Letter to Kaladin, or a musing on the peculiarity of fiction

You should be able to understand the gist of this piece even if you haven’t read the Stormlight Archive; you just won’t get a few jokes and some of the more specific irony. But do be aware that there are some indirect and some small spoilers for The Way of Kings.

Dear Kaladin,

I would like to introduce you to somebody very important. His name is Brandon Sanderson, and he is the source of all your miseries.

Photo by Captain Demoux

Brandon was the one who killed Tien, and who made Amaram murder your spearmen. Brandon was the one who decided to bring Roshone to your hometown, and Brandon was the one to give Roshone the idea to force Tien into the army. Oh, and Brandon also killed Dunny, Maps, and Narm, and he’ll probably kill you too someday. Unfortunately, Brandon lives in an entirely different universe, so you can’t do anything about it. (But at least he’s darkeyed.)

You see, I hate to break it to you, Kaladin, but you’re actually a fictional character. You kind of don’t actually exist. Somebody made you up in his head and wrote down about it, and now little copies of you live in lots of people’s heads with slightly different physical features based on the age and gender of the person involved. (If you have trouble believing this, ask Hoid. He knows a lot of other very interesting things, too.) It’s sort of like a shared hallucination. Come on, isn’t that cool? You’re a shared hallucination! I can’t say that about myself. Anyways, so this guy Brandon Sanderson has a kind of overactive imagination, so one day he created you and decided to start making all those agonizing things happen to you because he was bored and besides, he needs to make money somehow and he didn’t want to be a surgeon.

The nice thing about being imaginary is that you’ve got an all-powerful creator watching over you who can turn your life around whenever he wants. For instance, you may be interested to know that in your original incarnation, you took the Blade and Plate of that Shardbearer you killed, and it was okay. In fact, you got to go to the Shattered Plains and have an entertaining time outdoing everyone in the army with your awesomeness while becoming best buddies with Adolin, then finally saving the Kholins from treachery in a whirlwind of magical Shardbearing coolness. But then Brandon decided that was too boring and made you an enslaved bridgeman instead. Now that particular example may not be particularly encouraging, but just think, Kaladin – if Brandon could make your life horrible just because he decided to, he could certainly make your life wonderful just as easily!

But you shouldn’t worry about it anyways, Kaladin. Your almost being driven to suicide was really all for the best. Because now you have a huge fan club over in this universe! Tens of thousands of people pay Brandon so they can watch you be “forced to forsake healing to fight in the most brutal war” and “struggle to save [your] men” as the advertisement on the back of the book says. Some of us use your woes for entertainment when we have to go on really long train rides and we can’t stand looking at the scenery and sitting on seats without nearly enough padding anymore. Others like to watch you narrowly escape death while they’re stuck in their houses because it’s raining so hard outside that they might actually get wet if they went out. I, for my part, had a lovely time reading the scene where you see Tien die while I was baking cornbread and had to sit and keep an eye on the oven temperature, because I own an awful oven that can’t even hold its temperature. (The cornbread turned out very nicely, by the way.)

But this might make it sound like we don’t really care about you or take you seriously. Oh, no! You can be sure that many of us care about you deeply. Some take your future welfare so seriously that they spend hours and hours thinking, writing and drawing about who you should marry. (I think you should go with Shallan, by the way.) Others are more concerned about your health, so they diagnose the exact mental and psychological disorders that you face and prescribe what you need to do to handle them. We also tend to get into arguments over these subjects, because after all, it’s extremely important to be right and to convince everyone else of what’s right so we can best help you. Who knows what terrible damage could be done to your soul if some idiots ship you with Syl!

Then there are the fans who admire your grit and determination and want to be like you, so they dress up as you and go to big meetings where they have to wait in really long lines for Brandon to write his name in copies of books he wrote about you. After all, he’s the one who gave you reasons to display your grit and determination. And then there are those of us who are so committed to you that we put Bridge Four sticker decals on our cars. Never mind that they decrease the resale value of those precious objects – as we sit and drive around the country in air conditioning, and as we stop at gas stations, rest stops with public bathrooms, and fast food chains, we are showing that we stand with Kaladin Stormblessed in his pain and suffering and his commitment to making the world a better place. Even better, we can pay Brandon to get hats with your slave brands on them so we can wear the hats and advertise our choice to be nerdy and cool whenever we want!

Kaladin, I am truly sorry for all you have gone through, and it really is a shame that Brandon had to do all that to you so he could make some money. Alas, happiness doesn’t sell. But I want you to remember, no matter what you go through – no matter who dies or who you fail, no matter who you lose or who betrays you, no matter what apocalypses, catastrophes, disasters, agonies come your way – you’ve entertained thousands of middle-class suburban nerds, not to mention a few urban ones, and they’re cheering for you. Cherish that, Kaladin. Don’t let anything get you down, because you’ve got a fan club. And after all, Brandon Sanderson’s going to die someday and leave you in peace.

Moral Dilemmas and Human Weakness

Warning: This essay brings up quite a few questions, but it doesn’t really give any clear-cut answers. So if you hate it when an author does that to you, don’t read it! Also, I’m writing to a Christian audience that already believes we should, more or less, take the Bible literally. So I’m not going to take time arguing for why to believe this; I’m just going to assume that you do already and work from there. Of course, even if you don’t believe in Biblical literalism, you might still enjoy the essay.

Imagine that you are a Christian living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. You have compassion on the Jews there that are suffering under the Nazis, so, wishing to help the poor and oppressed as the Bible charges you to, you hide a Jewish family in your home. Now imagine a group of Nazi secret police show up at your door one day and ask flat-out, “Are there any Jews in this house?” Well, yes, there are. But are you going to tell them and so compromise the safety of the people you are trying to protect? Or will you lie? You could try to avoid the question or answer it in a misleading way – for instance, you could say, “No, there are no Jews here,” reasoning to yourself that “here” doesn’t necessarily mean the whole house. But if the police are being careful, they will keep pressing until you have to give a straight answer or else reveal that you’re trying to hide something. And you may not be able to think of a cleverly misleading response in the heat of the moment. So what should you do? Lie and presumably save a life? Or tell the truth and presumably condemn a life?

The world is full of confusing moral questions like this. You might be able to somehow explain away the lying problem above – for instance, by citing the example of the Hebrew midwives that “feared God” who lied to Pharaoh when he asked why they were letting the Hebrew baby boys live. But even if you can deal with one question, there are many, many more that still remain. For instance, is it alright to kill an evil man – say, a ruler who is executing thousands of people without any justification – in order to save other people’s lives? Is it right under God’s law to abort a baby if, as far as you can see, both the mother and the baby will die if you don’t? What can you do to answer these difficult questions in a way that glorifies God and upholds His truth and law?

Many people argue that we must just follow the law literally and trust God to work out everything for good. After all, you can’t be completely sure that telling the truth to the secret police, or letting the evil ruler live, or not aborting the baby will end badly, because God can take care of those situations and make them work out for good. And even if things do turn out badly, God won’t hold you responsible according to this way of looking at things, since you did your part and obeyed the law in faith. When you decide to take things into your own hands and lie or kill or do something else against the law, on the other hand, you are not having faith in God, one could say. Rather, you’re relying on your own prediction of what bad thing will happen and your own judgment of what wrong thing is therefore right to do, and so trying to do good by your own strength. You could see it this way: God gave us a set of laws that serve as limits to what we can righteously do. If we cannot achieve a worthy goal – such a stopping the murderous activities of an evil ruler – within those limits, then evidently God doesn’t mean for us to achieve it. So instead we should in faith leave it to God to figure out another way to further good, whether that involves accomplishing the goal some other way or not. If we rather insist on reaching that goal, even though it requires breaking God’s law, we are, according to this view, arrogantly putting our judgment of what’s important to accomplish above the limits God has established.

The problem with this response is that it tells us to ignore our God-given common sense in order to stick to a literal law – a law that we may very well be misinterpreting in an effort to have faith in God without allowing ourselves to be led astray by our fallen intellect! Now, we are indeed fallen, and so our minds are corrupted and tend towards evil. But God gave us minds back in the day before the Fall, so there must be something good about them. And even now after the Fall, God very often appeals to our sense of logic and reason in the Bible – take Paul’s careful theological arguments in his epistles, for one. And we are to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. So while we need to be careful to not let our minds get in the way of faith, we must also be careful to not let our concern with maintaining our faith to get in the way of using our minds for good. It is a delicate balance. The above response to moral dilemmas, now, encourages us to suppress our minds in an effort to have faith. Is this a time when we should be keeping our minds from obstructing our faith? It’s hard to know, for, as I said, it is a delicate balance.

Some other people fall on the opposite side of the balance and say that this business of following the law literally is ridiculous. We’ll cause much harm by taking everything literally, they say, missing the spirit of the law in order to follow the letter of the law. In this way they commendably try to prevent the foolish, empty legalism that God so often condemns in the Bible. But many of these people then throw out absolute morality altogether and say that good and evil is completely relative – sometimes killing someone is evil, and sometimes it’s good; sometimes lying is evil and sometimes it’s good; etc. – nothing is innately good or evil. And when you say that anything can be either right or wrong, it just depends on the context, eventually you have to ask, “Well, what makes something right or wrong in the first place?” But in this system there are no absolutes of rightness and wrongness…so is there really any right or wrong in the first place? If you take this relativistic morality to its natural extent, you end up having no right or wrong at all. And that definitely contradicts the Bible, which is full of moral judgments and statements of absolute truth. Relativism also puts our sinful minds in charge of what’s right and wrong, and ignores or at least sidelines what God has to say on the issue. So while the approach of following the Bible literally and blindly trusting God may be foolishly suppressing our minds, this approach elevates our reason to a point where we must dispose of absolute right and wrong altogether. Neither is fully satisfactory.

Still other people, not wanting to have the shortsightedness that seems to result from a strictly literal obedience, but also not wanting to succumb to relativism, try another route. They rank God’s commands by importance – for instance, they might rank “Do not murder” above “Speak the truth to each other” – and then say that when we are faced with a situation where two commands seem to conflict, the right thing to do is to disobey the lesser one in order to follow the higher one. But disobeying the lesser one is not wrong, since we are only obligated to pursue the greater good. Quoting Norman L. Geisler: “God does not blame us for what we could not avoid. Thus he exempts us from responsibility to follow the lower law in view of the overriding obligation to obey the higher law.” (From http://equip.org/articles/any-absolutes-absolutely-/) In this view, there are still absolutes, since there is an absolute hierarchy of laws. Others say that there is only one absolute law – the law of love – and so that always comes first.

But these approaches nevertheless put an outside, human-created framework on the laws of the Bible. The system of ranking God’s commands imposes a hierarchy on His laws that Scripture never fully develops, if at all, and the “law of love” system demotes the other laws given in the Bible. They say, “Well, the Word of God seems to say this, but we smart and reasonable humans have figured out that actually you should interpret it like this.” Again we are forced to ask: how much should we use our God-given but fallen minds, and how much should we set them aside and focus on having a simple faith? And again I say: it is a delicate balance. Our arrogance constantly pushes us towards saying, “No! We can figure things out with our own minds!”, while our tendency to control and regulate ourselves in a hopeless effort to combat sin, to say “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as Paul writes in Colossians 2:21, pushes us towards restraining our minds and fearfully enslaving ourselves to worthless rules. What is tipping is the balance? What is crossing the line? Different people come to different conclusions.

To me, it seems that the relativistic approach is definitely out; taken to its logical conclusion, it flaunts the moral judgments that pervade the Bible and just does not fit with our natural sense of right and wrong, the law written on our hearts discussed in Romans 2:15. The approach of literally following the Bible and seeking faith over reason, on the other hand, appears much more Biblical. After all, there are many times in the Bible when God tells people who believe in Him to do things that seem foolish or even evil, requiring them to have faith. Consider the story in Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for instance. But this approach is still is difficult for me to accept. It seems foolish and legalistic to insist on following rules such as those to not deceive when things that seem more important are at stake, like people’s lives. Yet when I find this approach difficult to accept, is it because God has gifted me with a thoughtful mind, or is it because my sinful nature is resisting the idea of having to trust God more and trust myself less? How can I tell? Meanwhile, the approaches I discussed that try to take the middle road – the system of hierarchical commands and the “law of love” – also seem much more Scripturally tenable than relativism. But they still do not satisfy me because they, like relativism, elevate humans to a position where we can interpret the law in non-obvious ways. Is this a right position? Maybe. I don’t know.

Or maybe I’m approaching this issue in an unhelpful way in the first place; maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Perhaps there is not One Big Answer to these moral dilemmas, one all-purpose strategy for dealing with them. Perhaps we should approach each separately, studying the morality of lying to save lives apart from the morality of killing to save lives, for instance. Or maybe God meant to not give us all the answers, so we would have to rely on Him in moments of crisis instead of comfortably working out a whole ethical system beforehand. But again, I don’t know.

This brings me once more to the theme that seems to pervade this question of how to handle moral dilemmas: should we rely more on intellect or on faith? How much should we second-guess and re-interpret and explain ourselves out of literalness and build fallible human systems for understanding the Bible, and how much should we set aside logic and the principles of the world and go forth in blind faith and stubbornly stick to literalness even when it goes against common sense? How much should we qualify God’s commands and say, “Well, you don’t have to do it in this situation” and build systems of exceptions and special cases, and how much should we insist on absolute, literal obedience even when it seems downright stupid? How much should we trust in our predictions of the future and our ability to successfully avert “greater” evil by doing “lesser” evil, and how much should we just do whatever we’re sure we should be doing and leave the future entirely to God and rely on Him to work everything out? How much is arrogance and how much is foolishness? How much is indifference and how much is fanaticism? How much is eleven divided by zero?

Clearly, these questions are not easy to answer. But they can make us aware of one of our human weaknesses: our tendency to either arrogantly elevate our minds or foolishly and fearfully suppress them. And when we are aware of our weaknesses, we can more easily take them to God and say: “Look, here I am, a very messed up human being. Can You please give me the grace to deal with these weaknesses? Because I know I can’t.” Unfathomable questions like these can remind us that we can’t do everything and remind us to ultimately rely on God. And so however we choose to explore them, and however we try to answer them, we should do it in a humble manner, sensitive to what God is saying, aware of our weaknesses, eager to seek grace to compensate for them. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we can never find all the answers, God will ultimately be glorified.

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – A brief, emotional response

The Penultimate Peril – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12
Author: Lemony Snicket
Pub Date: 2005
Pages: 368
Format: Audiobook

Wow.

All I can say is, I did not expect anything like this when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I first came to this series after reading and enjoying a number of other books that reviewers said were similar – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and others. I read reviews of The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, but came away thinking that it sounded rather mediocre. And besides, I thought, if I read the first book, I’d probably want to read the other twelve, and thirteen books is an awful lot to read just for one mediocre series! So I didn’t pursue getting it. But then my sister also read reviews of The Bad Beginning and decided on her own to borrow it from the library and read it. And then it was left sitting out. And, well, if a book is sitting out that I’m at least mildly interested in, and it’s entertaining, and especially if it’s short, well, I’ll end up reading it. So I did. And then my sister borrowed the next few books and left them sitting out, and I read them too. They were short, they were entertaining, they were fun, but they weren’t particularly exciting. It was only around book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, that I became really interested. And then I was the one who convinced my sister to borrow book 7, and then once we were done with that, I convinced her to borrow book 8… Well. At that point I was indeed quite curious as to what was going to happen, and I felt the books were getting more clever, but the series was still rather…well, flat. Small. It was only later on that things began to grow into something genuinely engaging. Book 9 had some wonderfully chilling moments. And then book 10, The Slippery Slope, was the first book of the series that I found truly beautiful. Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, far surpasses that.

But why do I find it beautiful? What do I find beautiful in a book, anyway? Consider this.

The fact is that the world is full of light and dirt. Love and disease. Beauty and death. In other words, wonderful things and horrible things.

The world is also full of emotions and mathematics. Whimsy and science. Randomness and fractals. In other words, messy, confusing things and neat, orderly things.

Bad books ignore this multifacetedness. They focus too much on the light and the emotions, maybe, resulting in something fluffily idealistic. Others maybe focus on the dirt and the emotions, resulting in shallow angst. Or perhaps it’s an overemphasis on dirt and mathematics, resulting in a coldly, voidly horrifying dissection of evil. Or light and mathematics, resulting in an unbelievably orderly piece of soulless theory.

Good books, on the other hand, recognize both the light and the dirt, both the emotions and the mathematics. They look them in the face. They may not look them completely in the face, or very obviously in the face. But they accept the world as it is. And then, acknowledging that huge, messy storm of light and dirt, emotions and mathematics, they say something. They find meaning; they find a theme running through the storm.

That’s why I love books that have elements of darkness in them. Yes, a book that is all sweetness can have good points in it, can have truth. But I will be far more willing to listen to a book that can see the darkness, because I feel that it actually acknowledges the world as it really is. It is not creating some idealized fantasy and then getting a message out of that, a message that the author has only proved to me will work in that idealized fantasy. No, a good book takes a real world and gets a message out of that. And by using a real world, the author has said to me, “Look, this is important for you, because you live in a real world. You need to pay attention, because this is your reality.” *

I loved The Penultimate Peril, and more than that, I found it beautiful, because it does this. It acknowledges the ugliness of the real world even as it portrays its loveliness and humor. And then, from that picture, it gets a message, it finds a meaning, it traces a theme.

Now, it’s not perfect, of course. After all, perhaps the most distinct meaning one gets out of The Penultimate Peril is that there is no meaning in the world – it’s just a terrible, chaotic conglomeration of unfathomable mysteries. And it has other flaws, too. The Penultimate Peril is not going to become my favorite book. It’s probably not even going to go on my (very informal) list of favorite books. Rather, it will join many other books I’ll read this year that I found beauty in; books that left me with a feeling, a feeling, a very powerful feeling that there’s something deep and intense inside, even if I don’t understand it quite yet. Something deep and intense under all the random funny bits and sad bits and good bits and bad bits. Much like the world itself, I’d say. And that’s what makes those books beautiful. They mirror the world. Imperfect, lovely, chaotic, hilarious, sad, happy – messy. But with something meaningful, perhaps many things meaningful, just underneath.

There. Now you’ve seen my light-and-emotions side. Hopefully once I’m actually done with the series I’ll write a more full, analytical, dirt-and-mathematics review. But for now, I’m enjoying the thrill of a book that has really made me feel something.

And so…go forth and read!

*Now, when I say “real world,” I don’t mean to say that fantasy novels or other books set in imaginary worlds can’t achieve this. Not at all! Rather consider this: A good fantasy world is realistic, no? And what does realistic mean? It mean it’s believable. It means it fits with our experience. And if it fits with our experience – well, then maybe it has relevance to our experience. It has applicability. And so if an author creates a believable fantasy world and gets a message out of that, when I see the realism of the imaginary world, I see the parallels to my own world, and I see the need for me to listen to the message.

Are well-read people less likely to be evil?

If you would rather listen to this essay, here’s a recording of me reading it.

I recently listened to the tenth book of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, The Slippery Slope, with my sister (and enjoyed it – this series definitely improves as it goes on!). As we were listening a week or so ago, I came across an interesting thought. In the bit we heard that evening, the main characters meet a mysterious boy who seems to want to help them. However, they’re not sure if they can trust him, so they ask him if he can try to prove to them somehow that he’s trustworthy. The boy proceeds to define an unusual word that one of the protagonists had used, explaining that he knew it from having read extensively, and then says, “In my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil.” The main characters, though they do go along with him, aren’t so sure; I’m not either. The fact is that many people (especially educated people, oddly enough!) do seem to believe that educated, well-read people are more likely to be good. But I, for one, don’t think this is the case. Here’s why.

First of all, let’s consider: what do books give you in the first place? Besides entertainment and other such more transient things, books give you experience. You get to live in the shoes of the characters and see what they see, as in most novels. Nonfiction books can also describe true events that then can become part of your experience. In addition, books can give you ideas. You may hear the characters or the author expounding their thoughts and opinions, sometimes arguing for them, sometimes just mentioning them. Often a narrator will interject little side comments, e.g. Nick saying that “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” in The Great Gatsby. This whole question of whether well-read people are less likely to be evil comes from an idea a character expressed in a book, as I explained, and goodness knows Lemony Snicket interjects plenty of other comments into his narration throughout the rest of the series. Nonfiction books also often have ideas; for example, I read a book once, called The Genesis of Science, which argued that “the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilization: modern science.” That’s an idea, not a hard, provable fact, since “laying a foundation” for something is a rather abstract, mushy concept. Of course, books can also communicate facts, which is the whole point of most textbooks, for instance. So books can give us experience, ideas and facts and so increase our knowledge.

Experience, ideas and facts are all tools we use to gain wisdom and figure out what the best course of action is. For instance, say I have the experience of putting a wool sweater in the washing machine and then finding it shrunken.1 From this experience, I might come up with the idea that putting a wool sweater through a washing machine cycle shrinks it. Then, after I consider existing facts, such as that the sweater was fine before it went through the wash cycle, I could come to the conclusion and believe as a fact that a wool sweater will shrink if you wash it in a washing machine. Now, following from this experience, idea and fact, I could become wiser and know that next time I want to wash a wool sweater, I had better not put it in the washing machine. I have gained wisdom from experience.

The wonderful thing about books is that you can gain experience, come across ideas, and learn facts that you could never have in your own life. For instance, I recently read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I could never have the experience of a young German man serving in World War I myself. I doubt I’ll ever have any experience being in a war in the first place. But through this book, I could experience a bit of what it was like to fight in a war. I also found ideas in this book about the evil of war and its impact on the young, and facts about the actual mechanics of the fighting. Nonfiction also can give you experience, ideas, and facts that you could not come across in your life. Take any of the books I’ve read on linguistics. In them I can find experiences linguists have had studying various tongues, ideas about how humans think, and facts about how humans use language, things I would never have found out or thought of on my own. Fiction or nonfiction, books let somebody gain far, far more experience, ideas, and facts than they could on their own. And with this larger base of knowledge to draw from, people who are well-read are better able to gain wisdom; they are better equipped to figure out what’s true or what makes sense to do.

But no matter how much experience, ideas, and facts books give you, and no matter how much wisdom you garner from these things, books cannot change your heart and actually give you morality. Experience, ideas, and facts, from books or otherwise, can help change your heart, for sure. But you are going to have to take the initiative to actually work to change yourself. You can’t just read the right books or see the right things or think the right thoughts or understand the right facts and automatically get a good heart. For instance, say a small country gets miserably defeated in a war and is left wrecked and weak. The ruler of that country could see the desolation, have compassion out of a good heart, and conclude, “War is evil. I had better make my country neutral and try to promote peace among our neighboring countries to avoid something so horrible happening to anybody nearby again.”2 Or that ruler could look at the destruction and feel anger and bitterness out of a bad heart, and then say instead, “That country that defeated us is evil. I’m going to do everything I can to destroy them just as much as they destroyed us, if not more.” That one ruler could work from the same experience, the same ideas, the same facts, and still come to very different conclusions, all based on what is in his heart. But whichever path he chooses, because of this experience, he is more well-informed to better do whatever his good or evil heart desires. If he’s a good man, he could use this experience to better understand the plight of those caught in a war so he can help them more effectively. If he’s an evil man, he could use this experience to better understand how to most hurt his enemies. And there’s the rub. Being well-read gives you more experience, more knowledge, and more wisdom, so that you are better able to do what you want to do, but it can’t change what you want to do in the first place.

Now, reading books can definitely help make people want to change. I feel more compassionate for refugees after reading novels set in refugee camps. I feel more eager to promote peace after reading novels about wars. I feel more anxious to be zealous for God after reading nonfiction about great Christian thinkers. Etc., etc. Books can do this just as actual experience can – I could also feel more compassionate for refugees after meeting and getting to know some, or be encouraged to work harder for peace after witnessing the destruction of war first-hand, or want to be more zealous for God after actually meeting a great Christian. And, as I said, with books, you can get more experience and so on than you ever could in real life, giving you more impetus to change. But you will still need to have a heart that is willing to change in the first place. I would certainly agree that quality books, if read well and thought about carefully, will encourage people to reconsider their views and examine what they think. But books alone cannot change somebody’s heart so that they will actually choose the right thing after examining and reconsidering. Books can’t change your heart. They just make you more aware and more wise so that you can more firmly and successfully pursue whatever your heart wishes to.

So I would say that being well-read makes a person more clever, more aware, not less evil. And if somebody is evil, I would say that being well-read would make him or her more quick to justify his or her evil, since again, good reading can make you closely examine what you think and believe, and so prompt you to justify it. A man who is not well-educated or well-read who steals bread to feed his family is not likely to bother carefully justifying his thievery before he carries it out. He just wants to take care of his family, and that’s a good enough reason for him. He is not concerned with having watertight logical reasons for everything he does. I, on the other hand, would have to go through a great deal of ethical wrangling before I could ever be comfortable with stealing something, mostly since my education has taught me to have those logical reasons for what I do. Another, trickier example: in many third-world countries, if you steal or murder or otherwise commit a crime, you get punished, and that’s an end of it. In America and other such more educated places, however, while criminals are certainly still punished, people tend to look for justifications for why they couldn’t help but commit that crime. Maybe the offender came from a poor background. Or was abused as a child. Or got bullied into doing something wrong. Often this can lead to a sentence being softened. Now, I’m not saying that this is wrong; I think it is good to be aware of what may have encouraged somebody to commit a crime and then try to get rid of those evil influences.3 I’m just saying that in more educated places, we tend to look more for justification. So then well-read people tend to be more concerned with having reasons for what they think, since they tend to examine themselves more, so to speak. And so in the end, I would argue that well-read, well-educated people are more artful, more alert, more careful to think things through and argue them out – not less evil.

I have seen this in my own first-hand experience growing up in third-world countries but coming from a middle-class American background. Where I live, a place where people are less educated than they are in America, there is more straightforward crime and evil like murder, robbery, bribery and the like. But these wrongs are recognized as evil by most of society. For instance, even though almost everybody pays bribes, and many people also take bribes, they will say that this is bad – most only continue doing it since they feel they have no other choice. Contrast America. I would say – and I know this will offend some people4 – that living with somebody before you’re married is wrong. This is accepted as wrong in many cultures. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen – of course people still live together before marriage sometimes even in more conservative places. But it is still recognized as wrong by most of society, again, often even by the wrongdoers themselves – they just shrug it off or ignore it. In more-educated America, on the other hand, many people have thought it through and come up with rationalizations for it. And so now many (if not most) Americans would say that it’s not wrong to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage. Such people are educated. They see value in justification. Which is great – it’s good to think things through! – but they’re using their education to make it easier to do wrong. If their hearts were in a good place, they could have used the tools their education gave them to come up with reasons not to live with somebody before marriage and so make it more difficult to do wrong. Again, being well-read, and being well-educated, makes it easier to do whatever your heart wishes to do in the first place. So to sum things up, people do bad things in both poorly-educated and well-educated countries: just they do different bad things, and the people in the well-educated countries are much more concerned with explanation and rationalization.

Now, there may appear to be data contradicting my argument, namely figures showing that crime rates are lower in more educated (and so presumably more well-read) places. First of all, you can do a great deal of evil that isn’t crime, per se – you can deceive, mock, slander, hold grudges, and do a number of other things that can cause tremendous strife in a community without actually requiring violence on your part. Even just considering crime-type evil, again, if most of the population tends to justify certain types of wrongdoing, then there probably won’t be laws against it, and so it won’t count as a crime. Additionally, more educated people generally have a much easier time getting jobs, supporting themselves, etc., and so have a lesser chance of feeling that they must resort to crime, no matter how evil their hearts may be. Finally, more educated people, being more aware of the world they live in, probably have a better sense that they’ll get punished if they commit a crime (if this in fact is the case) than somebody who is not as well-educated and not as aware of the consequences awaiting criminals. A person aware in this way would probably then work out his or her evil desires in ways that are not technically criminal: once more, a well-read and well-educated person will, in my opinion, be more careful and artful in whatever he or she does.

So now you’ve seen how I think. Well-read people, I believe, are just as evil as those that are not well-read: they just work out that evil in their hearts in different, often cleverer, ways thanks to the additional knowledge they have. But this conclusion does very much come from my belief that people are evil at heart, even though they do have some good in them. Somebody who thought people were good at heart might quite reasonably conclude differently. This opinion of mine also comes from my belief that human knowledge, which we find in books,5 can only get us so far – indeed, it can often mislead us – and so books alone, having only human knowledge in them, cannot lead us as high as we can go. In some ways, this ties into another theme I’m seeing being developed in the Series of Unfortunate Events: we can never know everything, we can never really be sure of anything. I do think that we humans on our own can’t know everything or be completely sure of anything. But I also think that as a believer in Jesus, I do have something more: I have the absolute truth God gave us. I have a basis and a foundation of something I trust to be completely true to depend on, something to support me even while all other knowledge is unsure and can be challenged. God’s absolute truth also gives me a set of assumptions that I can work from, a set of postulates from which to argue. As I have explored philosophy and science and the rest from both secular and religious viewpoints, I have realized more and more than no matter what you think, you are going to need to assume something. If you believe there is no God, you are going to need to assume that somehow all the matter that makes up the universe came into existence by itself. But if you want to explain the existence of matter spiritually, you’re then going to need to assume there is a God. To get anywhere productive, you’ll need to have some supposition to work with; you’ll need to have faith in something. And I, myself, have chosen to have faith in Jesus and the Bible – not the limited human reason and knowledge that I can find in books.

1We are discussing a question brought up by the sweatered scout, after all.

2By the way, I’m not trying to say that this is the best idea, or that it’s not, for that matter. The point is that his heart was good and so he had compassion; there are multiple sensible ways he could work out that compassion.

3Consider Luke 17:1-2 (NIV here): “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.’”

4Let me just note that if I come across somebody who has done this, I do not run away screaming OH NOES EVIL PERSON GOING TO HELL. I see somebody who, just like myself, has a sinful heart that needs to be changed and who should be loved. Somebody who, before God – and God’s opinion is really the only one that counts – is more or less in the same position as me. Not somebody who should be ostracized or pointed out as Especially Bad.

5Other than the Bible – again, in my opinion.

How I think

This was originally an essay I wrote for school, meant to be a self-portrait.

I cannot enjoy anything without creating something with it. I can’t read stories without writing stories; I can’t sing songs without making up songs; I can’t knit things without writing knitting patterns; I can’t study languages without constructing languages; I can’t learn history without creating imaginary histories for fantasy worlds. But for me, creativity is not limited to the realm of play. It is a central part of how I learn and how I think. Creating – languages, worlds, whatever it happens to be – helps me learn; the creating and the learning both feed into each other and improve each other.

For instance, perhaps I want to study some large, tricky historical question in depth. Maybe I want to explore the question of whether democracy is a good form of government. I would begin my study by looking for facts pertinent to this question – statistics and first-hand accounts that showed where and when democracy was successful or unsuccessful. But if I were being a true scholar, I would not just glance at the facts and come up with a simplistic analysis, such as “Democracy works well in America.” I would try to find all the small ways it has succeeded or failed, and more than that, the cases where one could see it either way. In other words, I would have to look for complexity, not shy away from it, in order to properly address the question. Creating things has helped me realize and appreciate the complexity of the real world, and has made me eager to search it out. For instance, when I construct languages, I do extensive research on how natural languages work so I can create realistic – but unique – structures in my own languages. I want to find all that complexity because I want to mirror it myself; I want to understand it so I can then play with it. And it is the same when I seek to answer a difficult question: I try to understand the facts so I can “play with them” – think them over, move them around, try different arrangements to find an explanation that fits them. Creating languages has given me both practice with this process and a delight in those details.

The next step in a study of something controversial would be to look for the varying opinions on the issue and how they consider it differently. But again, I could not fall back to simplistic analyses and decide that one faction’s opinion is all wrong and another’s is all right. Most likely, both have their strong and weak points. And I must suspend judgment for a time in order to fairly listen to their arguments, putting myself in their shoes and trying to perceive how they see the facts fit together. When I work on my imaginary world, I do much the same thing. I create a fanciful political issue, then imagine how different parties might respond to it. I try to think like the different segments of my imaginary populations, exploring how they could see the same issue in different lights. In this way, I can practice my ability to see what another person sees with imaginary issues that are generally not emotionally charged. Then, when I need to consider contentious questions, I am better prepared to calmly and fairly explore even offensive opinions. Again, creating has given me practice and an interest in how people can see things differently.

After this, I would judge the opinions I have seen, considering them critically now that I feel I understand how somebody could believe them. And once I have done that, I can draw a conclusion, picking and choosing among the opinions I have found to build an idea that most comfortably fits with the facts. I have found my imaginary world to be helpful for exploring the ramifications of various ideas and so coming closer to forming my opinion. For instance, I have created countries with all sorts of governments, including many different shades of democracy. Whenever I focus on one imaginary country to develop it more, I try to thoroughly investigate its government and determine what its strong and weak points would be. Then I imagine what the social consequences of these strengths and weaknesses would be. Naturally, I can never be completely right – only studying real countries will yield true results of what happens with different governmental systems. But the exercise of trying to find the positive and negative aspects of imaginary political systems has helped me to be able to better analyze real political systems, as well as ones in the real world that have so far only been proposed. So in this way my imaginary world has once more proven itself to be useful as a testing ground to explore ideas, this time critically.

Finally, once I have taken a position about a difficult question, I want to express it. Normally I will write an essay or a research paper explaining my thought process and the judgment I came to. But my imaginary world lets me additionally express my opinion in an artistic way, much like I could through a story. Even though I can’t easily show other people my imaginary worlds and let them see the ideas contained within them, it is still fulfilling to create something beautiful to myself with truth I believe I have discovered. These two forms of expression, then, academic and creative, complement each other well.

It is definitely the case that I could learn and analyze without creating in tandem. And I could also create imaginary worlds without learning and analyzing. But I find both much more rewarding and interesting when they interact. Learning often just involves ingesting facts, but when I create with what I have learned, I involve myself with it and so remember and enjoy it more. Similarly, creating worlds can be a process of pure fantasy, but when I integrate things I have learned from the real world, the final product is more believable and speaks more clearly as a work of art.