the capacity to think. This faculty does not make him infallible, omniscient, or omnipotent. It does make Homo sapiens superior to all other creatures in the animal kingdom. This is true in both absolute and relative terms: absolute, because our conceptual faculty is an incomparably valuable asset for survival; relative, because I am a human, and thus regard it as improper to subordinate myself to other forms of life (not to mention to transparent superstitions).

By definition, hubris is excessive self-confidence or pride, meaning self-confidence or pride beyond what one may legitimately claim. This idea is consonant with the Greek ideal of moderation (sophrosyne), pride being a virtue flanked by the vices of vanity (excessive pride) on the one side and humility (deficient pride) on the other. For the Greeks, pride was good; but an hubristic hero of Homer who snubbed a god would find himself in hot water - or turbulent water, as the case may be. Though I do not agree with Aristotle’s formulation that holds the middle ground between vices as virtues, there is a sort of common-sense appeal to this arrangement: It is obviously foolish to hold an estimation of oneself higher than what one has earned, just as it is detrimental to underestimate one’s own abilities.

However, this pre-Christian Greek notion is not the one behind Mr. Prager’s statement. The Christian ethics hold humility itself as a virtue. Pride, which to an ancient Greek or an Objectivist would be a just recognition of one’s own achievements, to the Christian is one of the seven deadly sins. It is pride, not hubris, that is the target of Prager point #12.

Wikipedia image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things[Note 2.]

Both subjectivists and religionists might produce innumerable counterexamples that would seem to refute man’s status as a superior being. History is rife with endless bloody wars, barbarity, murder, and rape. Man, they may claim, is the lowest of all creatures, not the highest. He is vain, petty, foolish, and superstitious - a luster of power, a slave to his cravings. The religionist would claim that God is the only redeemer of such a base being; the subjectivist admits of no redemption.

I disagree with both perspectives. To claim that man as a species is supreme does not require that every man be rational and virtuous. It requires only that men be capable of reason and virtue.

What Prager is demonizing as “humanist hubris” is the egoism and self-confidence that drives a man to seek knowledge in the service of his own life. Prager rails against the pride of a man who looks to nature instead of to scripture, who judges right and wrong based on facts instead of commandments, and who deserves to feel good about his own efficacy. It is not quite true that such a man is his own God, as Prager suggests; this would imply a subjective arbitrariness to his judgments. Rather, such a man needs no God: hence the desperation of the religious in the modern world.

A man who thinks for himself is anathema to religious faith, particularly to the monotheistic religions that demand his exclusive faith and obedience. In ancient Greece, man took his first steps as a species undeniably worthy of the adjective supreme. He looked to nature, not heaven, to understand nature; to man, to understand man. He began to classify and systematize. He invented and applied logic. But this was interrupted by the Age of Christianity, and its offshoot, the Age of Islam. The Greek ideal was outdated; a man standing proud and upright like one of the gods he created had to be damned as “hubristic.” In the shadow of Christ, man was puny and ugly, “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.”[Note 3.]

This was the age of Mr. Prager’s Christian ideals: a dark age of self-imposed thralldom. For a thousand years, Prager’s hubristic pride was virtually absent from the earth (with the exception, perhaps, of the real hubris of those claiming to know of heaven and the hereafter). It was only when mankind threw off this bondage of his spirit, discovering once again his own efficacy, that he stood upright again. As I wrote of the Enlightenment in an earlier essay:

Individuals discovered that they had the ability to read for themselves not only the Bible, but other things as well. When Luther and Calvin shook the minds of men in order that each may contemplate his own sinfulness, they inadvertently freed those minds for other, more worldly thoughts. This could not be taken back. The Tree of Knowledge had been shaken, and it was apples everywhere; Sir Isaac Newton happened to be watching one of them as it fell, much to the benefit of mankind.[Note 4.]

This is the crux of the matter. According to Dennis Prager, the men who neither bow nor obey, but discover nature for themselves - the independent minds who dare taste apples plucked from the Tree of Knowledge - must be denounced as "hubristic."

Mr. Prager himself noted the remarkable achievements of Michaelangelo in an earlier point. That Michaelangelo (and Galileo, Bach, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, and Rand) existed is a testament that man is the supreme being. And so too are the innumerable lesser figures that produce, acheive, and flourish in relative anonymity, committed to living rationally and happily.

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2. Image from Wikipedia entry for “Seven deadly sins,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Deadly_Sins.

3. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 2002, p. 138.

4. Stephen Bourque, “Faith in the West,” Aug 2008.