What possibility is there of finding topics of conversation fit for the entertainment of rational creatures without having recourse sometimes to history, poetry, politics and the more obvious principles, at least, of philosophy? Must our whole discourse be a continued series of gossiping stories and idle remarks? Must the mind never rise higher but be perpetually stunned and worn out with endless chat of Will did this and Nan said that? This would be to render the time spent in company the most unentertaining as well as the most unprofitable part of out lives.

– David Hume, “Of Essay Writing,” Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


Miss Sloane (2016)


ELIZABETH: Alright, everyone, listen up. I’m going to tell you a story.

PAT: Please no.

ELIZABETH: A priest is giving a young nun a lift home from church one day and as he’s shifting gears, he rests his hand on the nun’s knee.

PAT: This is offensive and inappropriate.

ELIZABETH: The young nun looks up at the priest and says: “Father, remember Luke 14:10.” The priest withdraws his hand, embarrassed. Next time they stop at a light, he places his hand a little higher up on her thigh. Again the nun says: “Remember Luke 14:10, Father.” The priest apologises. “The flesh is weak”, he says. So he drops her off and when he gets home, he reaches for his Bible and he flips to Luke 14:10. Anyone know what it says?


ELIZABETH: Hm? What does it say, Pat?

PAT: “Friend, come up higher, then shalt thou have glory.”

ELIZABETH: Know your subject, people! Failure to do so may result in the loss of a golden opportunity.

Nabokov, ridiculously, once dismissed Bellow as ‘a miserable mediocrity’, an evaluation based (I am confident) on slender acquaintance with his stuff; perhaps too he associated Bellow with the sort of Big Idea novels that Edmund Wilson would sometimes press on him. Besides, Nabokov clearly derived sensual pleasure from being dismissive: it is the patrician in him. At a PEN event his biographer, Brian Boyd, told me that on one occasion VN ‘marked up’ an anthology of short stories by various hands, giving an A-plus to Joyce (for ‘The Dead’) but giving Lawrence, and other writers of hemispherical reputation, a Z-minus.

– Martin Amis, Experience (2000)

Shall I be refreshingly different, stolidly middle-brow, engagingly naïve, candidly matter-of-fact, contemptuously sophisticated, incorruptibly sincere, sonorously pedantic, curiously fickle, youthfully wide-eyed? […] Should I play the profound truth-seeker, the seedy anti-hero, the crusty society-observer, the all-discerning beauty-appreciator.? No, I suppose I shall end up … just … being.… myself.

– Martin Amis, Experience (2000)

The Greek citizen was a polites—a member of a polis, a word that in time came to mean something like the modern “state” and from which, of course, our term “political” derives. But its original meaning was “citadel.” Greek citizenship was therefore based on a specific location, the polis—the city—itself and had no meaning beyond its walls. When Diogenes the Cynic was asked of what place he was a citizen, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world”—cosmopolites, a “cosmopolitan.” It was intended to be a snub, an insult to all forms of civility, not an expression of universalism. And if Lucian’s satire on philosophy, in which the cosmopolites is depicted as a ludicrous figure, is anything to go by, as late as the first century C.E. the idea that one could be a citizen without a city was, for the Greeks, still unimaginable.

– Anthony Pagden, Worlds at War: The 2,500 – Year Struggle Between East and West (2008)

Is it our place to judge? Does respect for a moral equal, even an asshole equal, require that we “judge not”? In judging that someone is an asshole, do we in effect appoint ourselves to a high court—itself an asshole move?

Not necessarily. If our theory is right, there exists a certain type of moral personality, and it is an objective matter of fact who is or who is not a person of that moral kind. To classify someone an asshole is not necessarily to swear at him but rather to represent him as the asshole he is, if only for the sake of understanding who the assholes are as distinct from everyone else.

– Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (2012)

There is a lot to be done about grave evil, from law enforcement to war to reorganizing social relations in light of the great and existential threat. In World War II, the Allied powers were galvanized into action, knowing full well that the costs would be tremendous. After the war, the nations of the world took unprecedented steps to establish a framework for political and economic cooperation in hopes of lasting peace. These grand efforts, which largely succeeded, were facilitated by the salience of great evil and a ready consensus about its unacceptability. The problem of the asshole, by contrast, is marked by obscurity, uncertainty, and lack of easy consensus.

– Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (2012)

There is a way of accepting life while finding much morally unacceptable about it. Hegel called it being “reconciled” to the human social condition. The question, then, is whether we can reconcile ourselves to a world of assholes. Can we be at peace with life despite the fact that assholes so often spoil it? Our answer is that we can, or at least that there is a decent argument for it. Not only do we have reason to respect many of life’s givens, the human condition leaves room for reasonable hope for an acceptable social world. It leaves room for hope in part because the extent of asshole profusion is not simply given but to a considerable degree up to us, a matter of the kind of societies we together choose.

– Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (2012)

Pity those–adventurers, adolescents, authors of young-adult fiction–who make their way in the borderland between worlds. It is at worst an invisible and at best an inhospitable place. Build your literary house on the borderlands, as the English writer Philip Pullman has done, and you may find that your work is recommended by booksellers, as a stopgap between installments of Harry Potter, to children who cannot (one hopes) fully appreciate it, and to adults, disdainful or baffled, who “don’t read fantasy.” Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, “serious” and “genre” literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power.

– Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (2008)

We tell ourselves comforting stories about the innocence of former times, and cherish the ambition to curl up in the past – but a doctored past, from which the grim bits have been carefully excised. And then, when we wake up, we mourn the loss of a dream.

– Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (2014)