Star Wars Episode VII Review

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Fuck spoiler alerts. You should have seen it by now.

I finally saw Episode VII today, and I liked the movie. It was a decent film and a vast improvement from the Prequel Trilogy. It fixed the problems of the Prequels, such as the overreliance on special effects, weak plots, little emotional impact, and flat characters. Here, the special effects are made to add to the story, and they blend well with the animatronics and real environment. The plot is simple, very similar to that of Episode IV, which I will get to later. The actors expressed actual emotions so you could actually connect with the characters. And the characters themselves were people you could emphasize with.

The synopsis? Before the film begins, Skywalker goes missing out of guilt and shame after his apprentice becomes Baby Vader and slaughters the new Jedi Order. Baby Vader, now commander of the Neo Nazi Order, slaughters innocent village people because the village robot R2-D2 knows where Skywalker is. Finn N00b, a novice stormtrooper, betrays the Order after experiencing war for the first time. R2-D2 and Finn N00b end up in Tatooine where they meet Rey Sue, a scavenger impossibly gifted in piloting, engineering, and combat with no formal training.

The Neo Nazi Order arrives to Tatooine and bombs some Middle Easterners, so Finn N00b and Rey Sue hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon. They meet Ham and Chewie on the way and arrive to the Occupy Wall St. base to meet Princess Leia. Unfortunately, Baby Vader captures Rey Sue along the way and takes her to the Death Star. Finn, Ham, and Chewie go to the Death Star to rescue Rey Sue, while Princess Leia commands an attack with the Occupy Wall St. squadron.

Rey Sue escapes by herself because she’s a Strong Independent Woman who doesn’t need a man. She meets the rest of her party, but Ham faces Baby Vader, who is revealed to be a whiny, greasy-faced teenager. Baby Vader kills Ham because he is a jerk and pwns Finn N00b in short order. Baby Vader is close to pwning Rey Sue, but Rey Sue calls upon the Deux Ex Machina to beat Baby Vader. The Occupy Wall St. squadron destroys the Death Star and our heroes live to fight another day. Rey Sue climbs up an oriental mountain to begin her martial arts training under Skywalker.

Now I really did enjoy the movie and I really do like Rey and Finn, but I did find two major flaws in the movie.

I. The movie borrows way too much on a New Hope. It would make sense if the movie made some homage to a New Hope, but J.J. Abrams copied and pasted the entire plot from Episode IV to Episode VII. That comes across to me as unimaginative and they should have come up with a completely new and unique plot. I get that J.J. Abrams is trying to regain the shattered trust of an audience so betrayed by the Prequel Trilogy. But he would have done a better job at that had he been more original.

II. Rey has Mary Sue glitter on her. Don’t get me wrong. I really like Rey. I really do like the fact Episode VII has a woman and a black man as strong and relatable main characters. She’s a well-developed character. She has a past of being abandoned and being forced to survive on a remote and hostile world. During the story we watch her struggle with her feelings of abandonment, with her vain hope that if she returns to the desert planet Jakku, her family will return to her. Unlike a typical Mary Sue, Rey does experience genuine loss and failure. She struggles to fly the Millennium Falcon at first and only masters it after learning from Han Solo’s example. Kylo Ren, a trained user of the dark side, subdues Rey and takes her prisoner.

However, I do feel Rey’s abilities were too great for a mere scavenger. When I watched the film I thought Rey’s talents would make a lot more sense if she had a military career before the film. That way she would get the training and experience to refine her talents. It would have been better if Rey’s character were like this: Rey’s family surrenders her to the Order when she is a child. Rey is rigorously trained as a soldier, allowing her intelligence and talents to flourish as a pilot, engineer, and warrior. However, she deals with deep feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Eventually, she deserts the Order, fleeing to a remote planet to live in obscurity as a scavenger to run away from her past. After several years in exile she eventually meets Finn, another deserter, and she is forced to confront her past. I’m no film expert but something like that would have been much better.

I also want to make a point against all the nerds who say Episode VII sucks because it’s not the Original Trilogy. A lot of reviewers see the Original Trilogy through rose-colored glasses and put it on a pedestal. That sets up any new Star Wars movie for failure in their eyes because the new movie can never be like the old trilogy. Nor should it try. A new movie can outdo the Original Trilogy, but to do that it will need to do something new, and that is heresy to die hard nerds. The Prequel Trilogy had the potential to completely outdo the Original but George Lucas pissed away his chance because of his greed and indolence. The Original Trilogy itself is actually kind of stupid when you take away all the nostalgia and pop culture legacy surrounding it. Obscurus Loopa did a review a few years ago where she made fun of A New Hope as if it was just another obscure 70s film. It really puts a perspective on things.

Overall, Episode VII, in spite of its flaws, definitely corrected all the problems in the Prequels. I had almost as much fun watching it as I did watching the Original Trilogy when I was a child. I want to see where Rey and Finn continue their journies in Episodes VIII and IX.

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YGO COP 2: Duel 15 – The Battle of New Orleans

The two duelists stared each other down, Akira overseen by the two Ghouls behind him, Maya flanked by Yukio by her side. Maya felt her heart pound in anticipation and fear, yet also excitement at the extreme challenge before her while she felt her head build up in pressure from her wrath.

She hated Akira and everything he stood for. Privately trained in Japan’s finest Duel Academy and usually dressed in immaculate attire, he was a prodigy bred for success. With his hair fashionably died and spiked with gel, he looked more like an anime character than a real person.

At fifteen years old, he was already crowned World Champion. He breezed past every tournament, yet never really fought in them. His financial backers merely saved him a seat in the final round where he beat the last champion. But this time Kaiba and Pegasus hosted a real tournament, something they didn’t do in ages. The CEOs of Honda and Mitsubishi let their little boy out into the real world, thinking he was a grown man who would fight through his competition.

Of course they were did wrong, as was plain for Maya to see. She relished the sight of his torn clothes, his dirtied hair and face, the fear in his eyes most of all. He tried to look tough under the pressure but barely his true feelings. Maya suspected he feared facing her in a fair fight far more than the threats of the Ghouls leering behind him. It was a comforting thought, and helped stem Maya’s own fears.

To stem her fears even more, she forced herself to concentrate only on the game ahead. The Ghouls didn’t exist. The bombs on their neck didn’t exist. Heishin didn’t exist. Egypt didn’t exist. Her trials and anxieties didn’t exist. Only her opponent and her plan to completely break and own him existed.

“You ready for your big day, little man?” She called out to him across the necropolis wasteland. “Try not to cheat this time.”

Akira tried to posture himself as some aloof, dignified, important person like anime characters in the Yugioh TV shows often do, but failed miserably. “To think I have to face a low-level duelist like you! You are not even worth a fair challenge! You lack the soul of a true duelist!”

Typical. Was he sniveling just now? Maya agitated in her eagerness to school this fool at his own game. “Aww, how cute. Junior wants to play with the grown ups. You think you’re tough? I smacked around opponents ten times worse than you long before your balls dropped. What makes you think you’re any different?”

Akira was just about to make a comeback, probably some weak generic comeback about being a “true duelist”, whatever that meant, but Lumis cut him off. “He has us behind him and no prey of ours makes it out alive. Got it?”

“Pipe down you pot-bellied, skin-headed gimp.” Yukio shot back from across the wasteland. “Maybe you should leave the dueling for those of us without Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”

Now it was Maya’s turn to throw her barbs. “HEY BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD! Maybe you should face us intead of abducting little boys to do that for you, unless you goons into that sort of thing!”

Lumis definitely had a short fuse because it blew up right now. He angrily waved his remote controlled switch like a red flag. “You think you’re cute, you cheeky bitch? Watch me blow you to little bits right now, you motherfucker you!”

Umbra, the bigger, taller goon, grabbed Lumis’ short, stubby arms with his massive hands to restrain him. Lumis wriggled under his partner’s grasp, his short little legs comically kicking in the air, but he settled down.

Akira propped his Duel Disk of silver Academy design, ready for battle. “You will lose as the sad upstart you really are.”

“Upstarts win and for a reason.” Maya corrected him. “Here’s a reality check. You’re Edward Pakenham. I’m Andrew Jackson. We’re at the Battle of New Orleans. And this is Jackass.”

Akira: 8000 || Maya: 8000

AKIRA’S TURN: “ORE NA TURNO! DURAW!” Akira shouts as an anime character, oblivious to how silly he sounds. He stacked his deck before the duel exactly the way he wanted to. His victory was secure. “I activate Qliphort Scout and Qliphort Monolith as pendulums.” The two machine shell husks levitate above him far on either side, encased within two blue colums. “I pay 800 to search a Qliphort. Now, brace yourself for my ULTIMATO COMBO! I Pendulum Summon Qliphort Helix, Qliphort Disk, and Qliphort Carrier from my hand!” Three shells, each unique in size and shape, descend from the gateway that yawned between the two pendulums.

“And I tribute them all for Apoqliphort Towers.” The three shells fly back into the pendulum portal and a monstrous alien machine, with four turrets for legs, descends to the field. “With Towers’ effect you must discard a monster.” And Maya does so without complaint. I use Monolith’s effect to draw three cards, the number of monsters I tribute. TURNO ENDO!”

MAYA’S TURN: Maya can’t help but grunt in a very rude way. Akira played the exact same opening moves as in their last duel. He probably stacked his deck to get what he wanted. Maya wonders if he even stacked his deck in their last duel too… Back to the duel. “To quote your pint-sized Card Game Jesus, ‘Your monster may be powerful but it is not unbeatable.’” And she is right. Apoqliphort Towers is a formidable monster but it is mundane, a monster perfectly designed for its purpose and with little creative potential. Maya’s monsters on the other hand…

“Ready, little mans? I play Trade-In, tossing a Level 8 monster to draw 2. Since you have a monster and I have none, I summon Lizardon.” An ancient legendary dinosaur swoops from the skies, closer to a dragon than a dinosaur with its blazing breath, wings, and red hide. “I use its effect: discarding a Dinosaur to summon a Dinosaur from my deck, Quetzalcoatlus.” The majestic pterosaur takes to the skies with its fiery counterpart. “Next up, Inferno Reckless Summon!” Two more Quetzalcoatlus appear.

“I Xyz Summon Stella Pterra and Number 62: Galaxy-Eyes Prime Photon Dragon!” Two Quetzalcoatlus fall into a portal in space in time, unveiling an even more extravagant pterosaur, while the remaining Quetzalcoatlus and Lizardon open the doorway for an alien dragon, as dark and yet sparkled with light as the starry night itself. “I use Stella Pterra’s effect, bouncing your pendulums back to the deck.” With her words two gusts of wind come from the pterosaur’s wings, sending Akira’s pendulums out of sight. Akira gazes up at the awe-inspiring sight, the avian beasts so big and Akira so small. He gulps.

“Brace yourself, kid! You’re about to get bitch-slapped and pimp-slapped in one turn! Prime Photon Dragon, wipe out Apoqliphort Towers!” Maya detaches a Xyz Material as the dragon withdraws its long neck to prepare for the attack. The dragon draws forth its starry power from itself and its dinosaur neighbor, its ATK skyrocketing to 6700! “ATTACK!” Maya barks, and the interstellar dragon pierces the monstrous machine’s hull with its burst. The mighty Towers collapse on the ground, bursting into flame. (Akira LP 7200 à 3500) “You’re next! Stella Pterra, attack directly!” The pterosaur swoops just above Akira, blasting him with a sonic wave with its wings, pummeling him to the ground. (Akira LP 3500 à 700)

Finally, mercifully, Maya sets two cards.

AKIRA’S TURN: Trembling, Akira clamps his hands, nervous with sweat, around the bomb strapped to his neck. The small counter on it coldly mirrors the score on his duel disk. Only 700 Life Points! And on the first turn! His pride wounded, Akira takes his trembling hands and clenches them into fists. “I use a Tier 1 deck! – No, a tier 0 deck! – There’s no way am going to lose against an upstart who uses some dinosaur gimmick!”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Maya bores her eyes down on him with nothing but contempt.

“I’m dirty and grimy! I’m so scared for my life! I was kidnapped and forced to duel when I’m not ready! This duel is not fair

“You should have thought about that before bugging my duel disk last time.” Maya said, sympathetic as the desert for the dead around them, as if she and not the Ghouls made this duel happen.

Akira eyes the Ghouls behind him, somehow expecting compassion when there would be none. Lumis’ reciprocated by brandishing his remote. Akira trembles. No explanation is needed.

“I activate Qliphort Monolith and Qliphort Archive, and I Pendulum Summon again Qliphort Helix, Qliphort Disk, and Qliphort Carrier!” Akira’s old shell husk machines, the ones he sacrificed so eagerly last turn, return through the pendulum’s portal. I tribute Helix and Carrier to summon Qliphort Stealth!” Two of his machines vanish yet again, their place taken by a new shell machine that looks more like a space ship than anything else. “Helix, Carrier, and Stealth activate all at once!” Akira shouts as his Stealth fires three atomic beams from its husk, dematerializing Maya’s massive monsters and shattering one of her cards, much to her chagrin.

Akira feels his confidence rebuild. He is World Champion for a reason the usurper in front of him would never understand! Yet… she doesn’t look fazed. Why? Is he falling into a trap? He darts his eyes behind him in a quick glance. Lumis is ready to push the button as ever. Akira feels the sweat trickling down his face, seeping into the space between his neck and the bomb around it.

“This is it. Disk, strike Maya directly.” The shell husk that looks similar to an alien saucer hovers above its target, striking her with its bombs. (Maya LP 8000 à 5900) “Stealth, hit her directly.” His mighty flying ship locks on its target, charging its destructive rays, and unleashes them on its foe. The blast hits Maya head on, catapulting her to a wall of the necropolis. (Maya LP 5900 à 2800)

Yukio, startled at his friend’s injury, is about to jump to her side, but Lumis wags his finger and points to the bomb button, his cheeky grin creaking through the open side of his mask. Yukio resents the two Ghouls but and his inability to do anything far more, but he stays put.

Maya lays on her side on the sandy floor, but quickly crawls back to her feet, dusting the sand from her chest and knees. Akira sees the evil glint in her dark, narrow eyes. Nothing good can come from this. “You’re a great duelist, Akira.” Maya says, her voice soft and low, but far more dangerous. “You’re far greater than I thought you were. I used to think you were another mediocre champion, but no, you truly surprised me. A great duelist is truly generous to his opponents. You activated Inferno Tempest.”

Only at this moment does Akira realize the depth of his error, but is too late. The entire field explodes in a cataclysmic big bang, sweeping the Egyptian sands in a diabolical maelstrom. Akira watches in horror as every monster card in his deck and graveyard is vaporized in the flames. He watches Maya’s entire army burn away too, but she only grins back at him across the flames, her hateful, glaring dark eyes colored red by the fires. Before her appears two broken baby doll heads inhabited by monstrous worms. “You banished my two Necroface, so we both banish 10 cards.” Maya explains.

Akira trims his deck even further, but he isn’t ready to give up. “Don’t think this is over. No pro duelist plays Inferno Tempest for a reason. I set a card face down.” Akira ends his turn two ichthyosauri leap from the sands as dolphins leap from water.

MAYA’S TURN: “I summon two Fishstyx from my Banished Zone and use its effect to return two banished Dinosaurs to my hand, but I can’t draw this turn. I don’t need to. I play Extinction Record, banishing the two Quetzalcoatlus there and draw 3.” She shows her hand since her card told her to. Akira’s stomach drops instantly. It’s over.

“I overlay two Fishstyx to Xyz Summon Nanosaur Infinity.” Maya’s two water dinosaurs merge together into a wormhole to form a small, fiery orange raptor, carrying machine guns.

“Activate Lose 1 Turn.” Akira shouts. “You can’t use its effect.”

Maya grunts, slightly annoyed but nothing more. She sets three cards.

AKIRA’S TURN: “There has to be a way out of this situation!” He tells himself and his opponent at the same time. “I will find a way out! ORE NA TURNO! DURAW!”

“You idiot.” Maya says with disdain. “You have no idea how out of your depth you are against me. Activate Fairy Wind.” The magical wind graced with magical dust and plant seeds blows about the two duelists gracefully, but that is all it takes to destroy Akira’s pendulums and his trap. Then the gentle breeze turns into a sharp gust, cutting through both duelists with its magic dust and seeds.

The duel, however, is not done. Akira still has 1900 Life Points, but his Qliphort Disk is gone. “I activated Mystik Wok. I gain in Life Points the ATK of the monster I sacrificed.” Akira explains.

“Big deal. I play Anti-Spell Fragrance next.” Maya flips her card face-up, and Akira cringes at the blow. It is a quiet blow, but it totally cripples him. If he has to set Spells before activating them, then all pendulum plays are moot.

“GAAH! DAMN IT!” He shouts through the desert air. Maya, Yukio, the Ghouls, all glance at him coldly, as distant as the stars. “I still have a chance! Qliphort Stealth, vaporize Nanosaur Infinity with your blast!” The machine airship incinerates the futuristic dinosaur effortlessly. Maya then adds a banished “Nanosaur” card to her hand. Akira sets a card face down. He can still set a trap.

Except Maya doesn’t even let him due that. “I activate Nanosaur Infinity.” She declares, banishing a card in her hand. The sandy field below her yawns, then explodes underneath her, and three Quetzalcoatlus fly from the dimensional rift.

MAYA’S TURN: “My turn! Draw!” Maya moves with the grace and force of a true champion. “I bring back my banished D.D. Ancient Firebird,” a fiery, winged dinosaur, an ancestor of modern birds, leaps into play. “But I can use this effect only once in a duel.

“Activate Re-qliate!” Akira counters. But he knows it won’t stop her.

Maya simply continues, ignoring the sprung trap. “I tune D.D. Ancient Firebird and one Quetzalcoatlus to Synchro Summon Star Eater, and overlay two Quetzalcoatlus to Xyz Summon Number 62: Galaxy-Eyes Prime Photon Dragon again!” The Ancient Firebird breaks into green rings, Quetzalcoatlus turns into stars aligning with them, and the synchronized light show summons a massive space dragon in the act of consuming a small star. The other two Quetzalcoatlus crush into single lights, and open the interdimensional gateway allowing the interstellar Prime Photon Dragon to return.

Maya let her hatred for Akira and everything he stood for grow throughout the duel. Now, on the cusp of victory, she lets it go, letting the wildfire take its destructive course. She peels her lips back to bear her teeth, contorting her face into a horrible snarl a dragon would recognize as a smile.

She thrusts her fist in front of her as if she could knock Akira out cold. “Time to put an end to your sad Qliphorts! Star Eater, consume it!” The gargantuan dragon raps itself around Akira’s giant ship as a snake wraps around a mouse, crushing it, chewing it, obliterating it.” (Akira LP 1900 à 1500)

Akira’s loss was immanent, and with that loss it means he will die. Akira collapsed to the floor in weeping. “Please don’t! I don’t wanna’ die! I don’t wanna’ die! I don’t wanna’ die!” The boy’s reedy body shakes violently as his tears mix with the snot from his nose. He convulses, breathing too raggedly, taking in too much oxygen.

“Too late, spoiled brat. You ridiculed me by cheating and joined the Ghouls. Now pay the ultimate price.”

Yukio leaps in front of her, grabbing her by the arms. “You can’t do this! If you beat him, he dies!”

Maya violently shoves him aside. She strikes her left arm in front of her, her hand contorting into a vicious claw. “Prime Photon Dragon, kill –“

She froze right on the spot, stiff as a statue. She halted everything halfway, her body, her arm, her muscles, her speech, even her breathing. She felt the fire inside her give way to ice. Her reason told her exactly what she was about to do and the implications rang inside her head. All of a sudden, the summer desert felt very cold.

Akira turned his head away from the sand and looked up at her, too shocked to even feel grateful at the moment.

Maya stared at her hand twisted into a claw. It was all she could do. It was the first time she realized how monstrous the hand looked. She let her hand fall. “I’m not a murderer.”

“WHAT!?” Lumis eagerly awaited the duel to end in a decisive victory so he would have the pleasure of exterminating the humiliated loser, but that sadistic glory was denied him. He was like a child who got no presents for Christmas.

“You serious?” Umbra said in disbelief, almost as baffled as Lumis was.

“Yes.” Maya spoke, her voice distant, little more than a whisper. She talked more to herself than two the two goons.

Yukio hugged Maya in gratitude and pride, and Maya hugged him back absent-mindedly. But it was too soon to celebrate. Lumis clenched the bomb remote so hard he was about to crush it. “You’ve got to be kidding! What kind of bullshit is this!? I want to see someone DIE!”

“I’m not a murderer.” Maya said again, hard and certain. “I want to be a great force for change, both in the dueling and, more importantly, outside it. But I don’t want to be a destructive force.”

“You already are a destructive force!” Umbra violently shouted at her like a child throwing a tantrum. “You should watch yourself duel! You should see how you treat people around you! You should look into the anger, scorn, hatred, and sarcasm you show everyone around you! Make no mistake, Marina Bozovic! I know you are a thief and usurper at heart, I tell you! Everyone knows this!”

Umbra offered his own rebuke. “Don’t think you’re any better than us. You hate the law and society with as much malice as we do. You know as much as we do how hypocritical civilization is. We only live in crime and war. The ‘laws’ are whatever the local warlord chooses them to be, whether it’s Matthew, Heishin, or Kaiba. If you’re not the ruler and can’t use hypocrisy then you must use fraud to your advantage.”

Yukio stepped in to refute his enemy. “You’re no Joe Peshi and you’re no philosopher, so pipe down, Frankenstein. People treat each other decently because they actually empathize with each other. It’s natural human behavior, no matter what laws or society we live in. It’s not humanity that’s the problem. It’s people like you.”

Lumis shook the remote in front of Maya in an abrupt spasm. “Let’s see your real moral worth, the both of you, when put to the test! If Harlem Renaissance over here doesn’t smite Akira like the little bitch he is in thirty seconds, I send you all to Hell! Got it!? 30… 29… 28… 27…”

Maya couldn’t do it. She couldn’t kill him. But what she ready to accept death? She thought about how mother died. Now was she ready to join her? Apparently, she was. She wasn’t scared of death but she didn’t expect it all to end like this.

18… 17… 16… 15… 14…”

But letting herself die didn’t help anyone. Everyone would die. Not just Akira, but Yukio too. She couldn’t let that happen! The instinct to survive, the fundamental terror of death all living creatures have seized her completely, driving out all contemplation. “I have to kill Akira!”

“What do you mean?” Yukio grabbed her again. “You’ll become a murderer!”

10… 9… 8…

“If Akira doesn’t die, then you will! I can’t live with that!” Maya almost cries herself.

4… 3… 2… 1…

“I’LL DO IT!” Maya roared. “PRIME PHOTON DRAGON, ATTACK!!!” Maya channeled all her energy into her dragon. As the beast readied itself to deliver the onslaught Maya wished there was some way to spare Akira’s life. If only there was a way to somehow disable Akira’s device! She poured all her energy into the dragon as if she could somehow make it happen by willing it

“Dragon, fire at Akira’s neck bomb only!” Maya commanded as her dragon fired its destructive burst stream. She felt so powerful, as if enlarged into something bigger than her own body, but felt so drained too, as if she was literally giving the dragon her energy.

The atomically powerful blast hit Akira on the mark somewhere above his chest and below his neck. Akira jettisoned ten feet across. As he hit the ground his neck bomb burst into pieces. Unbelievable! It actually worked! It actually worked!

Umbra and Lumis looked on, stupefied, their mouths hanging. Lumis didn’t even bother to try to push the button. He tried to smash it with his fist. It was all over. – Suddenly, a man darted from nowhere. He kicked Lumis in the face. The short Ghoul dropped the remote, howling and cursing in pain. Umbra tried to help his partner but he was as slow as he was big and tall. The man threw a small knife, hitting Umbra in the abdomen. He staggered, trying to get the knife off him with his big, clumsy hands but couldn’t. He would’ve fallen to the ground had Lumis not darted to his side and pulled out the knife from him. Recognizing defeat, the two Ghouls fled.

The mysterious man, completely unknown to our protagonists, took the remote and, after examining it for a while, pushed a smaller button on the side. The bombs came clean off our protagonists’ necks. Both of them clasped their throats, now scraped and red from the harsh braces they had to endure. The man wore nothing more than plain white tunic, white pants underneath, a white hat on his head, and a white shawl hiding his face. Our protagonists tried to get a closer look at him to figure who he was, but he was gone, vanishing as quickly as he came.

Maya and Yukio picked up the wearied and wounded Akira, each holstering one shoulder. Akira offered Maya his Millennium Item Card. “Take it. You beat me fair and square, as a true duelist.”

Maya declined the offer. “You had enough trouble for one day.” Maya wanted to also say, “You aren’t a worthy opponent. There is no reward in beating you.” But for once in her life she held her fast and sharp tongue.

Beethoven Sonatas – Introduction

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I tend to work many different projects at a time. I complete some and neglect others, but this is a project I’d really like to complete. I would really like to analyze all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in my personal way. I want to go beyond just analyzing the keys Beethoven uses in a sonata. I want to analyze the “psychology” behind it all. I want to research how Beethoven develops his ideas throughout a work. I want to know why he chooses a direction to take his ideas or a strategy to modulate to a certain key. I want to discover what he is trying to say, how he tells a story or canvasses a painting to create a complete narrative.

In my analyses, I want to focus on Beethoven’s musical subjects first and foremost to explore what ideas he chooses to develop, how he develops them, and how he makes all the different aesthetic and narrative elements fit together into a complete story. Analyzing Beethoven’s keys is my second priority. I will examine the harmonic strategies he uses to create a certain sound and to modulate in certain keys. My least priority is musical form, determining whether a movement is in sonata form, rondo form etc. In the past I was too obsessed with rigid musical form in my compositions, so I would like to correct this defect by analyzing Beethoven’s sonatas in a different way.

Beethoven’s sonatas can be grouped into six or seven broad categories in chronological order. Each group reflects a different attitude Beethoven has at the moment and a different direction he takes his music. They are all unified under many strong traits that are more or less uniquely Beethoven’s, but I will discuss these overall traits last.

Older Bonn Sonatas (Nos. i-iii)
Beethoven wrote his three first sonatas in Bonn. The essays of his youth, these early works are unpublished, so they are not officially cannon. I may or may not analyze them, depending if I can find reliable sheet music. Beethoven’s earliest sonatas are relatively lighthearted compared to his later work. They sparkle with youth, playfulness, and naivety. Beethoven seldom expresses dark moods in this work but slow movements are melancholy, reflecting a young person’s sadness.

The sonatas sound similar to Mozart’s sonatas, but lack Mozart’s maturity, sophistication, and command over musical subjects. The young Beethoven need not be ashamed, for he more than makes up for it in his later piano sonatas, which I think far outstrip Mozart’s. A significant factor in Beethoven’s maturity was his study under Haydn, which becomes very apparent in his sonatas from now on.

Early Sonatas (Nos. 1 – 11)
Beethoven masters the techniques of his predecessors. Here we see two things happening at once. At one moment, Beethoven deliberately breaks new ground with techniques such as sudden modulations and key changes (Sonata No. 6), sudden dynamic changes, and longer development sections and codas. At the same time he perfects the standard forms he inherited from Haydn and Mozart. This is very apparent, as the early sonatas tend to have four movements in conventional order (sonata form, slow movement sonata form, minuettes or schezros, and rondos or sonata form).

Beethoven’s early sonatas are a lot like symphonies and concertos, with the large scope and weight of symphonies and concertos. Beethoven imbues his early sonatas with a very vocal and orchestral quality. Examples exist such as flutes and clarinets (Sonata No. 1) and horns and strings (Sonata No. 4). In many passages, Beethoven’s music seems to have voice parts for a string quartet or string ensemble. Beethoven’s choice here is extremely important and is one of the best he ever made as a composer. The vocal and orchestral qualities of his sonatas give them a powerful, rich, transcendent quality. You are not hearing only piano music. You are hearing something far beyond the piano. Beethoven keeps this quality through the rest of his piano works.

We will also notice how Beethoven’s music now is much more economical and concise than his Bonn sonatas. Here Beethoven clearly shows his tutelage under Haydn. Beethoven loses a lot of the Mozartesque qualities of his Bonn sonatas. Now, Beethoven uses less for greater effect. His subjects are trimmed of any unnecessary material. They are now simpler but much more forceful. Like Haydn, Beethoven uses simple ideas or musical cells to build an entire work. By having the entire work spring from a cell or idea, or at least by making the cell the work’s backbone, he succeeds in creating a unique sound world for each piece. He uses all of these techniques for the rest of his sonatas.

Fantasy Sonatas (Nos. 12-18)
At this point Beethoven has thoroughly mastered conventional forms and now becomes more experimental. Beethoven uses the tried and true four-movement sonata less and less. In fact, Sonata No. 18 is the last four-movement sonata he ever wrote. Beethoven experiments with form here for two main reasons. One, he wants to free his music of the formalities he mastered, lest he becomes trapped in them. Two, he wants to solve the balance problem in classical music.

Typically, classical music places the most weight in the first movement. The first movement usually is in sonata form and has the most complexity and drama in the entire symphony. The second movement is usually a kind of sonata form also, and comes second in dramatic weight. The third movements and fourth movements, however, are much lighter. The fourth movement in particular is breezy and over quickly.

This may be okay for music but dramatically it tends to fall short. It is like having a book or movie where the most character development and plot unfolds in the first half, leaving little in the second half. Beethoven tries to solve this problem in two different ways. The first way is by putting off the sonata form as the very last movement and having the previous movement build up to it in a dramatic climax. Sonata No. 14 is the most famous example of this happening. The second way is the way Beethoven uses a lot more often, and he uses it the most in the Great & Eerie sonatas.

Miniature Sonatas (Nos. 19-20)
Beethoven probably wrote these two sonatas when he was much younger. He never wanted to publish them but his secretary Schindler published them anyway. It was a rare good move on Schindler’s part because now posterity can enjoy them. They are of course not very stately or inventive but they weren’t meant to be. They are simple but beautiful pieces that explore feelings of melancholy and cheerfulness.

Great & Eerie Sonatas (Nos. 21-28)
Here we see two types of sonata intermingle together, probably because Beethoven was exploring two directions simultaneously. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beethoven found both styles in the same path. In either case, the two sonata types are the highly dramatic sonatas (Sonatas No. 21, 23, and 25). They are the “great masterpieces” of his output. The other sonatas are more introspective and experimental, and explore different directions. Some are cheerful and melodic (Sonata No. 24), others highly contrasting (Sonata No. 27), and others very spiritual and otherworldly (Sonata No. 28). Sonata No. 28 in particular presages the Eternity sonatas with their deep spiritualism and contrapuntal complexity.

I mentioned before how Beethoven tried to solve classical music’s form. Among these sonatas Beethoven solves the problem in the second way, which is essentially by having two very substantial movements. The first movement is a large, encompassing sonata form. The next two movements are a slow movement and a sonata form finale that together act as a counterweight to the first movement. In a way, they can be said to be one gigantic movement. Beethoven seems to have thought this way too, for in Sonata No. 21, No. 23, and No. 25, he outright fuses the second and third movements together. You go from the second movement immediately to the third, no stopping.

Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29)
Beethoven composed comparatively little in the 1810s. Most biographers blame the cause on his deteriorating personal life. He was completely obsessed with trying to get custody over his nephew, Karl, and his attempts at raising the boy were frought with difficulty. I think this is a fair explanation but I think other reasons were involved. It is not uncommon for creative minds to go in a state of preparation or hibernation. They take the time to probe the mysteries of their art, to refine their tecniques, to turn over new leafs in their styles and attitutes towards their work. Beethoven was no exception.

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier was the breakthrough that began his Late Period. It bears obvious traits of his late style such as a rigorous study of counterpoint learned from Bach’s and Handel’s music, eschewing common time for march, dance, and other bodily rhythms, extreme condensing of ideas and quick modulations, and the strategy to end a work in a fugue or variation form.

The Hammerklavier may have many similarities to his Eternity sonatas but the overall tone between the two groups is very different. That is why I don’t put them in one group. The Hammerklavier is highly spiritual but it doesn’t have the naturalness and surrender to the mysteries the Eternity sonatas do. In contrast, the Hammerklavier is so intellectual and rigorous it almost becomes too abstract for its own good. If Beethoven is trying to reach the divine, he seems to do so by climbing up a steep mountain. The senses of battle and overcoming in his Middle or Heroic Period are very present here. Not so much in the Eternity sonatas.

Eternity Sonatas (No. 30-32)
Beethoven continues his Late Period trends but they come about much more effortlessly. Unlike the Hammerklavier, these pieces are not “great masterpieces”. They don’t try to impress. They are too introspective and personal. Beethoven studies the mysteries of death, resurrection, and eternity more than ever. The Eternity sonatas remind me a lot of the Coming Forth By Day, the Comedy, and a Pilgrim’s Progress. In all of these works, a soul or pilgrim must journey to the Duat or Underworld and pass a series of tests along the arduous journey. Only once the soul has passed all gates and her heart weighed against Ma’at is she judged worthy and she can join the company of the gods.

As with his Late Quartets, Beethoven is deliberately closing a chapter of musical history. As he was composing his last works, classical music was already old-fashioned, replaced by emerging Romantic music. Beethoven stuck to his guns and traveled his own path. Of course he wasn’t traditionalist. He completely surpassed classical music and sonata form by this point. We can see this by observing that Beethoven barely uses sonata form at all. Once it was the staple of his music and almost all music of his day. Now, he only uses it once in Sonata No. 30.

In the place of sonata form, Beethoven preoccupies himself with variations and fugues. Beethoven was always adept at variations for he could improvise for hours on end, but in his late works he refines it into his personal art more than ever. Beethoven did a similar thing to the fugue, turning the rigid musical form into something very naturally, uniquely his. Beethoven fugues don’t suffocate under the strict rules of counterpoint. They soar free.

Beethoven’s Style
Beethoven was a very diverse and dynamic composer but he did have many techniques he mastered to create a consistent style you can hear in all his compositions. While Beethoven always remained a child of the Enlightenment and his attitude to musical form Classical, he explored many Romantic ideas to enrich his own personal style. He had one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era, but at his core he was a Classical composer.

As I said before, Beethoven’s piano writing is very orchestral, often imitating woodwinds, brass, and string ensembles. Some musicologists and biographers have complained how Beethoven was bad at counterpoint and fugue but this charge simply isn’t true. Beethoven, true to his orchestration, wrote a lot of complex counterpoint for many different voices. His even playing style reflected this. An elderly observer commented how the young Beethoven gave a unique voice for every different voice part he played, a style similar to Bach’s.

Beethoven also tended to make his music jagged in many different ways. He makes sudden changes in dynamics and leaps from one key to the next. His rhythms were often offbeat. Strangely enough, Beethoven is very melodically gifted but rhythm tends to stand out more, so much you could play a drinking game of guessing which piano sonata by the rhythm of its main idea. Sometimes, Beethoven will sing. Other times, he will declare as in rhetoric. Often his declarations are in unisons and he will more often than not dot them with sfortzandi to emphazise what words or phrases he wants you to hear the most. Beethoven also uses sfortzandi in soft passages, which means he knows how highlight a word or phrase with nuance. A soft sfortzandi is often more dangerous than a loud one.

Beethoven uses simple ideas or musical cells to build an entire work. By having the entire work spring from a cell or idea, or at least by making the cell the work’s backbone, he succeeds in creating a unique sound world for each piece. I said this before and I repeat it verbatim to show how important it is. But Beethoven does not imprison his work to form. He allows plenty of room to move around with all sorts of different ideas. A good way to think of Beethoven’s composition method is to think of the musical cell and other key ideas as the skeleton while the liberty to express all sorts of colors, harmonies, and melodies are the muscles and blood. They cannot exist without the skeleton.

Beethoven has a lot of interesting tricks up his sleeve when it comes to harmony and rhythm. As early Romantic composers were oft to do, Beethoven explores rather remote keys and even modulates to them. Beethoven’s favorite key relations in regards to harmony are by the 3rd and 2nd intervals. It is not uncommon for Beethoven to have a chromatic baseline as it gives him more interesting harmonies. Beethoven’s melodies tend to have close intervals or arpeggios with important notes outside of the chord to make them interesting. Beethoven especially likes to keep his intervals close in slow movements. This gives the music a creeping feeling and it builds a sense of depth, a desire to expand the narrative and develop the material.

Beethoven is also fond of diminished chords and isn’t afraid of dissonance. They give jaggedness to the music and often Beethoven easily resolves them when he needs to. In some sonatas, Beethoven deliberately starts in the wrong key. It is not only a witty trick but it immediately creates an urgent tension and expectation to resolve. Beethoven tends not to resolve his harmonies or his melodies easily, and for good reason. It keeps dramatic tension and lets the music expand and develop as Beethoven wishes.

When it comes to rhythm, Beethoven is fond of dotted rhythms. These were probably influenced by the music of the French Revolution, which were often militaristic and emphasized the brass and woodwinds. We can see a lot of brass and woodwind in Beethoven’s orchestral writing as well, which expanded the classical orchestra’s expressive abilities. Gluck, as well as French high drama and tragedy, again products of the Enlightenment and Revolution, also inspired Beethoven’s dotted rhythms. Beethoven also preferred to make his rhythms offbeat to make the music more interesting. Naturally this allows synchopation, which Beethoven also liked to use.

Though Beethoven burns with passion he also restrains himself. Like I said before, he is often economical with his music, using less to make more. Beethoven could easily dazzle the audience with flourishes and tremolandos if he wanted to, but usually he doesn’t. Rather than bring everything to the table right away, Beethoven tends to build up the dramatic tension. Though Beethoven is thought of as a loud composer, most of his music is actually soft. This amplifies the loudness when Beethoven builds the tension to a dramatic climax. Thus, when Beethoven builds up the pressure, the impression I get is of a simmering volcano, its fire burning beneath the surface but not quite out yet. This simmering aesthetic gives his music an added depth to it. He is so good at the technique he unwittingly makes it present even in his epic climaxes.

Dream Diary: Dad, Cops, and Otters

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The people I dream of the most:
Satan
Dad
Sophia
Palpatine
Beethoven’s music
Hua

My entry into Dream World was rough this time. I lay in a position bad for my neck while listening to Rubinstein’s Ocean Symphony. I also had a stomach flu, which was so bad I threw up earlier yesterday. So naturally the stage was set for bad dreams, or last least weird dreams. My dream came in four stages, four lands, and all of them were cold, wet, and snowing in the dead of winter. All four lands blurred together in some form or another, as you will see. It was a big adventure and took a while for me to recover from it.

The Ocean Symphony

In the first land I was working at a place that looked like bar or a cabin and I was going to school. At the job a flock of bats escaped. Apparently I had to catch the bats and put them away. I found the bats but did not catch them and did not put them away. At school I did research and turned in papers. I also played with wooden blocks and I used them to create great, miniaturized landscapes.

– – In a mini-land, I even played in a landscape that could have been mine like in a video game (Super Mario 3D World to be exact). I was racing against some guy that looked like Anakin Skywalker. –

My passion with the wooden blocks got partly in the way of my schoolwork but I handled it just fine. The real problem was with dad, whom I think drove me in between school and work. He seems to often argue but I can’t remember what it was.

A worse episode happened with mom. I was with her and some people who were somehow involved in the school. We were checking my email. A spam mail popped up. I wanted to get away but mom pushed my hand and made me click on it, whether on accident or on purpose. The spam mail seemed to open up a virus because a swath of expletives and bigoted statements appeared on the screen and I had a hard time closing them. Mom spent the whole day yelling at me as if I wanted to have spam mail and I opened the spam mail on purpose. It was a long, bitter fight, and it didn’t end.

The second land was different. I kept shifting perspectives among different American drivers. They were angry at each other for some reason. In one instance, a man felt so wronged by another man he flipped his car on top of the other man’s. The second man’s car completely crumbled under the weight of the first man’s car, killing the second man. I was both men, the first man in his rage first, and then the second man dying.

At another moment, I was with a band of people running from someone. We seamlessly swam through lakes as if we were flying through the water and leapt from rocky hill to rocky hill. Our souls were imprisoned in small, strange objects that looked like clamshells… yet we still walked and talked as if we had human bodies.

We placed our clam bodies (apparently our souls formed ghostly human forms) and used them to summon dark spirits to guide us. Three apparitions appeared: Darth Maul, Darth Vader, and Darth Sideous. Sideous chastised Vader or suspected him or treason. I’m not too sure. Sideous gave his advise, which I can’t remember at all, and faded away. We then tried to repair the clamshell body of one of our gang, Harley Quinn, since it broke during the summoning. She could still walk and talk to us as usual, but she was technically dead…

In the third land, I was with many friends in a huge arcade. The arcade was big as a museum and had many strange games inside. One of the games was a kind of multiplayer mini-bowling game. Each player sat at a table and had ten small bowling pins in a small valley. Each of the players tried to roll mini bowling balls over the table’s hills and into the valleys, knocking the other players’ pins.

Strangely enough, Beethoven’s music played in my head. It was a score in The Creatures of Prometheus and the dramatic crux in the entire work. It was the part where Apollo teaches the first man and woman the arts and sciences. I kept humming this tune in my head.

– – In another mini-land I was actually in a game, a kind of computer game. At other moments I was in the arcade playing the game. In the arcade I was playing some kind of Yugioh video game while in the game I was trying to collect rare Yugioh cards while not getting noticed by some god-like creature in the game that looked like Beerus. (In yet other instances, I was with a group of people who tried to the god in some kind of game but he kept blasting us away with his power. I even became Beethoven in one instance, using my music as a power to blast away the god’s barrier.) In either case, I was with Dueling Logs, a guy who makes YGOPro movies on YouTube. He kept urging me to quit the game and leave but I didn’t listen. –

The arcade eventually closed but I was one of the last people to leave. I traveled with a few other people through the arcade, trying to find an exit, but the arcade was like a labyrinth. My dad parked his car outside, waiting to pick me up.

In the fourth land I saw a large tub in the streetwalk, filled with cold water, outside in the city in the dead of winter. All the people who died in the second land reincarnated as animals like otters and ducks. A cop took the animals out of the tub and gave them to another cop to carry them away so they could become pets.

At this place I met Hua, a girl I’m close to in Waking World. We went out on a date, walking together and talking to each other. We went to a museum but it was snowing even inside. We had a good time. Hua revealed to me she was bald and only wearing a wig. She took the wig off and asked me if I would still love her even if she were bald. I struggled with my feelings but eventually said yes. I was being honest.

As we were leaving the museum we went to the atrium, which was full of massive dinosaur fossils. Hua was amazed and impressed, as was I, and I kept showing her more and more fossils to impress her more. Beethoven’s music came back, but it was a loud, towering music. I couldn’t tell the name of the music but I knew it was Beethoven.

What Does Modernity Mean?

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Modernity is a concept that is vague and slightly ominous, a very broad term that captures a host of intellectual, cultural, and scientific trends moving in the same general direction. Generally, modernity describes a radical break from feudal, agrarian cultures, at least those in Europe. Notions of hierarchies and divine right gave way to individuality and self-mastery. Religious traditions and orthodoxies gave way to scientific, empirical, and materialistic explanations. Patriarchal property-ownership gave way social mobility, free trade, and capitalism. The rise of modernity undoubtedly advanced humanity far in knowledge, technology, and life span, but underscoring all of these achievements is a worrying uncertainty.

Modernity is fraught with paradoxes, a world with create human intellectual and creative potential that is sadly undercut by the very things that give us all that potential in the first place. We live in a world where the doctrines of human rights are taken for granted yet modern society dehumanizes us on a massive scale. We have a plethora of freedoms and civil liberties and we are masters of our environment, yet we feel more than ever we at the mercy of large forces we cannot control. We hold our principles of equality in pride, yet never before has there been more inequality between rich and poor. We have more freedom of speech than ever yet our diversity of opinion has drastically shrunk. We have the freedoms of voluntary association and a strong sense of individual worth, yet we feel isolated and cut off from other people.

Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, for example, describes industrial capitalism in the West. The Enlightenment defeated Old Europe and constitutions outlying our human rights have become the mainstay of civic life. Yet, as Marx describes, we are reduced to wage-laborers, our worth lowered to how much money we can make for the bourgeoisie. Our professions and creative labors lose their spiritual value, their highest worth debased to its economic value. In old feudal times, social hierarchies were at least varied and gradated into many different shades, from knights to guild-masters to serfs, each with even smaller subgroups. However, as Marx famously wrote, modern society stratifies further and further into two classes: a shrinking bourgeoisie and a growing dehumanized proletariat.

Marx also describes how we have lost control over capitalism, how capitalism spiraled out of its control, becoming a machine almost with a mind of its own. Marx insightfully points out how even the bourgeoisie, our supposed masters, barely have any control of capitalism. They do not control capitalism at all but merely try to keep up with it, constantly needing to reinvent the production and selling of commodities to prevent capitalism from collapsing. The bourgeoisie are prisoners of the system almost as much as we are. Perhaps they can steer the course of the capitalist machine slightly, but it is ever so slightly.

This is very saddening since modern societies have so much money and economic power they can put to good use for their people. Even Marx himself speaks about the vast economic power capitalism has. The nations of the first world have more than enough wealth, technologies, and recourses to literally end world hunger and provide health care to millions of people who really need it. Our technology and money allows us to speak and travel half around the world, allowing us to develop our ideas in all sorts of scientific and artistic ways. Sadly, though we do exploit some of our potential, we leave too much of it dormant, and our capitalist system ultimately serves itself, not us.

Tocqueville in Democracy in America makes his own insights of how paradoxical modernity is. Tocqueville recognizes how much freedom of speech Americans have and contrasts it to the limitations Europeans had under monarchies, especially despotisms. However, while Americans’ speech are free their minds are much less so. Tocqueville contrasts how people use their speech in “hard tyrannies” versus “soft tyrannies”. In the “hard tyranny” of despotism, the despot could silence and even kill his critics using the law but he could never stop dissenting ideas. He could never stop people from criticizing him behind is back. But in the “soft despotism” of America people are free to say what their want but their souls are silenced. Americans’ very freedom of speech turns against them, turning them into a tyranny of the majority, a mob rule where intelligent discussion is silenced.

Again, we see a paradox in modernity. We have a freedom of speech our ancestors could only envy. We do not have any of the harsh censors and punishments our ancestors did. We are not (in America and the UK at least) imprisoned, executed, or excommunicated for out speech. Yet, when we as a people are given such a priceless gift we use it to silence each other.

Durkheim in The Rules of the Sociological Method describes modernity’s contradictions in his own way. Durkheim says that our modern condition is marked by our feelings of isolation, despite out freedom to voluntarily associate with other people. In the premodern world, Durkheim describes us as “mechanical”, a homogenous people who all thought the same. In the modern world, however, we are “organic” creature of different individuals who willingly put our differences aside to work to a common goal.

Our individualism gives us great potential to work together as a team, but it is also precisely the idea of individualism, the idea we are unique, separate, unrelated to other people, that backfires on us and causes us to become isolated. Our modern feelings of isolation can become so powerful Durkheim used the word “anomie” to describe it. We end up feeling a lack of direction in our lives because modern society is so atomistic it cannot provide us with a universal guidance. In Suicide, Durkheim provides two types of suicide that fit well with the our modern crisis. Egoistic suicide comes from a pervasive feeling of not belonging and having no one to turn to, something Durkheim himself says comes from taking individualism too far. Anomic suicide comes from lacking a direction in life. In premodern societies, rigid hierarchies and strong divisions of labor gave people social roles and obligations for them. In modern societies, people are freer to choose their own social roles, but people do not always succeed in making that decision.

In closing, modernity is a paradoxical social condition where people enjoy great freedom and agency but also a place where people can quickly lose their freedom and agency. In a way, modernity makes a strong statement of our human nature. When given freedom, we have great intellectual and creative capacities but far too often we lose our way. Modernity holds radical freedoms people simply are not ready for yet. Most people, myself included, just cannot handle such a level of extreme freedom, empowerment, and self-ownership. Instead, people let themselves become controlled rather than controlling themselves, one of the causes that leads to the bewildering paradox we call modernity.

Contradictions in Democracy

Alexis_de_tocqueville_cropped

Tocqueville is mostly remembered for his detailed study of the fledgling democracy in nineteenth century America. Tocqueville is praised both as a conservative thinker for warning the world of the dangers of extreme equality and mob rule and as an “aristocratic Marx” for analyzing capitalism and spotting its inherent dangers and contradictions even in its infancy. Tocqueville sees American democracy in many different lights, but one of the more prominent ones is an unstable balance between freedom and equality. The ideal democracy is a golden mean between the two, but it cannot last. Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Another famous American adage reads, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

However, people are not eternally vigilante. The American people were fiery and alert during the American Revolution and birth of their country, but as time went by they lost their spirit and relinquished their freedoms to the government and corporations. Marx is famous for showing how capitalism is full of contradictions that will eventually grow and destroy capitalism itself. Tocqueville, the “aristocratic Marx”, makes a similar insight; that democracy is also full of contradictions and doomed to die because of them. In fact, the very benefits democracy provides such as economic mobility, freedom of speech, and voting rights, eventually turn on democracy and destroy it.

To Tocqueville, democracy is an unstable balance between freedom and equality, but eventually freedom and equality give way to despotism and inequality. Near the end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes a dark end of American democracy. “Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the need to be directed as well as have the desire to remain free… They conceive a single, protective, all-powerful government but one elected by citizens… [They] think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to national security”[1]. The American people grow dependent on a “soft despotism” to provide for them yet retain the illusion they are free to elect who they please. In one of the greatest political paradoxes in history, the people of a democracy, the freest kind of society on earth, willingly put themselves into bondage.

How do democracy’s benefits destroy democracy and why do people willingly become slaves? In the case of economic mobility, the bourgeoisie is partly to blame. Ironically, the bourgeoisie that eventually turns democracies in despotism is the same bourgeoisie that allowed democracy to exist in the first place. “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” Marx and Engels famously write in the Communist Manifesto.[2] The bourgeoisie rose from the guild-masters traders in growing medieval towns. Eventually, they challenged and defeated the aristocracy, propagating values such as free trade, natural rights, liberty, and equality.

But what of the bourgoesie in Tocqueville’s time? In the 1830s Americans had a relatively high degree of socioeconomic equality. The vast gap between rich and poor that plagues our modern American society did not eist in Tocqueville’s time. However, Tocqueville warns, just as the bourgeoisie defeated the old aristocracy, they could eventually become a new aristocracy, devolving democracy into despotism. Already, he saw middle class Americans divide into what Marx would later call the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In observing factory workers and managers, Tocqueville describes how workers become more specialized in their labor and detached from their work. “When a craftsman is constantly and solely engaged upon the making of one single object… he loses the general capacity to apply his concentration on the way he is working… his thoughts are forever taken up by the object of his daily toil… the worker becomes weaker, more limited and more dependent.”[3] The craftsman, adopting democratic principles of thrift and usefulness, becomes a mere worker.

The bosses, however, grow in industry and power. As the worker’s mind is more narrowed to one specific task, the worker’s boss “daily surveys an increasing field of operation and his mind expands…”[4] Richer and more educated men devote themselves more expanding their wealth through industry. As everybody has a more equal condition in society, cheap, the demand for manufactured products become widespread[5], which in turn necessitate larger factories and more workers. The bourgeoisie becomes a more powerful and brutal aristocracy than any aristocracy beforehand. While the aristocracies of old held honor took responsibility of their subjects the new aristocracy brutally exploits its workers for profit. Ironically, the same bourgeoisie that paved the way for democracy will eventually end it in despotism. The very same equality of conditions in democracy create the demand for manufactures products, which leads to a divide between very wealthy and very poor.

In another part of American democracy, the very freedom of speech and voting rights people enjoy eventually lead them to become subjugated by despots. The free and equal American people, overconfident in their political power, in the invincibility of their freedoms, and entitled to their rights, become a tyrannical majority. The omnipotent majority, as Tocqueville writes, supports the magistrate’s arbitrary power “while supporting the legal despotism of the legislator”[6]. American politicians have a freer reign over their subjects compared to European ones. The American majority, believing itself to have absolute power, sees its politicians as its servants, “is glad to leave them to the care of serving its strategies. It, therefore, does not itemize in advance the details of their duties and scarcely bothers to define their rights.”[7] In the process the American majority takes deeply for granted the rights and freedoms they have, which contrasts the European who is more aware of what arbitrary power is like.

The congregation of a loud, overwhelming majority also stifles differences in opinion. Individualism and freedom of speech give way to uniformity and a form of tyranny. The majority upholds mediocrity while driving out people who think differently. Their freedom of speech becomes so great it takes away the free speech of others, turning dissidents into pariahs with civic privileges in name only.[8] Tocqueville describes the majority of almost having a reason for its behavior. “No monarch is so absolute that he can gather all the forces of society into his own hands and overcome resistence as can a majority endowed with the right of enacting laws and executing them.”[9] However, this strategy, if it ever was one, creates the opposite effect. A king of old Europe can persecute people who oppose him, but he cannot stop ideas. He will always have subjects who reject his authority and are hostile to him.[10] However, the “omnipotent majority” with “absolute rights and freedoms” is conquered from the inside, ostracizing people who criticize the ruling powers that dominate the American people, the same ruling powers the majority put into place with their freedom of speech and voting rights.

Tocqueville rightly calls America’s increasing despotism the strangest of paradoxes. The bourgeoisie that paved the way for social equality in America, defeating the old despotic aristocracies in the process, rises to become an even more despotic aristocracy. The very bourgeoisie American values of hard work, thrift, and honesty, end up justifying the tyrannical use of extreme wealth. The American people, fully aware of their freedom and equality, of their freedom of speech and voting rights, vote politicians into power and assume the politicians have their best interests. The appalling irony lies in that the American people, who fought so hard to win freedom and equality, are the very people who willingly give it away. Rather than refresh the tree of liberty, they let the tree die, still believing the tree will somehow protect them. They unwittingly use their very freedom of equality, their very economic mobility, freedom of speech, and voting rights, to transform democracy into despotism.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Gareth Jones, and Samuel Moore. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America: And Two Essays on America. Trans. Gerald E. Bevan. Comp. Isaac Kramnick. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[1] Tocqueville, pg. 806

[2] Marx and Engels, pg. 3

[3] Tocqueville, pg. 645

[4] Tocqueville, pg. 646

[5] Tocqueville, pgs. 646-647

[6] Tocqueville, pg. 296

[7] Tocqueville, pg. 297

[8] Tocqueville, pg. 298

[9] Tocqueville, pg. 297

[10] Tocqueville, pg. 297

Franklin’s Spiritual Capitalism

ben-franklin

When we think of capitalism, we often think of greed and base materialism. We rarely, if at all, think of capitalism as being spiritual in any way. However, Max Weber comes to a very different conclusion in  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . Weber traces modern American capitalism back to its roots in Puritan religious ideas during the Protestant Reformation and reads Benjamin Franklin’s sermon on hard work and frugality with a new perspective. Weber concludes that Franklin’s aphorisms do not reflect greed or any crass desire to simply accumulate more things. They reflect the pursuit of high Puritan ideals such as thrift, piety, and diligence. Making money through hard work has a spiritual, even religious, significance, a pursuit of higher ideals, an affirmation of higher truths and a metaphysical significance of life.

Weber writes down Benjamin Franklin’s sermon in its entirety on page eight. It is small and quaint, anything but grandiose, but it is rich with aphorisms illustrating Franklin’s worldview. “Remember, that  credit is money . If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest as I can make of it during that time.” Franklin reminds. “  The good paymaster  is lord of another man’s purses… never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.” Franklin advises. “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, makes him easy six months longer…” and then Franklin warns, “Beware of thinking all you own that you possess, and of living accordingly. It is a mistake that many people have fallen credit into.”  [1]

Not everyone saw Franklin’s sermon in a virtuous light. For example, Kumberger, a contemporary of Weber, condemns Franklin of base materialism ond hypocrisy in  The Man Tired of America . “They turn cattle into tallow, and people into money.” He claims. Franklin’s virtues are only virtuous because they are useful to him, and if they no longer help him get richer he will discard them for new ones. He carefully portrays an appearance of modesty only so that he may advance his social status. These American “virtues” are hypocritical to Germans and in dictating his sermon Franklin exposes his hypocrisy for all to see.  [2]

Weber disagrees with Kumberger, explaining why Franklin’s maxims reflect higher spiritual values, not greed. Franklin completely rejects any unearned, uninhibited enjoyment. His aphorisms emphasize frugality in not only one’s money but also one’s actions to an extreme. He compares actions and the time one spends as equivalent to the money they own. A man who diligently works from five to eight, for instance, already has a lender’s money since his diligence earned the lender’s confidence. “After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings.”  [3]  As far as Franklin is concerned, time is money, and time not spent on work is wasted money.

Franklin strongly reflects Puritan religious values, albeit in a secularized form. When read under with a good grasp of Puritan doctrines, Franklin’s aphorisms even suggest a form of human fulfillment beyond the accumulation of wealth. Usefulness is a virtue in itself, and Franklin discovered this truth from a revelation from God. The purpose for making money is not to own or possess things but to prove to God one’s usefulness and frugality. Hedonistic and, ironically, practical motives are gone. Making money through hard work is a form of religious good work, and one keeps up with the good work by making more money.  [4]  Franklin speaks of money having a “  prolific, generating nature . Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.” [5]  Franklin refers to a positively reinforcing loop where making money raises one’s self-worth, usefulness, and discipline, allowing them to make even more money. It is the secular equivalent of good works proving one’s worthiness to God, positively reinforcing them to do yet more good works.

Weber goes further, examining the very language of Franklin’s capitalism. He pays careful attention to word “vocation”. In its modern definition, “vocation” means a person’s career, but this innocently secular world has religious roots. “Vocation” derives from “vocare”, meaning “to call” in Latin. In its original religious meaning, “vocation” meant one’s calling to do God’s work on earth. Puritans used Calvinist doctrines to merge people’s secular professions with religious work. A person who has a worthy and lucrative profession was “selected” by the Calivinist God to emerge victorious over others. God designated him as one of the “elect” destined for salvation, and his wealth was proof of his good works.  [6]  Weber even goes so far as declaring the notion of one’s callings “the alpha and omega of Franklin’s morality”.  [7]

Likewise, the Protestant founder Luther infuses a person’s calling with both a worldly and spiritual significance. To Luther, the diligent following a secular calling is to fulfill one’s spiritual duties. It is the highest form of moral activity. According to Weber, “the German word ‘Beruf’, and even more cleatly the English word ‘calling’, carry at least  some  religious connotations – namely those of a  task set forth by God”. Weber explicitly identifies how Medieval Christians associated religious significance to everyday secular labor, an association emphasized by the Puritans.  [8]  Luther in particular believes, as paraphrased by Weber, “the fulfillment of innerworldly duties is absolutely the  only  way to please God, that this and  only  this is God’s will.”  [9]  As contradictory as it sounds, to Puritans, capitalism is a spiritual work.

Franklin’s frugality and diligence, his mindfulness of money is in essence a spiritual calling or quest. His attains money not because of greed, not obtain things externally, but to validate himself internally. He does not speak of God but nevertheless his a sermon shows a deeply held need to prove himself as useful, diligent, frugal, worthy, and virtuous. Franklin speaks of earning people’s esteem and trust, as being seen as a reliable and virtuous person, very closely with earning money. The good paymaster earns a lender’s trust and respect alongside future loans. The man who works with his hammer from eight to five secures a creditor’s a confidence the same way. Being an honest man increases your credit.  [10]  Franklin is a sort of Protestant Dale Carnegie, where winning friends and influencing people connects to earning money, which in turn connects to worldly and spiritual worthiness.

Works Cited

Weber, Max, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells.  The Protestant Ethic and the “spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings . New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

[1]  Weber, pgs. 9-10

[2]  Weber, pgs. 11-12

[3]  Weber, pg. 9

[4]  Weber, pg. 12

[5]  Weber, pg. 9

[6]  Weber, pg. 13

[7]  Weber, pg. 13

[8]  Weber, pg. 28-29

[9]  Weber, pg. 29

[10]  Weber, pgs. 9-10