The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass is the only novel from classical antiquity to survive complete. It was written in the late second century by one Apuleius, and deals with the tragi-comic misadventures of a man who has been turned into a donkey as a result of a little too much interest in magic. It also includes the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as a tale-within-a-tale. It has a lot of magical events in, quite apart from the main character being turned into a donkey, and gets quite deeply involved with Roman mystery religions, particularly the cult of Isis, towards the end. It is, in other words, quite clearly a fantasy novel.

It’s also quite good. Standards for entertainment shift over time, and as this book is pushing 2,000 there are a few bits that don’t quite work by contemporary standards. Cupid and Psyche is about a fifth of the book, for example. Lucius, the main character, gets into some fairly entertaining bits of trouble along the way, and there are early versions of a number of classic comic scenes. But there are also tragedies. I think it is worth reading as a story, and very definitely worth reading if, like me, you are interested in historical beliefs in the supernatural.

Of course, the fact that it is a novel makes it a bit tricky as a source. It is generally agreed that some bits are supposed to reflect reality; some bits are independently attested. But when it comes to the stories of magic, it isn’t clear how much of that contemporary people actually believed. If you took, say, Anne Rice’s vampire novels as indicating what contemporary people believed, you’d get an inaccurate picture. At the time, it was probably obvious which bits were plausible and which just made up, but we don’t have that cultural background, so we are left wondering.

Fortunately, when writing for roleplaying games, you can generally gloss over such problems. If people told stories about that then, the elements are suitable for telling stories set then. And, of course, if you’re just reading the book for fun, you don’t need to worry about it at all.

Problems for Egalitarianism

Today, I read an article in an ethics journal (called Ethics, simply enough) that defended egalitarianism. This is the view that it is, in general, a good thing to make a society more equal. It’s quite a popular view; it gets defended a lot. I, however, find it very unpleasant; its defenses almost always feel malicious. Specifically, they seem to be based on a dislike for the rich.

So, here are some problems for egalitarianism.

Throwing Acid At Supermodels

Supermodels are more attractive than the average person, by a substantial margin, and beauty is generally regarded as a good thing, even if only skin deep. Therefore, throwing acid at supermodels, which would reduce their beauty due to the scarring, is, in certain respects, good, if you are an egalitarian. I find this conclusion utterly implausible.

Of course, the pain caused by the acid is an extraneous factor. However, I do not find the idea that supermodels should be subjected to compulsory cosmetic surgery to reduce their beauty any more attractive, no matter how much this reduces inequality. This situation seems to be an almost exact parallel to subjecting the rich to compulsory taxes, in order to reduce their wealth.

Wrecking Marriages

One might object that disfiguring the supermodels should be ruled out because it doesn’t make anyone more beautiful. Indeed, most sophisticated egalitarians do adopt rules on which a change that benefits no-one is not good. (This is not universal; there do seem to be some egalitarians who are committed to compulsory cosmetic surgery for supermodels.)

So, consider another case. Ann and Andrew are a very happily married couple. Brenda is miserable because she is in love with Ann, and Bill is miserable because he is in love with Andrew. If Ann and Andrew were separated, and forced to pair up with Brenda and Bill, respectively, then Brenda and Bill would be less miserable, and Ann and Andrew would also be miserable, so there would be much less inequality in the world.

As you might imagine, I do not find the egalitarian intuition to be even remotely plausible in this case. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Protecting Children from Good Parents

A common egalitarian claim is that it is unjust for children to have benefits just because their parents are rich. So, it should also be unjust for them to have benefits just because their parents are good parents, engaging with their children, being loving and supporting, and assisting them through their education. Indeed, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this has a significantly larger effect on both the happiness and prospects for prosperity of the children than wealth does.

Therefore, a just state should not only take children away from excessively bad parents, it should also take them away from excessively good ones. A kind state would monitor parents and warn them when they were getting close to the line, and should neglect their children a bit or lose them, just as it would warn failing parents.

Now, I find this suggestion positively morally repellent, and I suspect most egalitarians would agree. So they owe us an account of which benefits it is unjust for parents to confer on their children, and which are allowable, and why the large inequalities that result are not something that should be remedied by an egalitarian.

Money is not Everything

I am not aware of any egalitarians who actually claim that the important thing is to equalise money. Instead, they talk about happiness, or opportunity. However, the intuitions and recommended policies all seem to be based on money.

For example, work on the causes of happiness suggest that it is largely independent of income, once income exceeds a certain threshold. The threshold varies by society, but being in a society with a higher threshold doesn’t make you happier, even if you meet the threshold. This means that there are almost certainly some poor people who are happier than some rich people. If you take money away from the poor people, enough to drop them beneath the threshold, you will make them less happy. Giving that money to the rich people will not make them any happier. Thus, taxing the poor (provided you get the right poor) and giving the money to the rich will reduce the inequality in society.

This is not what egalitarians generally seem to have in mind. It arguably should be, however.

So, We Let Them Starve?

Obviously, I don’t think that we should let people starve. Actually, I think that imposing fairly high taxes on the rich and distributing the money to the poor is almost certainly morally justifiable. This is because it is important to deal with the serious poverty in the world, and the resources to do so have to come from somewhere. The poverty is too urgent a problem to wait for economic growth to remove it, so redistribution is the only option. While the total wealth of the world is not fixed in the long term, it is over the timescale of this problem.

But this has nothing to do with equality. Actually, I strongly suspect that inequality is good, because it allows some people the leisure to develop goods that will substantially improve the lot of very many people. Medicine exists because small numbers of people were maintained in a much more comfortable situation than most of the population at that time. However, this is a different issue, and one I’m not yet completely confident about.

A final note for people who know the literature on this topic. I have a suspicion that a reasonable interpretation of Rawls’s theory of justice might well have all the consequences I think are right. It is a consequence of this that I suspect that it doesn’t have any of the consequences it is customarily taken to have.

Signs of Progress

A couple of recent events that suggest my Japanese may be making progress.

First, while we were on the Tohoku trip, a woman mistook me for a Japanese person. Admittedly, it was dark and I suspect her eyesight isn’t too good, but we did have a very brief conversation, and it was only a bit later, when she came a bit closer, that she suddenly realised I wasn’t Japanese.

Second, today I went to a lecture on Shinto in Shibuya (which was very interesting, incidentally). I’m the only non-Japanese-looking person in the room, so I rather stand out, and another of the attendees spoke to me afterwards. In the course of the conversation, she asked whether I was born in Japan.

A while back, I read a website list of “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…” things. My favourite was “…people stop complimenting you on your Japanese, and starting asking where you got your eyes and nose done”.

Nearly there…

The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)

This book is the Penguin Classics translation of the Res Gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus, the most important primary source for the fourth century in the Roman Empire. As you may notice from the title, it only covers about a quarter of the century, and it spends a lot of time on Julian. Part of the reason is that we are missing the first thirteen books; at some point in the vicissitudes of history, the last copy of them was destroyed or misplaced. However, the book apparently originally started at the end of the first century, so it isn’t clear how much detail there would have been on earlier periods anyway. I gather that the bit historians would most like to still have is Ammianus’s section on Constantine.

So, what about the bit we do have? It’s good classical history. That is, he gives speeches to characters that almost certainly aren’t what they actually said, but which serve to establish character and advance the narrative. It’s also very focused on the doings of emperors, although not exclusively; he also wants to tell us what is happening in Rome, which very few emperors so much as visited in this period. It does, however, focus on Julian. Ammianus was a pagan, and Julian was, in many ways, his hero. Still, he is not entirely uncritical, and is quite harsh about some specific decisions, such as the law banning Christians from basic teaching. He also has an assessment of Julian’s character faults.

This is encouraging; it suggests that his accounts of other incidents may not be too distorted, and they do match quite well with what else we have from the period, allowing for religious bias. He’s a lot more positive about Julian than most of the Church Fathers, for example. There are some lovely incidents, such as the vampire meeting the Goths right at the end, or the exchange between Julian and a prosecutor at a court case. The accused denied the crime (a fraud), and the prosecutor had failed to gather documents to prove his case. Julian acquitted the accused, and the frustrated prosecutor said “Will any be convicted, if a denial is enough to procure acquittal?”. Julian replied “Will any be acquitted, if accusation is enough to secure conviction?”.

There is another incident in which someone informs the emperor that one of his (the accuser’s) enemies is having a purple tunic made. This could be serious; purple was the imperial colour, and making clothes in that colour could indicate plans to bid for imperial power, something that happened a lot in this period. Other emperors tortured people to death for less, but Julian instructed his tailor to send the man a pair of purple boots, to emphasise the emptiness of the symbols without the power.

Governments also seem to have been just as prone to witch hunts against enemies of the state (literal witches, in this case) then as now. It’s a good book, with a good introduction, and, as a primary source on the period, well worth reading if you’re interested in that time. In fact, if you’re seriously interested in the period, it’s essential, and you’ve probably read it already.

The Last Pagan

As I mentioned when talking about The Later Roman Empire, historians of the fourth century spend an inordinate amount of time on the emperor Julian, because the sources for his life are unusually good. This book is a good example: it’s a biography of Julian.

Of course, the other reason that Julian is interesting is the big “what if?” that he raises. As a committed pagan emperor, could he have reversed the Christianisation of the Roman Empire? It’s an interesting question, because the answers are not obvious either way.

Julian was a talented leader, with a fair amount of military talent, wide reading, and a good head on his shoulders. He was also fully capable of alienating large numbers of people through tactless political goofs; after becoming emperor, he appointed a Gaul he trusted to high office, which alienated the Senate. He would never have made a democratic politician, but he wasn’t asked to. He got to be an autocratic ruler.

The evidence is that he would not have endorsed a full-on persecution of the Christians; he doesn’t seem to have gone for that sort of thing. However, he would have restored pagan temples, knocked down some churches, and he did forbid Christians from teaching the normal school curriculum of rhetoric. More important, paganism would have been in favour. There would have been new temples, pagan rituals would have been restored to public life, and pagan philosophers would have had the whip hand in challenging the Christians. This all suggests that he could have reversed the trend.

On the other side, his personal version of paganism was rather eccentric. Even his friends and supporters thought that he was a bit too into sacrificing hundreds of animals to the gods. He was also, it seems, a devotee of the Unconquered Sun, although he was a henotheist rather than a monotheist. That is, Julian’s paganism did not connect to the religiosity of most people in the empire. It might have been doomed to die with him, just like Akhenaten’s religious reforms did in Egypt.

The question is purely academic because he miscalculated badly, getting into a war in Iraq and dying on the battlefield after only eighteen months as emperor, without a clear heir. (Back then, leaders who took their nations into disastrous wars tended to die in battle. It is notable that this doesn’t seem to have stopped them.) In the end, then, he is almost completely irrelevant to the course of history. The interest is that he might not have been, and this book, which is, after all, one of my main sources for what I know about Julian, is a good account of him as a fully rounded individual, drawing on multiple sources. I recommend it.

The Later Roman Empire

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit about the later Roman Empire, essentially the fourth century (284 to 430). This is a period I didn’t know much about before, so I started with this book, which is a general introduction. As far as I can tell, it’s a pretty good general introduction, too. It starts with a discussion of what came before (near-collapse, basically), a chapter on the sources for the period (not as good as we would like), and then has a series of chronological chapters. Finally, there are a few thematic chapters, covering society, the military, and the rise of Constantinople, which was refounded by Constantine in the early fourth century.

It’s an incredibly important period for world history, because it’s when Christianity went from being a marginal, sporadically persecuted sect to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, relentlessly persecuting all others. (That finished after the period of the book, when all the non-Christians had been wiped out.) It thus covers just about the only other period (other than the present day) when Christianity was both dominant and relatively tolerant. It’s interesting that this period roughly coincides with the living memory of the persecution of Christians, although I’d want a lot more evidence before drawing any causal links.

Another interesting feature of the period is the importance put on the eighteen month rule of Julian, the last pagan emperor. This is because the main source for the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, was a pagan, and devotes a large number of pages to Julian’s reign. Ammianus also seems to be fairly reliable, so we have a detailed, apparently trustworthy source for the period. It may not, in fact, have been particularly interesting or important. This happens a lot in ancient history; historians write about what sources exist for, and assume that the other stuff is less important. This isn’t as unreasonable as it might be, because people do tend to write about important things, and they tend to be preserved. This blog probably won’t exist in 1700 years time, unless I go on to be massively influential in some field, for example. On the other hand, occasionally it is pure chance; a lot of ancient material survives in one manuscript. Thus, there is always the nagging feeling that we might be missing something vital.

Still, that isn’t the fault of the author of this book. It gave me a solid framework for the period, so that the books I read later could be slotted in relatively easily. Thus, in so far as my non-expert opinion is valuable, I can recommend it as an introduction to the period.

Yudetamago’s Sex

We went to the ob/gyn clinic again today. It was really, really busy; we had to wait for about two hours to see the doctor. (Japanese clinics generally don’t do appointments.) When we did see him, it was very briefly, as I suspect he was trying to get through everyone quickly. We did get some more pictures of Yudetamago, and the doctor did a check to see what sex the baby is.

If you don’t want to know that Yudetamago is probably a girl, why are you reading a blog entry with this title?

Actually, things could still change. One of Yuriko’s friends was told that the baby was a boy at about this stage, and then, three months later, that she was actually a girl. I imagine they’re waiting to see what actually gets born. Nevertheless, I will start preparing myself for having a daughter.

New Book

My latest book has now been announced. I contributed to Monster Manual V for Dungeons and Dragons. On the one had, this is just a handful of monsters in a big monster book; it’s not a book by me in any reasonable sense, just one I contributed to. On the other, I have now written for Dungeons and Dragons. This will be immensely useful to me when people ask what I do, because “Oh, like Dungeons and Dragons?” is quite a common response.

I can now just say “Yes, one of the games I write for is Dungeons and Dragons”, rather than having to say “Yes, like that, but not actually D&D”.

Also, D&D is the original RPG, so there’s a sense in which I really wanted to get a D&D credit under my belt. As a bonus, the process was easy, and Wizards pay well and early.

Once I know which of the monsters I wrote made it to the final book (they paid me for all of them, which is promising), I’ll add a books page for D&D.

Ego Boost

This post on the White Wolf forums has made me feel all warm, fuzzy and competent.

So, obviously, I have to tell everyone about it. Look! Look! I have a fan who isn’t my mother!

OK, more seriously, this is one of the things that makes writing worthwhile. The Guardian had an interview with Keira Knightley, in which she said that, if she believed the good stuff, she’d have to believe the bad stuff as well, so it’s better not to believe anything. While we’re in very different situations (like, she’s actually famous), I can’t agree with that position.

I think one of the things that’s hardest to learn, really learn, when going into a creative industry, or just being creative, is that you can’t please everyone. I mean, everyone knows that. It’s a cliché. On the other hand, it’s remarkably difficult to really understand and accept it on a gut level. You can’t please everyone. That means, in concrete terms, that there will be actual people who do not like your work. In this age of blogs, mailing lists, and internet fora, there is a reasonable chance that they will tell you so. Possibly at length, and almost certainly in terms of objective failure.

All this tells you, though, is that you really can’t please everyone.

On the other hand, I’m not creative purely for myself. Some people are, but I want to give pleasure to, and maybe inspire thought in, at least some other people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating purely for yourself, and I do it sometimes; there are files on my hard drive that are not intended for other people to see (and not exclusively because they’re about sex, either). But it’s not what I’m doing in the material that I have published.

Thus, the appearance of people, like the poster in the thread I referenced, who like my work to the point of describing themselves as a “big fan” of it, means that I have succeeded. Obviously, the more people who think that way, the better, all else being equal, but if there’s even one such person, I haven’t failed. I’ve merely chosen a minority form of expression. (If there were only one, I’d have failed commercially, but that’s a different issue.)

So, I think you can believe both the good and the bad. The bad tells you nothing new, just that you can’t please everyone. The good, on the other hand, does tell you something new. It tells you that, in at least some cases, you have succeeded. It tells you that your work was artistically successful.

And that, I think, is well worth knowing.