John Updike on the Universe and Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,”wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time“Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

This inquiry has long occupied scientists,philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there issomething rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holtsets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.

Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:

When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’


And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert oncosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

[T]he laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.

Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes thelandmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:

Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

The ‘reasons’ will astound. Stay tuned – JM

My Thanks to Maria Papova for gathering this piece – JM

Getting back to business – Catholic Writer Awakens

The Catholic Writer Today

For years I’ve pondered a cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts. This cultural conundrum also reveals the intellectual retreat and creative inertia of American religious life. Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.

Roman Catholicism now ranks overwhelmingly as the largest religious denomination in the United States, with more than sixty-eight million members. (By contrast, the second largest group, Southern Baptists, has sixteen million members.) Representing almost one-quarter of the American population, Catholics also constitute the largest cultural minority in the nation. Supporting its historical claim of being the “universal” church, American Catholicism displays vast ethnic, national, linguistic, and social diversity. (In my first parish in Washington, D.C., it was not unusual at Mass to see congressional staffers, Central American immigrants, and urban homeless share the same pew.) While most Protestant churches continue to decline, Catholicism has grown steadily for the past two hundred years through a combination of immigration, births, and conversions. On purely demographic grounds, one would expect to see a huge and growing Catholic presence in the American fine arts.

If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name. He or she could surely identify a few ex-Catholics, such as Andres Serrano, Terrence McNally, or Mark Adamo, who use religious subject matter for satire, censure, or shock value. Catholic exposé is now a mainstream literary genre, from the farcical (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You) to the tendentious(The Gospel of Mary Magdalene). If the question were expanded to include novelists—the most sociological of major art forms—a well-informed literary critic might offer a few names such as Ron Hansen or Alice McDermott, authors whose subject matter is often overtly Catholic. Those few figures would account for most of the Catholic artists visible in our culture. The journalist’s immediate reaction, however, would be to consider the question itself naive or silly. Why would a serious critic even bother to know such cultish trivia? Nowadays the arts and Christianity seem only remotely connected, if at all. Contemporary culture is secular culture, is it not?

No one wants quotas for Catholic artists, but does it not seem newsworthy that the religion of one-quarter of the U.S. population has retreated to the point of invisibility in the fine arts? (Catholicism’s position in popular entertainment is the subject for another essay.) There is a special irony that this disappearance has occurred during a period when celebrating cultural diversity has become an explicit goal across the American arts. Some kinds of diversity are evidently more equal than others. Has the decline generated cultural controversy? Not especially. Neither the arts world nor the Catholic establishment cares much about the issue. There seems to be a tacit agreement on both sides that, in practice, if not in theory, Catholicism and art no longer mix—a consensus that would have surprised not only Dante but also Jack Kerouac. The consequences of this ­situation are unfortunate—in different ways—for both the culture and the Church.

To begin a responsible examination of this complex topic, it helps to be factual and specific. Although the decline of Catholicism has occurred across the culture, this essay will only discuss literature, which provides a useful perspective on all the arts. Likewise, examining the situation of Catholic writers helps illuminate the current situation of all Christian writers.

From silly devotions, and sour-faced saints,
good Lord, deliver us.
                 —St. Teresa of Avila


Some definitions and distinctions—both religious and literary—are in order. To examine the situation of Catholic writers and literature, clarity will depend on defining those capacious categories. What is Catholic literature, and what makes an author a Catholic writer? I prefer to define both terms in strict and specific ways.

This essay concerns Catholic imaginative literature—fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir—not theological, scholarly, or devotional writing. Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious; even less is devotional. Most of it touches on religious themes indirectly while addressing other subjects—not sacred topics but profane ones, such as love, war, family, violence, sex, mortality, money, and power. What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview.

There is no singular and uniform Catholic worldview, but nevertheless it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. Catholics also generally take the long view of things—looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity. (The Latinity of the pre-Vatican II Church sustained a meaningful continuity with the ancient Roman world, reaching even into working-class Los Angeles of the 1960s, where I was raised and educated.) Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at Mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience—one source ofsoi-disant Catholic guilt.

The Catholic worldview does not require a sacred subject to express its sense of divine immanence. The greatest misunderstanding of Catholic literature is to classify it solely by its subject matter. Such literalism is not only reductive; it also ignores precisely those spiritual elements that give the best writing its special value. The religious insights usually emerge naturally out of depictions of worldly existence rather than appear to have been imposed intellectually upon the work.

Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collectionSinners Welcome, she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.

The question of who is or isn’t a Catholic author also requires a few distinctions. The answer changes depending on how strictly or loosely one defines the term “Catholic.” There are at least three degrees of literary Catholicism, each interesting in different ways. First, there are the writers who are practicing Catholics and remain active in the Church. Second, there are cultural Catholics, writers who were raised in the faith and often educated in Catholic schools. Cultural Catholics usually made no dramatic exit from the Church but instead gradually drifted away. Their worldview remains essentially Catholic, though their religious beliefs, if they still have any, are often unorthodox. Finally, there are anti-Catholic Catholics, writers who have broken with the Church but remain obsessed with its failings and injustices, both genuine and imaginary. All three of these groups have legitimate claims to literary attention. This essay, however, will focus mostly on the first group, with some references to the second. These individuals best qualify as Catholic writers, and yet they are currently the least visible in a literary culture where at present only the third group, the dissidents, has any salience. 

An identity is not to be found on the surface.
                 —Flannery O’Connor


How can the current decline of Catholicism in American letters be accurately characterized? By what standard is it best measured and judged? One useful perspective is to go back to the middle of the previous century to analyze the two decades from the end of World War II in 1945 to the death of Flannery O’Connor in 1964. The comparison between the postwar era and today is illuminating, even shocking.

Sixty years ago, Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture. Indeed, they played such a significant role that it would be impossible to discuss American letters in the mid-twentieth century responsibly without both examining a considerable number of observant Catholic authors and recognizing the impact of their religious conviction on their artistry. These writers were prominent across the literary world. They included established fiction writers—Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Horgan, Jack Kerouac, Julien Green, Pietro di Donato, Hisaye Yamamoto, Edwin O’Connor, Henry Morton Robinson, and Caroline Gordon. (Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley had yet to try his formidable hand at fiction.) There were also science-fiction and detective writers such as Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake, August Delerth, and Walter Miller, Jr., whoseA Canticle for Leibowitz remains a classic of both science fiction and Catholic literature.

There was an equally strong Catholic presence in American poetry, which included Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, Kenneth Rexroth, John Berryman, Isabella Gardner, Phyllis McGinley, Claude McKay, Dunstan Thompson, John Frederick Nims, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Thomas Merton, Josephine Jacobsen, and the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel. These writers represented nearly every aesthetic in American poetry. There were even Catholic haiku poets, notably Raymond Roseliep and Nick Virgilio.

Meanwhile the U.S. enjoyed the presence of a distinguished group of Catholic immigrants, including Jacques Maritain, Czesaw Miosz, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Henri Nouwen, René Girard, John Lukacs, Padraic and Mary Colum, José Garcia Villa, Alfred Döblin, Sigrid Undset, and Marshall McLuhan. Some of the writers came to the U.S. to flee communism or Nazism. (Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin came here, late in life, to flee the European Catholic hierarchy.) These writers were supported by engaged Catholic critics and editors with major mainstream reputations, such as Walter Kerr, Wallace Fowlie, Hugh Kenner, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert Giroux, William K. Wimsatt, Thurston Davis, and Walter Ong. The intellectual milieu was further deepened by “cultural Catholics” whose intellectual and imaginative framework had been shaped by their religious training—writers such as Eugene O’Neill, John O’Hara, J. V. Cunningham, James T. Farrell, John Fante, Mary McCarthy, and John Ciardi, as well as—at the end of this period—John Kennedy Toole and Belfast-born Brian Moore.

The cultural prominence of mid-century American Catholic letters was amplified by international literary trends. The British “Catholic Revival” led by writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. ­Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc, David Jones, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Jennings, and Anthony Burgess provided a contemporary example of how quickly a Protestant and secular literary culture could be enlivened by new voices. (G. K. Chesterton had died in 1936, but he continued to exercise enormous influence on both British and American writers.) At the same time in France, another Catholic revival had emerged, guided by novelists Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac and poets Paul Claudel and Pierre Reverdy, all of whom were widely read in the U.S. Another factor inspiring American Catholic authors, a disproportionate number of whom were Irish-American, was the rise of modern Irish literature. Long the province of Protestants, twentieth-century Irish letters suddenly spoke in the Catholic accents of writers such as James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, and Flann O’Brien. Not surprisingly, American Catholic writers of this period saw themselves as part of an international movement.

The crowded stars seemed bent upon
being understood.
                 —G. K. Chesterton


The explosion of American Catholic writing in the two decades after World War II has sometimes been described as a renaissance or revival, but these attractive terms are misnomers. There was no earlier American Catholic literary tradition to be reborn. Until the war years, American literature had been mostly a Protestant affair seasoned by a scattering of Jewish voices (with both groups becoming increasingly secular). Although Catholics had ranked as the nation’s largest religious denomination since 1890, social, linguistic, educational, and cultural barriers slowed their literary development. Despite the success of a few popular figures, such as Joyce Kilmer, there had been almost no literature of enduring significance. It took half a century of growth and progress in Catholic schools and universities, journalism, and publishing to make the mid-twentieth-century achievement possible. The period from 1945 to 1964 represented the first full flowering of the American Catholic imagination—a powerful expansion of the national literature, which impressed both the pagan and the pious with its energy, depth, and originality. It was not a rebirth but a nativity—the sensibility of an ancient faith heard in a new world for the first time. The poor, immigrant communities that had reshaped the American population now helped reconfigure American letters.

The postwar decade was not a period of Catholic literary dominance, which is not, to my mind, an attractive or desirable goal. It was, instead, an era in which Catholic voices in all their diversity played an active role in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature. Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation. Rich in rituals, signs, and symbols, the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament. It was never surprising to hear that some writer had converted, be it the young Robert Lowell or Ernest Hemingway, the middle-aged Allen Tate or Edith Sitwell, the older Tennessee Williams or Claude McKay, or even the dying Wallace Stevens or Jaime de Angulo. After all, as another deathbed convert, Oscar Wilde, remarked, “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.”

Sixty years ago, it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as artists and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time, as well as with specifically Catholic journals and presses. They also won major literary awards. Between 1945 and 1965, Catholic novelists and poets received eleven Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards (six NBAs, if one counts O’Connor’s posthumously published Complete Stories in 1972).

Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press. They were also intelligently covered in the large and varied Catholic press. Thomas Merton, for example, published with Harcourt Brace, New Directions, and Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, as well as with small monastic and ecclesiastical presses. He was reviewed in Time, Life, Atlantic Monthly, and Saturday Review, as well as Commonweal, Ave Maria, Catholic World, and Theology Digest. Writers also had the opportunity, if they were so inclined, to reach a Catholic audience directly in person on a large speakers’ circuit of religious schools and associations. Although crippled by lupus, Flannery O’Connor helped pay the family bills on the lecture circuit. She visited colleges, conferences, seminaries, and even a convent of cloistered nuns. She found travel tiring, but she often enjoyed the people she encountered. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do,” she declared, “you can relax a little.”

It is instructive to see how large and substantial the Catholic literary subculture once was and how much it influenced literary coverage in the general press. Reading through Flannery O’Connor’s published interviews, a scholar today might be surprised to see that half of them appeared in Catholic journals—an inconceivable situation now for a serious young writer. Equally inconceivable, the secular journals asked her informed and respectful questions about the relation of her faith to her art. The mid-century Catholic writer could address both the general reader and the Catholic reader—knowing that both audiences were not only on speaking terms but also overlapped.

The supernatural is an embarrassment today.
                 —Flannery O’Connor


Looking back on the mid-century era of O’Connor, Merton, Porter, and Tate, one could summarize the position of American Catholic literary culture with four characteristics. First, many important writers publicly identified themselves as faithful Catholics. Second, the cultural establishment accepted Catholicism as a possible and permissible artistic identity. Third, there was a dynamic and vital Catholic literary and intellectual tradition visibly at work in the culture. Fourth and finally, there was a critical and academic milieu that actively read, discussed, and supported the best Catholic writing. Today not one of those four observations remains true. Paradoxically, despite the social, political, economic, and educational advancement made by Catholics over the past half-century, our place in literary culture has dramatically declined. In order to describe the current situation, we would have to restate each of the observations in a radically different form.

Sixty years ago, many established writers identified themselves as faithful Catholics. Today there are still a few writers who admit to being practicing Catholics, such as Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Richard Rodriguez, and Kathleen Norris, but they seem notable exceptions in an aggressively secular literary culture. Many Catholic authors follow their faith quietly. More significant, most young writers no longer see their religion as a core identity—in spiritual or aesthetic terms. Their faith is something to be hidden or discarded in order to achieve success in an arts world that appears hostile to Christianity. In practical terms, who can blame them?

Back in the mid-century, there were many famous literary conversions to Catholicism. These haven’t stopped altogether. Not long ago occurred the celebrated literary “bad girl” and “bad boy” conversions of Mary Karr and Franz Wright. (There is more rejoicing in heaven over one lost poet found than in ninety-nine novelists who have never strayed.) Now, however, the most common form of “conversion” is among artists who leave the Church. As the literary agent in Christopher Beha’s novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder remarks, “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” Some writers have made leaving the faith a recurring habit. Vampire novelist Anne Rice has publicly rejoined and renounced the Church twice.

The second observation, that the cultural establishment once accepted Catholicism as a possible and permissible artistic identity, also needs to be substantially revised. Today the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, disdain, or condescension. From its earliest stages, American society has displayed a streak of anti-Catholicism, which originated in Protestant, especially Puritan, antagonism toward Rome. Anti-papist hatred became an enduring element in populist bigotry as exemplified by the Know-Nothings and Ku Klux Klan. This ingrained bias was perpetuated by class prejudice against the waves of poor immigrants—first the Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Mexican, and later the Filipino, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Haitian, and Central American poor who came to the U.S. in search of a better life. The American Catholic Church has historically been the church of immigrants and the poor. Consequently, the Roman faith has often been viewed as one of the backward beliefs these dispossessed groups brought over from the Old Country.

Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, “anti-­Catholicism remains the one respectable form of intellectual bigotry.” During the ceremony when O’Connor was posthumously awarded the National Book Award, her editor Robert Giroux recalled one literary celebrity complaining, “Do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great author? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” Would anyone have made a similar remark at the ceremonies honoring Philip Roth or Ralph Ellison? As poet-historian Peter Viereck commented, “Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals.” But the left enjoys no monopoly on anti-Catholicism. Despite some ecumenical progress in recent years, it remains a persistent prejudice among Southern fundamentalists and Evangelicals. A New York leftist and an Alabama Pentecostal may not agree on much, but too often they share a dislike of Catholics.

Despite a public culture committed to diversity and tolerance, anti-Catholicism has grown measurably worse among academics and intellectuals over the past decade—driven in equal parts by sexual abuse scandals, gay rights, resurgent atheism, and lingering historical prejudice. At best, Catholicism is seen as a private concern rather than a public identity, and certainly not an advisable or reliable basis for a personal aesthetic. As the British novelist Hilary Mantel recently declared, “Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”

The third observation that there was a dynamic and vital Catholic literary tradition also needs to be revised. There is currently no vital or influential Catholic tradition evident in mainstream American culture. The few distinguished writers who confess their Catholicism appear to work mostly in isolation. Such isolation may not hamper their creativity. Hansen, McDermott, Rodriguez, and Wolff rank among the nation’s finest authors. But their lack of a collective public identity limits their influence—as Catholics—on both the general culture and young writers. Meanwhile, the less-established writers, who have made Catholicism the core of their artistic identity, work mostly outside mainstream literary life in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on general cultural life.

Finally, the fourth observation, that there was a critical and academic milieu that discussed and supported the best Catholic writing, perhaps needs to be revised the least, but the current situation reveals a substantially diminished scene. There has been a vast retrenchment of this intellectual milieu. (This trend has been aggravated by the many Catholic colleges and universities that now seem socially embarrassed by their religious identity.) There is still a small, imperiled, and largely segregated cohort of Catholic magazines such as CommonwealAmerica, and Crisis, as well as serious ecumenical publications such as First Things andImage, and scholarly ones such as Christianity and Literature and Renascence. Their collective reach and readership has declined, and they stand at a greater distance from mainstream culture than their equivalents did sixty years ago. The influence of these journals, even the largest like First Things and America, is limited to a shrinking subculture. Moreover, few Catholic journals still publish a substantial number of book reviews or provide much literary coverage. Consequently, they provide neither much employment for Catholic critics who seek to write for their own community nor significant exposure for emerging authors.

What is the effect of this intellectual segregation? The Catholic voice is heard less clearly and less often in the public conversations that inform American culture. Consequently, Catholics have lost the power to bring their own best writers to the attention of a broader audience. Today, if any living Catholic novelist or poet has a major reputation, that reputation has not been made by Catholic critics but by the secular literary world, often in spite of their religious identity. In literature, at least, the Catholic media no longer command sufficient cultural power to nominate or effectively support what is best from its own community. Has this situation disturbed Catholic leaders? Not especially. The Catholic subculture seems conspicuously uninterested in the arts.

What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel. If the universal Church isn’t capacious enough to contain a breadth of political opinion, then the faith has shriveled into something unrecognizably paltry. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.

Wallace Stevens remarked that “God and the imagination are one.” It is folly to turn over either to a political party, even your own. If American Catholicism has become mundane enough to be consumed by party politics, perhaps it’s because the Church has lost its imagination and creativity.

Many people judge a religion by its art, and why indeed shouldn’t they?
                         —Elizabeth Jennings


In the literary sphere, American Catholics now occupy a situation closer to that of 1900 than 1950. It is a cultural and religious identity that exists mostly in a marginalized subculture or else remains unarticulated and covert in a general culture inclined to mock or dismiss it. Among the “respectable people” Hilary Mantel mentioned, Catholicism is retrograde, déclassé, and disreputable. No wonder Catholic writers keep a low profile. After all, what do writers gain now by identifying themselves as Catholics? There is little support from within the community—not even the spiritual support of an active artistic tradition. The general intellectual and academic culture remains at least tacitly anti-Catholic. The situation brings to mind Teresa of Avila’s witty complaint, “If this is the way You treat your friends, no wonder You have so few.”

If one needs an image or metaphor to describe our current Catholic literary culture, I would say that it resembles the present state of the old immigrant urban neighborhoods our grandparents inhabited. They may still have a modicum of local color amid their crumbling infrastructure, but they are mostly places from which upwardly mobile people want to escape. Economically depressed, they offer few rewarding jobs. They no longer command much social or cultural power. To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.

A different person might summarize the situation slightly differently, or argue with the phrasing of particular observations, but I doubt that any honest observer of current literary culture could refute this sad summary of Catholic letters today. Despite its proclamations of diversity and multiculturalism, contemporary American letters has little use for Catholicism, and Catholics have retreated from mainstream cultural life.

By now I have surely said something to depress, anger, or offend every reader of this essay. It depresses me, too, but I won’t apologize. If I have outlined the cultural situation of Catholic writers in mostly negative terms, it is not out of despair or cynicism. It is because to solve a problem, we must first look at it honestly and not minimize or deny the difficulties it presents. If we want to revitalize some aspect of cultural life, we must understand the assumptions and forces that govern it.

The collapse of Catholic literary life reflects a larger crisis of confidence in the Church that touches on all aspects of religious, cultural, and intellectual life. What I have said so far also pertains, in general terms, to all American Christians. Whatever their denomination, they have increasingly disengaged themselves from artistic culture. They have, in effect, ceded the arts to secular society. Needless to say, for Catholicism, this cultural retreat—indeed, this virtual surrender—represents a radical departure from the Church’s traditional role as patron and mentor to the arts. In only fifty years, the patron has become the pariah.

It is the test of a good religion
whether you can joke about it.
           —G. K. Chesterton


The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences, two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the arts world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of two thousand years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished. The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual pretensions of so much contemporary art—in every medium—are the legacy of this schism, as well as the cynicism that pervades the arts world.

This last point needs to be clarified to avoid any misunderstanding. Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans.

The great and present danger to American literature is the growing homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation. Often raised in several places in no specific cultural or religious community, educated with no deep connection to a particular region, history, or tradition, and now employed mostly in academia, the American writer is becoming as standardized as the American car—functional, streamlined, and increasingly interchangeable. The globalization so obvious in most areas of the economy, including popular culture, has had a devastating impact on literature. Its influence is especially powerful since globalized commercial entertainment—movies, television, popular music, and video games—now shapes the imagination of young writers more pervasively and continuously than do literary texts. An adolescence in Los Angeles is not much different from one in Boston or Chicago when so many thousands of hours are spent identically in the same virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that so much new writing lacks any tangible sense of place, identifiable accent, or living connection to the past? Nourished more by global electronic entertainment than active individual reading, even the language lacks resonance and personality. However stylish and efficient, writing with no past probably has no future.

If you dislike Christianity—which some readers of this essay surely do—you may regard the decline of Catholic literature as a sign of progress. It seems proof positive that contemporary Christianity lacks creativity and cultural intelligence. But even in secular terms, this position is myopic and self-defeating (not to mention undemocratic). The retreat of the nation’s largest cultural minority from literary discourse does not make art healthier. Instead, it weakens the dialectic of cultural development. It makes American literature less diverse, less vital, and less representative.

There is a temptation for members of a cultural elite to see their values as the only respectable virtues, a tendency that blinds the group to both cultural innovation and aesthetic dissent, especially from people deemed marginal to established intellectual society. Jazz, blues, film, detective fiction, science fiction, and photography were all arts that emerged without elitist approval, and yet they all made indisputable contributions to American culture. In retrospect, it seems clear that the great accomplishments of mid-twentieth-century American fiction depended on the emergence of Jewish, Catholic, and African-­American voices. These distinctively accented voices—Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor and J. F. Powers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin—opened up new vistas of American fiction by articulating the worldview of groups previously marginal. People on the margins see some things more clearly than do those privileged to live at the center. When the elite and the powerful silence the voices of outsiders, culture hardens into convention. Any secular reader who wishes Catholic voices away unknowingly furthers the narrowing and standardization of American letters.

The second consequence of this cultural schism affects the Church. The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world. Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.

Catholicism rightly revels in its theological and philosophical prowess, which is rooted in two millennia of practice and mastery. Theology is important, but formal analytical thought—the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism—is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity—through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect. Until recently, a great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry. His resplendent verses are still sung with incense at Eucharistic Benediction. “Bells and incense!” scoffs the Puritan, but God gave people ears and noses. Are those organs of perception too humble to bring into church? For very good reason, participating in Mass involves all five senses. We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.

Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic. Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts. These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked a respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular. They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational. The problem is that art is not primarily conceptual or rational. Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them. Two songs may make identical statements in conceptual terms, but one of them pierces your soul with its beauty while the other bores you into catalepsy. In art, good intentions matter not at all. Both the impact and the meaning of art are embodied in the execution. Beauty is either incarnate, or it remains an intangible abstraction.

Whenever the Church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power that it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world. Is it any wonder that so many artists and intellectuals have fled the Church? Current Catholic worship often ignores the essential connection between truth and beauty, body and soul, at the center of the Catholic worldview. The Church requires that we be faithful, but must we also be deaf, dumb, and blind? I deserve to suffer for my sins, but must so much of that punishment take place in church?

I can with one eye squinted take it
all as a blessing.

              —Flannery O’Connor


In such a culture, in such a Church, in such a time, what is the Catholic writer to do? Isolated, alienated, discredited, ignored, how can he or she survive, let alone prosper? Aren’t things too far gone to change? The answer can only be . . . of course not. Times are always bad. Culture is always in trouble. The barbarian is always at the gate, and some part of the Church inevitably needs a good sweeping. O tempora! O mores! is a perpetual complaint. As every Catholic knows, we live in a fallen world where—o felix culpa—we rejoice in the possibilities of redemption.

For the artist, every problem represents a sort of opportunity. The necessary insight here is that history doesn’t solve problems, culture doesn’t solve problems; only people do. The history of the Church and the history of art repeatedly demonstrate that a few people of sufficient passion, courage, and creativity can transform an age. If we learn nothing else from the lives of the saints, we should know the power their works and examples had to change an age. St. Francis of Assisi had a greater impact on European society than any ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

New artistic movements originate in similar ways. They grow out of the efforts of a few catalytic individuals who reject a bankrupt or moribund status quo and articulate a compelling new vision. French Symbolism and English Romanticism, both of which became transformative international movements, each began with a handful of writers. Once the new vision is articulated and embodied in masterful works, it spreads quickly, indeed indomitably—uniting people in a common cause. The success of cultural and religious movements inevitably reveals that many people already share the new ideals but do not feel empowered until there is a credible public call to action. The real challenge is not in the number of participants but in the arrival of a few powerful innovators who can serve as cultural catalysts. Two great poets are stronger than two thousand mediocrities.

The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity. First, the writer must have faith in both the power of art and the power of the spirit. The cynicism that pervades contemporary cultural life must be replaced by a deep confidence in the human purposes and importance of art. Art is not an elitist luxury or a game for intellectual coteries. It is a necessary component of human development, both individually and communally. Art educates our emotions and imagination. It awakens, enlarges, and refines our humanity. Remove it, dilute it, or pervert it, and a community or a nation suffers—becoming less compassionate, curious, and alert, more coarse, narrow, and self-satisfied.

The Catholic writer must also recover confidence in his or her own spiritual, cultural, and personal identity. How can I, for example, as an Italian and Mexican American, understand myself without acknowledging the essential link with Catholicism? It is in my cultural DNA—from generations of ancestors. Catholicism is my faith, my heritage, my worldview, my mythology, and my community. Banish or deny that spiritual core—for whatever reason—and I lose some of my authenticity as an artist. This loss is surely part of the agony so tangible in the writing of ex-Catholics. It hurts to renounce part of your own identity, even if you consider the abnegation a necessity. Who can blame them for writing with such passion about the Church? Even a phantom limb can cause excruciating pain. They rightly refuse to become homogenous and generic writers in a global secular culture. They no longer have a spiritual home, except in their dissent.

A Catholic writer must also have hope.Hope in the possibilities of art and one’s own efforts. Hope in the Church’s historical ability to change as change is needed. The main barrier to the revival of Catholic writing and the rapprochement of faith and the arts is despair, or perhaps more accurately acedia, a torpid indifference among precisely those people who could change the situation—Catholic artists and intellectuals. Hope is what motivates and sustains the writer’s enterprise because success will come slowly, and there will be many setbacks.

Finally, there is a third element that has nothing to do with religion. The Muse is no Calvinist. She does not believe that faith alone justifies an artist. The writer needs good works—good literary ones. The goal of the serious Catholic writer is the same as that of all real writers—to create powerful, expressive, memorable works of art. As Flannery O’Connor observed, “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.” The road to Damascus may offer a pilgrim sudden and miraculous intervention, but faith provides no shortcuts on the road to Parnassus.

All writers must master the craft of literature, the possibilities of language, the examples of tradition, and then match that learning with the personal drive for perfection and innovation. There is a crippling naïveté among many religious writers (and even editors) that saintly intentions compensate for weak writing. Such misplaced faith (or charity) is folly. The Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms while never forgetting the spiritual possibilities and responsibilities of art. That is a double challenge, but it does ultimately offer a genuine advantage. If faith provides no shortcuts to Parnassus, once the literary pilgrim attains the summit, it does afford him or her a clearer vision. The Catholic writer has the inestimable advantage of a profound and truthful worldview that has been articulated, explored, and amplified by two thousand years of art and philosophy, a tradition whose symbols, stories, personalities, concepts, and correspondences add enormous resonance to any artist’s work. To be a Catholic writer is to stand at the center of the Western tradition in artistic terms.

This perspective is invaluable in times, like ours, of intellectual confusion. The Catholic writer understands the necessary relationship between truth and beauty, which is not mere social convention or cultural accident but an essential form of human know­ledge—intuitive, holistic, and experiential. Art is a form of knowing—distinct and legitimate—rooted in feeling and delight—that discovers, in the words of Jacques Maritain, “the splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence.” That insight makes possible the great potential of Christian literature to depict the material world, the physical world of the senses, while also revealing behind it another invisible and eternal dimension.

How long, I wondered, could this thing last?
But the age of miracles hadn’t passed.

                   —Ira Gershwin


The renewal of the Catholic arts will not come from the Church itself. I am prepared to believe in miracles, but the notion that the Catholic hierarchy will make literature and the arts a priority and then exercise good judgment in supporting them exceeds all credulity. The bishops may occasionally recite some high-minded cant on the subject of culture, but their passions lie elsewhere. They have more pressing problems to address, including some of their own making. Ecclesiastical indifference, however, is a great blessing—perhaps even the miracle I hope for. Focused on other issues, the hierarchy is unlikely to interfere with any cultural awakening. They won’t even notice an artistic renascence until long after it is fully launched into the world.

The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers. Culture is not an intellectual abstraction. It is human energy expressed through creativity, conversation, and community. Culture relies on individual creativity to foster consciousness, which then becomes expanded and refined through critical conversation. Those exchanges, in turn, support a community of shared values. The necessary work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers. The communion of saints is not only a theological concept, it is the model for a vibrant Catholic literary culture. There is so much Catholic literary talent—creative, critical, and scholarly—but most of it seems scattered and isolated. It lacks a vital sense of cultural community—specifically, a conviction that together these individuals can achieve meaningful change in the world. If Catholic literati can recapture a sense of shared mission, the results would enlarge and transform literary culture.

If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts that have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home. 

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

Mandela for the Ages

 While traveling around the country promoting my last book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, I was often asked which insurgents I admired the most. The answer is those insurgents who have fought relatively humanely and, most important of all, once they have seized power have governed wisely and democratically and shown a willingness to give up power when the time came to do so.

This is not, needless to say, the norm. Much more common are insurgents like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, and (fill in the blank) who, while posturing as freedom fighters battling an evil dictatorship, swiftly become dictators in turn as soon as they seize power. The exceptions to that rule are some of the greatest figures of modern history–the likes of George Washington, Michael Collins, David Ben-Gurion, and, most recently, Nelson Mandela.

I can remember growing up in the 1980s when there was widespread suspicion among conservatives in the U.S.–including many in the Reagan administration–that if the African National Congress were to take over, South Africa would be transformed into another dysfunctional dictatorship like the rest of the continent. That this did not come to pass was due to many reasons including F.W. de Klerk’s wisdom in giving up power without a fight.

But the largest part of the explanation for why South Africa is light years ahead of most African nations–why, for all its struggles with high unemployment, crime, corruption, and other woes, it is freer and more prosperous than most of its neighbors–is the character of Nelson Mandela. Had he turned out to be another Mugabe, there is every likelihood that South Africa would now be on the same road to ruin as Zimbabwe. But that did not happen because Mandela turned out to be, quite simply, a great man–someone who could spend 27 years in jail and emerge with no evident bitterness to make a deal with his jailers that allowed them to give up power peacefully and to avoid persecution.

Mandela knew that South Africa could not afford to nationalize the economy or to chase out the white and mixed-raced middle class. He knew that the price of revenge for the undoubted evils that apartheid had inflicted upon the majority of South Africans would be too high to pay–that the ultimate cost would be borne by ordinary black Africans. Therefore he governed inclusively and, most important of all, he voluntarily gave up power after one term when he could easily have proclaimed himself president for life.

The (not unexpected) tragedy for South Africa is that Mandela’s successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, have not been men of his caliber: Mbeki, the previous president, was a colorless technocrat who could not inspire his people or face head-on the challenge of AIDS; Zuma, the current president, is a rabble-rouser who has been accused of numerous improprieties from rape to corruption. Their struggles and that of the ANC bureaucracy they preside over only place in starker relief the transcendent genius and sheer goodness of Nelson Mandela.

His example should dispel any illusions, so popular in the historical profession, that history is made by impersonal forces. Mandela’s example is a ringing endorsement of what is derisively known as the “great man school of history”–the notion that influential individuals make a huge difference in how events turn out. He certainly made a difference, and for the better. He will go down as one of the giants of the second half of the twentieth century along with Reagan, Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II.

Ghost in…

The Ghostwriting Business

On January 15, 2009, geese struck and disabled the engines of US Airways Flight 1549, forcing captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to perform an emergency landing on the Hudson River. The smooth landing resulted in no casualties and remarkable pictures of the passengers and crew waiting on the plane’s wings in front of the Manhattan skyline. The “Miracle on the Hudson” received heavy media coverage that lifted Sullenberger to American hero status.

Nine months later, William Morrow published Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Although one reviewer called the writing style “as methodical as one of Sully’s checklists,” the book received high marks. But how did an amateur writer with a full schedule as a pilot, crash investigator, and CEO of a safety management consultancy find time to write a book in under nine months?

Just as he received assistance landing Flight 1549, Sullenberger had a co-pilot working on his book. On the cover of Highest Duty, just below Sullenberger’s name, it reads “With Jeffrey Zaslow.” Zaslow, who passed away in 2012, was a journalist and author whose name also appears on the cover of the memoirs of professor Randy Pausch and US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He was, in other words, the person who most likely wrote the book: the ghostwriter.

Writers like Zaslow represent an open secret in book publishing and any content with a byline – that the title of author is often more of an executive position rather than an indication of who wrote the words on the page. Dictionaries define an “author” as either “a person who has written something” or “a person who starts or creates something, such as a plan or idea.” Readers assume the first, while publishers understand it’s the second.

In academia, professors come up with research ideas and analyze results, but research assistants and graduate students write the actual paper describing the outcome. Business executives drive the direction of projects but leave underlings to research and write reports that bear the executives’ names. Marketplaces called content mills allow companies to cheaply fill their websites with ghostwritten articles published under the name of a staff member. And nearly every book authored by a celebrity or politician is ghostwritten by a professional writer.

In book publishing, ghostwriters are no longer complete secrets. Many receive a byline and the more dignified title of contributor or even co-author. Investigating how the industry works, it’s hard to tell whether ghostwriting is becoming more common or just slightly more transparent. Many a writer has worried that publishers’ search for profits will lead them to denigrate all writers to ghostwriting status and embrace anything attached to a celebrity. But that fear seems misguided. Readers don’t seem ready to give up their romanticized view of authors anytime soon.

Ghostwriting 101

When a nonfiction author decides to write a book, she starts hunting for a story and writes up a book proposal. When a celebrity decides to pen her memoirs, she calls her agent.

The motivations for that call may differ. Many celebrities see dollar signs in book publishing. Authors receive an advance when they sign a book deal – essentially a guarantee on the expected royalties from book sales.1 Hillary Clinton received an $8 million advance for her memoir while Bill Clinton inked $15 million. Agents often auction the right to publish the book or memoir of a major figure to drive up the price. A bidding war between three publishing houses over Angelina Jolie’s memoir isrumored to have driven her advance up to $50 million. To avoid this, publishing houses sometimes make a large “pre-emptive bid” to secure a celebrity’s book without facing an auction.

But money is not the only reason famous people decide to “write” books. They can be a public relations strategy – a chance for a someone to boost her profile, tell her side of a controversy, or express a more rounded personality than the one described by the media. Joel Hochman of Arbor Books, which advertises itself as a “world-class ghostwriting company,” told us:

“Not every celebrity gets the chance to tell [her] story in a few hundred pages. They’re usually described in soundbites. It’s really about reputation repair.”

Peter Osnos, who edited or published the memoirs of two former presidents, explained that while money is a factor, retiring public servants “generally have a full life of experience that they want to share.” This may or may not mean justifying their actions in office.

In the case of politicians and business executives, the primary motivation for writing a book is often to demonstrate expertise. Hillary Clinton’s upcoming memoir about her time as secretary of state isspeculated to be in the service of a presidential run in 2016. Mitt Romney wrote a book about his“vision for America” to prepare for the 2012 election.2

Once a publisher has bought the rights to a celebrity’s book or life story, the next step is to find the person who will actually write it.

Jerrold Jenkins, president of a publishing services firm that has ghostwriters on staff, describes ghostwriters as falling along four tiers. The lowest tier, which his company rarely hires, are found on massive freelancing websites like Elance and earn $5,000 to $15,000 for a book. Writers at the next level have some book experience that earns them $15,000 to $30,000. These ghostwriters sign nondisclosure agreements promising to never reveal that they worked on a book. Only scrupulously honest clients thank the ghostwriter for his or her “valuable contribution” in the acknowledgements.

Excellent ghostwriters who may have even written a bestseller earn $30,000 to $50,000 per project while a small elite with a track record of handling multi-million dollar memoirs command from $50,000 to more than a million. They may also receive a share of the royalties and writing credit.

William Novak – who launched his career as an elite ghostwriter with perhaps the most commercially successful memoir of all time in Iacocca, the autobiography of American car magnate Lee Iacocca – earns anywhere from 10% to 50% of the advance. Top ghostwriters like Novak are given titles like “co-author” or “collaborator” and have their name on the cover. The publisher of George Stephanopoulos’s memoir touted hiring Novak as if hiring an elite ghostwriter were a mark of prestige.

Authors literally entrust the ghostwriter with his or her life story, so the two usually meet to check for rapport before signing a contract. But with top ghostwriters, the client is also auditioning. Beyond monetary considerations, Novak cited the agreeableness of the client, his feeling that he can add value, and the book’s potential as important considerations. “Everyone thinks they have a book in them,” Novak told us. “But most of us have only a chapter or two. I’ve turned down a few clients whose stories I didn’t think could fill a book.”

One of the biggest surprises of the industry is how fast ghostwriters can produce a book. “I had a book come together in a series of 10 interviews – one per chapter,” ghostwriter and co-writer Sally Collingstold us. “Each interview took an hour.” The entire project still took four months, and some ghostwritten books take a year of full-time work. But this means that ghostwriters can often write multiple books a year.

Writing someone’s autobiography is also surprisingly impersonal. When William Novak ghostwrote his first memoir, he assumed that he would be Lee Iacocca’s “surrogate son.” He discovered that the norm is less than 50 hours of interviews. The process starts with the author providing relevant written materials. A series of interviews follows. The reticent only do phone calls and email; the feverishly busy fly the ghostwriter around the world to meet in airports and in between board meetings. For a major project, ghostwriters also interview as many as several dozen people who know the author. Once the ghostwriter has a draft, the two make adjustments over email and phone calls.

There are examples of celebrities who expect the ghostwriter to come up with the entire story. (English pop culture celebrity Kerry Katona admitted to never reading her “autobiography.”) But the author usually has an intended message and knows the narrative or major arguments. “Every now and then we have an author who doesn’t have a lot of content and we do additional research and the ghostwriter goes above and beyond,” Jerrold Jenkins of the Jenkins Group told us. “But it’s rare.”

It’s the ghostwriter’s job to ask probing questions to capture that narrative. For most ghostwriters and publishers, part of the ghostwriter’s professionalism is understanding and accepting that she is writing someone else’s story. As William Novak told us, “It took me awhile to understand that I am writing a book about how [the client] sees him or herself. I represent what they remember, their views.”

Ghostwriters tend to be former journalists or nonfiction authors themselves. Part of learning the trade means learning to adopt the client’s voice. “The first draft of Iacocca was rejected for being ‘too well written,’” Novak told us. “I had to write like Iacocca was talking to you.” Collings described the industry as very niche, with writers specializing in areas like business memoir or American history. But the elite are sought for any project. Publisher Peter Osnos described Novak as a talented ghostwriter because he “is the equivalent of a great character actor – someone who has the ability to subsume his own character, no matter how interesting the part that he’s playing.”

As the majority of ghostwriters sign nondisclosure agreements, it’s impossible to know exactly how many books are ghostwritten each year. The president of Arbor Books, which furnishes ghostwriters, told us, “From what I’ve seen, I’d imagine a billion dollar industry.” The president of a similar firm estimated that at least 25% of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list is ghostwritten and that when a celebrity or politician is involved, “It’s nearly 100%.”

The Economic Logic of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriters exist for the same reason that Bill Gates doesn’t mow his own lawn: It’s just not worth his time. As the president of the Jenkins Group put it to us:

“The appeal is pretty clear. If you are an executive making $10 million a year, will you really stop working for two to three months to write a book? Or if you’re an athlete?”

Celebrities are also paying for a higher quality of writing than they could ever achieve. Every year, dozens of books are authored by celebrities, politicians, and business executives who haven’t written anything much longer than an email since college. Most publishers will push a celebrity or politician who actually wants to write his or her own book toward a ghostwriter. Books written by celebrities usually end up in the hands of an “editor” who rewrites the entire manuscript.

From a publisher’s perspective, securing the rights to publish the book of a celebrity is the closest thing to a sure thing in book publishing. This is important because, like television executives and venture capitalists, book publishers are in the hits business. Each Harry Potter pays for many other books that don’t sell well and register a loss.

Publishers do work with young talents in the hopes that they’ll develop into the next Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell. But especially in nonfiction, publishers prefer authors with a “platform”: a history of written publication and recognition in their field. This author was shocked when an agent sent him book proposal guidelines for a nonfiction book that asked for as much information on marketing strategy and the author’s personal distribution channels as on the book’s story. The guidelines even suggested that authors without a “strong platform” reconsider trying to publish a book.

Publishers want authors with name recognition and the ability to sell their own book because selling a book by a new name – even if it’s a great book – is so uncertain. Since it is difficult for a consumer to know whether she will like a book before she buys it, consumers buy the same authors again and again. When J.K. Rowling released a mystery novel under a pseudonym, it failed to sell despite good reviews. When word got out that Rowling was the author, it became an instant bestseller.

In contrast, selling a book authored by a celebrity is easy. “There’s certainly a high correlation between fame or infamy and commercial success,” Novak told us, adding: “And I’ve made a living off that correlation.” Household names who will drive media interest are as close to a guarantee of strong sales as publishers get outside of finding a J.K. Rowling type. And even if Justin Bieber’s memoir fails to crack the bestsellers list, HarperCollins still knows that it will sell in quantities great enough that it will benefit from economies of scale that make each copy cheaper to produce.

Publishers may love the combination of a celebrity’s name and a ghostwriter’s professionalism, but writers and readers do not. One writer we contacted who collaborates on nonfiction described ghostwriting as “repulsive.” Journalist and author Jack Hitt, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 1997, lamented ghostwritten books about such luminaries as O.J. Simpson’s former girlfriend and how they represent a publishing industry focused solely on entertainment without a thought for education. Readers who found the name of a ghostwriter buried in the acknowledgements of Lean In asked why she didn’t follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and demand credit as the real author.

Sally Collings noted that while many of her clients understand and accept the ghostwriter’s role, others do not. In her words:

“One of the first books I worked on, the author said, ‘I don’t want to work with a ghostwriter. If I do, I’ll feel like model. Like I can’t string a sentence together.’ He was a brain surgeon.”

The practice appears especially dishonest when it comes to ghostwriting fiction. Joel Hochman of Arbor Books estimates that 35% of his publishing services business is for fiction. “It’s like a Hollywood producer with a concept putting together a team to produce something,” he told us. “Their satisfaction comes from being the originator of the idea even if many changes are made.” And, in fact, Arbor Books lists Oscar and Emmy nominated Hollywood producers as clients.

A number of bestselling authors, such as James Patterson and Tom Clancy, have also treated their name as a brand by passing off the concept for their next sequel to a ghostwriter. Or been kept alive in the literary world after their death by ghostwriters. A few who realize the game have demanded refunds or complained about a dip in quality, but most readers buy copies obliviously. Which raises the question, why not replace all bylines with a celebrity or brand name?

The Death of the Author

In the early to mid 1900s, the majority of books read by American children were the product of one man.

The man was Edward Stratemeyer, and he is credited with being the first to give American children what they want – not books of moral instruction disguised as stories, but mystery novels as full of excitement and adventure as the adult dime novels that children read on the sly at the time.

Stratemeyer began his career by writing The Rover Boys, a series about the adventures of three prankster brothers who attend a military academy. Rather than settle into a quiet life of writing mystery novels, however, Stratemeyer sought to build an empire in the children’s book industry.

As a New Yorker article on Stratemeyer relates, he perfected the production of children’s books like Henry Ford perfected the production of automobiles. He developed more and more mystery series, including the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew – some of the most beloved children’s series of all time – and wrote under pseudonyms so that he could sell them to different publishers and not dilute his brand. When he could no longer write all the stories himself, Stratemeyer, who first realized his literary potential when the novelist Horatio Alger asked him to finish several manuscripts in exchange for royalties, simply hired ghostwriters.

An illustration from the Nancy Drew series

Stratemeyer would send off a synopsis to a ghostwriter and receive a manuscript several months later. Each series sold under a pseudonym. To better manage his ghostwriters, Stratemeyer developed a clear format for each book with rules such as that each chapter must end with a cliffhanger. The formula began to incorporate best practices for commercial success as well as writing. As sales ofThe Rover Boys slowed when the characters married, Stratemeyer decided that characters should never age. For promotion purposes, each book also started with a recap of prior books and ended with a preview of the next one. Stratemeyer also learned to release the first 3 books of a series at the same time to test its commercial viability.

Stratemeyer’s writing syndicate produced hundreds of books in multiple popular series that dominated the market. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, when a trial over the copyright to the Nancy Drewand Hardy Boys books made details of the Stratemeyer Syndicate public, that Americans realized one man was responsible for so much.

The “assembly-line” model Stratemeyer developed represents the logical end point of ghostwriting – moving the writer from a position of agency to a cog in a factory that efficiently churns out books according to a proven formula and marketing strategy. So far, the model seems to be mainly adopted in children’s series, but a number of successful adult authors have done the same. More recent thrillers by Tom Clancy, for example, have the name of a “co-author” on the cover. Similarly, an Arizona Republic article notes of James Patterson, author of a bestselling adult mystery series:

James Patterson had eight of the 100 most popular books of 2006, according to USA Today, and is scheduled to release six novels this year – that’s one every two months. The majority of his books are written by “co-authors” who take a detailed outline and flesh it out, then turn it back to Patterson for edits.

Another option for publishers looking to use ghostwriting to maximize the marketing potential of a book is to simply attach a celebrity’s name to any ghostwritten book. An article on ghostwriting in the UK notes a publisher who did exactly that – hiring a novelist to write a fictional book that takes place in the fashion world and then attaching the name of supermodel Naomi Campbell as the author. There was no collaboration between Campbell and writer Caroline Upcher, who said of the project, “The idea was to buy the name.” The Swan by Naomi Campbell has three and a half stars on Amazon.

As publishers look for ways to boost sales, these models could represent a future in which publishers buy celebrity names to attach to ghostwritten books the same way the fashion industry promotes clothing lines under the name of a celebrity who had little to no collaboration with the anonymous designers. Or in which ghostwriters toil away on formulaic concepts sold under the brand name of a previously successful author or successful pseudonym. As one article on the industry notes, a children’s book ghostwritten for a famous former model has already been nominated for the British Book Awards, shortly after her ghostwritten adult novel “outsold the entire Booker shortlist combined.”

The Case for Ghostwriting

Hiring ghostwriters and drafting nondisclosure agreements can certainly feel deceitful. But there is a case to be made that people should give up their romanticized views of authorship and accept its benefits.

“I think the idea of an isolated writer drinking whiskey in a garret and not coming out until he’s finished a book is a notion that doesn’t exist anymore,” Joel Hochman of Arbor Books told us. Like others on the business side, he responded to our question of what is owed to the readers by putting a name on the cover by saying, “It’s a product.” There may be a cult of personality around authors, but in the end, people are buying a story.

These publishers point out that writing is always a team effort. Jay Leno does not write his own jokes and a team of writers work on sitcom scripts. Even if books have been a more independent pursuit, every writer depends on the help of an editor whose impact on the book – cutting large sections, reorganizing, suggestions plot changes – can be substantial. Researchers are also a regular part of writing a book in both fiction and nonfiction. Ghostwriting may be an extreme case, but every book is a team effort and few writers are responsible for every single word and idea in their books. Is it more deceitful to name someone who did none of the writing an author or to give so much credit to the author in the first place?

A major benefit of ghostwriting is that it allows stories to be told that would not otherwise. Few major public figures could write books themselves – their stories are only published because professionals step in to write them down. Even if the existence of multiple Justin Bieber memoirs does not feel like a service to the publishing world, it at least helps the bottom lines of the same publishers taking a chance on the next David Mitchell or Cormac McCarthy.

It is also an open question whether ghostwriting denigrates the actual writers or celebrates their skill. Nondisclosure agreements and cryptic mentions in the acknowledgements are not signs of respect. But established ghostwriters are recognized as skilled professionals. And while ghostwriters often get asked to write at below a living wage, ghostwriting can also be one of the few ways to make a good salary writing full-time short of being a perennial bestseller.

It can also be quite enjoyable. William Novak described himself as “spoiled” by all the “wonderful people [he’s] worked with.” Michael D’Orso, who dislikes the term ghostwriter but collaborates with major figures, described in an article how “you can’t be more alive than when you’re climbing into other lives in other worlds.” Sally Collings told us that ghostwriting allows her to focus on the writing and editing part that she enjoys without having to deal with the marketing aspects that she does not. “People often ask when I will write my own book again,” she told us. “I feel like I do all the time. I have a secret sense of ownership.”

Is Ghostwriting on the Rise?

In an industry whose entire premise is secrecy, it’s hard to say whether ghostwriting is on the rise. Whether called ghostwriting or not, the idea is certainly not new. Mark Twain, who edited and published the memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, is said to have ghostwritten much of it as well. Hired hands have crafted busy leaders’ correspondence and public remarks for centuries. And we’d be hard pressed to say when science and engineering professors last wrote the majority of their papers. But as far as we can tell, the size of the industry is stable at the top but has surged at the bottom.

The demand for ghostwriting has increased simply because more content is being produced. With the advent of the Internet, the large numbers of businesses and blogs seeking content to draw eyeballs has led to the rise of “content mills” where ghostwriters work for anywhere from $25 per short article to five cents per word. Or less.

Within book publishing, the decreasing costs of producing books thanks to digital tools and “print on demand,” as well as the presence of Amazon, which makes it easier for customers to find books published without fanfare or distribution around the country, has led to new entrants into publishing and many more books being produced. Jerrold Jenkins, president of a publishing services firm, told us that since the late 80s, the share of books published every year by smaller, independent presses and self-publishers has increased from 10% to 80%. And with this increase in production, the number of ghostwritten works has increased.

Thanks to the lowered costs of book publishing, many of the books produced by these smaller presses do not intend to turn a profit. For some clients, a book is a vanity project. “Books have become a new toy,” we were told. “Instead of buying a Lamborghini, you have a book produced.” Others want private books written for the benefit of friends and family – perhaps about the life of a deceased family member. In business, the book can be a marketing tool. Executives may have a book ghostwritten about their career or business principles in order to be introduced as “the author of…” and boost their professional standing. For companies that commission ghostwritten books, the book is essentially a glossy pamphlet. Jenkins told us:

“One book we did on lean manufacturing was for a $80 million company whose average contract is worth half a million dollars. Our fee was $120,000 and I said that this was large. The client responded that they hold seminars and give the book to everyone there. And if they get two clients as a result… He called it ‘their brochure.’”

Insiders in the ghostwriting industry, however, don’t believe that ghostwriting is on the rise among major publishers. Karl Weber, who has been on both the writing and editing/publishing side, reflected: “It’s hard to say whether more people are using ghostwriters these days or whether the practice has simply ‘come out of the closet’” as more ghostwriters are acknowledged.

Despite the advantages we discussed earlier for publishers of celebrity books, the economic logic suggests why ghostwriting is not growing.

Publishers appreciate the importance of name recognition and obsess over marketing more than an outsider might think, but they also realize that it isn’t everything. Karl Weber conceded that celebrity memoirs are often more lucrative, but cautioned that “the results are unpredictable.” Just as William Novak refuses to ghostwrite for someone without a great story, Weber noted that fame alone won’t sell a book. A great story, new insights, and skilled writing are still prerequisites. Novak compared the big advances publishers pay for celebrity books to buying a hot stock. Weber extrapolated:

“Fads play a role in the size of advance offered.  Rock memoirs were generally viewed as ho-hum until 2010 when Keith Richard’s LIFE became a critical and popular smash–and since then, memoirs by other 60s rock icons have been considered hot properties.”

Fame helps sell books, but the advances paid to big names eats into the profits that come from people buying the book just for the name. Weber estimated that the royalty advances paid to celebrities and public figures is “earned out” less than half the time.3 Although riding the wave of a celebrity’s popularity is tempting, it’s also risky to give an advance for a celebrity story the same size of those given to proven bestsellers like Stephen King.

So while memoirs of the famous and powerful appeal to publishers as a quick way to buy a hit, they are not certain moneymakers tempting the industry away from investing in professional authors. Rather, they seem to be a stable part of the publishing industry that produces works both highbrow (presidential memoir) and lowbrow (reality TV star memoir).

The Author’s Pedestal

“You stand in front of a group of author-struck fans and pretend you don’t put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.”

~Stephen King on Q&A sessions

There just seems to be something special about how we treat books and authors. We praise Obama’s speeches rather than his speechwriters and we debate how funny late night hosts are while knowing full well that a writing room is responsible for their jokes. But when it comes to books, we’re angry when we hear that there is someone behind the curtain.

Some writers seem to worry that publishing houses’ increasing demands that writers market themselves will lead to all authors either becoming celebrities or being replaced by them. But the way readers and publishing houses treat ghostwriting shows that this fear is misguided.

Ghostwriting firms we spoke with insisted that a book is just a product – and a team effort that makes images of writers isolating themselves until they’ve written a book seem outdated. But there still are writers who refuse to own a phone and emerge with a new work unexpectedly. And they produce the most celebrated books that a formulaic approach could never produce.

There’s also a reason ghostwriting firms consider nondisclosure agreements standard. They know that readers don’t want the illusion to be ruined. Even William Novak, who publishers have been known to brag of getting to ghostwrite a memoir, is expected to stay quietly out of the way when his books come out.

It seems fitting that the formulaic approach of ghostwritten stories developed by Edward Stratemeyer has mostly failed to spread beyond children’s books. Readers are too attached to their romanticized view of writers. When a UK publisher took the bold step of attaching a celebrity’s name to a novel written by a ghostwriter, fans revolted when the stratagem was discovered. Ghostwritten books are a well established part of the publishing industry. But don’t tell readers that.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.

1The word “advance” is actually misleading. Authors often receive 25% of the advance on signing the deal, and an additional 25% for hitting milestones up to the completion of the book.

2 Romney originally hired a ghostwriter, but reportedly decided to write it himself with the help of a research assistant.

3This doesn’t mean that the publisher loses money, as they structure the deal so they can still make money if the royalties are less than the advance, but it does mean that the megahits that pad executives’ salaries and subsidize less successful books are rare.

Todd May’s latest on death – A Believer interview

Here’s a interesting piece from the Believer periodical with the American philosopher Todd May. There’s a mention of the singularity topic, which between the frozen head notion and becoming mere electrons offers the more insecure among us additional options…

THE BELIEVER: I finished the book this morning. About halfway through, I began thinking about Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Have you seen it?

TODD MAY: I don’t know if I’ve seen The Last Crusade. I’ve seen several of them.

BLVR: It’s the one where they’re going after the Holy Grail, and it’s a race between Indy and the Nazis.

TM: Yes, I have seen that movie.

BLVR: OK. So, at the very end, they find the Holy Grail, but the Nazis shoot Indy’s dad—Sean Connery—and he’s dying. Indy saves his dad by giving him a sip of water from the Holy Grail (which, as we know, provides everlasting life). Indy then takes a sip himself—for some reason, he doesn’t offer any to his two friends—and then they vanquish the Nazis and ride off into the sunset.

Now, the movie makes all this out to be great, but I remember watching it and feeling really unsettled. True, Indy has saved his dad’s life, but he’s also consigned his dad to living forever. Everyone else around them is going to die at some point, but the two of them will live on in perpetuity.

My sense is that you might actually think Indy made the wrong call—that he did his dad a disservice by giving him everlasting life. Let’s start there.

TM: I think it’s actually more complicated than that. Indy can let his dad die, and that was probably a really bad time for him to die. Or he could extend his life indefinitely, which in the end probably wouldn’t be such a good thing either. So, the paradox I really wanted to press in the book is that neither of these options—dying or being immortal—is a good option.

BLVR: But you ultimately do settle on the side of death, no? You compare death to “a disease whose cure, if it existed, would be worse than the disease itself.” You also write that the things that make our lives distinctive and meaningfully human would fade or would have to be “reconfigured” if we were immortal. In other words, you’re ultimately glad that we have to die, even if you don’t actually look forward to your own death.

TM: Right. I think that’s fair enough. We have to add to that the idea that…well, that life is short, and if death were to be a good thing, it would be a better thing much further down the road than it is for human lives now. All of this, by the way, raises some interesting questions, which I tried to deal with a little bit in the book, in terms of whether I’m the only one who would be immortal or whether everyone would be immortal.

I did an interview with a filmmaker yesterday, and we were talking about this. And he said that he would like to be immortal but would like to be the only one. He said that way, he could see life changing around him enough so that he might not get bored.

BLVR: Someone said something similar to me the other day. And my first thought was, I can’t imagine anything lonelier than knowing that everyone around me will die one day. In fact, the first thing I imagined was jealousy—jealousy of the solidarity and bonds that arise among people who have to live in the face of death, knowing that I’d be on the outside of that.

TM: That’s a very powerful thing you said, and I don’t think I’d thought of that until you just said this now. But I think that’s right—it’s a powerful bond that keeps us together.

There are certain things we can be that are meaningful to us, and other things that we cannot be. If we’re immortal but no one around us is, the same question arises—whether one is simply doing the same thing that one does, just with other people. It becomes like telling a story. You know how you tell a story, and it seems like an interesting story the first bunch of people you tell it to. But at some point in telling that story, if you’ve told it twenty or thirty times, it feels a little… you feel disconnected from the story. I would think that that would happen as well.


BLVR: Let’s talk about some of the specific things that you think would change under conditions of immortality. Maybe we could start with the La Guardia story. A couple of years ago, you’re on a plane into New York, and you and your fellow passengers think you’re going to hit the Empire State Building because your pilot has to adopt an evasive maneuver to avoid another plane.

You wrote that this moment put you in touch with an appreciation of your own mortality. You said, “If I were immortal, I would neither have had a chance to reflect on my life nor known what it meant to have lived this particular life.” Why can’t immortal beings reflect meaningfully on the lives they’ve lived?

TM: It seems to me that if we are thinking of reflecting meaningfully, in terms of coming to an understanding of where one has been and why one has traveled the path that one has traveled, surely an immortal being can do that. But part of the motivation for reflecting on this for us as mortal creatures is that we only have a certain amount of time and we want to make the most that we can of that time. So, our reflection becomes orienting for our lives in a way it would never be for an immortal being. If you’re immortal you can always reorient your life, because there’s always time for that.

What gets lost is not the ability simply to think of one’s life path. All you need for that, I suppose, is memory and language. But thinking about one’s path, thinking about the trajectory one has taken, in light of the fact that that trajectory is a limited one and therefore it matters what that trajectory has looked like and what it’s going to look like…

BLVR: But even here in this life, which we know at best is going to be 70, 80, 100 years long, people reflect on their own lives with very different degrees of urgency or seriousness. And I’m wondering whether that might not be true or extendable out into immortality as well, or at least into the very distant future.

We’re also homing in on something that you worry a lot about, which is boredom. There are people in this life who get bored before they die. And there are others who go on brimming with life until the very end.

Might the same not be true under conditions of immortality? That some people would tire of things relatively quickly, and other people would have enough vitality or curiosity or inventiveness in them that they would continue engaging with the world and reflecting about the choices they’d made for a long, long time?

TM: Let me take both ends of this. One is the lack of reflection among people who are mortal, and then the question of the vitality of people who might be immortal. Because I think the answers are distinct. On the one side, there are many reasons for mortals not to reflect on their lives and their deaths. One is because it’s frightening to think about. The fact that one’s going to die is unnerving. There are other reasons as well, and I don’t want to say that everybody who doesn’t think about death is avoiding it, but I think that’s an important one.

That, of course, will have no correlation with a person who is immortal. There would be no questions one has to avoid thinking about, because one has neither the urgency on the one hand, nor the fear on the other.

Now, for immortal beings, it’s surely the case that some people will be able to remain vital longer than others. My claim about immortality—and this is the one that I get the most disagreement about, because it’s a matter of competing intuitions that can never be tested—but my intuition is to say that people who think you can sustain that eternally don’t have an accurate grasp of how long that is. And that’s why I’m trying to say, “Look, imagine doing this stuff for a thousand years, or imagine doing it for ten thousand years.”

I don’t know if I used this image in the book, but there’s an image from I think ancient Chinese philosophy that tries to get you to understand how long immortality is. It says, imagine you have a beach with grains of sand—let’s imagine the size of the Sahara—and imagine a bird comes and takes one of the grains of sand and flies off. Ten thousand years later, that bird comes back and takes another grain of sand and flies off—and this happens every ten thousand years. Now, by the time the bird emptied the beach, emptied the entire Sahara, not a millisecond of eternity will have gone by. In other words, you have to realize that immortality lasts a really long time.

BLVR: Which is why you suggest that eventually, we’ll get tired of meeting new people. The earth is a limited place, and ultimately we’ll have seen everything, done everything, tried everything.

That all sounds true to me. But the thing that all of that seems to leave aside is our capacity to invent, to create. Might that be the escape hatch? Or is creativity a finite resource?

TM: I don’t want to say that the creativity would give out—I can’t imagine what argument I would bring forward for that. But I think that there’s something on the individual level that’s a limitation, and I think we see it. We see it in our mortal lives, which is that people get raised in certain ways, they become oriented in certain ways, they take on certain life projects, and they change and grow in the course of those life projects. But as things arise in the next generation, or in two generations, the parents and the grandparents feel a bit alienated from it. It feels as though it doesn’t connect as tightly with their lives as the kinds of things that they were brought up with.

Now, I suspect that if, as immortals, we were anything like we are as human beings, the same thing would happen with creativity. We could keep creating, but at some point a world would emerge that’s very distant from the one in which we took our projects up, and it would be hard to feel as passionately engaged with that world.

Now, one might argue that if we were immortal, we wouldn’t have that initial orientation. We might develop differently. And here, I think I want to say two things. One is that that different development itself runs the threat of making life shapeless, in the way that I talked about in the book. But the other thing is to say, if you start imagining us as fundamentally different from who we are, then the question is, are we really talking about us anymore, or are we talking about creatures that share certain things with us but aren’t really us in the most significant ways?

BLVR: Let’s get into some of those specific changes that you think might take place under conditions of immortality. Could true love exist among immortals?

You seem to doubt it—you say that relationships would probably be “shallower.” And my intuition is to say that the intensity that brings lovers together, the passion and the urgency, has something to do with knowing we’re going to die, and that that sort of fervor might not be necessary under conditions of immortality. Is that where you’re going?

TM: Yeah. And I think we can broaden it outside of death here as well, which is that part of loving is the urgency of recognizing that the person that you’re with may not always be there. It may go back to what you were saying earlier, that there’s a solidarity about death that perhaps we share—and share intimately—with someone we love.

If you’re immortal, you can imagine being sad or grieving if a lover leaves you. But if everyone were immortal, then that leaving isn’t necessarily forever. There’s always a chance that you get them back somewhere down the road—you know, in 5, 10, 20,000 years. So I think that the urgency of the moment gets sapped. One of the things that’s crucial to me about love is that it has to be in the moment. Love is not a promissory note. And once you remove some of that urgency, you diminish love.

BLVR: You could potentially recover your love as an immortal, but you could also suffer at the hands of unrequited love for much, much longer. Imagine that you’re with someone and they leave you for your best friend. That’d be a tough reality to face for eternity.

I don’t know if that’s an argument for love exactly, but it does seem to be some sort of argument for the intensity of what we might feel in love relationships—even as immortals.

TM: I’m not sure that that would happen, but mostly because I’m not sure that it happens for most of us now. I mean, a lover leaves us and, sooner or later, most of us recover and go on. So, I don’t think we would project grief that far into the future.

As I talk about these things, one thing that I’m doing is trying to say, imagine ourselves on the basis of the kinds of beings we are now. If the change to immortality would fundamentally change these aspects of us, then of course all bets are off, including whether we can call ourselves the kinds of creatures we are now.


BLVR: In my mind, one of the features that makes us who we are is our ethical impulse, our desire to know out how to live well. You say that under conditions of immortality, “Even justice would be imperiled.  The needs of others would not urge themselves on us in the same way, since their existence would not be threatened by our neglect.”

Obviously it’s true that if we can’t die, we needn’t worry about preventing other people’s deaths. But surely people could still suffer, and I’m wondering whether you think that under conditions of immortality, we would be any less concerned by that.

TM: If I remember Borges’ story The Immortal correctly, there is a point where one of the immortals falls into a ravine or something like that and is left there—

BLVR: For decades.

TM: Yeah, for decades. And they said, “Look, we’ll get him, but surely there’s no rush.”

I’m of two minds about that moment. On the one hand, it seems callous in a way that I don’t think one’s immortality would necessarily bequeath. Because if you see somebody suffering, that’s surely going to be reason to stop, to do something to intervene.

BLVR: Yup.

TM: On the other hand, I could imagine they’re thinking this: Well, we’ll get him out of the ravine, but it’s just going to bring him back into this shapeless life that he’s in now. So, the difference between the suffering in the ravine and the shapelessness of our lives is not so great as to foster an urgency. And I don’t know what I think about that.

In the story, all of the monuments among which the immortals lived were left to erode, because they just didn’t have the meaning that they once had and the immortals said they could always rebuild them back at any time. So, I suspect that was the kind of thought that Borges had in mind when they left the person in the ravine.

BLVR: Are you familiar with Ray Kurzweil, the futurist?

TM: No, I’m not.

BLVR: He’s an inventor, an author, and maybe most famously, a futurist. He’s made lots of predictions over the last couple of decades about the pace of technological acceleration. One of his books is called The Singularity is Near, and I want to read you an extended quote from his website about the book:

“In The Singularity Is Near, [Kurzweil] examines the next step in this inexorable evolutionary process: the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.

“That merging is the essence of the Singularity, an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.”

Regardless of whether Kurzweil’s right about the specifics, it does certainly seem that human beings are more fully integrating with technology with every passing year.

Imagine that he’s right about death becoming a soluble problem. Then imagine that you were offered the choice to adopt or integrate with a technology that would permit you to live forever. Would you do it?

You’ve written, “The fact that we die is the most important fact about us.” If that’s right, then I suppose that being offered this choice immediately changes something about what it is to be a human being.

TM: Let me go wide of your specific question very briefly and then swing back to the question itself.

BLVR: Sure.

TM: I want to doubt the premises of the argument he’s making.


TM: Not that there’s an increasing acceleration of interaction between humans and technology; I think he’s right about that. But what he neglects are the difficulties on the horizon that we’re going to be facing—climate change, in particular. The kinds of environmental changes and limitations that we are facing place increasing pressure upon us in a way that isn’t going to, I think, lead to the kind of more utopian future that some of these futurists predict.

That said, if I were faced with the choice of immortality, it’s unclear what I would do, because to go back to the premise of my book, it’s not just that immortality is bad, but dying is bad as well. Now, if someone said to me, “Well, look, you’ve got a couple of hundred years or immortality,” my intuition would be to say, “I’ll go for the couple hundred more years.” Right?


TM: But if it’s, “You’ve got your standard 84 or 85, or immortality…” Now, I’m 56, so I’m looking at less than thirty on that standard. At that point, immortality becomes a little bit more tempting. But if I’m right about the dilemma, it’s not just that immortality is bad; it’s that both immortality and death are bad—or at least a death in anything like the human scope of years.

BLVR: Let’s talk about dealing with death. You write, “We know in some sense that we’re going to die. We know that our death will be the end of us, and that death is not an accomplishment or a goal, that it is once inevitable and uncertain, and yet we scurry about under this knowledge as though it had nothing to do with us.”

It’s pretty clear that you think that some sort of confrontation or reconciliation with the reality of death is a good thing, and an important thing, for human beings. I’m wondering what you think that confrontation should actually look like, or whether you think it should look like any particular thing.

TM: I suspect that it has to be, in important ways, individualized, that what will be common to these experiences is the thought—not simply as a cognition but as something that rattles your being—that “I’m going to die.” And I think that can happen for different people in different ways, but it seems to me that that’s a thought that has to take hold of you, in one way or another, in order to confront death. And when it does, then one’s right there. In the seminar on death that I taught, there were moments where we were talking about death, and the class would just go quiet, because it was clear it was there in front of us—each of us individually was right there. But there wasn’t really anything to say at that moment, because each of us just had to look.

I would never teach the course again. I was very fortunate to have a great group of students. It’s hands-down the best course I’ll ever teach. But one of two things would happen: either I would get students who weren’t as good and it would just be a disappointment, or I would get students that were as good, and I’m just not sure I want to go through that again.

BLVR: You mentioned staying up nights and thinking about it more than you wanted to…

TM: Yeah.


BLVR: You write about the paradox that “On the one hand it is death that lends our lives urgency and beauty. On the other hand, death threatens the very meaningfulness it delivers.” And here, you’re tapping into a widespread intuition—that the fact of our impermanence somehow threatens the seriousness or the meaningfulness of what takes place during our lives.

I certainly have felt this way. But as a logical matter, it doesn’t make any sense to me why that would be the case—why anything would be less meaningful simply because it doesn’t endure forever. Same with beauty—why would something be less beautiful simply because it wasn’t permanent? It existed for a while, it was meaningful for a while, it was beautiful for a while. Why is it so hard for us to get our heads around that idea?

TM: Well, that’s a great question, and I don’t know if I’ve got an answer to it.

BLVR: Are we just swamped by fear? I mean, is that what is really going on? Not that we actually think that what happened in our lives is less meaningful—just that we’re overwhelmed by fear and that’s how we translate it to ourselves?

TM: That could be. It could be. It could also be that things feel meaningless to us not because the alternative to their ending is their going on forever, but because the alternative is their going on a little bit more. You know what I mean? But then, we come back to the same question—why should it go on a little bit more?

My mentor once told me a story about a plant that is in the garden of some of his relatives in Singapore. The plant blooms for an hour every, I don’t know, four or five years, and it’s a beautiful bloom. And he describes what happens when people gather around the plant. They know when it’s going to happen; I guess it’s kind of like clockwork. And he says they all come and they have cameras, and it’s so urgent for them to capture this thing. And he said that it’s as though they don’t see it, because they’re so busy capturing it, instead of just sitting there and allowing this thing to happen.

BLVR: Right.

TM: But I suspect that that idea of the momentary beauty somehow just isn’t enough and perhaps is connected to that fear that you talked about. There is that sense that for it to be more meaningful, it has to last at least a little longer.

BLVR: Toward the end of the book, you ask, “How do we live from within the perspective of a fragile life?” And you refuse to take the easy way out, which I think in some ways you ascribe to the philosopher Bernard Williams. He wants to say that while it won’t happen to most people, it could be that there’s a perfect moment to die, when all of your passionate engagement with the world has dried up, but before the really horrible stuff about dying begins.

And you point out that it almost never cashes out that way, because our commitments and our projects and our engagements don’t just all stop at once. They overlap and they continue, and so forth.

You also talk about the possibility of “living in the present.” And you say, “The problem with living in the present is that this is to act as though there really is no future.  It is not to treat death as though it is uncertain, but instead as though it is certain: it will come tomorrow.”

TM: One of the things that makes the uncertainty of death so difficult for us is that we could be involved in a project and then, suddenly, it’s cut off. And it’s cut off in the midst of our involvement, so that we don’t have a chance to see it through, to accomplish what we might accomplish. So in the face of death, people might be tempted to turn away from their engagement in these projects. That’s why I say, “But that’s just acting like it’s going to happen and you don’t know it’s going to happen.”

So, the balancing act—it’s difficult to achieve, and in my more lucid moments, I’d admit that I’m not very good at achieving it—is to be able to be in those projects, to project into the uncertain future on the one hand, but not to miss the moments that are there, the living, on the other. So that you are living in the fullness of the moment and projecting at the same time. You’re involved in things that may not reap their particular fruits until sometime in the future, but nevertheless, on the way to that future, you are inhabiting the moments that are there for you as fully as you can. And I think what that does is recognize the uncertainty and fragility of the future, but not close it off, as though we were certain about when death would come. So, to live in the moment and in the future at the same time would seem to me to be the trick.

BLVR: I wonder if the hardest thing about that is knowing when to shift back and forth between those two perspectives and when to try to stay in one deliberately.

Now, we might imagine that that as long as you do a little of each, you’re fine. But it could be that right now, you’re just not constituted to live particularly well, and that it will take some work for you to become the type of person who can attend to the present and the future in the ways that are best for you. And cultivating that practice, that expertise, strikes me as an incredibly hard thing to do, maybe the very work of living.

TM: The ability to do that, I suppose, would be what wisdom consisted in.

BLVR: You hear folks say things like, ‘On your deathbed, you won’t wish you’d spent more time in the office,’ and you take up that sentiment in the final chapter and elaborate on it nicely. You write, “Recognizing the fact of one’s death helps one sift through projects in order to separate out those that contribute in some way to making us who we want to be.” A kind of death filter.

TM: And that, I think, is something that people experience themselves. When I was 17, I was operated on—I had a herniated disc—and the guy in the bed across from me was an older man. And at one point, we noticed that he had numbers tattooed on his forearm. He’d been in Auschwitz. He described his relation to life, and he said, “Look, each day—it’s amazing, because I wasn’t supposed to be here. Every day was a day I wasn’t slotted to see.” And what gave him that attitude was the imminence of his own death. It acted like a filter, to use your word, which I think is a good one. It acted like a filter in a very urgent way for him. And I think this is what you’re talking about.

‘Toast to Saturday Morning, 122212

Here’s to the goofballs and wing-nuts lending any credence to tomorrow being a final day of anything more than the week.  Here’s to the tendency, and differing measures, that most of us are a touch loony with sentimentality this time of year.

Rilke talks of looking above us, of being awed, astounded while witnessing the disintegration of shooting stars, while in the same moment, feeling safe that our lives continue. For everyone, there is danger at every turn and all during every day, yet we need to continue to look up, together.

Falling Stars

Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes–do you recall? And we
did make so many! For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall.

Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

Rainer Maria Rilke

Is God Irish?! A Wee Bit, Maybe.

I enjoyed Mr. McCann’s essay both from the perspective of having been crafted by an Irishman on a topic so dear to most of our hearts…whiskey. In much whiskey there is certainly God. I’ll want to bat McCann’s argument around from the Plantinga angle once I’ve formed things up. There’s lots of stuff here; too much actuality for a coherent argument to hold up much, other than a few proverbial sheets of semantic argument in a windy room of names and movements. It would be nice to have a shot at an answer rather than yet another treatise on how hard rationalizing belief might be.  “Is God Irish?” 

Roger McCann maps the limits of theology.

“Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities.” Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett)

Philosophers, clerics, atheists, and assorted others have attempted to prove the existence or non-existence of God for thousands of years. This articles considers the use of logic for this purpose, centering on two questions ‘Can ‘God’ be defined in a logically coherent way?’ and ‘Is it possible to decide logically whether God exists?’ I do not attempt to answer these questions; rather, I will describe some logical difficulties inherent in attempting to answer them.

Unfortunately, many arguments concerning the existence of God are made with the intent of justifying an already-held opinion. I hope the reader will assess my thoughts without the certainty of a closed mind, and in doing so become (or remain) an exception to Mark Twain’s sarcasm: “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” (Autobiography of Mark Twain).

The Roots of Reason

The application of logic to God has roots in rationalism, a philosophy that sees reason (here a synonym for logic) as a superior source of knowledge to experience. Rationalism was embedded in Western philosophy through the works of Plato (424-348 B.C.E.), René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), among others. Some proponents of rationalism, such as Spinoza and Leibniz, argued that one can deduce all possible knowledge from a suitable set of axioms, analogous to the axioms of geometry. Others, such as Descartes and Kant, argued that both reason and experience are necessary for knowledge.

One prominent rationalist argument for the existence of God, the ontological argument, was first proposed around 1078, and modified by the Italian Benedictine monk, Anselm of Bec (1033-1109). Later the argument was ‘borrowed’ by Descartes. (For more info, see The Proof of God: The Debate That Shaped Modern Belief, Larry Witham, 2008.) While Anselm’s argument has been accepted by some philosophers, it has been rejected by others, including William of Ockham (1287-1347), of ‘Ockham’s razor’ fame, and Kant and Schopenhauer (1788-1860). One common criticism from its detractors was that reason is not applicable to questions about God, or, as we might now say, questions of God’s existence are logically undecidable.

In spite of the wide applicability of reason to everyday problems, rationalism is not the only approach to knowledge, especially in Eastern religions. For example, in Zen Buddhism, the primary purpose of meditating on a koan (a paradoxical question, such as ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’) is to exhaust the rational intellect, thereby leaving the mind open to more intuitive responses. Similarly, for some the question ‘Is God Irish?’ is so absurd that, like a Zen koan, it cannot be answered with rational thinking. Others have no difficulty in answering ‘Is God Irish?’: for those who are overly proud of their Irish heritage, the answer is a definite ‘Yes’ because ‘God is Irish’ is a tautology; for others, the answer is a definite ‘No’. How can God be Irish when He (or She or It) is obviously Jewish, Italian, American, or whatever is the heritage of the responder? The answer is also ‘No’ for those who believe there is no God. For agnostics, who believe it is impossible to know whether there is a God, the question is nonsense. Still others may find the question blasphemous. Whatever your response to this question, I challenge you to prove it logically. No matter how good your proof, there are two major reasons many will not accept its validity: there is ambiguity in the meaning of ‘proof’, and there is no agreed-upon definition of God. For one example of the former problem, some view the rising of the sun as proof that God exists, while others do not. In this article, ‘proof’ will refer to a valid logical (or rationalist) argument, such as those found in mathematical proofs.

Who Is This God Person Anyway?

Arguments both for and against the existence of God have a common inherent defect: there is an implicit assumption of an agreed-upon definition of God, although personal experience indicates that this is far from the case.

Defining God is a secular endeavor. Religions tend not to bother with such formalities. Defining God replaces mystery and holiness with limitations and restrictions. This has been recognized in many civilizations since antiquity. Amun, ‘the hidden one’, became one of the primary gods of ancient Egypt, and the mysterious nature of God in Judaism is evidenced by the Jewish prohibition on pronouncing God’s name, and by God’s enigmatic response to Moses about who He is: “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Islamic tradition has 99 names of Allah, each describing an attribute of Allah. One of these names is ‘The Hidden’ (Al-Batin). The hidden aspect of God in these traditions acknowledges the impossibility of defining God. Not defining God is a widespread tradition that maintains mystery and holiness with the possibly unintended auxiliary benefit of avoiding logical inconsistencies and paradoxes. (The recognition that certain basic religious concepts are indefinable is not restricted to Western religions. For example, the Dao De Ching explicitly states that the Dao (Tao) is both indefinable and unknowable.)

Where there are definitions of God, these often use words attributing qualities that are without limits or are all-encompassing . For example, one definition of God is “A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions.” ( For many people ‘perfect’, ‘omnipotent’, ‘omniscient’, or similar all-inclusive words are part of their concept of God; but this is a source of problems when tackling God logically. Consider Bertrand Russell’s often-heard paradoxical question, ‘Can God make a rock so large that He cannot lift it?’ An answer of either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ contradicts the idea of God’s omnipotence.

This paradox does not relate to the existence of God per se, but only to this particular definition of God. However, I suspect the inclusion of any absolute term, such as omnipotent or omniscient, in the definition of God, inevitably leads to similar paradoxes. If this is true, it is likely that this does not allow a logically-consistent (ie meaningful) definition of God in these terms. It would certainly place this God beyond logical consideration, as Kant and others claimed.

In any system of thought there are concepts, sometimes called ‘primitive notions’, which, like axioms, are formulated perhaps by appealing to intuition or to direct experience. If ‘God’ is a primitive notion, then the concept of God exists by assumption rather than by logical deduction. (The distinction between the concept of God and God per se is important. Accepting the concept of God does not imply the existence of God anymore than acknowledging the concept of Tolkien’s Ents implies the existence of anthropomorphic trees. Unfortunately the distinction is sometimes blurred, as in Anselm’s ontological argument, which in essence says, ‘Since I can conceive of a perfect God, a perfect God exists.’)

For the sake of argument let’s suppose that ‘God’ is a primitive notion. Such an entity is often partially described (but not fully defined) by listing some of its attributes, such as Islam’s 99 names of Allah. Religion is not alone in (partially) defining concepts by listing attributes. Ether and black holes are two such examples in science. The ether is a concept used in nineteenth-century physics that is defined by the attribute of being a medium that allows the propagation of light in space. A black hole is a region of space with the property that nothing, not even light, can escape from it. The non-existence of ether and the existence of black holes are now generally accepted, due to observations and arguments based on the Theory of Relativity. In fact, though there are at least four types of regions with the property that nothing can escape from it. This shows that a list of attributes might allow us to conclude that something does not exist, if there is nothing that has those attributes, but it cannot allow us to conclude that something exists: the best we can conclude is that something satisfies the listed attributes. The thing itself might have to be defined in more detail. Moreover, there may be more than one entity with the same attributes. Having more than one entity satisfy a list of attributes of God would be anathema for many people. This raises the question as to whether there is a list of attributes that implies a unique God, without using a tautology.

Logic & Limitations

However, the inability to define something precisely does not necessarily preclude deciding whether it exists, or even whether it is likely to exist. Consequently, it is reasonable to consider the statement ‘God exists’. This seems to be a straightforward proposition. Isn’t a simple statement, such as ‘God exists’, either true or false? Possibly most people think this is the case. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

In 1931 the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) proved his Incompleteness Theorem, which says that within any rationally-definable logical system, statements exist that are neither provable nor disprovable using the axioms of that system. The Incompleteness Theorem had immediate and profound implications in mathematics, logic, and philosophy. In particular, the Theorem had fatal implications for the school of rationalism that argued that all possible knowledge could be deduced from a basic set of self-evident principles.

Could ‘God exists.’ be one of Gödel’s logically-unprovable statements? The logical undecidability of ‘God exists’ would be compatible with the philosophies that claim God is beyond rational thought. (Gödel’s logical undecidability does not impinge on whether God exits per se, only on whether God’s existence can be determined using logic.) For many there is a compelling reason to want ‘God exists’ to be logically undecidable. Faith is fundamental in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If the existence of God could be logically proved (or disproved), faith would be meaningless.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose ‘God exists’ is unprovable in a given logical system. Then ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’ could be added to that system as an axiom without affecting any existing conclusions. So if evolution is a logical conclusion in a system in which ‘God exists’ is logically unprovable, then evolution is still a logical conclusion if we add ‘God exists’ as an axiom.

There are widely diverse axioms in commonly encountered systems of thought. Science and agnosticism do not include either ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’ as axioms in their logic systems. Abrahamic religions include ‘God exists’ in their systems; atheists include ‘God does not exist’. It is essential to recognize that these differences arise from different axioms and that it is pointless to debate them on any other level. It is possible that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Taoists, Sikhs, Jains, atheists, polytheists, agnostics, and others, all have logically-consistent views of reality based on their concepts of God. In order to determine logically which, if any, of these systems yields reality, we would need a logical system that incorporates all other logical systems so that we could judge the systems against each other. But this is precisely the type of comprehensiveness that leads to the sort of paradox Russell encountered with the definition of God. Consequently, there may be many logical systems containing different axioms related to God, none of which can be shown logically to be ‘more valid’ than the others.

Final Logic

It appears that trying to deal logically with God leads either to a concept that is so absolutist it can be paradoxical or to a statement that is undecidable by logic. This leads to yet another apparent paradox. Assuming God exists, God created humans with logical abilities, but apparently devised logic so that humans could not apply logic to God.

One interpretation of this is that God mocks humans by placing Itself beyond their logical abilities, thereby making ‘satirical’ one of God’s attributes. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created humans in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). This causes me to wonder what group of humans is most satirical, and therefore most like God. The Irish spring to mind, for they have a long satirical tradition that lies at the core of much of their literature, naturally leading us to answer ‘Yes’ to the titular question, ‘Is God Irish?’

Of course, the logic leading to this conclusion is meant to be facetious. Nonetheless, it is as sound as other logic used to assess the existence of God. But it should be noted that the argument cheats – as do many God-related arguments – by referring to a portion of a religious scripture as though it were a logical axiom or logically-justified conclusion, which it is not, of course.

In summary, it is likely that attempting to establish the existence or non-existence of God rationally/logically is a fruitless endeavor, and that either viewpoint is ultimately a matter of faith, of what you decide to believe. This is in accord with the philosophies of Kant and others.

Originally my thoughts on the logical proofs of the existence of God ended here. Then I realized I could use Gödel’s ‘logical undecidability’ to argue that God, which I take to be a primitive concept with an unknowable aspect, is likely to exist. Admittedly my reasoning is highly personal and will be unconvincing to many. Nonetheless, it may give a reason to think to some, and amusement to others:

1.) For over a thousand years attempts have been made to establish the existence or non-existence of God logically. None have been successful. I conclude that ‘God exists’ is more likely to be logically undecidable than logically decidable.

2.) If God does not exist, I know of no reason why ‘God exists’ is more likely to be logically undecidable than logically decidable.

3.) However, if God does exist, then the ‘unknowable’ aspect of God would make ‘God exists’ more likely to be logically undecidable than logically decidable.

4.) So because ‘God exists’ is likely to be logically undecidable, I conclude that God is more likely to exist than to not exist.

Unfortunately this argument also applies equally well to any other primitive concept with an unknowable aspect – so if two of these primitive concepts are differing concepts of God, we must conclude that more than one God is likely to exist! This is especially troubling if both concepts include the idea of there being only one God. So what started as an argument for the likely existence of God has led to heresy for the Abrahamic religions, or perhaps a paradox. Once again logic has failed to yield a tenable conclusion about God – which is precisely what Kant and others argued would always happen.

The British physiologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) made what may be the most perceptive general observation ever made about the Universe: “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (Possible Worlds and Other Papers, p.286, 1927.) I have a similar suspicion about the existence of God: The existence of God is not only more unknowable than we suppose, but more unknowable than we can suppose.

________See what I mean?! Excuse me while I go find my hat. 

WT#? If it takes this, I’ll stay put on this ovoid, thanks.

Small Town Among the Stars
by Paul Gilster on September 4, 2012

As we’ve had increasing reason to speculate, travel to the stars may not involve biological life forms but robotics and artificial intelligence. David Brin’s new novel Existence (Tor, 2012) cartwheels through many an interstellar travel scenario — including a biological option involving building the colonists upon arrival out of preserved genetic materials — but the real fascination is in a post-biological solution. I don’t want to give anything away in this superb novel because you’re going to want to read it yourself, but suffice it to say that uploading a consciousness to an extremely small spacecraft is one very viable possibility.

So imagine a crystalline ovoid just a few feet long in which an intelligence can survive, uploaded from the original and, as far as it perceives, a continuation of that original consciousness. One of the ingenious things about this kind of spacecraft in Brin’s novel is that its occupants can make themselves large enough to observe and interact with the outside universe through the walls of their vessel, or small enough for quantum effects to take place, lending the enterprise an air of magic as they ‘conjure’ up habitats of choice and create scientific instruments on the fly. You may recall that Robert Freitas envisioned uploaded consciousness as a solution to the propulsion problem, with a large crew embedded in something the size of a sewing needle.
Brin’s interstellar solutions, of which there are many in this book, all involve a strict adherence to the strictures of Einstein, and anyone who has plumbed the possibilities of lightsails, fusion engines and antimatter will find much to enjoy here, with nary a warp-drive in sight. The big Fermi question looms over everything as we’re forced to consider how it might be answered, with first one and then many solutions being discarded as extraterrestrials are finally contacted, their presence evidently constant through much of the history of the Solar System. Brin’s between-chapter discussions will remind Centauri Dreams readers of many of the conversations we’ve had here on SETI and the repercussions of contact.

Into the Crystal

At the same time that I was finishing up Existence, I happened to be paging through the proceedings of NASA’s 1997 Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Workshop, which was held in Cleveland. I had read Frank Tipler’s paper “Ultrarelativistic Rockets and the Ultimate Fate of the Universe” so long ago that I had forgotten a key premise that relates directly to Brin’s book. Tipler makes the case that interstellar flight will take place with payloads weighing less than a single kilogram because only ‘virtual’ humans will ever be sent on such a journey.

Thinking of Brin’s ideas, I read the paper again with interest:

Recall that nanotechnology allows us to code one bit per atom in the 100 gram payload, so the memory of the payload would [be] sufficient to hold the simulations of as many as 104 individual human equivalent personalities at 1020 bits per personality. This is the population of a fair sized town, as large as the population of ‘space arks’ that have been proposed in the past for interstellar colonization. Sending simulations — virtual human equivalent personalities — rather than real world people has another advantage besides reducing the mass ratio of the spacecraft: one can obtain the effect of relativistic time dilation without the necessity of high γ by simply slowing down the rate at which the spacecraft computer runs the simulation of the 104 human equivalent personalities on board.

Carl Sagan explored the possibilities of time dilation through relativistic ramjets, noting that fast enough flight allowed a human crew to survive a journey all the way to the galactic core within a single lifetime (with tens of thousands of years passing on the Earth left behind). Tipler’s uploaded beings simply slow the clock speed at will to adjust their perceived time, making arbitrarily long journeys possible with the same ‘crew.’ The same applies to problems like acceleration, where experienced acceleration could be adjusted to simulate 1 gravity or less, even if the spacecraft were accelerating in a way that would pulverize a biological crew.

Tipler is insistent about the virtues of this kind of travel:

Since there is no difference between an emulation and the machine emulated, I predict that no real human will ever traverse interstellar space. Humans will eventually go to the stars, but they will go as emulations; they will go as virtual machines, not as real machines.

Multiplicity and Enigma

Brin’s universe is a good deal less doctrinaire. He’s reluctant to assume a single outcome to questions like these, and indeed the beauty of Existence is the fact that the novel explores many different solutions to interstellar flight, including the dreaded ‘berserker’ concept in which intelligent machines roam widely, seeking to destroy biological life-forms wherever found. We tend to think in terms of a single ‘contact’ with extraterrestrial civilization, probably through a SETI signal of some kind, but Brin dishes up a cluster of scenarios, each of which raises as many questions as the last and demands a wildly creative human response.

Thus Brin’s character Tor Povlov, a journalist terribly wounded by fire who creates a new life for herself online. Here she’s pondering what had once been known as the ‘Great Silence’:

Like some kind of billion-year plant, it seems that each living world develops a flower — a civilization that makes seeds to spew across the universe, before the flower dies. The seeds might be called ‘self-replicating space probes that use local resources to make more copies of themselves’ — though not as John Von Neumann pictured such things. Not even close.

In those crystal space-viruses, Von Neumann’s logic has been twisted by nature. We dwell in a universe that’s both filled with ‘messages’ and a deathly stillness.

Or so it seemed.

Only then, on a desperate mission to the asteroids, we found evidence that the truth is… complicated.

Complicated indeed. Read the book to find out more. Along the way you’ll encounter our old friend Claudio Maccone and his notions of exploiting the Sun’s gravitational lens, as well as Christopher Rose and Gregory Wright, who made the case for sending not messages but artifacts (‘messages in a bottle’) to make contact with other civilizations. It’s hard to think of a SETI or Fermi concept that’s not fodder for Brin’s novel, which in my view is a tour de force, the best of his many books. As for me, the notion of an infinitely adjustable existence aboard a tiny starship, one in which intelligence creates its own habitats on the fly and surmounts time and distance by adjusting the simulation, continues to haunt my thoughts.

Summer Evenings Aboard the Starship

For some reason Ray Bradbury keeps coming back to me. Imagine traveling to the stars while living in Green Town, Illinois, the site of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. If Clarke was right that a sufficiently advanced technology would be perceived as magic, then this is surely an example, as one of Brin’s characters muses while confronting a different kind of futuristic virtual reality:

Wizards in the past were charlatans. All of them. We spent centuries fighting superstition, applying science, democracy, and reason, coming to terms with objective reality… and subjectivity gets to win after all! Mystics and fantasy fans only had their arrow of time turned around. Now is the era when charms and mojo-incantations work, wielding servant devices hidden in the walls…

As if responding to Ika’s shouted spell, the hallway seemed to dim around Gerald. The gentle curve of the gravity wheel transformed into a hilly slope, as smooth metal assumed the textures of rough-hewn stone. Plastiform doorways seemed more like recessed hollows in the trunks of giant trees.

Splendid stuff, with a vivid cast of characters and an unexpected twist of humor. Are technological civilizations invariably doomed? If we make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, how will we know if its emissaries are telling the truth? And why would they not? Is the human race evolutionarily changing into something that can survive? My copy of Existence (I read it on a Kindle) is full of underlinings and bookmarks, and my suspicion is that we’ll be returning to many of its ideas here in the near future.


Hobbist Minds Save us All


…they just keep on publishing. Adrian Wooldridge explores the unstoppable legacies of Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

“AND DEATH SHALL have no dominion,” Dylan Thomas wrote in one of his better poems. It has certainly had little sway over the careers of two of Oxford’s finest minds. Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher, died in 1997, aged 88; Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, died in 2003, aged 89. But in death both men have been more prolific than when they were alive.

Berlin has published four new books on the history of ideas, “The Roots of Romanticism”, “Three Critics of the Enlightenment”, “Freedom and its Betrayal” and “Political Ideas in the Romantic Age”. He has also produced a study of Soviet Communism, “The Soviet Mind”, and two thick volumes of letters, with two more still to come. Several of his classic essays have been republished, some in expanded form, and there is still more unpublished material in the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library (

Trevor-Roper has produced a magnificent monograph on a Renaissance doctor, “Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore De Mayerne”. “Great history books are few and far between,” the Times Literary Supplement wrote. “This is one.” He has also published a delightfully subversive book on Scottish nationalism, “The Invention of Scotland”; a formidable collection of essays, “History and the Enlightenment”; a volume of letters to the art historian Bernard Berenson; and his wartime journals. And there is more to come: a volume on Britain’s Secret Intelligence Services during the war (which will include his short book on Kim Philby), a volume on Nazi Germany, and, if all goes well, a collection of letters to such luminaries as Noel Annan, the leading historian of the British intelligentsia, and Alan Clark, the gloriously badly behaved Tory politician.

We owe this windfall to wonderful work by the two men’s friends and pupils—notably Henry Hardy, Berlin’s indefatigable amanuensis, and Blair Worden, Trevor-Roper’s literary executor. But the windfall raises deeper questions. Why do Berlin and Trevor-Roper command eager audiences among people who never met them? Why did they leave so much of their best work unpublished? And what does the cult of these antique figures—one born in 1909, the other in 1914—tell us about the relative merits of the academic world that they adorned and the one we have inherited? For it is hard to think of any modern academics who will command such attention after their deaths—or leave such a treasure trove behind them.

TREVOR-ROPER AND BERLIN were not bosom buddies. Berlin spent much of his career at All Souls, Oxford’s most gilded cage, where I had the privilege of getting to know him as a young prize fellow; Trevor-Roper loathed All Souls because it had (foolishly) rejected him for a prize fellowship, the only snub in an otherwise pluperfect undergraduate career. They had very different temperaments. Berlin was a people-pleaser. Trevor-Roper could be aloof—“a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked” in Maurice Bowra’s phrase. This was unkind: he could be generous to the oddest of people and, like any good Christ Church man, he delighted in the sound of broken glass. Richard Davenport-Hines gets closer to the bone when he describes him as “a gregarious introvert”.

Berlin was one of the great talkers of his age. As a young man in the 1930s he often started a conversation with J.L. Austin, his fellow philosopher, over breakfast in All Souls and continued until lunch. Trevor-Roper preferred the solitude of the study and the discipline of the pen (“the beauty of conversation”, he confided to his journals, “consists of the mute, attentive faces of one’s fellow talkers”). Still they were on friendly terms, belonged to the same charmed world of Oxford colleges, country houses and smart London salons, wrote for the same periodicals, supped with the same BBC producers, and shared a passion for poking fun at pedants, bores and second-raters.

Both men lived remarkable lives: remarkable enough to justify a pair of biographies, Michael Ignatieff’s “Isaiah Berlin: a Life” (1999) and Adam Sisman’s “Hugh Trevor-Roper” (2010; American title “An Honourable Englishman”). Berlin was brought up in Riga, in Russian-controlled Latvia, and St Petersburg, or Petrograd as it then was, witnessing both the Social Democratic and the Bolshevik revolutions before fleeing the latter’s horrific consequences. He worked at the British Embassy in Washington during the war, in charge of monitoring the changing political winds in Britain’s most important ally, and at the embassy in Moscow immediately thereafter, meeting Anna Akhmatova (who wrote a poem about him) and Boris Pasternak (who gave him a copy of “Doctor Zhivago” to smuggle out of the country).

Trevor-Roper worked for the Secret Intelligence Service in the war. He teamed up with a group of brilliant Oxford friends, including the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Stuart Hampshire, succeeded in cracking the radio codes of Hitler’s secret service, the Abwehr, and, much to the fury of the old guard, rose up the ranks, ending up as a major. A three-bottle lunch with Dick White, the head of British intelligence in Berlin, led to one of his greatest works. The Soviets had circulated the rumour that Hitler had escaped from his bunker and was living in the West. White suggested that Trevor-Roper use his forensic skills to prove beyond doubt that Hitler had died in his bunker. The resulting book, “The Last Days of Hitler”, turned Trevor-Roper into a celebrity and kept him in funds. “An infinite, endless, golden shower of American dollars flows ceaselessly into my pockets,” he wrote at the time.

Both men were at the heart of the British establishment. Berlin’s honours included a knighthood, the order of merit (limited to 24 people at a time), and the presidency of the British Academy; he was a director of the Royal Opera and a trustee of the National Gallery. Trevor-Roper was the regius professor of modern history at Oxford and, thanks to Margaret Thatcher, sat in the House of Lords as Lord Dacre of Glanton, thereby gaining a second unwieldy name. He spent an unhappy period as master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, fighting a nest of Tory reactionaries who offended his Whiggish commitment to ordered progress.

Both men embodied a certain idea of Englishness. Trevor-Roper married the daughter of Field Marshal Haig, the British commander in the first world war. He drove a Bentley, hunted to hounds and spent the advance of his first book, “Archbishop Laud”, on a horse called Rubberneck. Berlin loved England—“the best country in the world”, he was fond of saying—and would have relished William Waldegrave’s description of him, at his memorial service, as the perfect embodiment of the English gentleman. Yet neither man was an establishment clone.

Berlin saw himself as a Russian and a Jew as well as an Englishman. Trevor-Roper had no time for the Anglocentric navel-gazing of his Oxford colleagues: he revolutionised the debate about the English civil war simply by pointing out that it was part of a wider European convulsion. He was a mischief-maker in conservative dress. Charterhouse, his public school, was a thought-free zone, he claimed. The intelligence services were dominated by dullards—he described one of his superiors as a “purblind, disastrous megalomaniac” and another as a “farting exhibitionist”. (He made an exception for Philby, who later turned out to be a Soviet agent.) He declared that K.B. McFarlane, a revered Oxford medievalist who populated the Oxford history faculty with his acolytes, was “only capable of producing turds the shape of his own arsehole”.

Both men specialised in mixing history and philosophy. Berlin abandoned the analytic philosophy of 1930s Oxford for the history of ideas. He wanted to explore the great issues at the heart of political theory by interrogating the great thinkers rather than play games with words. Trevor-Roper believed, like the 18th-century historians who were his models, that “history is philosophy teaching by example”. He argued that historians should study problems that illuminated the human condition, such as the relationship between religion and social change or the state and the society that supported it. And he believed that historians can make a unique contribution to studying these problems by escaping the tyranny of time and place: he viewed Nazi Germany through the eyes of Tacitus, and McCarthyite America through the eyes of Erasmus.

THIS MIX OF worldliness and unworldliness—familiarity with affairs of state coupled with philosophical detachment—holds the key to the continued appeal of both men. They chose to address big subjects rather than solve academic crossword puzzles. They wrote for the educated public, not just cloistered scholars. Berlin produced a stream of essays on great political thinkers ranging from German nationalists to Russian novelists. Trevor-Roper roamed across the centuries: though his first love was the 17th century, he also wrote about Hitler’s Germany, the rise of medieval Europe, and, in one of his liveliest books, an Edwardian fantasist, forger and sex maniac, Sir Edmund Backhouse.

Trevor-Roper’s essays, not least those in one of his posthumous books, “History and the Enlightenment”, are models of their kind, glittering on the surface but built on granite. “When I read one of [his] essays,” wrote A.J.P. Taylor, no mean stylist himself, “tears of envy stand in my eyes.” He forced generations of undergraduates to read Gibbon and Macaulay, on the grounds that trainee historians need to learn to write before anything else. As one of them, I resented the exercise at the time—we were examined on Gibbon and Macaulay, together with Bede and de Tocqueville, just eight weeks after arriving at Oxford—but I now regard it as one of the glories of my education.

“There is nothing so exhilarating as a good battle,” he once declared, and he spent his life in armour. He lit up British intellectual life with merciless assaults on Arnold Toynbee, R.H. Tawney, Lawrence Stone and Evelyn Waugh. And even now that these controversies are long forgotten, it is a wicked pleasure to dig up his essays and watch the destruction. How can anybody have been quite so cruel? (His “liquidation” of Stone, a former pupil, has rightly been described as “one of the most vitriolic attacks ever made by one historian on another”.) And yet how can anyone express their cruelty in such perfectly turned prose?

Berlin was not as good a writer. He never used one word where he could use two, as Noel Annan, a friend, put it. He preferred to dictate than to write—the Dictaphone revolutionised his productivity—and this yielded great gusts of prose rather than crafted sentences. Yet to read him is to get an adrenalin rush. He not only reconstructs the mental worlds of thinkers as various as Marx and Herder: he tells us why they were so compelling. He breathed life back into the tiredest old debates and put fizz into the stodgiest German philosopher.

The more Berlin and Trevor-Roper wrote for the educated public, the more they became academic characters, and the more they became academic characters the more they endeared themselves to the wider world. The New York Review of Books gave both men as much space as they wanted, turning them into superstars in America. The Spectator published a series of Trevor-Roper’s articles abut the revolting students of the late 1960s, written anonymously in faux Jacobean prose and later collected together into a book, “Mercurius Oxoniensis”, which remains the most palatable account of that depressing period. This public visibility turned them into heroes and role models for generations of sixth-formers who might otherwise have concluded that history was nothing more than a list of dates and philosophy was nothing more than a polite name for intellectual masturbation.

The secret ingredient in the cocktail was the British public. The Britain that produced these two men was infatuated with intellectuals. Or at least with intellectuals of a certain kind—worldly men who knew how power worked rather than the irresponsible fantasists of Paris’s left bank. The BBC broadcast hour-long lectures by eminent sages. Penguin produced specials on the great controversies of the day. The Spectator and the New Statesman ran learned reviews. Even the internal workings of Oxbridge were the subject of widespread fascination, as C.P. Snow demonstrated with his novel about the struggle over the reins of a Cambridge college, “The Masters”. London dinner parties discussed the antics of Oxford characters such as John Sparrow, the warden (master) of All Souls, and A.L. Rowse, Trevor-Roper’s fellow historian.

Which brings us to another reason for the revival of Berlin and Trevor-Roper’s reputations—their talent for portraying their gilded worlds in a ceaseless flow of letters. These are inevitably a mixed bag. They include a lot of Oxford tittle-tattle that nobody but an academic trainspotter could care about today. Trevor-Roper’s grand style sometimes feels overwrought when applied to off-the-cuff communication. Taken as a whole, however, they provide a fascinating picture of an age that has now long gone: an age when everybody seemed to know everybody, when academic intrigues were discussed as if they were affairs of state, when academics were friends of duchesses, prime ministers, judges, spymasters and double agents.

Both men paid a price for being so much in the swim of things. Trevor-Roper’s reputation was disfigured by his decision to authenticate the “Hitler diaries” in 1983. Here he finally encountered the thorns that lay hidden among the fruits that he had been picking all his life—his refusal to specialise in a particular period and his weakness for Fleet Street. He had padded his income and fed his wife’s addiction to country-house living by accepting every fat commission that came his way. He had also become a director of Times Newspapers. But nothing had prepared him for the high-wire world of huge scoops. When he belatedly tried to retract his authentication, Rupert Murdoch is reputed to have said: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.” Poor Trevor-Roper was not as worldly as he thought: he dined with the devil but failed to pack a long enough spoon.

Berlin never played with explosives in the same way; he was a consummate academic politician who went out of his way to befriend the powerful and charm potential opponents. Yet his posthumous letters contain a number of ticking time-bombs. They show that this supreme intellectual could also be snobbish and snide. He relished the noxious gossip of academic life. He wrote unctuous protestations of friendship to A.L. Rowse and then sent letters belittling him to other people. “On Forster as bore, 104”, reads one entry in the index. “Hates Connolly”, reads another.

These may be ordinary vices. But they still have the power to shock coming from someone who is the closest thing that Britain has produced to an academic saint, and they have opened him up to a lot of criticism. David Herman wondered how such an impressive man could also be so “two-faced” and “self-absorbed”. For Clive James the letters beg for “belittlement”. For A.N. Wilson they are the products of “malicious, snobbish, boastful, cowardly, pompous logorrhoea”.

IT IS HARD to gaze on the mounting pile of books by Berlin and Trevor-Roper without worrying that they tell us something about the state of modern academia. The world employs more academics than ever before. Most of these academics believe that they are engaged in a progressive project, producing fresh research, advancing the frontiers of know-ledge and putting their predecessors, ever so gently, in their places. And yet many of us prefer to read the work of a couple of dead Oxonians whose minds were formed in the 1930s.

The modern university is governed by an ever-proliferating thicket of rules, some of them invented by the professors themselves, to regulate admission to the guild, some of them imposed by a suspicious public. Aspiring academics must get a licence to operate in the form of a PhD (which can take up to a decade) and then publish in the right specialist journals. They must doff their caps to the lords of their particular universes and genuflect before the latest modish theorems. Academic bureaucrats tell them how to deliver their lectures and interact with their pupils. Yet other bureaucrats, some of them based in universities and others in government, assess their “productivity” and award money or promotions accordingly.

Berlin and Trevor-Roper managed to escape these stifling rules. Berlin wrote a popular book on Marx (in the Home University library, of all tenure-destroying places) rather than bothering with a PhD. A striking proportion of his work appeared in out-of-the-way publications rather than learned journals. Trevor-Roper dispensed with even more academic formalities. He savaged the most revered figure in his field, R.H. Tawney, with the flourish that his work was not only incompatible with the truth but positively repugnant to it. He was an erratic, not to say self-indulgent tutor—sometimes relaxing his academic standards for the sons of dukes, or taking against over-ambitious protégés, as he did with Lawrence Stone, but also sweating blood for obscure young scholars.

This freedom from petty rules meant that Berlin and Trevor-Roper could devote themselves to cultivating the life of the mind rather than tilling a narrow field. They could study whatever caught their interest, whether it be the life of a sex-crazed sinologist or Tolstoy’s political philosophy. They could publish when they felt like it, holding back whatever did not pass the twin tests of rigour and readability, rather than dancing to the tune of state funding. Berlin left his lectures to gather dust in his attic. Trevor-Roper left ten books unfinished, including 200,000 words of a planned history of the English civil war, which he laboured over for years in the hope that it would seal his reputation as a great historian, but which he ultimately abandoned in frustration: a believer in the importance of both contingency and profound social forces, he wanted to meld narrative with structural analysis, but could never get the balance right.

They were free to deal with their research pupils on their own terms rather than having to tick bureaucratic boxes. Those terms were generous. For all their celebrity, both men devoted great energy to their pupils. They did not do this to create a school of methodological disciples like Sir Lewis Namier in history or J.L. Austin in philosophy: they were both broad-minded when it came to method. Nor was it because they wanted academic empires. They both lived in a bigger world than academia. They did so because they saw teaching as an integral part of the life of the mind.

Both men became catalysts of excellence. A number of Berlin’s pupils have taken up his challenge of communicating ideas to the educated public: John Gray is one of the world’s most prolific philosopher-journalists and has also written a book on Berlin. And a number of Trevor-Roper’s have taken his contempt for parochialism to heart: Michael Howard, his successor as regius professor at Oxford and one of his first pupils after the war, says that his example inspired him to tackle big subjects. “He was a man of such range, such knowledge, of so many cultures, so many languages, with so holistic an approach to history, that I knew that if I was going to be any good as a historian I had to start from a pretty broad basis.” Trevor-Roper’s friends and pupils still have an annual dinner in his honour, at which much wine is taken. Berlin’s pupils break into imitations of him at the slightest provocation—the late Jerry Cohen, his successor at All Souls, enlivened his valedictory lecture with a burst of Berlin explaining the influence of the altogether neglected Samuel von Pooped on the totally forgotten Herman von Supine.

Blair Worden was supervised by Trevor-Roper for one term when his regular supervisor was away. But that term proved to be life-changing. When he moved to Cambridge to take up a fellowship, he was surprised to receive lengthy letters from his temporary supervisor: letters that combined gentle guidance with the most scandalous gossip. All these years later, Worden still recalls how the sight of the master’s handwriting on the envelope would lift his morale.

Henry Hardy was never even a formal pupil of Berlin’s, but got to know him as a philosophy student at Wolfson, the Oxford graduate college that Berlin founded and presided over. In 1974 he approached Berlin with the idea of gathering his scattered writings together. Berlin was reluctant, worrying that they were “sweepings from the cutting-room floor”, but warmed to the idea. Hardy’s work transformed Berlin’s reputation. Before Hardy a question mark had always hung over Berlin’s name: was he anything more than a parlour philosopher? Bowra joked that “like Our Lord and Socrates, he does not publish much”. Michael Oakeshott introduced him to an audience at the London School of Economics as “a Paganini of ideas”, implying he was too showy by half. T.S. Eliot congratulated him on his “torrential eloquence”.

But as Hardy began to publish the collected essays, starting with the great “Russian Thinkers” in 1977, the question mark gave way to a series of explanation points. Each volume received ecstatic reviews. Berlin opened up still more: in 1988 he asked Hardy to be one of his literary executors and allowed him to scour his attic and cellar. Hardy was overwhelmed by the quantity of what he found. “It was clear straight away that there were a lot of more-or-less finished pieces of writing, most of them probably prepared as lectures. But Berlin never actively sought to publish his own work.” Hardy has now acted as midwife for 16 volumes of Berlin.

The twin cults of Berlin and Trevor-Roper show no sign of fading. They continue to produce new books and fresh insights. They remind us of a world in which academics could be intellectuals and also wonderful writers, and of a time when, as Matthew Arnold put it in “The Scholar Gypsy”, “wits were fresh and clear,/and life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames”.

Adrian Wooldridge is the management editor and Schumpeter columnist of The Economist