Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Steven Pinker

It is precisely because one act can balance ten thousand kind ones that we call it “evil”.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

All these years I chased after a definition of evil, struggled to determine what true evil is, and here comes Steven Pinker with a simple and true definition, justlikethat.  That’s as good a working definition of evil as I’ve ever found.

He’s also a fascinating writer who can make language utterly entrancing.  I had no idea he existed before I bought a mis-shelved copy of The Language Instinct on a lark.  It turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read, and helped me appreciate Tolkien much more deeply.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Archilochus

The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one.  One good one.

Archilochus, Iambi et Elgi Graeci

This will always and forever be one of my favorite ancient Greek quotes of all time.  Of course, I knew bugger all about hedgehogs when I first heard it.  Now I know what he was referring to:

Much later, thanks to Terry Pratchett, I also learned that the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

You may remember Archilochus from one of his more famous poems on battlefield valor:

Some barbarian is waving my shield,
since I was obliged to
leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind
under a bush.
But I got away, so what does it matter?
Life seemed somehow more precious.
Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

An eminently practical man, rather like the hedgehog he admired.

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Sydney J. Harris

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

 –Sydney J. Harris

I know two things about Sydney J. Harris: the above quote, and that he ended up on Nixon’s shit-list Mark II.  Those are enough to make me like him a lot.

This quote has very serious overtones – when I think of inaction in the face of injustice, especially.  But it also correlates well to “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” which are words to live by when you’re trying to get something done in a corporate setting.  That makes this an all-purpose quote.  Use it well.

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Hermann Langbein

The concept of a leader, a furehr, must never be accepted.  Blind obedience to a leader can never be adopted as a defining identity.  Everyone must accept responsibility for whatever he does.  Even in critical situations.  This is something that still applies today.

Hermann Langbein

I was watching a documentary on Auschwitz or some such on the History Channel – I can’t remember what it was, alas.  I just remember having it on, nominally paying attention, and being pulled to full awareness by the quiet, intense voice of a very intense old man.  His words hit me like a thunderbolt.  So I paused the program and wrote them down.

Listening to the survivors of death camps like Auschwitz is harrowing.  But they are memories we must not forget, and words we must not only hear, but take to heart.  There are some pieces of history that must never be allowed to repeat themselves.  Not if it’s within our power to stop it.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Berl Katznelson

You see this strong wall?  Although it understands nothing, it too will disintegrate, it too will split.  Disintegration has a logic of its own.

Berl Katznelson

I can imagine putting Berl in a room with Confucius, Lao Tzu and some Zen masters of old, and getting some amazing philosophy out of the process.

Berl was instrumental in founding Israel.  It’s too bad he’s not still alive – I think he’d have a thing or two to say to its modern leaders that they desperately need to hear.  I will just snatch this quote whole from Wikipedia, and you will see why I admire the man:

I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal… Our generation has been witness to the fact that nations aspiring to freedom who threw off the yoke of subjugation rushed to place this yoke on the shoulders of others. Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered, we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?

No more need be said.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Rig Veda

The heavens above do not equal one half of me…. In my glory, I have passed beyond the sky and the great earth… I will pick up the earth, and put it here or put it there….  Have I been drinking soma?

the Rig Veda

Being an atheist and a science buff doesn’t mean you have to give up mythology, and the Vedas are some of the best myths going.  There’s more than a trace of the whimsical in many of them.  And here we have one of the greatest explorations of intoxication ever.  Soma must’ve been some pretty powerful shit.  Considering it was the drink of the gods and all.

We’ve all had experiences something like this in our wild and crazy youths – if we were lucky.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Lao Tzu

The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust.  All that remains of them is their words.

-Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, of course, wrote the Tao Te Ching, and legends have sprung up around him like cats on a tuna can.  But this legendary tale might well be true:

The oldest surviving biography of Lao Tzu can be found in the annals of one of China’s greatest historians: Ssu-ma Ch’ien, written nearly 400 years after Lao Tzu died. From him we know that Lao Tzu was born in the state of Ch’u (presently eastern Honan Province). He writes about Lao Tzu’s meeting with the philosopher Confucious (K’ung Fu-tzu) — two individuals who represented philosophies that would dominate Chinese culture and society for over 2,000 years. Ssu-ma Ch’ien explained:

“When K’ung Fu-tzu went to Ch’u, he asked Lao Tzu to tutor him in the rites. Lao Tzu replied, “The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust. All that remains of them is their words. You know that when a noble lives in times which are good, he travels to court in a carriage. But when times are difficult, he goes where the wind blows. Some say that a wise mechant hides his wealth and thus seems poor. Likewise the sage, if he has great internal virtue, seems on the outside to be a fool. Stop being so arrogant — all these demands — your self-importance and your overkeen enthusiasm — none of this is true to yourself. That is all I have to say to you.” 
K’ung left and said to this followers, “I know that a bird can fly; that fishes swim; that animals can run. Things that run can be trapped in nets. What can swim can be caught in traps. Those that fly can be shot down with arrows. But what to do with the dragon, I do not know. It rises on the clouds and the wind. Today I have met Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon.” 
You’d think Chinese kings would’ve learned…

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Sophocles

You jutting broken crags, to you I raise my cry-
There is no one else I can speak to.


Fair warning: this quote isn’t half as powerful in context, because it’s basically the character of Philoctetes moaning over the theft of his magic bow.  But it’s still a wonderful line, and proves the power of Sophocles, who was a master of the Greek drama.  Don’t stop at Antigone and Oedipus.  Like Shakespeare, he’s more than just a few good plays.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Democritus

A life without festivity is a long road without an end.


Yes, you know him mostly because, with his mentor Leucippus, he came up with the idea of the atom.  But he was also known as the Laughing Philosopher (because he engaged in round mocking of human inanity), and as you can see from the quote above, he didn’t believe in being dour.  He was a well-traveled man who was insatiably curious about the world, and became respected by his contemporaries because he understood the natural world well enough to predict some happenings in it.  Some of his ideas on the origins of worlds and their eventual end are eerily prescient – we now know that bits of matter colliding is what forms planets, and that collisions between worlds can, indeed, destroy them.  I expect if we could transport him to the present, he’d get a kick out of modern cosmology, which in these respects has largely proven him right. And he’d have plenty of human inanity to laugh at.

So, heed the wise words of Democritus and go have yourselves some fun.