Ordinary words → extraordinary thoughts

One of my favorite quotes is by Arthur Schopenhauer. In German:

Man gebrauche gewöhnliche Worte und sage ungewöhnliche Dinge.

That could be translated several ways:

Take common words and say uncommon things.


One should take usual words and say unusual things.


Use ordinary words and say extraordinary things.

Doesn’t this say it all, for us writers and storytellers?


PS: This could become a motto for The Hannibal Blog, especially in conjunction with Walt Whitman’s quote and Albert Einstein’s quote:

  1. Whitman gives us license to let our intellect roam freely without fear of the (inevitable) contradictions we bump into along the way;
  2. Einstein reminds us to search for the simplicity hiding beneath all that bewildering complexity, (as Alexander the Great and Carl Friedrich Gauss do, too);
  3. Schopenhauer reminds us to express what we found on Whitman’s journey with words of Einsteinian simplicity.

PPS: Schopenhauer is famous but not widely read anymore. I once had a little Schopenhauer phase. And since I did the work, you shouldn’t have to: All Schopenhauer did was to translate what we would consider Buddhism or Upanishadic Hinduism into German. So now you, too, know Schopenhauer.

PPPS: I can’t help but wonder what feedback my own publisher would have given Schopenhauer apropos of … his author photo!

Declaration of bad writing

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Writer to parody the Words which are written by most others, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that he should produce a representative Sample of the Words which impel him to the Mocking. He holds these Truths to be self-evident:

  • that what follows is bad writing indeed and will make you cringe or smirk,
  • that it is bad not in an egregious (and thus unrepresentative) way but in a small, ordinary, quotidian, commonplace (ie, representative ) way,
  • that it serves as partial proof to the thesis advanced in the previous post about Writing with Fear (although the role of fear as the cause deserves to be developed in a later post).

I) The run-of-the-mill press release/PR email

Below I reproduce, the first PR email I saw in my inbox this morning. It is chosen for being the day’s first, not for being the day’s worst.

Hi, Andreas –

I’m reaching out with a new executive leadership announcement from [COMPANY]. [COMPANY] is continuing its expansion into the [OMITTED] sector with the addition of several new members to its key management team. … [COMPANY] announced today that it has added several key members to its senior management team. …


  1. For heaven’s sake, stop “reaching out” already. You can ask me, remind me, alert me, tell me, or you can simply … tell me without telling me that you will tell me, but keep your hands to yourself. Reaching out is in 2011 what proactive leveraging was circa 1995. (My colleague on The Economist’s language blog has covered this adequately.)
  2. How is “continuing an expansion” different from “expanding”?
  3. Since you mention the company’s “key management team”, please clarify which management team(s) is (are) non-key.
  4. Thanks for repeating the phrase, thus adding depth. I notice that the “key members” are now being added to the “senior management team”. Are they key but junior? Or key and senior? Are any of the senior ones non-key?

II) Examples chosen by Johnny

The subsequent examples are taken from our Style Guide, which is written by Johnny Grimmond, who has long been both a key and a senior editor of The Economist.

(Johnny has made three other explicit appearances here on The Hannibal Blog — when he clarified like vs as, when he decried bad editing as ‘desophistication’,  and when he busted me for using “co-equal” — and one veiled appearance, when he was just being British as an after-dinner speaker.)


1) Pompous blather

From the Style Guide’s entry for Community (a concept to which I also devoted a post):

If further warning is needed, remember that community is one of those words that tend to crop up in the company of the meaningless jargon and vacuous expressions beloved of bombastic bureaucrats. Here is John Negroponte, appearing before the American Senate:

“Teamwork will remain my north star as director of national intelligence–not just for my immediate office but for the entire intelligence community. My objective will be to foster proactive co-operation among the 15 IC elements and thereby optimise this nation’s extraordinary human and technical resources in collecting and analysing intelligence. We can only make the United States more secure if we approach intelligence reform as value-added, not zero-sum….”

This short passage might be the motherlode of bad expression (“foster”, “proactive”, “optimise”, “resources”, “value-added”, “zero-sum”,…). And yet it is actually ordinary enough still to be representative.

Here is another example, this one from the entry for Jargon:

The appointee … should have a proven track record of operating at a senior level within a multi-site international business, preferably within a service- or brand-oriented environment…

Johnny seems to have found this in a job advertisement by … The Economist Group! I’m guessing that gave him a frisson.

Next example:

At a national level, the department engaged stakeholders positively … This helped… to improve stakeholder buy-in to agreed changes…

This phrase came out of a report from the British civil service.

In the next passage, an esteemed think tank, Chatham House, explained that

The City Safe T3 Resilience Project is a cross-sector initiative bringing together experts … to enable multi-tier practitioner-oriented collaboration on resilience and counter-terrorism challenges and opportunities.

In the next passage, some British policy maker tried to say that teachers who agree to test their students will get money from the government. Here is how:

The grants will incentivise administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the competencies they seek to develop.

Try to guess what this phrase was supposed to express:

A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.

Answer: Go-karting lessons sponsored by the Luton Educational Authority (London).

2) Political correctness

Political correctness has it own entry in our Style Guide, but I will instead quote from the entry for Euphemisms, because I think Johnny just says it all here:

Avoid, where possible, euphemisms and circumlocutions, especially those promoted by interest groups keen to please their clients or organisations anxious to avoid embarrassment. This does not mean that good writers should be insensitive of giving offence: on the contrary, if you are to be persuasive, you would do well to be courteous. But a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners. Political correctness can go.

Female teenagers are girls, not women. Living with mobility impairment probably means wheelchair-bound. Developing countries are often stagnating or even regressing (try poor) countries. The underprivileged may be disadvantaged, but are more likely just poor (the very concept of underprivilege is absurd, since it implies that some people receive less than their fair share of something that is by definition an advantage or prerogative). Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s enhanced interrogation is torture …

Responding to my cold reader

At this (quite advanced) stage in the book-publishing process, there is suddenly a lot to do, always urgently and usually without prior notice.

For instance, another dead-tree copy of the manuscript just landed on my desk, marked up in old-fashioned ink. Apparently, the cold reader had had his go.

The cold reader? Who knew? I normally prefer my readers warm.

It appears that Riverhead has sent the manuscript to someone who is anonymous to me (“cold”, I suppose) for perusal. His or her comments were not “large” (about the sweep of the story, or the logic of an argument, say), but very detailed queries about language.

All regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know me as a pedant (or word-lover, to be generous). I am rarely caught out in word matters. But it does happen, and I find that fun.

So here are a few things the cold reader pointed out, and then a few instances in which I overruled him/her.

  1. If something “ascends up to,” it actually simply “ascends to”.
  2. “Aquiline faces” are actually faces with “aquiline noses.”
  3. A “crevice” is not a “crevasse”, and Hannibal in the Alps better have passed the latter, or we would be mighty bored.
  4. “Projecting a perception of invincibility” is simply “projecting invincibility”. (Can’t believe that one happened to me!)
  5. A line of soldiers marching “only a couple of men deep” is actually marching “a couple of men wide.” Duh.
  6. Scipio could not have stood there, “his posture erect and lithe.” No, he stood there, “his posture erect, his body lithe.”
  7. If Scipio and Cato (or whoever) “mixed like oil and water”, then they did not mix, like oil and water.
  8. Being “suspicious” is not the same as being “suspect”. (Duh. Must have been late at night.)
  9. Do I really need to spend hours going through my books to find out whether Lucius was Scipio’s only brother? Oh yes, because, that determines whether it is “his brother Lucius” or “his brother, Lucius”.

Here are a few of the comments I overruled (getting a little frisson out of the STET every time):

  1. No, Meriwether Lewis’s father was not fighting “Native American” tribes. He was fighting “Indian” tribes. It’s about context.
  2. Hannibal might have contemplated a “bold evacuation of Italy.” But he could not have contemplated a “bold evacuation of his troops from Italy.” Why would he want to rip out the innards of his own soldiers?


Society masquerading as community

The word community is in danger of overuse by the politically correct jargon crowd.

(It thus joins a long and growing list of words that were once beautiful and powerful but have now been neutered. See: passionate and sustainable.)

This has consequences. The resulting loss of meaning certainly reflects but might even exacerbate the common modern feeling of alienation.

First, here is what our (The Economist‘s) Style Guide says about the word:

Community is a useful word [in some contexts] but in many others it jars. Not only is it often unnecessary, it purports to convey a sense of togetherness that may well not exist. The black community means blacks, the business community means businessmen (who are supposed to be competing, not colluding), the homosexual community means homosexuals, or gays, the intelligence community means spies…. the international community, if it means anything, means other countries [or] aid agencies … What the global community means is a mystery….

I would go even further. A real community is an almost-biological thing: human beings living together closely and with a shared fate that binds them, whether they love one another or not. For context, you might rank human groupings in this order:

  1. Family
  2. Clan
  3. Community

I’ve posted, in other contexts, about Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis that there is a cognitive limit to the size of primate communities, which for our species is about 150. I think that’s just about right.

Beyond that, you don’t have communities. At best you have societies. That’s when humans agree to cohabit a physical or abstract space with other people, most of whom are total strangers, by agreeing to certain rules.

Because people typically are not happy living as unconnected atoms in such a society (ie, because they feel alienated), they will be psychologically tempted to fudge.

They will, in the famous words of Benedict Anderson in this classic of International Relations, imagine communities where none exists. (Perhaps project is a better word.) This is often called


Beyond such national or ethnic societies, you might merely have systems, as in the international system. That is the witty meaning built into the title of another classic of International Relations, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society.

Within a nation (unless it is a failed state), somebody has a monopoly on legitimate violence, in order to enforce rules, and that provides order. In the absence of such a monopoly (as in the international system), you get anarchy, so you need a different way of achieving order (a balance of powers, for example).

In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether all these mentions of communities that I constantly hear might not reflect a profound and unsatisfied yearning. We yearn for that sense of togetherness which is so often just not there.

Deliberate ambiguity in writing

Strategically ambiguous

One of my points in the previous post was that a good writer should have

control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse,

so that the words evoke the intended response only.

This led Jim M. to an insightful addendum:

So much has been written about how ambiguity distorts communication, it is easy to miss how ambiguity aids communication…. [M]anaging ambiguity is not merely a matter of its reduction, but its proper exploitation.

This is a great point, and in fact completes (rather than refutes) my thesis on writerly control over words.

To make the distinction clearer: The goal of writing is always to evoke a particular response. But:

  • sometimes this means making the words so precise as to leave no room for ambiguity. (The Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution fails to do this, which is why I cited it in the previous post as an example of “bad writing”);
  • other times it means making the words intentionally ambiguous to leave the reader in a vacuum of meaning precisely circumscribed by the writer. The writer thus has the reader not at a point but in a space, because that is the intention.

The best example that I could think of off the top of my head comes from International Relations. The so-called Taiwan Relations Act, signed by Jimmy Carter in 1979 (but really the result of deliberate policy since Nixon’s visit to China), has been a diplomatic success precisely because it includes a deliberate ambiguity.

It is found in various passages but most notably in Section 3301(b). There it is written that “the policy of the United States” is

to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States…

Of great concern. Genius! Does that mean that if China were to attack Taiwan,

  1. America would defend Taiwan? Or that
  2. America would be “concerned” without defending Taiwan?

The point, of course, is that the writer had two audiences in mind: The mainland Chinese and the Chinese on Taiwan.

  • The mainland Chinese had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that America would probably defend Taiwan, thus concluding that attacking the islands would be a really bad idea.

  • The Chinese on Taiwan had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that American might not defend Taiwan, thus concluding that declaring formal independence (and thus provoking an attack) would be a really bad idea.

This deliberate ambiguity is one reason (I’m not saying it’s the only reason) why China’s cross-straits conflict has been one of the stablest hotspots in the world. Wouldst that all conflicts were like it.

To expand this concept of deliberate ambiguity to the other arts: The best analogy I can think of

  • in painting and sculpture is the so-called “negative space”, and
  • in music the pause.

So ambiguity definitely plays a role in good writing and art — as long as it produces the response the writer intended.

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Why I am shrinking this blog

I told you in the previous post that, for the first time, I deleted a post (it no longer matters what the post was about) because I came to the conclusion that it was badly written by my standards.

Upon further reflection, that made me realize that I have to “shrink” this blog. Now I’ll explain what I meant by that. (And yes, I savor the irony that I will talking about a “shrinking” a blog in a 2,000-word blog post.)

I) What I consider “badly written”

I write so much that the mechanics — syntax, grammar, flow — are rarely bad anymore. But that’s not what writing is about.

Ultimately, words deserve to be spoken or written only if they communicate what the speaker or writer wants to communicate. And that very much includes not only the substance denoted but also the tone, voice and other bundles of connotation.

We all know that perfect control over the meaning(s) of words, especially written ones, is impossible. That is why Socrates refused ever to write, and always only spoke. Just think of our ongoing debate about the words (and punctuation) in a phrase written 219 years ago:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Did the writer intend that only “a Militia”, and “a well regulated” one at that, was to have the right to bear arms? Or that “the people”, collectively and individually, should have that right, although it might also be, you know, nice if a Militia were around? Who knows?

This conundrum — that writers lose control over their words as soon as they make contact with any audience — led people like Jacques Derrida to suggest that we stop even pretending that we can control meaning: Words mean whatever anybody wants them to mean, so get over it.

I don’t subscribe to that. A good writer should have some control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse. Naturally, horses sometimes go berserk, as do words. But that’s when it’s time to kill a blog post.

That the now-deleted post had to be dispatched became clear not when it led to vigorous debate (as many posts here on The Hannibal Blog do), but when the comments looked to me, the writer, as utter non-sequiturs. I looked at some of them and could only say: “Huh?” How did the commenter read this meaning into this post?

This is when I remembered my Second Secret to Good Writing, which is empathy. Don’t blame your audience. Re-examine your words.

My words had not just evoked an unintended response, but in a few individual cases the opposite of the response intended. That should not happen to a good writer.

And so I decided that the words had to die.

II) Why might this have happened?

1) The issue of quantity

Less than a month ago, I wondered whether there was “a Laffer Curve” of writing — in other words, a point beyond which increasing quantity (of words written) decreases quality.

I was pondering that question because, over the past couple of years, the number of words I produce, and am expected to produce, has inexorably been increasing.

When I started at The Economist in 1997, we were expected to write articles for the weekly (print) issue. And that was it. (Quite enough, I thought.)

I first recall internal discussions about “blogs” in 2006. I might have had something to do with that, because I wrote a Special Report in 2006 about “the new media.” In it, I said that all the new media (including blogs) would collectively transform society, which they clearly have done. But I never said that individual news organizations had to add blogs.

But blogs we began having, even at The Economist. For a while we didn’t really take them seriously. But now we do. And we have more and more of them. And we are expected to “feed” them. So, in addition to the articles we write, we write blog posts.

We also do podcasts, and those often take a surprisingly long time (the logistics, not the actual talk time). And we do video pieces. Those take even more time to set up.

To take this week as an example, I produced two articles, two blog posts and one podcast … in four days (because on Friday I allegedly started a holiday.)

Our heritage, our “print DNA”, means that we will always put the utmost effort into the print-issue articles. So that’s still where the research, fact-checking, deliberation, travel, background reading, interviewing goes. (And real-life logistics have an annoying habit of not aligning perfectly with The Economist’s Greenwich-mean-time deadlines.)

But that doesn’t actually leave all that much time to produce all that other stuff.

Then add a personal blog in support of a forthcoming book, such as The Hannibal Blog.

Yup, now this amounts to a lot of words. Some of those words will not be redacted, honed, polished, and stress-tested as much as they should be. This must mean, from time to time, that some words are less than optimal.

Conclusion: Don’t produce more, perhaps less.

2) The issue of audience expectations

I recall an internal discussion once where the theory was put forth that the web audience is sophisticated. In other words, readers of blogs (whether on The Economist’s web site or WordPress) know that the medium is more intimate, conversational, relaxed, aphoristic and subjective. Blogs are essentially personal diaries, except public and social.

Readers, goes the theory, do not expect a blog post to be balanced, polished and fact-checked. They can discriminate between a blog post and an article.

Not only that, but they like to have that less formal window into the writer’s soul, they like hearing about what happened to him on the way to this-or-that, what he was thinking when so-and-so said something-or-other. It’s like knowing somebody by email and then seeing a handwritten note from him: the handwriting, with its imperfections, says something. Or like meeting a public figure and getting a peek behind the scenes.

Well, that’s the theory. The reality is that audiences get confused. Many readers/listeners/viewers merely see the brand, and do not discriminate among media. The brand could be The Economist or, at micro scale, The Hannibal Blog. But what if the human beings behind the brands straddle their boundaries? When is the writer allowed to speak personally, and when is he expected to be a journalist upholding a 160-year-old brand?

This is not a new issue. Correspondents of The Economist have always gone to dinner parties (OK, rarely) and often moderate panels at conferences, for example. When we’re chatting with our table neighbor, are we allowed to kid around and speak our minds? How about when we’re on a podium?

Blogging (and all its descendants, such as tweeting) is a genie that is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. I’m simply flagging a new tension. And a new need to make explicit to audiences what they should expect in which context.

Here on The Hannibal Blog, by the way, you get me, just me, my quirky, personal musings, which represent nothing else.

Conclusion: Don’t assume that readers let you speak “off-the-record”, be circumspect. If in doubt, say less.

3) The issue of scope

You may have heard people described as coconuts or oranges. Coconuts mix everything together inside, oranges come in neat sections.

Well, most people are coconuts, especially at The Economist. We have many interests, strange hobbies, and what’s interesting is what you get when you mix it all up. One of my favorite colleagues is simultaneously a connoisseur in the subjects of sailing tall boats, all matters Mongolian, Tango and bird watching, and that is only the beginning of a long list.

Should he stick to his beat in writing articles? Should he have a blog for each interest? On The Economist’s web site or on his own? Is it alright if he mixes it all together, the way it is mixed in his own soul?

In my case, for example, I started this blog about two years ago, intending to make it purely about the book I was writing. This was naive. I soon realized that the process of publishing a book takes a lot longer than the writing of it (and I now expect the book to be out next year). So what do you do in the mean time?

I was advised not to publish excerpts, because that would give the book away. So I began blogging about other stuff. All those other interests. Pretty soon, that included the whole dang coconut, even The Economist.

And again, it’s possible that some of you got confused.

I now face the interesting development that The Economist is constantly, almost every week, making available to me new “coconut straws”. Just one example: This summer we started yet another blog, called Johnson. It is about Language. I have not contributed to it yet, but it so happens that Language is one the big threads on The Hannibal Blog. Obviously, I have to rethink that. My future language posts should probably go to Johnson, not The Hannibal Blog.

Conclusion: Reduce this blog’s scope; become an orange; write about fewer and better defined topics. No politics.

4) The issue of fear

When you write you make yourself vulnerable. When you write on a personal blog you are even more vulnerable. Who knows what weirdos show up alongside the intended audience? Who knows who does what with your words?

That can lead to fear, and fear leads to the worst writing. And bad writing, for a writer, equals failure.

The most important prerequisite for being a good writer is therefore an ability to overcome fear and find courage. You must say something interesting, which invariably means that somebody somewhere could take offense (even when the topic might at first blush seem innocuous — no topic stays innocuous if it gets a large enough audience.) And you must say it clearly, which is to say simply and thus strongly.

This gets into one of the big topics in my book, the tension between tactics and strategy. Writing well (ie, with courage and risk) about many topics is like a country fighting a war on many fronts. You will eventually lose. Writing more timidly or carefully about all these topics is like fighting less fiercely on all those fronts. You will — again — eventually lose. So you must choose your topics (your fronts) strategically.

Conclusion: Again, write about fewer topics in each medium, such as this blog.

III) Postscript

I want to end by giving a little shout-out to two bloggers who, in their very different ways, have explicitly or implicitly addressed some of the issues above.

1) “Phil”

First, there is “Phil”. I don’t know what his real name is and I don’t need to know. He has several blogs, indeed he seems to keep switching blogs and starting new ones, to my ongoing confusion. His current “main” blog seems to be here.

Phil once observed, either in a comment here or in a post on his own blog, a phenomenon: Time and again, Phil finds an interesting new blogger, a strong and idiosyncratic voice, and follows that voice. After a while, that blog becomes popular. And then, as its audience grows, the blog becomes … bad.

(Phil, if you can provide the URL to your observation, I would like to link to it.)

So I speculate: Perhaps Phil, by starting new blogs all the time, is conflicted as we all are about gaining an audience. An audience gathers, and he runs away to start a new one. Because he understands, as we all do, that audiences are a threat as a well as a blessing.

2) “Man of Roma”

The other blogger who deserves a shout-out here is Man of Roma. He is a bon vivant and connoisseur of classical wisdom. And this summer he did something very civilized: He simply left (his blog, that is) and enjoyed himself, knowing that the audience that matters, which includes me, will be there whenever he returns.

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When a dog is not a Dogge

As you know by now, I am an amateur etymologist (ie, one who is probably wrong most of the time). And when I’m not tracing words from Western languages to Sanskrit, I like to ponder the languages I know best, which are English and German.

And it’s the little quirks that I enjoy.

Thus, for instance, it is no surprise at all that most Anglo-Saxon words in English have the same, or a very similar, root as their German equivalents:

  • arm = Arm
  • finger = Finger
  • (to) begin = begin(nen)
  • (to) bring = bring(en)
  • and so on.

Slightly more interesting is the subtle but cumulatively substantive change in connotation of certain words that once (in the fifth century) were the same:


  • come = kom(men), and
  • become = bekom(men)

But (and this has caused much humorous confusion), bekommen in German now means get, not become. Keep this in mind next time you hear a German tourist inquiring of his waiter whether he might please become a hot dog.

And here is the one that really puzzles me. Etymologically, it is obvious that

  • dog = Dogge, and
  • hound = Hund

Except that something strange has happened.

Dog is the generic English word for the entire species. But Dogge is the specific German words for just one breed within that species, the one English speakers call … the Great Dane (thus dragging a third Germanic nation into this).

Hund, meanwhile, is the German word for the species, whereas hound is a somewhat more specific English word for a type of dog used for hunting, such as this one:

Divided by a common language, as Churchill might have said once again, had he also known German.
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Was Socrates an atheist?

Toward the end of my three-page article about “Socrates in America” in the Christmas issue of The Economist, there are these two lines:

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist. As was his wont, however, he cared more about debating, with a man named Euthrypho on the steps of the courthouse before his preliminary hearing, what piety even meant.

(This refers to one of the two charges against Socrates at his trial, which was disbelief in/disrespect for “the gods of the city.”)

By the placement of these lines, and by the word count I devoted to them (1% of the total words in the article), readers should be able to tell how interested I, as the writer, was in this particular point.

Ie, not very.

To quote I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates on the matter:

It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues….

But I should have known better. After all, the word atheism appears!

It is a word that makes many people, but Americans in particular, go ballistic. Indeed, it is something of a Rorschach test: Mention it, and people immediately project their ideas, fears, and beliefs into the conversation. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else.

Readers react

One of the online commenters, somebody named “RPB2”, tries to refute the possibility that Socrates was atheist by quoting him (presumably from English translations). Thus Socrates says in the Apology:

For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

And in the Phaedo, he says:

In this present life I believe that we most nearly approach knowledge when we have the least possible bodily concerns and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.

In the Republic, he says:

[Society’s leaders] must be able to see the one in the many, to appreciate and realize the great truth of the unity of all virtues, have a genuine knowledge of God and the ways of God, and must not be content to rest on faith in traditions, but must really understand. Only in this way can they order all things for the benefit of all

From this RPB2 concludes:

You really have to work to find an atheist here; and thus, sadly, one can see that this article indicates that erudition often does not equate to understanding.

Another commenter, Michael  Bessette, offers RPB2 his support:

… Socrates repeatedly invokes not only gods, but “the god”, as in this famous passage from the Apology: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you” (29d). Socrates further asserts that he has been specially chosen by “the god” to persuade the people of Athens of their ignorance (23b) and that abandoning this mission would mean also abandoning his god (30a)…

And a reader named Robert J. Farrell from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, wrote in a letter:
… the most extraordinary statement in the piece is its labeling Socrates an atheist.  No one can read the accounts given by Xenophon or Plato without recognizing the philosopher’s piety.  His own pilgrimage to Delphi attests to this; and many, many statements exceptionlessly confirm it.  Indeed, he comes across as being very close to monotheism; for, as my tutor remarked years ago, whenever in the Memorabilia he is most earnestly referring to the divine , he speaks of “the god” (ho theos) rather than of “the gods” (hoi theoi).  To call Socrates an atheist for his coolness towards the conventional polytheism of the state is as misleading as it would be to so label Jesus because of his confrontation with the priesthood of the Temple…


Let’s examine some of these points.

First, what does it prove if Socrates uses, in the writings of Plato or Xenophon, the word “gods”? Not a whole lot, I submit.

All sorts of atheists today scream Goddammit every time they hit the rush hour, and atheist starlets stammer Ohmigawd, ohmigawd when accepting their Oscars. We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.

What I find curious in the quotes above is the capitalization of the word God. It’s a loaded capital letter, to say the least. In fact, let’s use this occasion to parse some terms:

1) Monotheism:

Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. (Even the Jews, who invented it, were just developing at this time, in the century following the Babylonian captivity, as Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God explains quite well.)

2) Atheism:

Admittedly, the same is true for our modern concept of atheism–ie, the Greeks did not have that concept. If somebody was “godless”, that meant he had been abandoned by one god or goddess or another. It did not meant that he denied their existence.

3) Polytheism


Polytheism is how the Greeks (and most of the world at the time) understood divinity. Alas, this is a concept that has become quite alien to us (unless you happen to be, say, Hindu), so we are the ones struggling to understand it.

Polytheism was an infinitely stretchable and flexible spiritual instinct. A polytheist had mental room not just for many gods and goddesses but for new gods and for other people’s gods. Even the Greek pantheon included many gods and goddesses (Aphrodite, eg) “imported” from Mesopotamia and thereabouts, for instance.

4) Pantheism

So polytheists were also, by implication, pantheists. They had an expandable pantheon of gods, and divinity was to be found everywhere and in everything.


Put differently, gods and goddesses were often personifications of things. Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Baal of thunder, for example. Hermes of humble door-thresholds, among other things. Hestia of the hearth. Helios/Apollo of the sun. Kronos of time (→ Chrono-logy). And so on.

Names of things in effect became potential divinities. Sophia could be thought of as a goddess of wisdom, tyche (Roman fortuna) could not just mean luck but be the goddess of fortune, and so forth.

(In fact, I.F. Stone, believes that Socrates’ indictment for “impiety” referred specifically to two such personifications/divinities: The “gods of the city” of Athens may have been understood to be Peitho, a personification of “democracy” and thus a political concept, and Agora, which meant not only marketplace but also assembly, and thus dovetailed with Peitho.)

It was, in other words, a rich and metaphorical way of expressing ideas and telling stories. Eloquent people at the time were as unlikely to avoid using tropes of divinity as we are today to avoid metaphors.


Having said all that, there was something interesting that happened in the Greek world at around this time, and we might think of it as the beginnings of “science”.

The Greeks traditionally relied on their religion (their “myths” to us) to explain the world. And they relied in particular on the corpus of stories in Homer and Hesiod.

Thus, if summer turned to winter (a perplexing process, if you think about it) it was because Persephone returned to her husband Hades, thus making her mother Demeter, the goddess of fertility and grain, so sad that she turned the earth barren for half a year. If somebody went into a rage and killed innocent people, it was because a jealous god or goddess possessed him temporarily (eg, Hera possessing Hercules). And so on.


But, starting about 200 years before Socrates’ trial, some (mainly Ionian) Greeks rejected these mythological explanations and tried to use direct observation of nature (physis in Greek, as in physics) and reason (logos) to explain the world.

These were the so-called “pre-Socratics”, such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Heraclitus. They wanted to know what things were ultimately made of (fire, earth, water, etc) and how they changed. They wanted to understand the world better and differently.

So they ignored the gods. I don’t think they boycotted temples and sacrifices and other fun cultural activities, just as even Richard Dawkins today might sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the gods ceased, for them, to explain anything. In that sense, you might say, using a modern term, that they were atheists.

Pre-Socratic Socrates

Now let’s talk about Socrates. The first thing to know about him, as silly as it sounds, was that he spent the first half of his career as a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Obviously, “pre-Socratic” is a term we invented, not the Greeks). This is to say that he also tried to do “science”, to inquire into the nature and causes of the physical world and its phenomena.


This is the Socrates, aged about 40, whom Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Clouds. In that play, Socrates runs a “thinkery” where he examines how far flies jump and how they fart–presumably, with the Athenian audience, including Socrates, in stitches.

And Aristophanes has the Socrates in that thinkery argue that “Zeus does not exist.” “If no Zeus, then whence comes the rain?” he is asked by Strepsiades, a country bumpkin. Socrates offers another explanation for rain, and Strepsiades admits that he had always thought it was “Zeus pissing down upon earth through a sieve.” But at the end of the play, he burns down Socrates’ Thinkery, saying “strike, smite them, spare them not, for many reasons, But most because they have blasphemed the gods.”

Now, folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it. Aristophanes was describing a new (proto-atheistic) worldview in a hilarious way. Socrates would, twenty-four years hence, at his own trial, say that this (ie, The Clouds) is where the charge of impiety originated.

The Socratic “turn”

At about the time of The Clouds Socrates had a wrenching midlife crisis. Apparently, he came to believe that he was not very good at being a philosopher–ie, he became frustrated by his inability to explain nature satisfactorily.

So he made his famous “turn”: away from questions about nature and toward the humanistic subjects of ethics, politics and meta-physics (literally: “beyond nature”). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he invented all three as subjects.

Hades and Cerberus

But he brought with him his pre-Socratic proto-atheism, by which I mean his tendency to ignore myth and gods as explanations for anything.

For example, on his own deathbed he gives a moving (but confusing) speech about death and the immortality of the soul. As it happens, this should not have been necessary: Greek religion gave detailed information about what happened after death. You took a gold coin with you, went down to Hades, past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog. Then you gave your coin to Charon, the boatman, who ferried you across the river Styx, where you would henceforth hang around as a shadow. Lots and lots of heros (Hercules, Odysseus….) had already been down there and come back to tell us about it.

But no, Socrates had none of that. No Thanatos, no Hades, no Charon. He used his reason alone. Again, I consider that proto-atheist.

Theism, Deism …

Did Socrates ever go one step further and deny spirituality or divinity? No. I doubt he was interested in that.

Did he really believe, as he claimed when addressing his jury, that his own personal daimonion (“little divine thing,” whence our daemon) talked to him to warn him of danger? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Did he consider himself a proto-atheist? Perhaps, perhaps not. The one time he could have spoken about the matter explicitly, during his trial, he reverted to form (ie, Socratic irony and dialectic) and maneuvered his accuser, Meletus, into defining atheism as both believing in unorthodox gods and no gods at all, which is impossible at the same time. He was a wise ass, in short.

So we do not know, and we will not know.

What we can agree on, I believe, is that Socrates was a highly unusual man with unusual opinions and extremely unorthodox views about everything, including religion. Whatever he believed, neither atheists nor theists today can claim his support to wage their ongoing battle.

In this respect, in fact, Socrates reminds me of another non-conformist I admire: Albert Einstein. Einstein also studied physis and inadvertantly ended up “beyond” it, in meta-physis. And Einstein also had notions about religion that still divide lesser minds today. Was he an atheist? A believer? Everybody wanted to know. So Einstein penned an answer, which concludes (page 387 in this biography):

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

I believe Socrates might have said the same exact thing.

The Procrustean Bed, again

And so, I have spent as many words again on that one little sentence as I wrote in that entire article. Would I change the little sentence?

I’ve posted before about the Procrustean Bed that page layouts represent to writers: you must either stretch or, more often, amputate your text in order to fit the space an editor gives you. Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.

When I said

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist

I had all this and more on my mind. Given another chance, I would say

Socrates may have been an atheist

or perhaps

Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.

And then I would have done just what I did: I would have moved on.

On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

I mentioned en passant in the previous post that the Sanskrit word vira, hero, is related to the Latin vir, man, and thus to our virtue and virility. And, of course, to the Modern Hindi vir, brave. (Thank you, Susan.)

Well, that sort of thing brings out the language geek in me, and I can’t help myself. There is something beautifully mysterious in this common Indo-European heritage (pictured above just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire) of our Western languages and this Eastern Ur-language, Sanskrit. It is like visiting very distant relatives and suddenly seeing a nose, a toe, a tilt of the head or an allergic sneeze that is exactly like your own and makes you imagine the stories of the past that unite you.

So indulge me in some word play.

The easiest way to compare languages is by counting to ten in them. Look how incredibly similar most of these word roots have stayed across millenia and continents:

Latin French German English

unus un eins one

duo deux zwei two

tres trois drei three

quattuor quatre vier four

quinque cinq fünf five

sex six sechs six

septem sept sieben seven

octo huit acht eight

novem neuf neun nine
dasa decem dix zehn ten

But the real magic starts when you compare more meaningful words, because then you see not only their etymology but the genealogy of concepts and meanings (this used to be a hot field, called philology, and is how Nietzsche arrived at his philosophy about the evolution of morals).


Since I used the word magic, let’s start there. It “comes from” the Sanskrit word maya, whence the Latin magicus, French magique, German Magie.

Of all these, the Sanskrit word is by far the most interesting and nuanced and deep. It points to a philosophical and religious concept. Maya means magic in the sense of cosmic illusion, the metaphysical head-fake that our senses play on us. We think we exist in our mortal bodies in this changing world, but if we pierce the magic (maya) by making our minds completely still, we realize that there is only pure energy (Brahman) and our soul (Atman) merges into this void.

Bonus: Compare that last word, Atman (soul) with the German atmen (breathe).


Yoga not only means, but is the root of, union. But it gets more interesting. Yoga is also related to the Latin junctio, French joindre, English join.

Its Germanic descendants resemble it even more closely: German Joch, English yoke. (English, as is its wont, gets the root twice, once via Saxon and once via Norman French.)

A yoke at first does not seem very yogic. But if you think about it, that’s a matter of technological connotation. We yoke an ox to a cart, thereby imprisoning him. But in yoga, you yoke (connect, join, unite) your breath to your mind, thence to your soul (Atman), and thence to one-ness or union (Brahman), thereby liberating yourself.


Maharaja means great king in Sanskrit. So it has two words: maha (great) and raja (king). Now recognize:

  • maha → Latin magnus (great), French majeur, German macht (might), English might & major
  • raja → Latin rex/regina (king/queen), French roi, German Reich/reich/reichen (empire/rich/reach), English rich, reach, regal, royal

And so it goes on and on and on…

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“Sex” or “gender”?

I began the previous post with a parenthetical slur on Americans (of which I am half-one), propping myself up on two creaky stereotypes:

  1. that Americans can’t (really) speak English, and
  2. that political correctness is in part to blame.

Specifically, the issue was which of these two words was correct in the specific context:

  • Sex, or
  • Gender

Well, I thought I might regale you once again with the opinion of Johnny Grimond, our (The Economist‘s) doyen of usage and author of our official Style Guide, in which style quite often becomes a window into a very British, ironic and sophisticated worldview. Here is Johnny on the matter:

Gender is nowadays used in several ways. One is common in feminist writing, where the term has a technical meaning. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” argued Simone de Beauvoir: in other words, one chooses one’s gender. In such a context it would be absurd to use the word sex; the term must be gender. But, in using it thus, try to explain what you mean by it. Even feminists do not agree on a definition.

The primary use of gender, though, is in grammar, where it applies to words, not people. If someone is female, that is her sex, not her gender. (The gender of Mädchen, the German word for girl, is neuter, as is Weib, a wife or woman.) So do not use gender as a synonym for sex. Gender studies probably means feminism.

See also Political correctness

That said, I seem to remember reading somewhere–and I wish I knew where–that Sandra Day O’Connor started using gender instead of sex when she got to the Supreme Court, because she was worried that the word sex would conjure up all the wrong images in her (male) colleagues’ minds during deliberations.

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