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If you're so smart, why are you dead? [Dec. 25th, 2012|01:10 am]

I've been talking to some reactionaries sort of in the Moldbuggian tradition recently and asking what seems to me the obvious question: "why think past societies were better when all the statistics indicate our society is?"

I've gotten some good answers that I'm still thinking over, of which many seem to be along the lines of "We're doing better, but not nearly as much better as you would expect from our greater technology and economy, which suggests what better science giveth, worse politics taketh away."

One particular argument I heard, which I found fascinating, was this: classical Athens had a population of about 150,000 people. The modern Anglosphere has a population of about 450,000,000 people, ie about three thousand times that of classical Athens.

But classical Athens gave us, all within a single human lifespan, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Within a single lifespan it gave us Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. So if modern society were just as good as classical Athens, we should be producing a thousand Platos and Sophocleses a generation.

It would be a matter of opinion whether our greatest living philosopher and author are up to Athenian standards (for comparison: a quick Google search suggests Saul Kripke as a consensus candidate for greatest living philosopher and Cormac McCarthy as greatest living author). But it seems pretty clear, at least to my friend, that we don't have a thousand Platos and Sophocleses (actually, his analogy was a thousand Shakespeares, which is less phonetically awkward than Sophocleses, so let's stick with that).

So his argument is that since Plato/Shakespeare rates are only a thousandth what they were in Athens, modern society must be doing something very wrong, either in poor education, stifling creativity/forcing conformity, or having terrible institutions for patronizing the arts and sciences. Even if "classical Athens" or "Elizabethan England" are too high standards, one would at least expect us to do better than a tenth of one percent of the genius rate.

And I had a few thoughts on that.

1. Low-hanging fruit effect. I think most of the mathematicians I know, if asked, could invent a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem they'd never heard before (although no doubt it would have been discovered somewhere by someone). I wouldn't be surprised if there were a million people in the Anglosphere who could do this. On the other hand, there was only one guy who could prove Fermat's Last Theorem, and even he had trouble.

But Pythagoras was justly hailed as one of the great ancient mathematicians for his discovery. Granted, coming up with the idea of the theorem in 500 BC is harder than proving it when you already know what you're looking for and have all of modern mathematics at your disposal, so give him credit for that. Still, if someone asks "Where are all our Pythagorases?" it seems reasonable to point to all of the people who can do what Pythagoras did but receive no recognition for it, at the same time as we're recognizing people who solve vastly harder problems.

2. Ancients weren't really that great.

Back when I was first getting into atheism I remember hearing a lot of people say "Sure, the Bible is brilliant literature and contains amazing moral teachings, it's just not factually accurate." And then many years later for the first time I heard someone assert "The Bible's actually not that great, as literature goes. We just hear it so often that it gets worked into our head as a paradigm example of how literature should be, and then judge it as brilliant because it fits the paradigm so nicely." And although we are impressed by Biblical turns of phrase like "the blind leading the blind" and "let there be light", some of them were just common ancient proverbs that happened to be captured in the Bible, and others, when you think about them as just normal turns of phrase and not as the deep archetypes that they've become, are just kind of normal. What finally convinced me of this was hearing Muslims rave about the literary brilliance of the Koran - I've tried to read the Koran, and it's one of the worst-written, most uninspiring books I've ever seen (yes, I know people say it loses a lot in translation. But the Bible's also translated.)

There was an interesting experiment I can't find right now where they separated teenagers out into artificial communities and gave them various media of the sort teenagers like - let's say albums by different bands. After enough time, some albums had become popular in each community - had attained "classic" status - while others languished forgotten. But the "classic" albums were different in each community - it had less to do with any real quality and more to do with chance as popular people spread them and they became loved precisely for their familiarity.

If you gave me a play by Shakespeare, and a play by let's say the fifth best playwright of Shakespeare's age, and I'd never heard of either and I didn't know enough Shakespeare to be able to see his "signature" in works and guess it was him, it doesn't seem obvious to me that I would rate the Shakespeare play as vastly better. If I read through the "to be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet without knowing it was supposed to be the greatest passage in English literature, I'm not even sure I would stop reading long enough to think "Wow, this is an abnormally good soliloquy here".

And don't get me started on Plato. The man basically made the most basic philosophical mistake possible - just going around, reifying everything. It's like the Platonic archetype of philosophical mistakes. His political theory was "What if we just give philosophers control of everything, that'll work out, right?" It may be that in ancient times, with their lack of exploration in philosophyspace, even discovering such interesting mistakes like these is an accomplishment. But I don't know if they rate making him the greatest philosophical genius of all time. That's just an effect of him being Old And Therefore Venerable. If you're making a movie, and you need to show one of the characters is Very Sophisticated, you have them reading a book of Plato's Dialogues and everyone goes "Oh, that character is very Sophisticated. Got it."

3. Limited demand. Literature scales really well. If there's a civilization of a million people, then one great author can have her book read by all one million people. If there's a civilization of a billion people, then one great author can have her book read by all one billion people. If people read a constant number of books per year by different authors (let's say five), and each author puts out a book per year, we only need the same amount of authors to satisfy a tiny population as we do to satisfy a large population. Therefore, we would expect a smaller proportion of the large population to be authors - five out of a billion vs. five out of a million.

In practice that's not exactly what happens. Everyone has different tastes, so even if one book is "best" it might not be best for everyone. We can get slightly more authors by having them pander to different tastes and genres, still more authors by taking advantage of random noise (in reality, not everyone is going to buy the one "best" book, because some people just won't know about it and will buy one with a shinier cover) and so on. But in general we would expect proportionally fewer authors, and much fewer famous authors in the modern 450 million person Anglosphere than in 150,000 person Athens.

If we actually had a thousand Shakespeares, that wouldn't change the fact that there's a market for maybe a dozen new big Broadway shows per year. It would just mean 988 of those Shakespeares would have to languish in unpaid internships and eventually quit and give up and work at Starbucks while a mostly randomly selected twelve of them make it big.

Likewise, as the philosophy community gets bigger, it will have to do some combination of either faction into subdisciplines or just talk about a handful of the most famous philosophers. In the first option none of those philosophers will ever gain the status of Plato ("Ooh, you addressed some problems of ontology within a Continental meta-anarchist framework, big deal") and in the latter once again only a few people will ever get fame.

4. Perceived arrogance. I thought of becoming a philosophy grad student, once. If I had, I would have kept my head low for several years, found a subsubspecialty, and written journal articles about it. I probably wouldn't have tried to completely reinvent our picture of the world, because then people would have laughed at me. It would be like "Who do you think you are, Plato or somebody?" People who try to completely reinvent our picture of the world never get tenure, which is why all the really creative work I've seen lately has been on blogs.

But if you're Plato, you don't have to worry about that. No one had even tried to come up with anything as ambitious as his theory in his own time. If someone had asked "Who do you think you are, Plato or somebody?" he could have just said "Yes, I'm Plato" and everyone else would have been like "Oh, right."

I don't know whether all of these things are defenses of modernity rather than perhaps the very critiques of modernity that a reactionary might dislike. For example, there are so many people in fields like philosophy that realistically to have any chance of making a name for yourself you have to subspecialize in a much smaller field. This makes logical sense, but it also means that status competitions prevent anyone from being a generalist to the same degree Plato was.

And status competitions in fields with too many people also tempt people to come up with flashy (rather than good) ideas. I think a reactionary would complain that you couldn't just be Sophocles and write an awesome tragedy about a Greek myth today. You'd have to set it in 1940s Brooklyn, and the whole play would have to be performed in the dark, and it would all have to be a metaphor for colonialism somehow. And it is true that in a world with so many playwrights competing against each other, it's more important to stand out, and what people do to standout today becomes a prerequisite of not looking stodgy and conservative tomorrow, and eventually things get ridiculous. But I don't think our political institutions, or anything about modern society is to blame for that. That's just what happens when you have too many wannabe playwrights in a society.

But I still don't think the original point is correct. The reason we don't see a thousand obviously Plato-caliber intellects running around is a combination of low-hanging fruit and the fact that we judge people by fame. That leads us to overestimate Plato, who was a big fish in a small pond, and underestimate moderns who don't get famous simply because there aren't enough easy big problems or enough fame to go around.

"If you're so smart, why are you dead?" may be silly, but "if you're so smart, why aren't you famous" might be more dangerous.

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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-12-25 09:37 am (UTC)
Also, classical Athens was a city which produced an unusual number of people who became famous. It wasn't a typical city of the time. It's also not as though every classical Athenian century turned up major geniuses.

It would be more fair the ratio of people doing brilliant work in the whole ancient population to the whole modern world.

One more angle on greatness, though I'm not sure if it affects the odds: people with sustained fame seem to show up in groups-- presumably they need to play off each other and/or favorable background conditions.
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[User Picture]From: katsaris
2012-12-25 05:58 pm (UTC)
As a further thing of note, isn't Athens the example of the ancient world that could be said to share the modern Western system more than any other ancient state?

Not completely of course, not by far, but with its proto-democracy and protecting the lives of even slaves (Xenophon complained that you couldn't even "just strike" slaves in Athens, and a citizen could be given the death penalty if they killed a slave), and its focus on citizen-produced art and philosophy, its society seems to me much nearer in values to us than Sparta or Macedon (or Persia or Ancient Egypt).

Edited at 2012-12-25 08:05 pm (UTC)
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From: deiseach
2012-12-25 10:13 am (UTC)
I'd disagree with you about Shakespeare, because I first read a play of his ("Hamlet", as it so happens) of my own accord when I was fifteen because all I knew about him was that he was A Great Playwright who wrote in verse.

From my experiences with the kind of verse that the school curriculum pushed upon us as being Great Writing, I expected that the language of "Hamlet" would be difficult, obscure, and most of all - dull and boring. However, I decided to give it a try because at least this was a version in modern English and how bad could it be?

And it blew me away. This is going to sound like hyperbole or a metaphor, but it's the literal truth: I heard bells in my head while I was reading it. The words were all striking against one another and chiming and I was gone. I expected a dull, worthy, boring Olde Tyme Authore and I got "This guy really is all they say he is!"
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-25 11:59 am (UTC)
OTOH, not all of his plays are "Hamlet".
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[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-12-25 10:31 am (UTC)
Sure, Ancient Athens may have given us some impressive dudes, but have you considered 20th century Hungary? Maybe it's just an earlier case of martians :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-25 09:54 pm (UTC)
Explain? What is/was modern Hungary like?
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[User Picture]From: Eliezer Yudkowsky
2012-12-25 10:32 am (UTC)
I don't particularly get the impression that famous old writers are better than good modern ones. I have no idea if Neil Gaiman would, in the absence of a Singularity, someday be as famous as Dante. I do know Neil Gaiman is a vastly better writer.

As for Plato being a good philosopher, pardon me while I laugh myself into a coma, but I believe you pointed that out as well.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-12-25 12:57 pm (UTC)
Bits of the Divine Comedy are lovely.

But something is really *wrong* with La Vita Nuova, as far as I can tell. Like, either he was thirteen or he was having a mental breakdown.
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-12-25 10:40 am (UTC)
Plato was a wrestler. It's a bit like the words of Jesse Ventura making it to the next millenium.

Speaking of which sports analogies are probably useful for this argument, since high school athletes the world over probably demolish older world records on a routine basis. The dude who ran the first marathon collapsed and died after running it*, but we even let women (!) run them nowadays, despite the risk of their wombs falling out.

*To be fair he did fight in a pitched battle right before.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-25 03:10 pm (UTC)
Sports are a wonderful example, because they're a case where not only has improvement over time been massive and obvious, but it's still denied by nostalgic fans. If you can't convince people things are better in sports performance, you really can write them off as hopeless malcontents.

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[User Picture]From: whichferdinand
2012-12-25 11:16 am (UTC)
But classical Athens gave us, all within a single human lifespan, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Within a single lifespan it gave us Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. So if modern society were just as good as classical Athens, we should be producing a thousand Platos and Sophocleses a generation.

Another argument about this is to say that it's not really that amazing that Liverpool, withing a single decade, gave us John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe.

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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-26 07:32 am (UTC)
Another reason: Modern philosophy, math, and science often is much harder to read and of less general interest than ancient equivalents even though it's just as important. For example, I haven't read the Quantum Physics sequence because I don't think I care. Most people do not care whether or not eigenvectors have been invented. And don't get me started about traditional Modern Philosophy

One thing that the reactionaries might be right about is that recently a variety of philosophical fields may have self-destructed due to the realization of the Great Colonialist Mistake and the politicization of basically everything.

Suppose that in old days there are actually FEWER geniuses than today. If fame is a finite resource that must be shared, then it may appear that there are very few lastingly famous geniuses today when there actually are, but people stop caring about them after a generation.
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[User Picture]From: estland
2012-12-25 11:33 am (UTC)
Their success could be based on media they used. Moving away from clay onto papiri (not sure about spelling). All ancient texts including Bible, which we still learn are from this media type.

As for assessment of our age, the future generations will eventually move on, it is a matter of time when it will happen, so when 20th century becomes sufficiently ancient first space endevor still be a milestone
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-12-25 12:03 pm (UTC)
I forget which Plato I tried but I gave it up for the giant logical holes in it. Democritus and Epicurus seem much better but history didn't exalt them.

AIUI Shakespeare's status hasn't been continuously high.

I'm not in a position to judge the Greek plays. But I know there's a strong classicist component in elite Euroculture opinion, exalting the Classics and denigrating 'vulgar' alternatives.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-25 02:40 pm (UTC)
If you give up on platonic dialogues because there are problems in the reasoning then you're missing the point.

Would you give up on any other work of fiction because the characters make mistakes or have wrong ideas?
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-12-25 01:15 pm (UTC)
I don't actually buy the low-hanging fruit in the sciences, because I can *see* low-hanging fruit sitting around unplucked. I think there are things broken in the system.

I don't know about art, I'm less qualified to judge there, though I suspect we *have* artists of the caliber of the ancients, in even greater quantities, and it just goes unread because there's a huge backlog and attention is scarce.

I think average technique in some fields relentlessly gets better over time (athletics are a clear example; I believe also chess; possibly math -- at any rate the amount of math you're supposed to learn in school has got hugely more advanced). However we probably trade off technique and originality to a large degree. It's not so much that we don't have Pythagorases because geometry has already been invented; it's that the Pythagoras of *some other field* would be laughed off as not doing real math because he's playing with elementary, non-rigorous methods on a topic that nobody else was even studying.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-12-25 06:35 pm (UTC)
Put it another way: we don't have aristocrats today.

Now, aristocracy was a pretty horrible thing on net because it kept most people peasants and slaves by force.

On the other hand, it was a pretty sweet deal for the aristocrats. They were encouraged to develop their skills to the utmost. In some cultures (Vedic India, classical Athens, the Royal Society in the late 1600s) the small group of people in an aristocratic culture were at a really high level intellectually and even physically and socially. And they were free (culturally/psychologically free, not just legally) to tinker around, to play intellectually, in ways that enabled some of them to invent whole new fields of science and philosophical paradigms. Aristocratic culture is focused on living well, being an excellent person, and doing things...it's what people would be like if there were no higher-ups left whose approval you could chase. But no matter how rich you get today, no matter how privileged, you can't join an aristocratic culture that gives you that focus on all-around arete and freedom. I haven't met the super-rich, but I went to college with some pretty rich kids...and they were just as needy and plugged into the system as anybody else.

We have enough wealth in modern society that we could probably afford to include more people in aristocratic cultures/communities, if anybody were willing to build them. It wouldn't necessarily have to include the whole serfdom/slavery aspect. You could sustain a free lifestyle on a lot less effort than most smart people usually spend making their living, if you managed to create a cultural reality where *you* and your pals were at the top of the food chain and there was thus no need to gain someone else's stamp of credibility (e.g. "I'll be a real professional if I become a lawyer.") If you could get 150,000 more-talented-than-average people to actually believe they were aristocrats, they'd probably perform more like Classical Athens.
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[User Picture]From: xiphias
2012-12-25 01:38 pm (UTC)
Athens had a leisure class which was expected to fill its time with intellectual pursuits. You've got a very small population of citizens, who are supported by a very large underclass class.

You get a lot of stuff done in those cases.
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[User Picture]From: ice_hesitant
2012-12-25 01:55 pm (UTC)
If you want to get a lot of stuff done. You can also very easily get nothing done. See all the great intellectual accomplishments of the Roman Empire and its Latifundia system.
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From: danarmak
2012-12-25 02:46 pm (UTC)
Modern society has many more pursuits where people people succeed in proportion to their intelligence. We don't have as many great philosophers as ancient Athens for the same reason ancient Athens didn't have as many great physicists, biologists, engineers, mathematicians, programmers, ... as us.
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From: michaelvassar
2012-12-25 11:21 pm (UTC)
Engineers? Really? They built Ancient Athens. Compare it to modern Athens! Not to mention the ships and military stuff. I think they had a fair number of mathematicians, but their main job was inventing math, not impressive proofs.
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From: michaelvassar
2012-12-25 11:22 pm (UTC)
Are you serious? I can't tell.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-25 03:16 pm (UTC)
Honestly, the Moldbuggian/NuReactionary/etc. cluster around Less Wrong/SIAI (at least in the case of Michael Anissimov), is one reason why I am very reluctant to ever give them a cent of my money.

I simply don't know what to make of any of it. I'm an economic historian, by training anyway. This (http://stevereads.com/img/per_capita_income_great_divergence_from_farewell_to_alms.png) is the world I live in. And when someone looks at that and says "Yep, monarchy is the answer" or "boy the Catholic church had a great thing going!", I don't just disagree but I'm left so utterly bewildered as to what they thing the problem is that it's difficult to even respond.

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[User Picture]From: sanba38
2012-12-25 03:52 pm (UTC)
OK, let's talk about the real reason we know about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle got this job tutoring a prince in a minor kingdom. The king conquered all the Greek city states, and the student, Alexander the Great, conquered a bunch more.

If Aristotle hadn't tutored Alexander the Great, wouldn't Socrates just be some pesky old man who used to annoy people in the marketplace and deserved what he got?
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-25 04:01 pm (UTC)


low-hanging fruit in mathematics: Yes, it is hard to assess Athenian mathematics because mainly what they did was invent the idea of mathematical proof, which stayed invented. (In particular, they were not the first to state the Pythagorean theorem.) But moving out from Athens to the greater Greece, Archimedes seems very impressive. It took thousands of years to follow up on much of what he did, whether it continuously survived or recently resurfaced.
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[User Picture]From: max_i_m
2012-12-25 08:45 pm (UTC)

Re: dk

Wel, but there was one Archimedes. And then one Newton, one Gauss, one Ramanujan, one Grothendieck, one Gelfand, one Witten.

The problem with arguing about low-hanging fruits is that until they are picked they are hidden. To me it seems the only reasonable thing to do is look at the history of picking up until now. In that sense math seems to have fewer as time goes by - there are a lot of beautiful things discovered, but that's because people are climbing higher and higher up the tree.

As a side note, this is also why I'm a bit confused by celandine13 comment about low hanging fruits in the sciences. Perhaps she is referring to newer sciences - low hanging fruit in machine learning (something I know little about) would not usually be counted as low hanging fruit in mathematics. Ditto for other "new" science areas.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-12-25 05:13 pm (UTC)
I will add that, historically, there is a tendency to overvalue the average merit of past works, because we only KNOW of the BEST past works. To take my own specialty, I have read some really great Interwar science fiction stories. Since I began producing and editing Fantastic Worlds, I have published some of them. And, I have also read some amazing garbage that managed to get published in the Interwar Era. I'd never encountered the bad Interwar science fiction before because I'd only read the anthologies, and only the better stories get anthologized.

Now, I'm drawing my stories mostly from Astounding and other major interwar sf magazines, no less. That means I'm picking from the best Interwar science fiction. There were far worse stories written, which ran in obscure magazines, fanzines, or didn't run at all. Ever wonder what it must have been like to be Harry Bates or John W. Campbell reading the slush? I think I know now why Campbell cultivated his famous "stable" of writers!

Also, whole genres get stigmatized or trivialized. I personally think that, for instance, J. R. R. Tolkien stands the comparison with the greatest writers of the 19th century and before. More controversially, I think that Dreamworks and other modern animation studios are producing comedy and drama as gripping and (sometimes) timeless as anything done by the Elizabethans or the Ancient Greeks.

I am currently reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and I am awed at rediscovering the complex characterization, the elaborate worldbuilding, the complex plot (two major story lines, involving three disctinct civilizations, which weave together into one by the story's end), and the awesomely philosophical themes. It compares favorably with anything ever done by H. G. Wells or Jonathan Swift, to name two prominent writers of very different classic science fiction tales.

But do we (well, most of us) think of this as "great" on the same scale? Do we even think of it as being as good as, say, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series or Robert A. Heinlein's "Future History"? No, because we grew up awed by Sophocles and Shakespeare and Twain and Campbell and Clarke, whereas A Deepness in the Sky is so recent that a child born the same year would now just be beginning to form his opinions of literature.

More, do we think of Western science fiction as being "great" on the same scale as Elizabethan or Classical Greek drama? No, because we are living now in the time of its production, so we see it warts and all: we read anthologies including huge piles of steaming cliche-ridden crap and sometimes fail to notice the flowers that grow from the fertilized fields. Anyway, it's harder to make a mythic being out of a writer you can meet at a convention or argue with on Usenet than it is to idealize Jane Austen or Christopher Marlowe or Aeschylus.

Here is a Great Truth:

We are living in a Golden Age of Civilization, and not just a Golden Age but perhaps the most productive humanity has ever known.

And we won't realize it until it's over. Which hopefully will be long after my own time in life has ended.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-12-27 03:59 pm (UTC)
Have you read Shippey's Tolkien: Author of the Century?
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