Not an original thought. Millions have experienced the same thing before me. Somehow, though, I was unprepared.
I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC with my family on Monday. I wound through the exhibits, reading of Hitler’s rise to power, of the complicity of Germany, of Europe, of the whole world, toward this growing evil.
I read of whole communities murdered, looked at pictures of young people who would never grow up, never have families of their own. I looked over the maps and the models and read the awful statistics.
And then I came to the shoes.
Thousands of shoes – a tiny fraction of the whole, but each shoe a token. A woman’s shoe, curling back with age. A man’s shoe, dark and crinkled. A child’s shoe, carelessly tossed into the pile. A child’s shoe. Someone loved that child once, someone tried to protect that child. That child held a hand once, gave one last squeeze, one final questioning look. And then rough hands took hold.
And I stood in a room, surrounded by shoes, and I cried.

King Lear is pain. King Lear is familial infighting, parental humiliation, deadly lies, physical torture, mental anguish, suicide (both failed and successful), and the most unjust ending in all Shakespeare, maybe in all literature. Be very, very wary of anyone who claims King Lear as their favorite Shakespeare play.

King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play.

It took me a while to get here. I first loved Macbeth (another bundle of joy), and on happier days I still revel in As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. I have a deep admiration for Measure for Measure, and I count Henry IV Part One and Othello as two of the most remarkable accomplishments in art.

Hamlet and King Lear always felt, I don’t know, just too great to be someone’s favorite, like saying God was your favorite deity or something. But since I don’t believe in God, these two plays are as close as I get to the divine.

While Hamlet is amazing, mostly because of the singular character of the prince himself who seems like nothing so much as a real person who lives in the pages of a play, I believe King Lear is the greater of Shakespeare’s two greatest tragedies. And I now, after spending several weeks with it, count it not only as the greatest but also my favorite Shakespeare play.

What follows is an extended paen to this powerful play, and an explanation of how, why, and where it shapes my ever-evolving view of the world. I hope this essay adds something to your own understanding.

Act One

Ian McKellan as King Lear

As the play begins, we are faced with Lear, a character who is difficult – no, make that impossible – to like. He craves approval, is narcissistic, authoritarian, and (as we are about to discover) prone to irrational rage. His treatment of his youngest daughter Cordelia, after she tells him exactly what she thinks of his love test, is as cruel as it is nonsensical. As the terrible (but for now justified) Regan says, Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Lear is about to go on a journey of self-discovery that will reap him more knowledge in a few short days than he has gathered in his previous four score years combined.

Scene Two shows us the bastard Edmund – not the servile and humiliated Edmund of the first scene, but a villain who will thrill us with his daring strategy to usurp his legitimate brother and replace his elderly father Gloucester. His relationship to Iago is clear, yet unlike Iago – whose sense of revenge is hardly rational – Edmund knows not only exactly what he is doing, but why. His aims are clear – those who stand in his way must be eliminated, precisely because they stand in his way. We will see how well Edmund can manipulate his father, convincing him of Edgar’s guilt by arguing against it – because he knows that Gloucester is a fool who values his own powers of deduction much too highly. In an echo of Richard II, where Aumerle has a letter he really must hide from his father Edmund of Langley, our villain Edmund piques Gloucester’s interest by quickly hiding a letter he will attribute to his brother Edgar. We then see how Edmund manipulates that same brother by pretending to believe in astrology – exactly the foolishness Edmund mocks in the scene before – convincing his older brother that this susceptibility in their father spells doom for Edgar. Like Iago before him, Edmund knows exactly what to say to push those already predisposed to foolishness into their own foolish acts.

Next we meet the actual Fool, though unlike others in the play he is anything but foolish in his words. I find a deep connection between the Fool and Cordelia. No, I don’t believe the Fool is actually Cordelia in disguise, despite the “hint” Lear gives at the end of the play (more on that later). I see the Fool as a somewhat grungy and dirty-minded old man – not as old as Lear, certainly (and not as dirty), but old enough to be someone a young girl could not easily imitate. I think both Cordelia and the Fool play the same role in Lear’s life, grounding him, making him live in the now and not in a glorious past or an unrealistic future.

We learn that the Fool has pined away since Cordelia left. This makes sense, because both Cordelia and the Fool can see clearly what Lear’s disastrous choices will lead to. Despite their difference in age, Cordelia and the Fool are kindred spirits, truth speakers, and – along with Edgar, Gloucester, and Kent – examples of the “good” people who for some reason love and honor the foolish and erratic character that is the Lear we’ve seen so far.

So what are we to make of the Fool? He is focused, obsessed really, with Lear’s awful decision to give his kingdom to his other two daughters. I love this line:

Fool: Why, this fellow has banished two on ’s
daughters and did the third a blessing against his will.

This is of course exactly the opposite of what Lear literally did. He banished one daughter (Cordelia) and did the other two a blessing by giving them the kingdom. So what is the Fool up to? I think he’s saying that Cordelia is better off being out of this crazy place, and that the other two are banished from Britain because by Lear’s actions Britain no longer exists.

Lear and his Fool

When Lear says, “I did her wrong,” the Fool redirects Lear. His “wrong” was not his treatment of Cordeila, which the Fool avoids. Rather, it was his initial plan to give his “house” to his daughters. By implication, it was the love test itself that was wrong, not Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s answer.

It’s not that simple, though. There’s more going on under the surface. The key word in the conflict between Lear and Cordelia is “nothing.”

Lear: Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.


Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.

And then later, to the Duke of Burgundy when he asked for Cordelia’s offered dowry:

Lear: Nothing! I have sworn; I am firm.

By the way, I must add this note. When Burgundy abandons Cordelia for want of a dowry, Cordelia lets him have it right between the eyes with one of her very best lines.

Cordelia: Peace be with Burgundy!
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife.

If you didn’t already, you just have to love her after that.

The Fool brings this all back to Lear, and to us. After one of the Fool’s nonsense songs, we get this exchange:

Kent (in disguise): This is nothing, fool.

Fool: Then ’tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer- you gave me
nothing for’t. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Lear: Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

And instantly we’re thinking of what was made of Cordelia’s “nothing” in Scene One.

Not long after that, Lear begins to suffer from self-realization: “I did her wrong.”

Yes, Lear did Cordelia wrong. But Lear never should have put Cordelia, or her sisters (or indeed himself), in such a position in the first place.

The other big event of Scene Four is Goneril’s first betrayal of Lear. But I’ll discuss that more when Goneril and Regan have their dual betrayal scene in the next act.

Act Two

Scene One gives us more insight into Edmund’s cunning. He convinces Edgar to flee without Edgar ever confronting his father Gloucester. If those two ever got together, even for a moment, it would destroy all of Edmund’s plans, so he must be very careful here. Edmund must have known both his father and his brother well to pull off this deception.

Edgar is about to make the transformation from his own identity to that of Tom o’ Bedlam. In this remarkable play, this transformation is perhaps the most remarkable event. I think there is much more to understand in Edgar’s descent into Tom. Why does he go so far and stay with it so long? It seems all out of proportion with what is necessary – consider Kent’s more ordinary transformation, for instance. Edgar’s last line here, “Edgar I nothing am” again brings us back to this idea of nothing that is so central in this drama.

Going back to Lear, we soon find him faced with two daughters allied against him.

The impotent fury Lear is feeling builds and builds as, after Goneril arrives, she and Regan take turns belittling Lear, reducing his army bit by bit until it is gone. And then Lear lets loose as best he can:

Lear: you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall- I will do such things-
What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

You almost want to laugh at his inability even to devise a revenge. It’s sinking in now. He has no power – no army, no followers, no home, no kingdom. He is at his daughters’ mercy. And, as he is about to discover, their mercy is sorely lacking.

Goneril is the leader of the action here. She and Lear must have some history for him to curse her as he did:

Lear: Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her!

While the nastiness between Lear and Goneril is palpable, I continue to be amazed by Regan’s character. As Lear leaves, she is trying to talk herself into believing what she is doing is right and just.

Regan: This house is little; the old man and ‘s people
Cannot be well bestow’d.

Who are you trying to convince, Regan? And then,

Regan: For his particular, I’ll receive him gladly,
But not one follower.

And finally, in words she speaks to Gloucester,

Regan: O, sir, to wilful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors.
He is attended with a desperate train,
And what they may incense him to, being apt
To have his ear abus’d, wisdom bids fear.

“I did what I had to do. I’d take him in if he wasn’t so damned stubborn. Who knows what he and his crazy followers might do?” Quite the self-convincing.

Shakespeare didn’t have to do this. He could have just written two daughters, both equally evil, essentially indistinguisable from one another. But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, created two distinct personalities even here. Goneril is scheming, conniving, and cold. Regan wants everything both ways – she wants to be the good girl who loves her father, but also to be even more clever than her older sister and come out on top. Regan is a fascinating, deep, an ultimately sad character who deserves further study. But on to the critical act . . .

Act Three

lear in the storm

Lear and the Fool have been thrust out into the storm. Is this where the old man loses all faith in the gods? The comparison with Ahab’s great lightning scene in Moby Dick is quite apt, I think. That scene is about as anti-theist as it gets. Here Lear rails against the gods, with the Fool providing comic relief, taking the blasphemous edge off Lear’s words.

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!

Fool: O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this
rain water out o’ door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters
blessing! Here’s a night pities nether wise men nor fools.

Lear: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! ’tis foul!

If this is, in fact, where Lear loses his faith, it is striking that right afterwards he realizes what a horrible king he has been, how he has not taken care of those subjects who have been every day and night exposed to the same foul weather he now decries.

In a short interlude between storm scenes, we next see Gloucester make his fateful mistake. He tells Edmund of the plot by Cordelia and the French army to return Lear to power. Edmund of course takes this information straight to Cornwall, and we know what happens next.

But first we return to Lear on the heath, and the encounter between Lear, the Fool, Kent (in disguise), and Edgar as Tom o’ Bedlam. The text flies thick, as each of the four speaks with an utterly different voice. Kent, trying in vain to hold it all together; the Fool, turning to hopeless lament as his time in this play draws to a close; Lear, now losing his mind and so impressed by the disguised Edgar’s essential freedom that he tries to undress himself. What Edgar is up to in this scene is deep and mysterious. His language is evocative – he almost sounds like the riddling witches of Macbeth. Again, we see Edgar going far beyond what is necessary for his disguise – perhaps just to keep the others off-balance so as not to guess at his true identity.

Gloucester joins the troop, and now Edgar is in real danger. Over the edge he goes in a listing of demons and their designs. On the surface, Edgar’s words are nonsense, but they are so strange and evocative that I think it’s clear Shakespeare is up to something else. In a play so full of the gods not responding to human concerns, the idea that a motivated human can so easily move back and forth between completely lucid strategy, deeply-felt human emotion, and this demonic banter suggests that Shakespeare knew it was all a human invention. The only fiends are those we create ourselves. And those, as King Lear shows us, are plenty scary enough.

In the next scene, we see the brilliant Edmund cashiering his own soul to the much less brilliant Cornwall. Cornwall pathetically tries to buy Edmund by promising to be a father to him – a rather stupid ploy considering how the child/parent relationship has gone so far in this play. Does anyone have any doubt that, had Cornwall not finally succombed to his own toxicity, Edmund would have taken him down, too?

The most interesting line of this scene is the one Edmund says to himself (and to us):

Edmund: I will persever in my course of loyalty,
though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.

This is a shocking admission for our arch-villain Edmund to make. Is it to prepare us for his death wound conversion later? Is it to humanize him above the horrible Cornwall? I think this line serves many purposes. It humanizes Edmund, yes, but that very humanization in a sense makes his actions that much worse. In the same way that Macbeth is a more devastating tragedy than Richard III (well, for many people) because we are closer to the former protagonist than we can ever get to the latter, giving Edmund a bit of humanity here makes his actions more affecting than those of Cornwall.

Once out of the storm, Lear puts Goneril and Regan on mock trial. The same dynamic continues, with Lear out of his mind, Kent trying to talk sense, the Fool becoming more and more morose, and Edgar alternating between playing along as the judge and breaking out of his lunatic character, as here:

Edgar [aside]: My tears begin to take his part so much
They’ll mar my counterfeiting.

After a bit about dogs (I wish I knew what Lear meant by “Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart – Sweetheart is clearly Cordelia, while Blanch is Regan, whose approach to Lear is both cold and milky white. But why Tray for Goneril? Was Goneril the third child, with two others already dead?), Kent finally gets Lear to rest, and then the Fool utters his last line in the play:

Lear: Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains.
So, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ th’ morning. So, so, so.

Fool: And I’ll go to bed at noon.

It sounds like the Fool is planning on dying. There’s not another mention of him, though Lear – holding the dead Cordelia’s body – says “and my poor Fool is hanged.” More on that critical line when I get to it.

Edgar now comes out of his Poor Tom character for an extended soliloquy that closes the scene. Edgar feels that the king’s true madness is far worse than what he, Edgar, has experienced. However, what Edgar can’t know is that things are about to get much worse for Edgar and his father.

In Scene Seven, Cornwall calls for Gloucester’s capture. Regan wants Gloucester hanged. Goneril, however, is the first to voice the actual, horrible torture that Gloucester will endure:

Goneril: Pluck out his eyes.

But Cornwall takes control of the scene, first sending Edmund off with Goneril – believing that even someone as apparently cold as Edmund will not be able to bear the torture Cornwall is about to inflict upon his father. I’m not so sure.

Gloucester is brought in, and Cornwall and Regan begin the interrogation that is, of course, wholly unnecessary. Regan even says it, “we know the truth.” Gloucester names the very evil to which he is about to be subjected:

Regan: Wherefore to Dover, sir?

Gloucester: Because I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes;

And then Cornwall goes about inflicting just this horror on the old Earl. In one of the almost forgotten gems of this drama, an unnamed character stands up for the audience and says what we’re all thinking.

Servant 1: Hold your hand, my lord!
I have serv’d you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.

Regan: How now, you dog?

Servant 1: If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’ld shake it on this quarrel.

Regan: What do you mean?

Cornwall: My villain! Draw and fight.

Servant 1: Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.

Regan: Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus?
[She takes a sword and runs at him behind.]

Servant 1: O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!

[He dies.]

I don’t think the shock or the import of this encounter can be over-stated. In its statement about the world, this short segment represents the entire play. Consider: this man has served Cornwall since childhood; he must know what sort of dispicable characters he and his wife are. Cornwall is now essentially King of half of Britain. Certainly kings have done far worse than pluck the eyes from defenseless old men. And yet here (with King James watching, we must assume), a commoner rises up and says “this far and no further.” Yes, the servant is killed from behind by Regan, but in the struggle he fatally wounds Cornwall. This isn’t divine retribution, this is a single human, knowing he will lose, standing up for something bigger than himself. This man is a hero. If there is one role I’d love to play in a Shakespeare production, this is it.

And what is our hero’s reward? The dying Cornwall shouts it out:

Cornwall: Throw this slave
Upon the dunghill.

And the now-blinded Gloucester receives the cruelest line from Regan:

Regan: Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.”

Act Four

Edgar, miserable for the King, is on the heath. The blinded Gloucester comes in, led by an old man. Edgar now realizes the hurt that’s been done to his own father, and he nearly breaks down.

Edgar [aside]: O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was.

Old Man: ‘Tis poor mad Tom.

Edgar[aside]: And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

You will think I’m crazy, but to me this is an optimistic line, one of the most optimistic in the play. Edgar is saying that as long as we have breath, as long as we can speak, things are not as bad as they could be. Where there is life, there is hope. We must endure all, we must keep fighting for the good, keep fighting for life, no matter the odds. Anticipating Winston Churchill some three centuries hence, Edgar never, never, never gives up. So long as we can say “this is the worst,” we still have something to fight for.

Markus Potter as Edgar and Mike Hartmann as the Earl of Gloucester

After these asides from Edgar, Gloucester speaks a critical line that shows just how little he has learned:

Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

No, Gloucester, you don’t get it. The gods aren’t malicious. They are absent. It wasn’t the gods who blinded you, it was Cornwall. You were betrayed by your son Edmund. Remember him, the man you humiliated in the play’s first lines? The son you completely misread? Yes, him. We don’t need the gods to rip our wings off and squash us with their thumbs. We’re perfectly capable of creating evil all by our vicious little selves. The Beast is real; it is within us.

And now Edgar, who now anticipates Samuel Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” leads Gloucester toward Dover, where the old blind Earl plans to throw himself from the cliff.

My dear Cordelia is back in England. She is described by a gentleman:

Gentleman: Patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like, a better way. Those happy smilets
That play’d on her ripe lip seem’d not to know
What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropp’d. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov’d,
If all could so become it.

If this doesn’t make you hunger to know a character better, nothing will. We soon see Cordelia herself. Lear’s youngest daughter has very few lines in this play, but they are drenched with meaning. Whole productions can be made or broken by the casting of Cordelia. Just as in the opening scene of the play, we see Cordelia as both loving and fierce, someone who will speak her mind and take action. If there is hope to be found in this play (and I think there is), it must be centered around Cordelia.

Edgar and Gloucester reach Dover. After Edgar has used some more trickery to convince his father that suicide is not the answer, in comes Lear, completely out of his mind and therefore (as so often in Shakespeare) speaking at his most profound.

I feel totally unqualified to write about this amazing scene. But I’ll do it, anyway.

Lear describes himself as “Every inch a king” and then goes into a description of his duty as king to dispense justice. How as king can he condemn men for adultery when adultery is all around us? Adultery is only a crime because of the stories we humans make up. The deep question Lear is asking is what makes a king, indeed what makes man, so special that there should be laws and lawgivers, enforcers and criminals? Who are we to so order the world with our fictions? The job of a king, just like the job of every human, is an essentially impossible task. How do we find order, meaning, or justice in a world that is essentially disordered, devoid of meaning, and fundamentally unjust? Gloucester, realizing the voice he hears is that of the king, says:

Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.

After all, Lear is saying, we’re all just dirt, and we smell like it.

Even so, we try to rise above. And that, of course, is the point.

And then:

Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

Again we feel this deep connection to Macbeth, and that protagonist’s powerful words about the meaninglessness of life.

Macbeth: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We know that Macbeth got to this bleak place by way of his own terrible choices. Lear is headed there, too, but unlike Macbeth, Lear is not quite as alone as he believes himself to be.

And now in this, my favorite play, we reach my favorite scene. Lear is in Cordelia’s kind custody. When Cordelia tries to talk to her estranged father, he is at first still out of his mind. But then a remarkable transition occurs, followed by the most tender and emotional moment I’ve ever encountered in literature:

Cordelia: O, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

Lear: Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

Lear: Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Simple. Beautiful. In this play, full of such anger, such ugliness, such betrayal, and so many questions about whether life has a point at all, this one scene shows that we humans are capable of the most beautiful, sublime, lovely forgiveness. And maybe that is point enough.


Act Five

All this time, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Albany have been in a fierce struggle for love and country. Goneril, lusting after Edmund and his cool power, wants to replace her husband with the bastard. Regan knows it, but she (newly widowed) wants Edmund, too, and feels entitled. In her roundabout way Regan tries to find out if Edmund has “found my brother’s way to the forfended place.” What a lovely phrase for doin’ it! Edmund of course denies this conjugal wayfinding, and of course is probably lying, which is what he does, which is what Regan knows, which is why she lusts after him. Oh, complications!

But Edgar has obtained the letter that will doom all their plans. In yet another disguise, he brings to Albany Goneril’s letter to Edmund describing their plot. And now Albany has not just suspicions, but proof that there is a conspiracy against his life. Edmund is running out of time.

But gloriously we still have time for one more soliloquy from our unexpurgated villain. Edmund demonstrates here that he has no intention of letting anyone but himself triumph. Lear, Cordelia, Albany, and both the older sisters are all expendable, their lives subservient to Edmund’s needs. In Edmund’s world, everyone else is a temporary employee.

Edmund: To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d,
If both remain alive. To take the widow
Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;
And hardly shall I carry out my side,
Her husband being alive. Now then, we’ll use
His countenance for the battle, which being done,
Let her who would be rid of him devise
His speedy taking off. As for the mercy
Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia-
The battle done, and they within our power,
Shall never see his pardon; for my state
Stands on me to defend, not to debate.

And on to the battle. Shakespeare’s stage didn’t really lend itself to enormous battles. (“Oh, for a muse of fire!”) And here the battle, begun and ended in just a few lines from Edgar, is not really the point. This short scene gives us one of the great lines of the play, a line that, because it comes from the character we’ve seen Edgar become, sets this play in direct opposition to Shakespeare’s other great tragic masterpiece.

Edgar: Away, old man! give me thy hand! away!
King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en.
Give me thy hand! come on.

Gloucester: No further, sir. A man may rot even here.

Edgar: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.

In Hamlet, of course, the Prince says, “the readiness is all.” Here, Edgar says, “ripeness is all.” Big deal, what’s the difference?

All the difference in the world. Where Hamlet has become defeatist, nihilist, resigned to fate, “Let be,” Edgar is exactly the opposite. We must not give up. We must not surrender to the whims of history. If this play shows us anything, it shows us that there is no fate. We make our own destiny. We create our own world. We must rage against the dying of the light. Ripeness is a process. We grow, we change, we ripen, and what happens – well, we don’t know. We can do our best to make good things happen, but whatever comes we must endure it, we must struggle to the bitter end. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Cordelia knows this well. After her capture, she demands to see “these daughters and these sisters.” She’s won’t go gentle. But Lear, now transformed into the fond, foolish old man, says no.

Lear: No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too-
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies

Cordelia knows they’ll do no such thing, but she remains silent. We will not hear her voice again.

That phrase, though, “As if we were God’s spies . . .” You may have noticed (if you can remember that far back) that I titled this ramble with that phrase. In this play, again and again, we see no evidence of gods, or God. Characters are capricious, savage, idiotic, kind, valiant, and honorable, but there’s no pattern, not one, that shows God on the side of the angels or the devils. And yet Lear can use this phrase here. Why? Because he wishes to be like us! We are God’s spies. We in the audience, or reading along, or watching on DVD, are outside this drama (thanks to goodness!) We are watching, reading, being affected by this tragic tale playing out before us, and yet when it is over we will get up, walk out, and go on with our lives. And what will this play have shown us? Well, that’s for each of us to decide. More on that to come.

Lear believes he and Cordelia can become, like us, spectators, mere watchers of the play as it unfolds. Cordelia knows better, and her silence here is perhaps the saddest moment in the play. Or perhaps not. Things are about to go very, very wrong.

Edmund knows Lear and Cordelia stand in his way. They must be eliminated, or he can never claim the kingdom. And so he orders their deaths. “To be tender-minded,” Edmund tells the captain, “Does not become a sword.”

But Edmund’s double dealings are about to catch up with him. While Goneril and Regan vie for his attention, Albany reveals the letter, delivered by the disguised Edgar, that shows Edmund and Goneril in a conspiracy to kill Albany. Meanwhile Goneril has poisoned Regan. She is led away, and will soon be dead.

Edgar enters in yet another disguise, this time as an avenging knight. After an epic battle Edgar wounds Edmund, and then reveals himself, with a particularly nasty dig at both Edmund and Gloucester:

Edgar: My name is Edgar and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.”

Well, nobody’s perfect. Edgar really screws up here, as we’re about to find out. The gods, whoever and whatever they are, are anything but just. Gloucester lost his eyes not because he was an adulterer, but because he was an ass afterward. Edmund acted not from the “dark and vicious place” where he was conceived, but from the dark and vicious place Gloucester and society put him in. Yes, we make our own monsters, but not because the gods are just. We create them from ourselves.

We learn that Gloucester, on finding out that Edgar is alive and has been guiding him through the countryside, died of joy and grief at once. Next we learn that Goneril has taken her own life, and that before dying she admitted to poisoning Regan. Both are gone, and the dying Edmund says:

Edmund: I was contracted to them both. All three
Now marry in an instant.

And somehow, this realization that these two women so loved him, changes his character in one of the most dramatic reversals in all of Shakespeare:

Edmund: Yet Edmund was belov’d.
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself.

This whole thing seems odd – the arch-villain, so adept at tricking others to do his bidding, suddenly becomes all sunshine and light because two terrible women lusted after his loins. But then I think of how absolutely horrible Gloucester was to Edmund in the the play’s first scene. That always seemed out of character for Gloucester, but what if it wasn’t? What if Edmund had been subjected, again and again, to this sort of humiliation? Maybe all he wanted was a connection, and maybe the affirmation he got from Goneril and Regan really was enough for someone so hungry for it.

At any rate, Edmund sends everyone running to save Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late. In one of the most famous scenes in the canon, Lear comes in with four supposedly un-actable howls. I thought Sir Ian McKellan did pretty well with them, though I’d sure like for Patrick Stewart to take a shot.

Cordelia is dead. Her rescue came too late. Lear himself killed Cordelia’s executioner, but he is so distraught by Cordelia’s death that he has not much life remaining.

King Lear – On-The-Run 2014

Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d!

And here we have that famous confusion with the Fool and Cordelia. I think it’s Lear struggling once more to comprehend his reality. Cordelia was his dear one – this is the sense of “fool” at work here. And nothing is about to make one more appearance.

Lear: No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips!
Look there, look there!

[He dies.]

And now Edgar speaks the final words of the play. Here I believe he is finally abused of the notion that the gods are in any sense just. But does he really understand what has just transpired?

Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And that’s it; the most depressing and morose of all Shakespeare’s plays. Right?


What do you mean? Cordelia’s dead. Lear’s dead. Edmund, almost in a footnote, dies off stage just when it looked like maybe he’d try to reform. Add to these deaths Goneril, Regan (that’s all the Lear clan, in case you’ve lost track), Gloucester, Cornwall, Cornwall’s servant, Oswald, and maybe Lear’s fool (his death was made explicit in the Trevor Nunn/Sir Ian McKellan version). Even Kent sounds like he’s about to end his life. Quite the body count, rivalling Hamlet for dead-to-alive ratio.

All true, and yet I argue that this play is finally deeply, profoundly optimistic. Not optimistic in the conventional idea of a religious path to salvation, but in a completely different sense. It is optimistic because it recognizes that we humans have the power to make choices. Some of those choices are awful, and will often lead to awful outcomes. Others are good, and can still lead to awful outcomes. But they are our choices. No gods, no witches, no fairies or fates are choosing for us. We are choosing for ourselves. And we must live with the consequences of our choices. Ripeness is all.

But here’s the thing (there’s that phrase again!) Someone does survive King Lear. We do. We in the audience. God’s spies. Why does that matter? Because we can shape our lives. We can decide we don’t want the world Lear made for himself. We can look on that stage of dead bodies, destroyed dreams, fractured families, and we can make other choices. Maybe they won’t always be the right choices, but it’s only by learning about ourselves and our world that we can take these imperfect, fallible, uncertain steps toward a better future. We can create moments of sublime beauty, give birth to works of art that touch the soul, make scientific discoveries that cause our spirits to soar, and, most of all, love each other, forgive each other, touch each other, with simple, powerful, unconditional love. In the meantime, on the journey, we endure. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Thanks for reading.


I am optimistic again. Let me tell you why.

When I was very young, the world was an uncertain place. 1968 was a turbulent time, with an unpopular war, multiple political assassinations, and a steeply rising crime rate.

That fall would see the election of a president who would soon face legal pressure to resign. Protesters were shot by our own military. Domestic terrorism would plague the country for a decade.

Around the world, starvation was rampant, poverty seemed intractable, and an out-of-control population bomb promised to make these problems ever worse.

More than all this, though, we lived in the shadow of imminent destruction as two superpowers aimed nuclear death at one another. No one knew if democracy could survive the challenge of totalitarian communism, and at times it seemed that every country’s government faced the threat of violent overthrow, fueled by either our own Western governments or those of the Soviet bloc.

This is the world I grew up in. Now let’s look at today.

(By the way, I know many of you, of all political persuasions, will not believe what I’m about to write. You are convinced that things are terrible, maybe worse than ever. I urge you to look at the data. In particular, read books by Steven Pinker, David Deutsch, Matt Ridley, Max Roser, and Hans Rosling.)

The threat of totalitarian communism has disappeared. There were many reasons for its decline, but chief among them is this: liberal democracy is a better system. Democracy is ascending all over the world, because people want it.

The world is more peaceful than at any time in history. Yes, there are still wars, but nowhere do we have the level of violence and bloodshed that characterized the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century and the world wars of the early 20th century. The level of violence compared to these events barely registers.

In addition to international peace, we have domestic peace. Crime rates started falling in the 1990s and are still on the way down. I know it doesn’t feel that way. Again, I urge you, look at the statistics. We are far more peaceful today than we were only a few decades ago.

Poverty is plummeting. Not just decreasing – plummeting. Two hundred years ago 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. That left only 10% not in this condition. Today the numbers are exactly reversed. Only 10% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Certainly 10% is still too high, but surely this is monumental progress – particularly considering that in the 10,000 years of civilization that proceeded it no discernible progress was made at all!

And one feared result of all this peace, freedom, and prosperity – the fabled population bomb – has fizzled. It turns out that when people are healthier, freer, less fearful, and (maybe most important) better educated they have smaller families. They put more resources into the children they have. They invest in the future.

And that brings me to the point of this post. As Pinker writes, “The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

After World War II, the world in a sense said enough of this. We made warfare illegal. Yes, wars still happen, just as people still rob banks. But international norms and institutions prize peace and work hard to defend borders and pressure all nations into being good actors. By and large, it has worked. Again, if you don’t believe me look at the data.

We set up international trade networks. My leftist friends will hate this, but the fact is that trade works. It creates relationships that prevent violence. Gentle commerce has made the world not only more prosperous, but far more peaceful.

We committed ourselves to eradicating disease, ending hunger, curing poverty and teaching the world to read and write. We’re not there yet, but the trajectory is clear. It’s working.

And this is my point. When I was born in 1968, we didn’t know. The great experiment that followed the horror of World War II was still too new. We couldn’t be sure any of it would work.

Now, fifty years later, we know. The world is getting better. It isn’t an accident. It isn’t luck. It’s because the tenets of liberal democracy – free trade, gentle commerce, democratic institutions that protect not states’ rights nor national rights, but individual human rights – and so many others, are working.

There are still monumental problems – not least of which is how do we keep all this prosperity from destroying the environment. But as David Deutsch tells us, problems are soluble. Everything we try from here on out is an experiment – it’s never worked before. But we are in so much a better place than we were in 1968, because we have a record of what has worked to get us here.

I believe we need to stop making decisions based on ideology. Instead we need to become pragmatic. We need to base decisions on data, on hard numbers and facts. We have the ability to do so. We have the required knowledge to use as our starting point. We have the mathematical tools to analyze data and make decisions based on that analysis. We have the resources to check spurious claims and call them out for what they are.

When someone makes a claim, instead of reacting with a counter-claim that just feels right to you, I urge you instead to ask for data. What evidence do you have that supports your claim? You claim that illegal immigrants are overrunning the country. What is your data? You claim that crime is rampant. Data, please. You claim that free trade is destroying the economy. Let’s look at the numbers.

Beware of those claims you want to believe. Remember the easiest person for you to fool is yourself. Look at the data, question your own beliefs, and remember that, as journalist Sylvia Strumm Bremer wrote in 1950, “A lot of the nostalgia for the “good old days” is just the result of a poor memory.”

We are getting better. Let’s keep it up!

Elections matter. On November 4th, 2014, the Republican Party had a very good night. On that election night, the United States Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican control. Even so, a simple mathematical calculation in which states with two Democratic senators are counted as D, states with two Republican senators are counted as R, and states with 1 of each are counted half each shows that after this election approximately 53% of the country was represented by a Democratic senator, and only 47% represented by a Republican.

On February 13, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Despite warnings from the majority Republicans in the Senate, President Barack Obama switfly nominated a replacement in Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Merrick Garland. As is their right, the Senate declined to approve (or even hold a hearing for) Judge Garland. Note that while there was nothing illegal about this action, it was highly irregular, precedent-setting, and reflected the will of just 47% of the country (as argued above).

On November 8, 2016, The Republican Party had another good night. Despite seeing their Senate majority shrink, the GOP managed to hold on to a slim majority in that body. They also, of course, elected Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Still, with the loss of two more senate seats, the percentage of the country represented in the Senate by a Republican fell from 47% down to 44.4%.

Donald Trump dispensed with the Garland nomination and replaced him with Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch. Holding a majority in the Senate (and having done away with the filibuster rule, thereby preventing Senate Democrats from blocking the nomination), the Senate approved Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (remember, these senators represented less than 45% of the people)

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of President Trump’s travel ban. Associate Justice Gorsuch voted with the court’s majority.

Anyone interested in history and government should read the opinions – majority written by Chief Justice John Roberts and minority written by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. You can find these at the Supreme Court’s website:

Both are fascinating reading.

Chief Justice Roberts makes a very straightforward argument, though by including Trump’s own words about individuals of the Islamic faith, one could argue that Roberts is protecting his own historic legacy and forever damaging Trump’s. While Roberts points to all the discriminatory and inflammatory things Trump has said about Muslims, he finally concludes that it is within the president’s prerogative to make decisions such as this one.

Associate Justice Sotomayor makes a different argument. In forceful tones, Sotomayor argues that the motivation behind the president’s travel ban is unprincipled, based on religious bigotry rather than national security concerns. The Associate Justice cites the similarities between this case and the 1944 executive order imprisoning Japanese Americans during World War II. In both executive orders, national security was invoked without evidence to justify discrimination against a non-favored minority.

Sotomayor’s words are powerful and eloquent. I firmly believe that your children and grandchildren will be reading these words in future history classes. I’m proud to share a country with such a judge.

This case is a lovely demonstration of the different judicial philosophy with which we are struggling in this country. What one might call the Gorsuch or Roberts camp is reflected in Roberts’ argument. “The law is the law, what can be done?”

What one might call the Garland or Sotomayor camp asks us instead to look at our fundamental principles of fairness and equality. This is an old story in American history. We have always had high ideals, and we have always struggled to live up to them. All men are created equal. Does that include black men? Freedom of the press. Does that mean the press can criticize the government? Equal protection under the law. Does that mean women can vote? Does it mean gay couples should be allowed to marry? No establishment of religion. Does that mean Muslims and Christians should be treated equally when entering our country?

To its credit, the majority responded to Sotomayor’s citation of Japanese-American internment, saying it was “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” However, nothing the majority has done to curb the excesses of the current chief executive gives me any confidence that any of these five men would have opposed the internment order in 1944. It’s a lot easier to be on the right side of history three quarters of a century hence. What about today?

Finally, I’ll end where I started. Elections matter. If you have any lingering question about whether it matters who is in the White House, who is in the Senate, who is in the House, surely today’s Supreme Court decision has wiped those doubts from your mind. Elections matter. What sort of country do we want? One in which our Supreme Court ignores context, intent, and our deepest ideals, or one in which judges use plain evidence (such as candidate Trump’s call for a “complete and total shutdown” of one particular religion entering the country, in obvious violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause) to help us all live up to those difficult, deep, and precious principles?

We know exactly what sorts of judges each political party will give us. We also know that at least one party will use what can only be described as an unprecedented dirty trick to prevent the will of the other party from being exercised. So what sort of country do we want? Elections matter.

OK, I’m ready now. It took me all this time to get myself to where I could write about the most extraordinary theater experience I’ve ever had. It happened on June 12, 2018, in Stratford, Canada. I saw The Tempest.

If you’ve seen my ranking of Shakespeare’s plays, you know that The Tempest, while quite high on my list, is not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Even so, I’ve always loved it, and I’ve both read it and seen it multiple times. But nothing could prepare me for what I enjoyed on that lovely Tuesday afternoon.

Some background first. My amazing wife Julie surprised me on my 50th birthday back in January with an invitation to travel to Stratford, Canada to attend their annual Shakespeare festival. We’d always talked about going, and this would be the year. On Monday morning we packed up the car and made the long drive across the border. Canada is a beautiful country, and Julie tells me the PM is quite attractive, as well. But, sad to say, we didn’t run across him on our trip. Maybe next time.

On Tuesday we were to see the play in the Festival Theatre (Canada, you know) at 2:00 pm. As we settled into our seats and examined the playbill, we learned a few interesting things. First, Prospero’s “magic garment” for this production would be a patchwork made from all the other Prospero coats fashioned over the years for the festival. That was a cool touch. Second, Martha Henry, who would be playing Prospero as a woman, had played Miranda at the Festival way back in 1962. This will be important later.

martha henry prospero

Martha Henry as Prospero, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

I was a little reticent going into the play. First, I’d just seen a production of The Tempest last summer at Schiller Park in Columbus. I adore Schiller and love their productions, and while I really enjoyed their Tempest, their anti-colonialist message was heavy. I wondered if Stratford would take a similar approach. While I don’t dislike that message, I think I was hoping for something a little different.

Second, my good friend and Shakespeare mentor Alex had discussed the modern trend of flipping Prospero’s gender. This would be the third production of The Tempest I’d see with that change (Julie Taymor’s movie starring Helen Mirren and the aforementioned production at Schiller). Alex talked about how making Prospero female changes the dynamic with Miranda in particular, and he didn’t much care for the change. I wasn’t sure – I almost never am when it comes to artistic choices in Shakespeare.

Truth be told, I’m not a sophisticated Shakespeare viewer. I haven’t seen a lot of live performances, and most I’ve seen are local, community-type theater like those put on by Actors Theater at Schiller Park. While I dearly love them, they are not high-end productions. So I’m probably just awed by inexperience. So take this for what it is. From here on out, I will do nothing but gush.

This was, quite simply, the most moving experience I’ve ever had in a theater. I was moved to tears by the end of Act I of Wicked (Defying Gravity) last year on Broadway, so maybe I’m an easy mark. But this production of The Tempest left me utterly unable to formulate a word of English for many minutes afterward. I was sobbing, trying my best not to make a complete fool of myself in another country, and failing miserably. I felt like Julia Roberts experiencing opera for the first time in Pretty Woman. I was a mess.

Why? The stage was exquisite. They did so much with lighting, both built-in stage lights and directed lighting from all over the theater, seamlessly turning the stage from a sinking ship to a simple wooden-floored island habitation to an glowing, other-worldly, magical realm where spirits reign. The sound was exquisite – I’d read some reviews that said the actors were hard to hear, and while my hearing is about as good as a stone at the end of a runway, I could hear everything perfectly. The casting was delicious – Stephano (Tom McCanus) and Trinculo (Stephen Oulmette) were hilarious, Ferdinand (Sébastien Heins) was just goofy enough to make his character charming instead of insufferable, Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) was utterly convincing as a fresh and naive 15-year-old girl, and Michael Blake was the most vulnerable and sympathetic Caliban I’ve ever seen. That will be important later, too.

ferdinand, prospero, miranda

Sébastien Heins, Martha Henry, and Mamie Zwettler, photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

Ariel (André Morin) was beautiful and powerful as Ariel, and the harpy that he becomes is a special effect worthy of Broadway or Hollywood. I was legitimately terrified.

The actors made the play so approachable. Julie, who is not a big Shakespeare fan, afterwards said that she understood this play so well because the actors made it make sense. I agree. Even some of the language was substituted (“fever” for “ague”, for one example) to make the play more modern, without losing any of Shakespeare’s poetry and rhythm.

But those are all ancillary reasons. The biggest selling point by far (and I’m not denigrating anything else, just telling you what made this play so special for me) was Martha Henry as Prospero. She played an old and frail, but wise, loving, and so in-control Prospero that by the last act I was convinced that Shakespeare must have written this part explicitly for her, to be played in exactly this way. How could it ever have been otherwise?

The play was a joy, funny and touching and scary (Sebastian and Antonio almost had me convinced they were really going to kill the sleeping King Alonso), with beautiful music, exquisite costumes, and incredible effects throughout. I was hooked, on the edge of my seat as I probably hadn’t been since seeing Star Wars in its original run as an eight-year-old.

And then. And then came the scenes that quite literally stole my breath, made me dissolve into myself in a way no work of art has ever done to me before. Caliban, as stated earlier, wasn’t in this version the repressed native under the thumb of the colonizer. Instead he was vulnerable, child-like, and a touch sad. His speech about the island’s joys:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

had already brought me to tears. I felt after this speech that Caliban, despite his murderous intent and near-rapist past, was desperate for love. And aren’t we all?

prospero caliban

Martha Henry and Michael Blake, Photography by David Hou/Stratford Festival

As the play reaches it climax, Prospero and Caliban have a moment together. “This thing of darkness,” Prospero says of Caliban, “I acknowledge mine.” How would they play this? It was . . . I don’t know if I can find the words. It was . . . freeing. It was Prospero telling Caliban, I know what we’ve become isn’t just you. It’s me, too. It’s both of us, and I want it to be better. And then – and just writing it will make it seem condescending but believe me when I tell you it wasn’t, it was so beautiful – she kissed his forehead. I lost it. Even now, thinking about it, I’m in tears.

But wait. There’s more. Caliban is on his way off stage and Miranda catches his eye. They pause. No words, just a pause. It’s “We shared this island, we talked together, we lived together, we saw each other’s worst. And yet, you are you and I am me and we meant something to one another, and I will remember you.” And then Caliban is gone and the rest are gone and it is just Prospero.

I’d been wondering how they’d handle the epilogue. I love this epilogue and still remember it from the first time I saw the play at Schiller many years ago. To me it and the other great Prospero speeches at the end of The Tempest are Shakespeare telling us what writing plays has meant to him, and how he is tired now and wants a rest. But in Martha Henry’s hands, in her voice, in her action, it is also her career as an actor, from Miranda in 1962 to today, all the characters she’s brought to life, all the stories she’s told, all the magic she has spun, and it’s all the other Prosperos, all the other actors who’ve worn that coat, now buried deep under the island in another of the myriad astonishing special effects in this production.

And then Prospero finishes her speech, and she turns, and the lights on the stage lead into the sky. Prospero, more frail and fragile than ever and yet now of strong will and determined mind, reaches into the sky, into those lights, toward the hand of her freed spirit Ariel, who reaches down to lift Prospero into the heavens. And all goes black.

And I sob. I can’t speak. I’m on my feet applauding the moment the theater is dark, and I’m still applauding as the cast take their bows and Prospero/Martha bids us all once more to set her free.

I will never read this play the same way again. This performance touched me in a way I still can’t really fathom, and my life is so much richer for it.

That’s a pretty good 50th birthday present, don’t you think?

One of my summer projects is to work my way through a lecture series by Pamela Radcliff of UC San Diego called “Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy”. There is so much relevant information and so many deep ideas here, but I wanted to share one that touched me today.

In Lecture 18, Professor Radcliff discusses the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi and his efforts in India. In particular, I was struck by the concept of satyagraha. It means “the search for truth” and became the label for the passive resistance Gandhi urged on his followers. This is where it gets interesting.

The goal of satyagraha, according to Professor Radcliff, is to “change the heart of the enemy.” It includes “the commitment not to hurt anyone else in the pursuit of truth.” But this goes much further than you might initially think.

“Gandhi means non-violence in the broadest sense of the term,” Professor Radcliff says, “not just physical non-violence but emotional non-violence, as well. It assumes in a sense that there are no enemies, only wrong positions, and that the purpose of satyagraha is to really open the minds of the enemy to their wrong positions, not to beat or humiliate those enemies as people. So an ideal act of satyagraha touches the heart of the enemy, and brings him to see the light. It doesn’t bully or intimidate, or humiliate.”

Radcliff quotes Gandhi in his account of a mill strike, “With the mill owners, I could only plead; to fast against them would amount to coercion.” Even an act of self-violence would have amounted to coercion, and that’s not what Gandhi wanted. He wanted their hearts and their minds, not their defeat by any sort of force.

Naive? Maybe. But this really struck a chord with me, fitting with my primary philosophy – a philosophy that I must remind myself of daily. Teach. Gently. We are all teachers. We are all learners. Change is slow, sometimes painful, often all but invisible. But when I reflect on the progress our society has made – in civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights – just in my lifetime (I was born in 1968), I am impressed by human beings’ abilities to change their minds for the better. But it takes time.

Of course this isn’t a new idea. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” This is why that sentiment makes so much sense. Going high is aspirational. It is paving a path that might change hearts and minds. It is satyagraha.

So I don’t know the answer. I don’t know how we change hearts and minds so entrenched by fear and xenophobia. But I do know that when this horrible period of our history is over we will need to find a way to live together. I personally will try to practice satyagraha. I will try to remember that people are not my enemy, their wrong positions are. Maybe it won’t work at all, or maybe it will work – slowly, silently, changing one mind, one heart, one person at a time. I will try.

Of course, as always I might be wrong. What do you think?

I’ll say it again. Read the book. It has so much more to say than I have the energy or willpower to cover here.

I began my Facebook introduction to these blog posts with the central thesis of the book, which I will repeat here:

“(H)ow can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.”

Counting helps us escape our preconceived notions. It serves as an objective arbitrator. It shows us that our gut feelings and anecdotal recollections can give an inaccurate picture. It helps us to know ourselves.

“Remember your math,” Pinker tells us on the final pages of the book,”an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past.”

But it does mean that, by applying the ideals of the Enlightenment and our own ingenuity and compassion, we can make it better tomorrow. I believe we will.


Steven Pinker states in the introduction that his book is not about the Trump presidency. Fair enough, but for me reading it is and was a referendum on Trump, and solidified my reasons for despising this least enlightened of all presidents. This final entry on Enlightenment Now will summarize how Pinker (near the end of the book in Chapter 20) helped me solidify my opposition.

None of this, you’ll notice, has anything to do with Russian interference or conspiracy to steal an election. Did Trump cheat? Maybe, but even if he did, the fact remains that millions upon millions of Americans voted for him. It never should have been even close. The fact that it was is an indictment of our country, a sign that we, collectively, have failed to absorb the message of the Enlightenment. Maybe Pinker’s book will help.

Consider all the anti-Enlightenment stances Trump has supported.

Through the knowledge of the Enlightenment and the empathy it has helped foster, public health in America and across the world has improved. But Trump  supports withdrawing health insurance from millions and endorses debunked claims about vaccines causing autism.

The Enlightenment led to a globalized economy that has greatly reduced famine and extreme poverty, and is pulling more and more people into prosperity even as population continues to increase. Yet Trump supports protectionist trade wars and sees international trade as a zero sum game with winners and losers. He thinks trade wars are “good and easy to win” though there is zero historical evidence to support this claim.

The lifeblood of the improving world since the Enlightenment is innovation, education, infrastructure, and regulated financial institutions. Trump is indifferent to technology and education, supports tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the social safety net, and wants eliminate the regulations that stabilize the global economy.

The Enlightenment led to the greatest explosion of equal rights in history. Trump demonizes immigrants, tried to ban Muslims from the country, demeans women, tolerates vulgarity, accepts support from white supremacists and equates them with their opponents, and appoints people who are hostile to civil rights movement. And that’s not even to mention the “why do we want all these people from shithole countries” crack that came to light in recent months).

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuals and their welfare opened the door for the environmental movement which has been enormously successful in cleaning our environment. Trump’s administration is rolling back environmental regulations. Trump’s environmental appointees are both unqualified and hostile to environmental protection. Trump has called climate change a hoax and has withdawn the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Another gift of the Enlightment’s emphasis on the individual (one that, admittedly, took a long time to realize) is the personal safety we enjoy in public and in the workplace. But Trump is anti-regulation, saying he wants to kill two regulations for every new one. How many of those “killed” regulations contributed to the plunging numbers of workplace and traffic deaths?

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason leads to evidence-based policies for crime prevention. But Trump is contemptuous of experts and facts and prefers tough talk and his brand of common sense to those methods that actually work to reduce crime. Not surprising as one of his trademark lies was that crime is out of control and that only he can fix it.

Since the end of World War II especially, the world has seen how trade can cement peace. Trump villifies international trade and threatens to tear up agreements and weaken international organizations.

One of the cornerstones of the Enlightment is freedom of the press. Trump has kept up a running attack on the free press and wants to change libel laws to chill written dissent.

If the Enlightenment was one thing, it was a repudiation of violence as a way of solving disputes. Trump flaunts the rule of law. He encouraged violence against his critics, tried to discredit the popular vote without evidence, threatened to imprison his opponent,  and attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system when it went against him.

The Enlightenment was above all a respect for knowledge. Trump repeats ridiculous conspiracy theories and “sees public discourse not as a means of finding common ground based on objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance and humiliate rivals)

Most critically, since the end of Warld War II enlightened thinkers have supported a nuclear war tabo. Trump wondered why we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons and wants to renew a nuclear arms race that, before Trump, showed every signs of disappearing into the dustbin of history.

And, in the middle of this section on Trump, Pinker went there “Several members of Trump’s administration secretly colluded with Russia in an effort to lift sanctions against it, undermining a major enforcement mechanism in the outlawry of war.” (page 398)

The great hope that Pinker points to is that the president is not a dictator. There are checks on his power. I tend to agree, and rather than impeachment I hope we just get a president who is so boxed in he has nothing left to do, and then fades away in the 2020 election.

There’s one knock-down argument that pessimists can level at all the progress Pinker has pointed to so far. What happens when we’ve so damaged the Earth that no one, not the rich, not the poor, not the West, not the East, not Africa, not South America, no one can live on it?

You know what? You’re absolutely right. If we don’t solve our problems, we’re all doomed. So let’s solve them.

First, we have already come a long way. The Industrial Revolution filled the air with smoke and the water with sludge. Today, people fighting for cleaner air and water have made huge strides, so that rivers all over the planet are recovering, forests are being replanted, and a record amount of land and water has been set aside as wildlife and natural preserve. Though many problems remain, what the past 50 years have shown is that all these problems can be solved with a combination of government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and individual activism.

Except, perhaps, one.

That is the problem of human-caused climate change.

Most of our activities dump carbon dioxide into the air, and this extra carbon dioxide must warm the planet. If you want to debate that, go get your paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is simply a fact, and no reputable scientist can suggest any way in which excess carbon dioxide in the air will not lead to higher temperatures.

The question is how to fix it (and fix it we must, as, again, the scientific consensus is that this warming will be harmful, possibly devastatingly so). Solar and wind energy are nice, but limited, and require enormous swaths of land (reversing the trend mentioned earlier about preserving more and more land as natural space). Pinker’s most important answer is one I’ve long held (and again one that will cause my liberal friends to turn away): nuclear power.

I’ll be honest. I was first attracted to nuclear power because I think it’s cool. The idea that this esoteric nuclear phenomenon, the fission (or fusion) of atomic nuclei, along with Einstein’s E=mc^2, could be the answer to the world’s energy woes got my little physics heart pumping. One should always be wary of ideas one is especially fond of.

But nuclear power’s safety record is impressive, its lack of carbon dioxide emissions alluring, and the myriad ways that problems such as waste and proliferation can be dealt with is promising. Whether fission with thorium reactors and sodium salts or fusion with seawater and fuel from the Moon are the future, the promise of nuclear power as a solution to the very real threat of global warming is hard to pass up.

One inescapable fact about the world is that it doesn’t care what we think. If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the air and do nothing to mitigate the damage, we will see the results. No amount of science denial or nuclear fear will hold the water back.

In Chapter 9 of the book, Pinker tackles a difficult topic: economic inequality. While it is true that globalism and free markets have given the world as a whole amazing gifts such as increased literacy, longer life spans, and reduced child mortality, it is also true that in the West a certain portion of the population – namely, workers without a college education – have been left behind. Pinker shows a graph shaped like an elephant, showing how the greatest increases in income have come among the poor and very poor (the elephant’s back and body) and the very rich (the elephant’s trunk tip). The main portion of the trunk itself represent those members of Western democracies who were not among the wealthiest members of their societies – factory workers, farmers, truck drivers and so on – who have been hurt the most by globalization.

This is a tough problem and you need to read Pinker’s chapter among other things. I certainly am not going to solve the problem here. A few of Pinker’s main points:

  • Unlike poverty, inequality itself is not an evil. JK Rowling has a lot more money that most of us, but that’s because she invented something that made a lot of people’s lives better, so we paid her for it.
  • While it is true that the middle class in America is being hollowed out, a great deal of the hollowing is because people who were formerly middle class are moving into higher income brackets.
  • While globalization may have stifled earnings for some, it also has greatly reduced costs for all, so that the “poor” today are able to live in ways that no one in the past could (how much would George Washington have to pay for a cell phone?)

You may not buy Pinker’s arguments about economic inequality, but I hope you see the wisdom in his proposed fixes. These include dealing with the real problem, which is less outsourcing and more automation, which has and increasingly will change the ways that everyone interacts with the world of work. What are the answers? Basic minimum income? Negative income tax? Certainly, education and job training, as well as an expanded social safety net that includes guarantees for essentials like food, clothing, and housing.

Like so many of our problems today (and we will always have problems, but as David Deutsch said in The Beginning of Infinity, problems are soluble), the problem of economic inequality is one of abundance, not scarcity. Another problem of abundance, that of environmental degradation, Pinker tackles next.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
July 2018
« Jun    
A blog by Stephen Whitt

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 89 other followers