Aug 072011

Alicia Doudna and Andrew Kratzat are two gifted young classical musicians — Alicia, an outstanding violinist teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Andrew, a talented young bassist who just received a scholarship to Peabody Institute. They were engaged to be married. On July 26, they were on I-94, heading across the state for Andrew’s birthday celebration, when a semi plowed into their car (which was stopped behind traffic). They were rushed to the hospital with severe brain injuries. As of now, neither Alicia nor Andrew has regained consciousness. Here is the report from a local paper. The prognosis is not good but as always in such cases there is a wide range of uncertainty. For the latest updates click on the following logo:

Alicia is my daughter’s close friend. They attended Cleveland Institute of Music and New England Conser­vatory together, so Hannah flew back from Europe to be with the family and friends keeping vigil in Ann Arbor. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andrew, Alicia, their families and those who love them.

Donations to help support Alicia and Andrew can be made here.

[May, 2013: There is an amazing sequel to this story — some of which is chronicled on the CaringBridge site, which is now just for Andrew. Alicia will be performing in June.]

Jun 192011

The internet and social media have greatly extended the range of choices available in modern life. This is usually taken to be a good thing — or at least to be harmless. We can now more easily transcend limitations of physical location and spatial dis­tance, not only to access goods and services, but also to make connections and form rela­tionships with a variety of people of our own choosing. Such an increase in choices is not entirely new. In important respects the rise of internet communities has merely in­ten­sified a process that urbanization began long ago. Cities not only brought a vari­ety of goods and services to their inhabitants, but they also brought together people of diverse reli­gions, classes and ethnicities, and allowed a greater variety of possible associ­ations and self-selected relationships.

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes describes moving to Amsterdam in the seven­teenth century, “where in the midst of a great crowd actively engaged in busi­ness, and more careful of their own affairs than curious about those of others, I have been enabled to live without being deprived of any of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities, and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the most remote deserts.” What is remarkable and revealing about the account Descartes offers is the ironic way that the increase in choices is directly linked to a detached aloofness, a disen­gaged anonymity. Being submersed in social possibilities coincides with an asocial isolation and solitude. But Descartes is not disturbed, or even con­cerned, by this result. In fact, Descartes describes such asocial detachment as an ideal oppor­tunity for objective reflection: “where, as I found no society to interest me, and was besides fortunately undisturbed by any cares or passions, I remained the whole day in seclusion, with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts.” The absence of family and friends, of meaningful employment, and of emotional ties, seems to open up possibilities, allowing the individual greater freedom of thought, and ultimately, of association and action. This is a deep and seductive idea in modern western societies, going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who literally fled to the desert to escape the constraints of family and community and to redefine their personal identity and sense of purpose. Amsterdam allowed Descartes to achieve this result without having to give up the conveniences of civilization.

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Jun 062011

Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was composed in 1803, during the period he was working on the Eroica Sym­phony, and barely six months after his Heiligenstadt Testament. The Kreutzer revitalized the violin sonata: sub­­titled molto concertante, it demanded a new kind of virtu­osity from the violin and piano, and anticipated the more ex­pan­sive emotional land­scape of Beethoven’s mid­dle period. Its first per­for­mance was at the Vienna Augarten with Beethoven him­self at the piano along with a young black violinist, George Bridgetower, for whom the sonata had been written. The story of Bridge­tower, and his collaboration with Beethoven, is told by Rita Dove in Sonata Mullatica.

The modern perception of Beethoven’s sonata has been greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s powerful The Kreutzer Sonata.  Published in 1889, Tolstoy’s novella is about love, sex, marital discord and jealousy. In the critical scene, Pozdnyshev’s jeal­ousy is fueled by an amateur performance of the Beethoven sonata in which his wife ac­com­panies the violinist Trukhachevsky whom Pozdnyshev despises. He says:

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Mar 212011

by T. S. Eliot

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years–
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate–but there is no competition–
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

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Mar 192011

Over a year ago I wrote a post on Thorium Reactors, noting the “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste produced by such reactors. A recent article by Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir, Liquid Fuel Nuclear Reactors, in the Physics and Society forum of the American Physical Society, contains an excellent discussion of the safety advantages of this technology. Since I had been thinking about the situation at Fukushima-Daiichi, I was especially struck by their description of the early testing of liquid reactors: “the in­trinsic reac­tivity control was so effective that shutdown was accomplished simply by turning off the steam tur­bine generator.”

Liquid flouride thorium reactors (LFTRs) operate at atmospheric pressures, providing immunity against the risks of explosion in pressurized designs (and enabling simpler construction and a smaller foot­print). But the increased margin of safety for LFTRs is primar­ily due to the underlying physics:

A molten salt reactor cannot melt down because the normal operating state of the core is already molten. The salts are solid at room temperature, so if a reactor vessel, pump, or pipe ruptured they would spill out and solidify. If the temperature rises, stability is intrinsic due to salt expansion. In an emergency an actively cooled solid plug of salt in a drain pipe melts and the fuel flows to a critically safe dump tank. The Oak Ridge MSRE researchers turned the reactor off this way on weekends.

Hargraves and Moir also explore the cost advantages of LFTRs and the difficulties that LFTRs would pose to prolifera­tion and weaponization.

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Feb 082011

I remember the sense of shock that I felt upon hearing of Milton Babbitt’s death last Saturday. He was a very old man, and had been ill for a long time; so why should I have been shocked? Perhaps it is because of my memory of the last time that I saw him, about two years ago. He was frail and in obvious discomfort, but the as­tonishing vitality of his wit, imagination and intellect was undiminished. It is strange now to imagine that it is gone.

I studied with Milton for two years, which were also his last as a teacher. Yet at the end of this time, I was the same overawed young man I had been when I first walked into his office. I admired and liked him, and I think he liked me; but rarely did I ever feel that I had reached beneath that formidable layer of brilliance and erudition that he wore about himself. There is a certain kind of awe that precludes real intimacy.

I write this, therefore, with the acute awareness that there are many who are more qualified than I to commemorate Milton — witness, for example, David Rakowski’s touching appreciation of him here. For the present, I wish simply to offer a few of my recollections from the time that I spent studying with him, and to consider what these reflections might mean for our understanding of him as a composer and public figure. His reputation, after all, has been a contentious one, and I see no way to easily divorce my private memories of the man from a consideration of the complicated role that he has played in our intellectual history. In fact, it is in honoring Milton as an individual that we can best correct the distorted picture that has often been drawn of him.

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Jan 292011

We are accustomed to thinking of river drainages, like trees, as having a directional structure — branching as one moves upstream, but converging into larger streams as one moves down­stream. Deltas, like the root systems of trees, are boundary cases.

There is a remarkable exception to this structure, however, that occurs at Two Ocean Pass in northern Wyoming. Two Ocean Creek drains the plateau north­west of the Pass and rushes down the mountain straight into a ridge line that forms part of the conti­nental divide. There the creek splits into two parts: one of which becomes Atlantic Creek and flows north into the Yellowstone, and thence into the Mississippi; while the other be­comes Pacific Creek, flowing southwest into the Snake, and thence into the Pacific. Here is a map:

View Two Ocean Pass in a larger map

Cutthroat trout used this route to migrate from the Snake River into Yellowstone Lake which is in the Mississippi drainage. Parting of the Waters describes the hike back to Two Ocean Creek, and has some nice photographs and maps.


Jan 232011

A previous post on Sherry Turkle discussed her views on the ‘subjective’ aspect of our relation to technology. Her most recent writing expresses misgivings about the health of this relationship. This is noticeable in Programmed for Love, an interview from the Chronicle Review, in which Turkle describes how internet usage and social networks can mask the need to cultivate real human relation­ships and real human com­mun­ity. “Be­cause we grew up with the Net,” she says, “we assume that the Net is grown up.”

The occasion for the Chronicle interview is Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which remarks that “we talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we too are being spent.” I also enjoyed the observation by Turkle’s daughter, that instead of a robot caretaker the professor “would rather have the com­plete works of Jane Austen played continu­ously.”  Me too.


Nov 262010

David Goldman, also known by the pseudonym Spengler, recently wrote an intriguing essay called “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music“. I found it to be an insightful and stimulating read — so stimulating, in fact, that I expended the bulk of my morning penning a response to this article, outlining the points on which I disagree with him. Following is the text of that response:

As a composer who has maintained an ambivalent passion for Wagner’s music for much of my adult life, I felt a strange shock of recognition when reading your article, perhaps because parts of it so closely mirror my own thoughts about Wagner. I feel that the essence of what makes his work so troubling is precisely, as you suggested in one of your follow-up notes, the disparity that it implies between the beautiful and the good. However, there are a few points on which I feel you do a disservice both to Wagner and to your own argument.

The first point is in regard to the notion that lovers of Wagner’s music are in it purely for those thrilling moments that make the “interminable recitatives” worth­while. Con­sider, for instance, Wotan’s monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, which is one of the recitatives that you mention. James Levine supposedly calls this section of the opera “the part that separates the men from the boys.” What he means, I believe, is that this monologue — perhaps boring to a casual or inattentive listener — is precisely the sort of passage to which lovers of Wagner are most attracted. Instead of being something that they sit through in order to get to the good parts, it is experienced as a thrilling demonstration both of the dramatic powers of the singer, and of Wagner’s ability to achieve the greatest of musical effects with an economy of means. Lovers of Wagner experience his best operas not as a selections of good bits interlarded with “terrible quarters of an hour”, but as coherent dramatic unities, some of which — like Die Walküre — are capti­vating from beginning to end.

The way in which audiences experience Wagner’s music is related closely to a second issue, which is his treatment of time. I agree entirely with you that Wagner’s control of time is a large part of what makes his work revolutionary, but I think you are mistaken in suggesting that his control of time consists only in an ability to stop it. There are whole passages in Wagner’s work — such as Tristan’s delirium in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, or almost the entire second act of Götterdammerüng — in which time rushes forward at breakneck speed, hurtling toward catastrophe with a terri­fying momentum. These segments are as far as imaginable from any attempt to hold onto the moment. Yet they are among the places in Wagner that many love the most; and they are also among the parts of his work that the ambivalent Wagnerite finds most morally troubling.

What is novel in Wagner’s treatment of time may be summed up in Thomas Mann’s famous evocation of his similarities with Tolstoy and Ibsen. What was common to all three figures, Mann said, was the “union of myth and psychology.” Wagner’s operas, for all their mythic trappings, are thus a part of the history of nineteenth-century psychological realism. This underlies Nietzsche’s sniffing comparison of Wagner’s heroines to Emma Bovary; but more to the point, it also explains the nature of Wagner’s treatment of time.

Earlier operas, at least until Gluck, relied on a conception of time that was essentially hieratic, divided into carefully demarcated chunks of recitative—in which musical development stopped and narrative time advanced—and aria, in which action froze and a single emotion or affect was expanded upon. The Wagnerian “endless melody” is something quite different: not an “interminable recitative,” as you suggest, but rather a means by which aria-like sections and recitative-like sections are seam­lessly blended into each other, with such fluency that the audience is seldom aware of the transition. It is not surprising, then, that Wagner often spoke of his technique as being the “art of transition.” Our experience of time when listening to Wagner is thus essentially psychological. Yes, we may freeze in a moment of bliss with the awak­ening Brünnhilde; but we may also rush forward toward death with the fevered Tristan, or toward apocalypse with the villainous Hagen in Götterdammerüng. The point is that, in either case, our experience of time is entirely bounded by that of the characters in the opera itself. An operatic world of hieratic ritual is thus replaced by one of painstaking pyschological realism, much as the “bourgeois” psychology of Ibsen replaced the carefully constructed symmetries of the “well-made play.”

A final point is that the musical structure implied by Wagner’s “endless melody” was not unprecedented—rather, as Wagner himself said, it developed out of the finales to Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, particularly that of Don Giovanni. This suggests that Wagner is not as remote from the classical style as you might believe, and that his music may indeed be a logical, though frightening, continuation of it. Your argument that his music is alien to, or at least parasitic upon, the classical tradition, derives in part from what I feel to be a misunderstanding of the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, the most properly “Christian” music would be that of Josquin and his contemporaries; by contrast, the music of the baroque and classical periods, for the most part, exists in a state of struggle against radical doubt. In Beethoven, this struggle has become formalized as a dialectical conflict between antagonistic musical elements—usually remote keys, as in the Neapolitan relation­ships of the Appassionata Sonata, or differing enharmonic interpretations of a single pitch, as in the C-natural/B-sharp duality of the Seventh Symphony.

In middle Beethoven, the conflict between these elements is what generates the musical structure, and what leads to the triumphant affirmation with which many of the works of the heroic period close. The vision of the world presented in Beethoven is thus much closer to that of Hegel than it is to that of Christian eschatology: for in Beethoven, as in Hegel, it is the process of dialectical conflict that leads us toward perfection. But as Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, Hegel’s philosophy, originally intended as theodicy, ends up as theogony; similarly, the exaltation of heroic struggle in middle Beethoven differs only in degree — not in kind — from the Wagnerian cult of the Artist as Prophet.

I would like, finally, to reiterate that I am in agreement with you about the central paradox that Wagner presents us: that the beautiful is not necessarily the good. For his music does indeed trouble me deeply, at the same time that I love it very much. In much of what he wrote there is a profound “sympathy for the abyss,” mirroring the nihilism of the Schopenhauerian metaphysics that so attracted Wagner. As Nietsche wrote, “only the philosopher of decadence could give to the artist of decadence — himself.” But if we trivialize Wagner’s achievement, we are merely disguising from ourselves the enormity of the problem he poses. If his work is merely fine moments and dull quarters of an hour, it should not bother us so much that it is also morally troubling. It is a much more frightening situation if Tristan, the Ring, and Parsifal are masterpieces of the first order, which are not alien to, but instead spring directly from, the greatest artistic achievements of Wagner’s classical predecessors. Because if this is true, then the gnawing question he presents us—the question of the disparity between the beautiful and the good—is truly inescapable.


Nov 222010

I first read George Steiner in my twenties, and he made a lasting impression. He was a remarkable critic; his writing was transparent and his learning prodigious. Recently, after many years, I reread In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefi­ni­tion of Culture, and can report that it still has the elo­quence and power that I remem­bered. One of my favorite Steiner books, his controversial novella The Voyage to San Cristobal of A.H., forms the backdrop for the best discus­sion of Steiner that I know: “Interrogation at the Borders: George Steiner and the Trope of Translation” by Ronald Sharp, for­mer Dean at Vassar. Other works by Steiner that I recom­mend are After Babel: Aspects of Language and Trans­la­tion and Real Presences.

So, why didn’t the music say no?


Nov 172010

In a letter to William James on November 25, 1902, Peirce spoke of “the completely developed system, which all hangs together and cannot receive any proper presen­tation in fragments,” and he went on to describe synechism as: “the keystone of the arch.” Now synechism, according to Peirce, is just “that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity.” Hence, in order to make sense of Peirce’s synechism, and its role in his “completely developed system”, it is essential first to understand what Peirce meant by the idea of continuity.

Peirce was far from reticent on the topic:

If I were to attempt to describe to you in full all the scientific beauty and truth that I find in the principle of continuity, I might say in the simple language of Matilda the Engaged, “the tomb would close over me e’er the entrancing topic were exhausted” . . .

Yet, even though much of Peirce’s writing was devoted to this idea, there is not much in the secondary literature on his technical definitions of continuity. In this paper we will show how these definitions changed as Peirce’s thinking on con­ti­nu­ity evolved. This should be valuable not only to scholars expressly concerned with Peirce’s work in the foundations of mathematics, but also to those mainly interested in other aspects of his thought.

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Jul 302010

Photograph by Steven Pinker

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s  36 Argu­ments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It is a novel of ideas — one that explores the intersec­tion between in­tel­lec­tual and spiritual life. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic, a psychologist of religion whose sur­prise best-seller, Varieties of Religious Illusion, has led to his acclaim as “America’s favorite atheist.” More­over, Cass has just been offered a job by Harvard — the pinnacle of aca­demic success. In contrast to this professional tra­jec­tory, however, Cass’s private life reveals a preoccu­pation with issues of mean­ing and trans­cen­dence. We notice in Cass those “obstinate question­ings of sense and out­ward things” that are characteristic of the religious percipient. So if this is athe­ism, we wonder, how does it really differ from theism?

Goldstein describes her point of departure for the novel as follows:

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orien­tations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how dif­fer­ent the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.


The 36 chapters of Goldstein’s novel have titles that refer to Cass Seltzer’s interior life: The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Lucinda, The Argu­ment from Dappled Things, The Argument from the Irrepressible Past, The Argument from Reversal of Fortune, The Argu­ment from Intimations of Immortality, The Argu­ment from Soul-Gazing, The Argu­ment from the Existence of the Poem, The Argu­ment from the Eternity of Irony, etc. Her appendix provides 36 parallel philosophical arguments for the existence of God (and discusses their weaknesses). One historical argument that seems to be missing — although perhaps it is subsumed by others — is C. S. Peirce’s neglected argument. The number 36 is significant, being the number of the Lamed Vav, the just men who assume the weight of the world and its sorrows. According to Talmudic tradition, without these just men God would lose pa­tience with humanity and the world itself would come to an end.

Something I have always liked in Goldstein’s writing is her deft satire of academic pretensions and foibles. The culminating debate between Cass Seltzer — who keeps forgetting about it — and the Nobel-prize winning theist Felix Fidley, for instance, is sponsored by the Harvard “Agnostic Chaplaincy”; and the portraits of Cass’s erstwhile academic mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values”, and the beautiful Lucinda, “goddess of game theory”, skewer recognizable academic types. Nonetheless, there is a rare seriousness to Goldstein’s project, a recognition that meaning is not just constructed but encountered. This is particularly noticeable in her description of Azarya, the young Hassidic mathematical prodigy who must choose between his love for mathematics and his role in a religious community. It is also true of the relationship between Cass and Roz. To be human, Goldstein says, “is to inhabit our contradictions.”

Rebecca Goldstein earned her Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton University, and has taught philosophy at various schools on the east coast. Her first novel was The Mind-Body Problem, which I liked very much, and she has also written Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics and several other novels. Two (non-fiction) philosophical works that I admire are Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who gave us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She was chosen a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.


Jun 222010

by Alexander Pope

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

‘Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick’s Share;
Both must alike from Heav’n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, ’tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?

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Jun 182010

The world premiere of Nathan’s Tenebrae, for harp and string quartet, will be March 31, 2011, at Lincoln Center. It is sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and will be performed by Bridget Kibby and the Jupiter String Quartet. Tickets go on sale August 2 here.


Jun 142010

This post is about a remarkable man who I have been fortunate to have as my friend. Philip Barlow is a Mormon and a scholar of American religion; he earned his B.A. in History from Weber State College in 1975, his M.T.S. from Harvard in 1980, and his Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School in 1988. He taught Religion at Hanover College — a Presbyterian School — until 2007, when he was appointed the Leonard J. Arring­ton Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Last summer I reread Phil’s book, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, pub­lished in 1991, by Oxford University Press. This is a book that deserves the many accolades it has received; it is an honest and thoughtful dis­cussion of scriptural inter­pretation and religious belief in Mormonism. One reason that this dis­cussion is important for non-Mormons is that it con­cerns the early stages — more accessible than in main­stream Christianity or Judaism — in the development of a religious tradition. The recent appearance of Mormonism, and its extensive docu­men­ta­tion, comprise a valuable resource for understanding how religions in general evolve. Especially interesting to me is the unique relation of Mormon scriptural exe­gesis to secular philosophy and changing standards in textual criticism.

In reviewing Jan Shipps’ Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mor­mons, Phil summarizes the current state of Mormon studies, observing that:

From the vantage of American and western culture, Mormonism’s half-familiar, half-exotic nature and history render it a magnetic case study on issues besetting contemporary scholars. The movement is sufficiently alien for comparative interpretation to be neces­sary, sufficiently familiar for comparative interpretation to be possible, and suffi­ciently complex to challenge the most able historical minds. Indeed, if we sustain Shipps’s con­tention that, like Christianity or Islam, Mormonism constitutes a new religious tradition, it becomes a rarely accessible laboratory. The Saints are record-setting record keepers, lush almost without precedent, given their short history, in primary materials. Moreover, the movement is present and growing in the nation as a whole and especially in the American West, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among the three largest “denominations” in two-thirds of all U.S. counties west of a vertical line running from Canada, through Denver, to Mexico. Beyond this, Sydney Ahlstrom’s argument that scru­tiny of Joseph Smith and his heirs “yields innumerable clues to the religious and social consciousness of the American people” requires augmentation in light of the dramatic internationalization of the church, which is affecting its nature and entwines diffusely with the spread of American influence abroad. Africa will soon harbor more Latter-day Saints than Europe; South and Central America will presently have more than the United States. Mormon history is uncommonly colorful, difficult, controversial, impacting, and unfolding. It no longer seems strange that scholars of all stripes, in trying to come to terms with America’s distinctive religious legacy, find Mormon faith and culture tough to ignore.

In less formal remarks in 2009, Studying Mormanism in the Academy, Phil provides a justification for including religious studies in a liberal arts education. He characterizes the underlying point of the liberal arts by a series of questions:

What does it mean to be human? How have diverse societies gone about it across time? How shall we? What is the nature of the physical and biological universe in which we are making our way?

He claims that the study of religion is an obvious component of the project to address these questions,

One would think it self-evident that the study of religion fits easily within this project. Religion, it might be argued, is the most obvious of laboratories for our consideration, where individuals and organizations pursue what it means to be human in distilled, compressed, and intentional ways.  Religion is either the most powerfully motivating and directional force on the planet, or it shares that honor with money and other forms of power.  . . . .

In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond com­parison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry.  The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion “works.”  In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious com­munity and the surrounding culture.  . . . .

Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as:  How does a new religion get “birthed” and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community?  How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions?  Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity?  What portions of a tradition’s literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?

Phil seems to understand both his scholarship and his faith as being informed by the spirit of science and reason. In an early essay he explains that this is an assumption, and says: “I think it is a mistake to attempt to elevate religion by disparaging reason. I believe my mind to be more a friend than a foe to my spirit, and that God gave me my intellect in the same sense that He gave me my soul.” In my opinion, Phil’s scholar­ship shows a level of integrity and transparency that one could only wish were common­place among scientists.

Phil is the co-author, with Edwin Scott Gaustad, of the New Historical Atlas of Reli­gion in America, named by the American Association of Publishers the Best Single-volume Reference Book in the Humanities in 2001. He is also the co-editor, with Mark Silk, of Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Deno­minator?, published in 2004, and he has books in progress with Jan Shipps (Columbia University Press) and with Terryl Givens (Oxford University Press).

May 012010

It is a recurrent trope in writing about Thucydides to place him in opposition to Plato. I would like to consider some of the ramifications that this opposition may have for our understanding of Thucydides, and to evaluate its limitations. But first we must try to disentangle the various guises that it assumes.

At the most specific level, the contrast between Plato and Thucydides may be broken down into various small polarities, in each of which the two thinkers do indeed seem to hold irreconcilable views. Thus the Socratic maxim that no one does evil knowingly seems to directly contradict Thucydides’ tragic vision of human nature, as the Platonic search for universals stands in opposition to the Thucydidean concern with the con­crete particular. None of the individual contrasts between Plato and Thucydides, how­ever, adequately capture the opposition that historians and philosophers have argued exists between them. This opposition is taken, rather, to arise from a funda­mental difference in one’s way of seeing, which subsumes all of these smaller dis­tinctions, and which leads the two thinkers to systemically different conclusions.

This opposition dates back at least to Nietzsche’s vision of Thucydides as a “cure for Platonism,” which is discussed at length in Darien Shanske’s Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History, and, following Nietzsche, is generally formulated in antagonistic terms. There are notable exceptions to this, such as David Grene’s Greek Political Theory, in which Plato and Thucydides are regarded as complementary oppo­sites.  But most writers who have made the comparison, including Heidegger and Shanske himself, have done so in Nietzsche’s terms. I will return to Grene’s com­par­ison of Plato and Thucydides, in order to consider the ways in which it complicates the picture presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Shanske. But first I would like to look more closely at Nietzsche’s description of Thucydides. This passage, despite its length, is worth quoting in full:

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