The book is intellectual eye candy spanning 1161 pages that would be diminished in a Kindle, particularly if one believes that appearances matter. It’s not the largest book that the reading areas of my brain have absorbed, a distinction still held by Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory that spanned 1464 pages, but there isn’t a morning in Starbucks during the past month when a patron’s gaze hasn’t been drawn to Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. It’s author, Anthony T. Kronman, served as dean of Yale Law School for ten years, and the book might have as well been titled “Born-Again Spinozism” though no doubt the marketing people at Yale University Press would have nixed that. It is essentially Kronman’s spin on Spinoza sprinkled with Aristotelian spice.
Ex-Dean Kronman is to be commended for his honesty when he notes in his epilogue that he has taxed the reader’s patience with a long and abstract book. If this were a philosophical Shark Tank instead of a Think Tank, readers would have declared “And for that reason I’m out” long before having reached his apologia. But for those who survive the incessant looping back through the Spinozan/Aristotelian filters, Kronman offers ample redemption.
There is no doubt that our experiences inform, color and re-shape our philosophies and outlooks. On a personal level this past year it was the circumstances of my father’s death followed not long after by my life’s extension. For Kronman while writing his magum opus it was something uttered by his 96 year-old mother before her death: “The world comes back”. It was the last intelligible thing she uttered before she took her last breath one week later. He speculates that perhaps she meant this: We have all found ourselves reflecting on the incomprehensible fact that our lives are bounded on both sides by nonexistence, at least in a material form with which our sense are familiar. If the mortality that allows us the meaning of everything we do and experience were somehow erased, the meaning of human life would vanish. In other words, without the finitude of death, the sensations of life would be diminished. The world which is circular comes back to re-claim us.
The Paganism that Kronberg embraces leaves room for either sufficient self-reflection and satisfaction at the end of life, or letting go when pain makes holding on unbearable, without necessarily believing in any after-life that we can grasp. This does not negate the anticipation that one may have of cashing in on the dividends of a a diversified spiritual portfolio loaded with good deeds at the end of this life, should his calculus be wrong and there is some sort of after-life. Kronman acknowledges that our assumptions and speculations are ultimately unknowable, but posing the questions remains important in seeking understanding even if cannot derive definitive proof of the answers.
Fittingly for this time of year, Kronman uses the metaphor of a ball dropping from a tower to qualify our observations: “Because I see those things from a particular perspective, my understanding of what is happening when the ball drops is always liable to error and distortion, and since the ball and tower must be present for me to have any experience of them at all, whatever knowledge I derive from the experience is hostage to their presence.”
In this day and age, since the “dropping of the ball in Times Square” is mechanized, why don’t the powers-that-be reverse the symbolism and have the ball rising instead of falling?
As you may know, I embrace game theory as a metaphor for life, in particular baseball (with all due respect to Spinoza). Why baseball? It is the only game in which time is relative. Its inception is identifiable but it’s end relies on the contingencies of events, not absolute time. It is the only game during which teams never changes sides of the field or court or arena at pre-determined intervals. Let the reasons for that soak in while I wish you a particularly pleasing 2017.