Learning History, The Right Way

The typical history class goes like this: “The Peloponnesian War was fought by the Delian league, led by Athens, against the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, during the years spanning 341 to 404 BC. The Delian League leveraged the sea might of Athens, while the Spartans assaulted primarily by land. Ultimately the war was won by the Peloponnesian League, marking the end of so-called Athenian empire.”

Boring.

It’s All About People

Real history is about people, not bland facts. A 50,000 foot view of the American Civil War is grossly inadequate for understanding the politics and sentiments that led to the opening shot on Fort Sumter. A much better understanding of the Civil War will come through reading autobiographies of the prominent figures of the time, such as President Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, or General Robert E. Lee.

“History is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity.”

Dr. Dexter Perkins

When we read about the people of history rather than merely the things that happened, we gain a greater emotional connection to the events. Reading history this way allows us to vicariously survey the world as it really was, making it easier to ignore the anachronisms of our modern minds. “Hindsight is 20-20” demonstrates the attitudes of modern readers well, as we tend to look back at historical events with comments like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have done that. If I were him, I would’ve made a better choice.” It’s this superiority complex that the now famous Dr. Jordan B. Peterson alludes to when he reminds his audience to consider that they could’ve been the oppressors rather than the victims in the Holocaust or Communist revolution much easier than they might imagine.

Another benefit of reading history through people rather than through passing lectures on the highlights of a certain era is a better grasp of the timescale upon which the big events really happened. When we think back on history, even within our own life, the sense of time becomes condensed. In my own experience, when reading about Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C., I tend to frame his expansion eastward as not so far from the birth of Jesus Christ. In reality, more time existed between Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ than the between this writing and the founding of the United States of America. Furthermore, my knowledge of all the things that have happened over the U.S.’s nearly 250 year history is a good reminder of how many significant events likely happened between the times of Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ.

What is more surprising is the realization that more time passed between the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza and Socrates than has passed between Socrates and us (by about 80 years). Reading about the people of history helps us to slow down in the telling of history and better understand the passing of time between and during major historical events.

His-Story

The word history comes from the Latin historia, meaning a “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” [1]. Any telling of history is thus a telling of a story. Stories hold an important place in most cultures throughout history; consider the Norse mythologies, Biblical parables, campfire ghost stories, or simply the sharing of personal experiences (funny or serious) with coworkers all as prime examples of the prevalence of storytelling in societies old and new.

“History is a mighty drama, enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.”

Thomas Carlyle

Stories have integrated themselves into the very telling of human history because of their memorability. In pre-literate civilizations, stories could be remembered well because they conjured vivid mental imagery, which our brains process effectively due to their integration with our visual system. Information spoken in a more list-like form, or dull narrative form devoid of description and color, is much harder to remember since our brains don’t process information that way as effectively.

Whenever a friend tells you a good true story about themselves, he or she is telling you a part of their history. These interpersonal stories are memorable because they are entertaining and colorful, emphasizing the characters of the story involved, rather than a mere list of events that happened. We can apply the same positive features of these interpersonal stories to the telling of history. The challenge to better history teaching thus consists of 1) finding the illustrative parts of history worth telling, and 2) crafting those notable historical events into compelling yet accurate stories.

Great examples of such historical storytelling include the ancient historians like Herodotus, Plutarch, and Gibbons, or podcasts like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

Cartoons No More

Another negative effect of our education’s primary method of teaching history is something I call the “cartooning” of historical figures. In addition to a condensation of our sense of time the further back in history we look, we also tend to strip historical persons down to a small handful of traits, accusations, praises, and facts. In other words, we illustrate historical figures as cartoons, often with the most prominent traits of that person embellished at the expense of their true complexity. (This same cartooning of people occurs in politics and news as well.)

“History is the transformation of tumultuous conquerors into silent footnotes.”

Paul Eldridge

Since I’m currently reading Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office by Harlow Giles Unger, let’s take the first U.S. president as an example. Our view of George Washington is a heroic, respected war general crossing the Delaware River and later reluctant President of the United States. While the elements of this cartoon view are true, it glosses over the complex character and ailments of President Washington, especially in his later life. In some ways, he was less innocent than he may have let on, as he full well knew the loyalty of virtually all Americans to him before he was nominated as the first president and while he worked to further his version of a new federal government at the Constitutional Convention.

However, the cartoon view also doesn’t portray the true greatness of the man either. Leading up to his inauguration as the first president, he struggled with his personal desire to retire (for the second time) from public life to spend more time with his family and farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Opposing his retirement were virtually all state and local politicians, urging Washington that the very nation itself will fall apart if he does not serve as first president. On top of this, his arthritis and false teeth caused him considerable irritation while eating or speaking in public. Interestingly, the beginning of his presidency was primarily marked by boredom: long strolls, detailed letters to manage his home affairs, and very little “executive” actions. Washington is in many ways responsible for increasing the federal powers beyond those specified in the Constitution due to his desire for a stronger central government and interpretations on vague language in the Constitution.

The point is that our cartoon view of Washington is insufficient in describing who he really was and in capturing the complexity in both his character and the political situation at large. We get a much more accurate and nuanced understanding of history when we study the people first and weave the great historical events into their story.

Lastly, by learning about the people of history, we discover new heroes to emulate, villains to dissect, and interesting people to broaden our ideas about the world. We learn bravery from the brave, honor from the honorable, and wisdom from the wise. We become better by learning from better.

Learning History Through the Classics

For hundreds of years history wasn’t learned through all-in-one textbooks that comprise the heart of history education today, particularly in K-12. While some history textbooks are good in their presentation of history, I can’t say they are ever as engaging as the alternatives. Typical textbooks, though helpful to have on-hand as a quick reference and for learning history through a more scientific approach, give the birds-eye view of history without any of the character or color that makes learning history interesting. The root of the matter is that motivation is the majority of the battle when teaching any subject: if the student doesn’t care, the student won’t learn.

Instead of reading “all inclusive” history textbooks, most the educated in antiquity learned through reading the works of the great historians: Herodotus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Edward Gibbon, among others. Reading the historical “Great Books” is the primary method of learning history in the classical approach to education and provides the added bonus of simultaneous education in language and literature. Many of the great books (which you can out more about here) take the approach I’ve suggested, whereby storytelling and people are emphasized about mere names and dates.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

6 Ways to Break Free from Big Tech

If you’re no fan of “Big Tech”, be it Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and the rest, you can make one small statement with the vote of which applications, websites, and software you choose. Since the major purge of hundreds, if not thousands, of social media accounts over the past few weeks, there’s no doubt widespread political censorship is here, be it about COVID, riots, voting integrity – you name it. Over the past few weeks I and much of my close family have moved our accounts to lesser known, higher security, or anti-censorship platforms for web browsing, email, and social media. Are these perfect solutions? Not by far, but they are a step in the right direction for personal privacy and freedom of speech. Here are six ways to stop using big tech products.

1. Browse for a New Browser

There are a slew of available browsers out there, but two have served me well: Brave and Tor. Brave is a good browser for your average internet surfing as an alternative to Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. Brave is very fast, automatically blocks most ads and trackers, and does not store search information on its servers. Instead, your search data is stored locally on your computer. It’s also got some neat integration with a crypto called BAT, that allows you to support participating content creators directly.

For the greatest anonymity, turn to Tor. Though Tor is a bit slower and clunkier, it hides your IP address by routing your web traffic through various servers around the world, making you virtually untraceable. You can even use Tor to compare various levels of censorship in others countries, based on identical search terms. Tor also comes as a plugin to Brave, though this plugin does not give you the same level of security as the full Tor browser. The biggest issue with Tor I’ve faced is that some sites like YouTube can detect “irregular” web activity from your browser and may believe you are a bot. This can make seeing videos on YouTube difficult sometimes. (It hasn’t been a consistent problem – it may depend where Tor directs your web traffic through.)

2. Search for a New Search Engine

Next on the list is the search engine, one easy to overlook since “Google” became a verb. Using DuckDuckGo for the past few weeks, I haven’t noticed any real difference between it and Google in terms of performance. Furthermore, DuckDuckGo has better search privacy and actively avoids tailoring search results to particular users to avoid a “search bubble”.

3. Switch to Secure, Anonymous Email

The staple of internet business communications – the email – is also one to consider switching. If you’re worried about censorship reaching the world of email, or just want to break away from supporting Google, look into another email provider called ProtonMail. The creators of Swiss-based ProtonMail set out to “build an internet that respects privacy and is secure against cyberattacks.” ProtonMail is one of the most secure email providers, because it offers complete end-to-end encryption, uses open source cryptographic methods, and has almost no access to user data. In fact, if you lose your password to your ProtonMail account, you lose your email! Unlike U.S.-based email providers like Google, ProtonMail is outside U.S. and EU jurisdictions, meaning only a court order from the highest courts of Switzerland can force ProtonMail to release the limited user information they have.

4. Think Beyond the ‘Book with Socials

While not a major fan of any social media platform at the moment, there are a few that still allow free speech. After Parler was shut down by Google, Apple, and its server host because the outgoing president joined the platform, I ditched all the companies that promote this anti-free speech agenda to the best of my ability. A few alternatives for those who wish to preserve freedom of speech include Gab, Minds, and Pocketnet. While Gab is likely the most political (which is obnoxious at times when looking for discussion on wider topics), it is by far the largest among the three and has wisely invested in its own servers.

Pocketnet, in my opinion, is the most interesting of the three, because it relies on blockchain technology for a truly decentralized platform, making censorship nearly impossible. Does zero censorship come at a cost? Of course. There are things I read on Pocketnet that are despicable, but the cure to bad speech is good speech, not silence. On top of that, blocking users that post ridiculous things is a cinch.

5. Watch Videos on YouTube Competitors

Ditching YouTube is by far the most difficult, because no other single video platform boasts the enormous amount of content offered on YouTube. However, the past four years has seen an onslaught of political censorship, with the banning of many high profile voices (for truly mysterious reasons). What alternatives are we left with? Direct competitors with YouTube include the growing platform called Rumble and a lesser known platform called Odysee, created by the open source LBRY. Outside of YouTube competitors, check out the websites of your favorites podcasters and former YouTube stars directly. Most have moved on to offer their videos and audio podcasts on their own websites to avoid censorship and gain greater control of their content. The major downside of the last option has been the loss of YouTube’s monetization scheme through advertisers for many creators, meaning some independent websites must rely on subscriptions to keep their businesses going.

Are you going to be able to avoid YouTube completely? Probably not, unless you have an iron will. However, you can begin the process of turning to alternative video sources whenever possible.

6. Shop Local, Shop Direct

One tough Big Tech company to avoid completely will be Amazon, because turning to alternatives often results in less money in your wallet. However, the internet commerce world is vast, and it existed long before Amazon came around. Often, many of the same sellers on Amazon’s marketplace exist on ebay as well.

Additionally, there’s a website dedicated to the sale of any product out there, so you can buy whatever you need directly from the company specializing in that product. As a big buyer of books, I look to sites dedicated to the sale of used books, like Thriftbooks, instead of Amazon. (Ebay is also good.) There you find great prices, reasonable shipping times, and a good selection.

Last but not least, buy local! Those mom and pop stores down the street need all the support they can get after the COVID lockdowns, which overwhelmingly hurt small businesses while allowing large corporations to capture the remaining market share with the government’s blessings.

Freedom & Anonymity Beyond

These six ways are fairly easy to begin adopting; however, breaking away from Big Tech in other areas will be more difficult. For example, the only viable mobile phone operating systems are Android (Google) and Apple. There are are other indie operating systems in the works, though none appear to have ease of use and widespread availability. In the desktop operating system world, there’s always the open source Linux option to break free from the Microsoft and Apple bubbles. However, Linux, though much more user friendly than before, is still in my opinion slightly more difficult to use, especially when it comes to installing software. While anyone can certainly learn to use a Linux operating system given the vast online guides available, it does have a small learning curve. Nonetheless, the operating system world, especially for mobile phones, presents a great opportunity for disruptive companies.

Since ditching Big Tech in the ways mentioned above, I haven’t looked back. The new search engines, browsers, and email providers I’ve been using are just as good as the products from Google, Apple, and Microsoft. While there’s still a ways to go for video platforms, social media, and a true competitor to Amazon, the knowledge that I’m less dependent on Big Tech in these areas is satisfying. So, what are you waiting for? Make the leap.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

The Origins and Impact of Relativism

I recently had an eye-opening discussion with an undergraduate student that began with the question, “Do you believe there is objective Truth?”. I expected she would take a few moments before giving an answer, but was surprised both with how quickly and how resolutely she answered “No”. Afterward, I asked a friend how anyone could really think this way, but he was not surprised, given the student’s young age of nineteen.

This didn’t quite satisfy me. When I was nineteen, I knew there were objectively discernable truths in this world. (The only objective truth the student would assert is that we cannot know any objective truth, which is self-refuting.) However, there is a subtle difference in how the student responded and the question asked, which I only pieced together afterwards. Her answer indicated that an objective truth does exist, but that we cannot know that truth due to our own subjective experiences.

All experiences are not subjective, of course. If I hold a hot coal to your arm, you’ll feel pain just as anyone with an intact nervous system will.

Where are these ideas of extreme relativism coming from and how widely do they permeate society?

The Origins of Moral Relativism

Relativism is nothing new; it has surfaced in history with varied ferocity, though likely never to the new heights reached in the 21st century. An ancient Indian (Jain) (~500s BC) principle taught by Mahavira purports that truth is pluralistic, relative to one’s point of view. About a hundred years later, the Greek philosopher Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things.” Another Greek contemporary, the historian Herodotus, noted each society’s ethnocentrism, with each society measuring others according to its relative truths (This doesn’t necessarily mean Herodotus was a relativist, however.) Around 200 AD, Sextus Empiricus, a Pyrrhonist philosopher, believed it better to suspend judgement on what is knowable, believing it better to live a life without asking such questions.

Jumping past the “Dark Ages” and the Medieval era, when absolute belief in objective truth likely peaked, Baruch Spinoza (1600s) emerged to question whether anything is inherently good or evil. Another hundred years later, David Hume, himself not proclaiming to be a relativist (questionable), wrote of morality’s lack of an objective basis, believing morality to be a matter of value rather than fact. In the late 1800s, relativism took stage again with Nietzsche purporting that morality is relative to the self, to one’s personal values and goals.

Interestingly, not all academic trajectories have converged on relativism. Evolutionary biology, while often considered an enemy of religion and its teachings, gave birth to the idea that morality is a product of evolution. In other words, objective statements on morality could be derived from what promotes a species or the cooperation among species. Thomas Aquinas and other Church fathers would’ve recognized this as a form of “natural law”, i.e. objective truths derived from the world around us.

Regardless of how it got here, moral relativism may be the defining philosophy of our time, as it often (sadly) trumps even one’s religious affiliation.

Shaking the Foundations of the Western World

Of all the types of relativism, moral relativism may be the most dangerous idea to take hold in the West. Once moral relativism becomes the norm, we lose our societal recognition of good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust, true or false. Fact becomes relative to one’s perspective. Our conversation on what is good and true ceases. As the great G.K. Chesterton wrote, “There is a thought which stops all thought.” That thought is the idea of relativism, and it marks the end of real political, philosophical, and religious discussion. Chesterton goes on to add, “and that is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Though I’ve spent most of my college years in a form of intellectual arrogance whereby my degree is superior to those liberal arts degrees for my subject’s practicality and ability to earn a decent job (which has some merit), I can’t help but soften that view due to the importance of philosophy in culture. The problem is that it takes quite some time for the culture to “catch up” to the academics; thus, it’s hard to foresee when and which philosophies will gain a significant fraction of culture.

In my view (and many others), the “West” began with the Greeks who largely recognized objective truth, formalized through logic and much new mathematics, save for counterexamples like Protagoras. I don’t think the West developed into its full character, however until Christianity merged Jewish morality with the logic of the Greeks. Of course, this is a huge oversimplification that doesn’t really describe the rise of Christianity (or the reason for its existence) in a meaningful way. Instead, this snapshot describes the defining features brought to Christianity by its two biggest influences (Judaism and Greek philosophy).

Nonetheless, Christianity has been the backbone of the West for at least the past 1500 years (since the Christian hold on Europe was not immediate). A core Christian philosophy is absolute truth defined by the contrast between good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. What happens to a civilization that abandons such a cornerstone philosophy?

I would guess, nothing good.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

What Did Socrates Do Wrong?

Socrates, father of western philosophy, was executed by his government, not for murder, assault, or robbery, but because of several non-violent charges brought against him. Here are the three main charges.

1. Teaches Falsehood

One accusation brought against Socrates was that he “is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.”

The phrase “makes the worse appear the better cause” is the first specific accusation, though its interpretation here is not obvious. However, looking at the logic contained within the statement, that which is “the worse” cannot be made to appear “the better” by truthful means; hence, Socrates is teaching falsehoods.

One interesting thing is that this quote implies a negative association with curiosity, particularly in the part “who searches into things under the earth and in heaven.” Reading this isolated phrase brings to mind the search for occult or taboo knowledge, and one has to wonder why this kind of mentality might have prevailed in the case against Socrates. No, I don’t think Socrates dabbled in witchcraft, but perhaps his relentless pursuit of the higher truths was viewed as an unhealthy curiosity at the time. The counter to this idea is that plenty of philosophers concerned with truth-finding preceded Socrates, so he wouldn’t have been the first curious Greek.

2. A Misleader of the Youth

The second accusation against Socrates was that he was a “villainous misleader of youth” because he inspired the youth to mimic his challenging of the presumably wise citizens. This accusation casts Socrates as a disturber of the social order, whereby youth begin questioning their elders. Does the state have a duty to maintain a prescribed social order or beliefs of the youth?

To understand the seriousness of the this accusation, though ridiculous by modern law, we have to visit another work of Plato: Crito. In the work, Socrates says to his old friend Crito in the hypothetical scenario where “The Laws” interrogate him, saying “In the first place did we not bring you into existence?” and “…since you were brought into this world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?”. These quotes highlight the Athenian idea of the relationship between man and the State, or The Law. Everything the Athenian citizen had was by allowance from The Law, including their very existence (through the State’s regulation of marriage, which begets children). Furthermore, the education of Athenians was also credited to the State. Thus, the average Athenian probably would assent to the idea that the State had the duty to protect its progeny (i.e. the youth) from “bad” ideas put in their head by Socrates.

As a side note, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how very different the idea of the relation between man and the State is now compared to ancient Athens, though the Athenian concept still remains in large swaths of politics (unfortunately). In my opinion, the rights of man are not given to an individual by government. Rather, the rights of man are divine or naturally inherent, whereas the rights of government are limited. For example, marriage is not something that should require a “license” since marriage is not merely a product of the government. Rather, we have a divine or natural right to marry, and thus to produce children. In Socrates world, children are a product of the State, and hence owe their entire existence to the State.

3. An Atheist

The third accusation, made by Meletus, against Socrates was that he “does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” Now, Meletus didn’t really believe that Socrates had “new divinities of his own” in the sense of gods different from those of Athens at large; instead, the accusation is that Socrates held other things, like Truth and Justice, in place of gods.

Meletus goes on to say, “I assure you, judges, that he does not: for he says that the sun is stone, and the moon earth”. Socrates’ response to this charge is one of the best parts of Apology:

“Did ever man, Meletus, believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings? … I wish, men of Athens, that he would answer, and not be always trying to get up an interruption. Did ever any man believe in horsemanship, and not in horses? or in flute-playing, and not in flute players? No, my friend; I will answer to you and to the court, as you refuse to answer for yourself. There is no man who ever did. But now please to answer the next question: Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demi-gods?”

Socrates in Plato’s Apology

Socrates argument here is that he clearly believes in the spiritual and the divine; hence, he believes in the gods. Despite this and the other two reasons given above, Socrates was truly killed for another reason.

The Real Reason Socrates Was Killed

Socrates was the “great gadfly” in his own words, to stir up Athens and awaken it when it falls asleep. Our protagonist sees himself as a disturber of the peace for a noble reason – to realign Athens in terms of greater virtue, justice, and wisdom, though he humbly refrains from claiming knowledge of these ideals. Nonetheless, Socrates’ efforts to better Athenian society led to him becoming a pesky, unwelcome “gadfly” in the eyes of the elite. Ultimately, he poked gaping holes in the egos of those who pretended to know true wisdom and paid the price for daring to call out the arrogant.

Socrates is a hero to remember in modern times for his dedication to truth above falsehood, despite the consequences. In our modern era, when Truth itself is an ever controversial matter, we could learn a thing or two from the father of philosophy.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

The Real Reason to be a Prepper

It’s not often I write about particularly time-sensitive topics, but the past several weeks have solidified my resolve to become a “prepper”.

Ok, ok, I’m not making little tin foil hats and stuffing an underground bunker with five years worth of canned beans. I might use the term “prepper” a little more loosely than most, as the term in society carries a big negative charge on it. “Prepping” is an obvious derivative of “to be prepared”, and being prepared is never a bad thing. The real question is, what should we prepare for? The Apocalypse? Nuclear war? Civil war? Food shortages? Maybe.

Impending Financial Pressure

However, the dark cloud I can actually see on the horizon is more mundane – inflation. While less adrenaline-inducing than most prepper reasons, sharp inflation over the next few years is a real, likely threat due to the fact that nearly a quarter of the U.S. money supply has been created (FACT: it’s not even physically printed anymore – just electronically generated) in the past year alone! The inflation means our dollar is going to be worth less in a few years; our salaries will no longer afford the same lifestyle; we will be poorer.

What can we do about it? Besides political means (which we are nowhere close to fixing on either side of the aisle), we can take our financial futures into our hands by two primary methods: 1) earning significantly more money, or 2) spending significantly less. Since getting big raises is probably not likely for most of us, we’re left with the more practical option #2: burning less cash.

Sever the Dependence

My form of “prepping” is not the crazy type you’re thinking of; instead, it is simply reducing our dependence on the dollar, and we can start with baby steps. First, start a garden to begin learning how to grow a few common foods well. You don’t have to master it the first harvest; instead, view this as a learning experience such that, if times get tough, you’re in a better place to transition to mostly home-grown foods. Along with growing your own food, you can also try keeping chickens, goats, or other livestock to obtain fresh eggs, millk, and meat. Hunting is another great way to get fresh meats. The benefits of all these food methods are significant, regardless of economic circumstances: 1) reduced grocery bills, 2) a healthier diet, and 3) a boost in self-confidence.

Other ways to reduce your dependence on the future dollar value include moving toward energy, water, and gas independence – in a nut-shell reduced dependence on utilities. To reduce energy bills, you can turn toward solar or small wind turbines to power small to medium machines, or even go fully energy independent if you have the sunlight and budget. If you can’t make the leap to change how your energy is produced, you can always simply use less energy as well. Sacrifice a few degrees of cooler air in the summer to reduce air conditioning costs (the big energy guzzler during hot months). Instead of cooking on your electric stove, try occasionally cooking food over a campfire in the backyard if you’ve got wood to spare. You get the idea.

Water usage can be reduced by trying rain-catching methods. In most states, you can at least use the water for outdoor uses instead of using city or county water. In the more sensible states, you can drink the water with proper purification. (Isn’t it crazy some places regulate what water you can drink? I’d drink out of the stream in our back woods as a kid – no filter!)

To reduce gas use, try using a wood fireplace or wood stove in lieu of a gas furnance. You can also use wood stoves to cook food on.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of going off-grid, but I’m sure you get the idea here. The more independent we can become, the more insulated we can be from economic collapse. This doesn’t mean we are completely independent from the “grid”, but it does mean our lives becomes a weaker function of the larger economic and political landscape.

Good Either Way

Even if economic collapse through skyrocketing deflation doesn‘t happen, becoming more independent is good in and of itself. As mentioned earlier, it reduces our outgoing cash, increases confidence, and improves our health through exercise (it’s work, after all) and diet. Get growing; get water catchin’; get off the dollar!

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

2021 Resolutions: Read the Great Books

The time is here, where we make promises for the new year only to (on average) forget our resolutions within weeks, if not days. I’m proud to have finally completed a New Year’s resolution: one year of reading ‘The Greats’.

The Past Year

Around December of 2019, I discovered the 1952 Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) set and decided 2020 would be the beginning of a lifelong journey to read the foundational works of the Western world, which had been largely absent from my now decades-long education. This 2020 New Year resolution to re-educate myself came in tandem with the idea to begin ThinkingWest as well. Here I am one year later, still reading and writing.

Over the past year or so, I’ve read well over 20 books spanning Plato to a few modern day political works; some, like Plato’s Apology and Crito, I even read twice to get deeper into the philosophy behind the works. Wisdom has been dwelling in my mind all this year, likely inspired from my initial readings in Plato and the Biblical books on wisdom (e.g. Wisdom, Sirach, etc.).

In my writing, I completed 20+ articles published here, touching on both the works that I’ve been reading as well as other areas I’ve felt compelled to speak out on (e.g. the efficacy of homeschooling).

Altogether, I’ve learned a lot both through my readings and through my contributions to ThinkingWest, and I’m more motivated than ever to continue studying and writing in 2021. I hope my brief reflection of my 2020 New Year resolution success will inspire you to pick up the great books of the world, start a blog like I did, or otherwise complete whatever resolutions rest on your mind.

Habits Win

The best advice to completing your 2021 New Year resolution is to schedule whatever needs to be done first. I read two meager pages of the Bible before beginning my day job every work day, and now I’m halfway through the Bible, on track to finish at the end of 2021. My other readings were scheduled immediately after my kids went to sleep. Some days I read only a few pages; other days I read twenty (these are some very dense pages by the way – one drawback to the GBWW set). The important thing was I read (nearly) every day, such that these resolutions have become a part of my daily habits. Praying before work was a third resolution that has become a daily habit now as well. My best advice is to make your New Years resolution morph into a habit.

My 2021 Resolutions

So, what are my 2021 New Year’s resolutions? Concrete goals are best, of course. My goals for 2021 are 1) add another prayer to my morning prayer routine, 2) continue reading the Bible every work morning and finish it this year, and 3) write 20 or more ThinkingWest articles.

These goals are a bit ambitious, given I have many things going on in 2021, namely the arrival of my third child, the completion of my Ph.D., and a probable relocation for a new job. However, all my resolutions are well defined and connected to my overall goals of growing ThinkingWest, re-educating myself, and improving in personal virtue.

Drop your New Years resolutions in the comments below; I’d love to hear your plans.

Good-bye 2020. Hello 2021!

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

The Name of Christmas

It’s almost Christmas, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Every December of the past few decades has ignited a pop culture contest to reinvent the “meaning of Christmas”. Every modern Christmas movie has repeated the same old reimaginations of Christmas’ meaning: love, kindness, generosity, family, etc. At any time before the 20th century, did the culture ever promote an alternative meaning for Christmas besides the coming of Christ to the world? Even today with the overwhelming secularization of Christmas, I don’t think anyone really believes Christmas is merely a time for showing [insert your virtue of choice].

The very name of Christmas serves as a reminder of its religious nature. The word Christmas is a concatenation of the Old English Cristes mæsse, or Christ Mass, referring to the Mass offered in celebration of Christ’s birth. The name became one word as early as the 14th century.

Christmas

[ˈkrisməs]

NOUN

the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth, held on December 25 in the Western Church.

X-Mas: Sacrilegious, Practical, or Ok?

One day in my youth as Christmas was approaching, one of my brothers chalked “Merry Xmas” on a wall outside our house. Our family was horrified, to say the least, that he had taken “Christ” out of “Christmas”. At worst, it was a sacrilegious act, I thought. At best, it’s merely a practical shorthand.

Only many years later did I learn the significance of the X, when understood as the Greek letter “chi”. For much of Christianity’s history, chi has been used to represent Christ, whose name is Greek reads ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (pronounced “khristós,” meaning “the anointed one”). When used to represent Christ, X is called the Christogram, and it has been used extensively throughout Christianity’s history, especially early on.

For example, a symbol called the labarum, composed the Greek letters chi and rho, was famously used by the first Christian-friendly Roman emperor, Constantine, when he saw the symbol in a vision. Earlier symbols like the staurogram and the IX monogram also represented Christ. As you’ll notice the chi (X) is common to all three of these Christ symbols. Today the chi-rho symbol can be found on many early Christian artifacts (rings, pendants, tombs) and churches, such as on the roof of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

So, the next time you see someone using Xmas, keep in mind they’ve kept Christ in Christmas after all by using the Christogram.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

Sources

christmas | Origin and meaning of christmas by Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)

The Real Reason We Put an X in “Xmas” (rd.com)

The Case for Homeschooling (Part 3): Child Safety

“Homeschooling … not only violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.”

This statement was published as part of a mid-2020 Harvard Magazine article interviewing Elizabeth Bartholett, a Harvard Law professor and now infamous anti-homeschooling movement icon. On all points of that statement, I strongly disagree: homeschooling provides a more meaningful education generally, homeschooled kids are safer, and homeschooled kids are often better citizens. Of these three and perhaps all arguments against homeschooling, the most commonly used argument is that sending kids to school is safer. We hear this in the news, from politicians, blogs, and academics. It’s not true; here’s why.

This article is part three of a series of posts addressing the growing anti-homeschool movement, which advocates for the abolition of homeschooling in the U.S. and abroad. Here, we point out the safety of homeschooling as just one argument for the natural right of families to homeschool their children. Click to jump to the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2.

Sexual Abuse at School

I hear anti-homeschoolers go on and on about how “teachers catch the most cases of child sexual abuse.” This is true, but this is a sleight of hand to distract from the reality that the sexual abuse of children likely occurs at school more frequently. Out of the frying pan and into the fire?

A fair comparison isn’t just judging the number of child abuses cases perpetrated by parents vs. teachers, either. Remember a school is a mini-bureaucracy with administrators, athletic coaches, custodians, and of course other students – all capable of committing the same crimes as anyone else.

As a Catholic, I hear nonstop about the sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, but if you think that’s bad, check out numbers estimated from brick-and-mortar schools. NCR’s Wayne Laugesen reports an estimated 422,000 California public school students would be victims of sexual abuse by the time of graduations. Of course, what constitutes “sexual abuse” is likely to vary from study to study, but imagine only 10% are legitimate. This still leaves us with 42,000 victims from California public schools alone. No study estimates parental child abuse with a rate anywhere near that number.

Think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.

Charol Shakeshaft, Hofstra University via [1] CBS News

Californian news outlets were not nearly as keen to inform the public on this abuse pandemic as readily as abuses within the Catholic Church. In 2002, 61 of the state’s biggest news outlets ran thousands of stories about the latter, compared to only four stories about the federal government’s report of widespread abuse in California’s public schools.

Several academic studies confirm there is widespread abuse within our educational institutions. A 2003 study reported that just under 10% of students (grades 8-11) claim to have experienced some form of sexual misconduct from an educator [2]

However, teachers may be of relatively low concern for the perpetration of sexual misconduct at schools. From the same 2003 study, among all students who reported any kind of sexual misconduct, the vast majority (79%) of offenses came from other students [2].

The American Association of University Women reports even higher rates of abuse; up to 81% of students (85% for girls, 76% for boys) in grades 8 through 11 reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or abuse [3]. An Idaho educator Bithel (1991) estimated 5% of teachers committed such harassment or abuse, ranging from vulgar comments to intercourse [4]. Further studies looking at the ratio of abuse by parents compared to others concludes that 60-70% of child abuse cases are perpetrated by non-family [5].

While I’m a skeptic of the magnitude of some of the reported numbers, the overall consensus is obvious: that sexual abuse in schools is far more pervasive than at home. Another study found that abuse by parent figures constituted between 6% and 16% of all cases, and abuse by any relative made up about a third of cases [6]. Again, we see that intra-familial cases are in the minority despite the suspicion that “…child abuse reporting systems and clinical programs tend to overrepresent intrafamilial cases” [6, emphasis added].

Some will point out the intrinsic likelihood of catching sexual abuse at school is higher than at home to justify the obviously higher sexual abuse at school; but to posit school is safer without lack of supporting evidence is ridiculous. At the least, one would have to admit a lack of sufficient evidence.

Even if we imagine that sexual abuse was just as rampant in the home as compared to school, the real “safety” of schools comes to light when considering all forms of abuse and violence.

Bullies, Gangs, Drugs, and Psychos

The anti-homeschool movements tends to focus on one, small form of violence: sexual abuse, which as I’ve shown ad nauseam, is a rather potent argument in favor of homeschooling. Nonetheless, don’t concede the premise that sexual abuse is the only form of violence infringing on the safety of our children. Sexual abuse is but one of many forms of violence worthy of attention.

I don’t think I have to break out the statistics (I’ll save it for the book…) on bullying to get the point across that bullying is primarily a school problem. Start homeschooling your kid and voila: bullying eliminated. (Side note: If cyber-bullying is a problem for your kids, get them off the internet. Problem solved.)

Then consider further the other plagues on children that could be eliminated by removing them from the epicenters of child-problems. Gangs formed at schools would be eliminated, and already established gangs could no longer use schools as recruitment grounds. General negative influences of peers would be mitigated severely, leading to a more moral and upright youth. The sphere of influence for drugs and other substance abuses would be diminished as drug pushers would no longer have the market offered by brick-and-mortar schools.

Mass school shootings go the way of the dodo bird with homeschooling.

Common sense of the author

If these few points are not enough, consider at last school shootings. Schools concentrate a large number of defenseless kids in a relatively small area. Homeschooling intrinsically eliminates such crowds by keeping each family’s children in their natural habitat: home.

There’s No Place Like Home

None of what I’ve reported above is meant to scare anyone into homeschooling. Rather, my intent is to combat a silly argument put forth by those who hope to ban homeschooling by wielding the club of “safety”. The sum of the facts on child abuse, bullying, drug abuse, gang violence, and school shootings put to rest the utterly false idea that schools are safer than homes.

Homeschooling offers children the safest, most effective learning environment, as is attested by thousands of dedicated parents. Give it a thought, at the least, because your child’s education is worth the consideration.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

This article is part three of a series of posts addressing the growing anti-homeschool movement, which advocates for the abolition of homeschooling in the U.S. and abroad. Here, we point out the safety of homeschooling as just one argument for the natural right of families to homeschool their children. Click to jump to the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2.

Sources

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/has-media-ignored-sex-abuse-in-school/

[2] https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/misconductreview/report.pdf

[3] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1746-1561.1993.tb07153.x

[4] https://search.proquest.com/docview/851310187?pq-origsite=gscholar

Original source: (McGrath, 1994)

[5] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00098651003655936

Original source: (Elliott, Browne, and Kilcoyne, 1995)

[6] https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5LohmJRW2DwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA55&dq=sexual+abuse+of+children&ots=ONwnYKmxRY&sig=xgacoyS8_84itFS4EdSdC8te3Bo#v=onepage&q=sexual%20abuse%20of%20children&f=false page 56 and 57

Original source: (Finkelhor, 1994; Saunders, Kilpatrick, Hanson, Resnick, Walker 1999)

Applying Machiavelli to Life

“It is better to be feared than loved” is by far the most famous quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince, but the short book has much more to offer than a pithy statement voided of its true nuance (for Machiavelli importantly added “…if you cannot be both.” Written in 1513 for the new Florentine ruler, a member of the Medici family, The Prince failed in its attempt to win Niccolo Machiavelli favor from the new government. Nonetheless, this classic political work is the foremost reason Machiavelli’s name has been remembered for centuries past his time. A short yet practical work, The Prince enumerates the principles a successful prince (or any pseudo-absolute ruler) should follow. As there is some symmetry between good principles of political leadership and wisdom in ordinary life, there is something for everyone to learn from Machiavelli.

Be independent

Independence, for Machiavelli, meant using one’s own army as opposed to mercenaries and the armies of allies.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valor which in adversity would defend it.”

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

As Machiavelli pointed out, using mercenaries and the soldiers of allies meant letting armed men with no true obedience to the prince direct the fate of a conflict. Even if mercenaries help win the day, there’s no guarantee men who fight for the highest bidder won’t find a more attractive offer shortly after a victory.

For us average citizens, applying this Machiavellian wisdom means relying on our own resources, trusting those who are truly friends or family, and only outsourcing tasks when absolutely necessary. This means, for example, taking control of your finances, your data (for our over-digitized world), and your responsibilities to your family, e.g. education (parents are children’s primary teachers).

Consider war in times of peace

Machiavelli praised Philopoemen, Prince of the Achaeans, for his constant ruminations on war tactics. The Achaean prince, out with on a walk with friends, would reportedly discuss various battle scenarios, such as “What if an enemy army appeared there on that wooded hill? What would be the best mode of defense or attack for such a situation?”. This is the principle of preparation, and Machiavelli extends it beyond war to other stately affairs.

A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.”

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Though we aren’t likely to command armies anytime soon, self-defense and anticipating natural disasters and the like are preparations everyone should make. Your “battle scenarios” may resemble those found in the movie Home Alone than those of Philopoemen, but such preparation is vital to protecting your home. Buying a firearm and learning to use it is a great first step, as is installing security devices (flood lights, cameras, alarms, etc.). Run through your head the various points of possible entry for a burglar and know how long it would take you to respond (e.g. retrieving and potentially firing a weapon). I’m running through these types of scenarios more often during these turbulent times.

The second area of preparation is in surviving various environment circumstances: food shortages, power outages, and natural disasters. Consider how long you can go without electricity, access to grocery stores, running water, and where you might take shelter during severe storms. Where would you go if your home was completely destroyed? Asking questions like these may help your react more calmly and rationally if some catastrophic event should happen. You may want to further consider a reasonable stockpile of non-perishable food, bottled water, and perhaps a generator.

Act princely

Machiavelli lived among the aristocracy, met foreign leaders and emissaries, and travelled Europe widely all leading to his “insider knowledge” of what makes a good or bad prince. This third advice from Machiavelli is quite different from the previous two in that this point relates to how a Prince should act, at least in the sight of others. The previous two points largely regarded matters opaque to the ruled people, but Machiavelli knew appearances were everything for a prince.

…a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with … five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand…

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Our modern politics validates this last statement a hundred times over, that “men judge generally more the eye than by the hand…”. Politicians make many promises, but few are kept. We also know by personal experience (e.g. interviews and dating especially) that first impressions (what we see) matters a lot. A simple fact is that we judge by what we can see (the false promises, the way someone looks) because the truth behind the vision is not often observable. We can see that Jim goes to church every week, but we can’t really know what he believes. Machiavelli knew the people can’t see into the heart of a prince for those five most important qualities (merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious), but they can see how he walks and talks in public.

While I much prefer the interior life of a person to match their exterior life, there are reasons and situations when our self-restraint (an inward quality after all) prudently reigns in our natural habits. For example, a father does well to exhibit those five qualities to his children. He should appear, in the eyes of his children altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious because he is their role model. Children will mimic their father and the examples given to them more generally (recall the Bobo doll experiment where children exhibited the behavior they watched). Appearances do matter to the developing child. Appearances also matter to your boss for getting promoted.

Again, the ideal situation is that you don’t merely exhibit good qualities, but you internalize those good qualities too. But, I think our outward “faking” of good behavior is often the first step toward internalizing what is good.

Separate the Good from the Bad

Apply too much of Machiavelli, and you might be called Machiavellian – not a complement (meaning: unscrupulously, politically scheming or cunning). Any leader who applies all of Machiavelli’s advice would likely be a good politician, but democratic republics also require different sorts of politicians than pseudo-monarchies. Keep in mind, Italy in Machiavelli’s time was a chess match with a half dozen players, so much of what he says is geared toward avoiding utter destruction by one’s own people or a foreign army.

Taking the good, applicable advice out of the political, The Prince should remind us to avoid dependency, prepare for the worst, and demonstrate our virtues.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

The Importance of Good Conversation

Read Plato, St. Augustine, Jonathan Swift, Emily Bronte, or any other classic work and you’ll notice the authors’ composition, vocabulary, and coherence in thought far surpass those possessed by the vast majority of educated people today. Even students of our best liberal arts universities don’t emerge from their studies with the ability to write, speak, and reason as well as students from the early 20th century. How did we lose our ability to think and communicate effectively?

The Decline of Speech

Many factors have contributed to our sharp decline in these skills: the adoption of pervasive public education, the takeover of technology in classrooms and homes alike, reduced parental roles in teaching their kids, poor curricula, and a general disrespect of education in pop culture. Many of these are societal level problems that could require policy reform and the general improvement of whole communities to overcome.

However, there is another contributor to each generation’s declining intelligence: poor conversations. I’m no Aristotle, but when I was a kid, my family had real conversations. The dinner table was the epicenter where we debated or conversed about things outside a normal day’s experience, topics ranging across politics, religion, and to the limited ability of our young minds, philosophy. We weren’t experts on any of these topics, but we did have thoughts about them and a willingness to share those ideas with each other.

These family conversations are the way to kindle the critical thinking and speaking skills of the next generation, a way to reverse the trend of declining intelligence that has occurred over the past century.

Great Minds Talked

Good conversations and asking questions were the methods of philosophical discovery for the Greek schools of Plato and the like. St. Augustine of Hippo similarly debated theology with his friends throughout his journey from a Manichaean to a Catholic, paving the way for his works to become cornerstones of Western thought.

Historically, one’s intelligence was often measured by his wit in speech. Great examples of this are found in Plutarch’s account of Alexander the Great . When Alexander finally conquered the Persian king Darius, he challenged the Persian scholars to answer his philosophical questions with their best wit and eloquence, whereby the participant offering the least intelligent answer would be executed. (Luckily, Alexander was dissuaded from this draconian consequence afterwards.)

This same emphasis on clever speech pervaded other parts of antiquity, perhaps most famously in the Greek city-state of Sparta. Again according to Plutarch, young Spartans were often tested with responding to philosophic questions with pithy answers.

Although education in the sciences would ebb the emphasis of education in speech, the rhetoric and reasoning skills of educated men and women in the 19th and early 20th centuries still embarrasses our rhetoric today. Compare the speeches of Abraham Lincoln (a largely self-educated man) to any speech from the last thirty years. There are very few that will require reading beyond the first sentence to distinguish the difference in skill with the pen.

Re-Education Begins at the Dinner Table

Though all I’ve presented is a depressing reminder at the baseness of our latest generations, the one bright ray breaking through the dull clouds is the fact that one remedy is so easily implemented. The malady to our inability to reason and deficiency in speech is simply to talk – not just any talk, however. We must converse about ideas, potential futures, questions about the past, what is right and wrong, where truth lies, how to live a good life, and the nature of the things around us. It doesn’t necessarily have to be deeply philosophical either. Politics is a fine and relevant topic, but the discussion should really be about politics, e.g. policies instead of “I don’t like his hair.” (The Greeks regarded politics as the highest science, after all, so be sure to give some credence to that science.)

The dinner table is the perfect place to begin this U-turn in education, to begin thinking and speaking at a level our world has lost. Real education might be regained alongside a helping of mashed potatoes and greens beans.

If you find a spontaneous conversation about something other than sports is difficult to get started, try reading something after dinner together as a family. When I was younger, reading a devotional often sparked many of those cherished conversations.

If you can’t get to the dinner table with your family or good friends, the modern world leaves no excuses for avoiding good conversation. The COVID19 lockdowns inspired my family to implement weekly group calls that humbly began as a means to share what’s new in our lives. However, these group calls often diverge into those very same good conversations we used to have around the dinner table when I was growing up. (Ironically, we could have been doing these calls for years but never converged on the idea.) Modern video calling is a great way to have these good conversations, no matter how much distance is between you and your family and friends.

Cheers to you in your next real conversation.

Like this article? Be sure to share it with your friends and family, jump on our email list, and browse ThinkingWest.com for more content like this.

%d bloggers like this: