The tools at hand

“Language… though a useful and even indispensible tool, is a dangerous one, since it begins by suggesting a definiteness, discreteness, and quasi-permanence in objects which physics seems to show they do not possess. The philosopher, therefore, is faced with the difficult task of using language to undo the false beliefs that it suggests.”

— Bertrand Russell

“It may be that singing began as an incident in courtship, and that its biological purpose was to promote sexual intercourse; but this fact (if it be a fact) will not help a composer to produce good music. Language is useful when you wish to order a meal in a restaurant, but this fact, similarly, is of no importance to the pure mathematician.

— Bertrand Russell

Worldliness, Deconstruction

“Whatever the word ‘secular’ is made to signify in current usage, historically it cannot be equated with worldliness. Modern man, when he lost the certainty of a world to come, was thrown back upon himself and not upon this world; far from believing that the world might be potentially immortal, he was not even sure that it was real.

— Hannah Arendt

Force, displacement

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

— Bertrand Russell

Russell couldn’t have predicted the emergence of a third type of work: instructing matter on how to influence the movement of electrons.


With some trepidation, I argued that, whatever validity the military and political arguments were for an attack in preference to a blockade, America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action. Whatever military reasons [Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson] and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. This, I said, could not be undertaken by the U.S. if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe… We spent more time on this moral question during the first five days than on any other single matter… We struggled and fought with one another and with our consciences, for it was a question that deeply troubled us all.

— Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days

I’m not sure what to make of this. Did JFK and his Ex. Comm. actually debate the morality of invading Cuba, rather than just the danger of reprisal, and did they spend five days wondering whether doing so would be a betrayal of American ideals?

This seems inconceivable in light of how every president in my lifetime appears to make decisions. I try and fail to imagine presidents 40-44 hotly debating the necessity of the moral high ground, while around them gathers an existential military crisis.

I could see it getting an eye roll in the war room, but it’s even easier to think of it never occurring to anybody present.

Even the act of lying about it in a memoir seems like an inadvisable risk; the optics would be terrible.


Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

— Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

Imagination and memory

To sleep is to turn one’s mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back on his cot in the shadows, could imagine every crevice and every molding in the sharply defined houses surrounding him. (I repeat that the least important of his memories were more minute and more vivid than our perception of physical pleasure or physical torment) Towards the east, along a stretch not yet divided into blocks, there were new houses, unknown to Funes. He imagined them to be black, compact, made of homogeneous darkness; in that direction he would turn his face in order to sleep. He would also imagine himself at the bottom of the river, rocked and annihilated by the current.

— Jorge Borges

The Zürau Aphorisms

My favorites:

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.

— Kafka, Aphorism 17

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not from infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.

— Aphorism 36

We were fashioned to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.

— Aphorism 80

Behind everything

Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. Nor has the stomach a less noble office. It digests food; that is, in its own particular method, it deals with the nourishment offered by the universe. It is the physical formula of that health which destroys certain elements — the bacteria which harmfully approach us. By it we learn to consume; by it therefore to be, in turn, consumed. So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure, no image of any seated figure, which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them.

— Charles Williams