Welcome, welcome, welcome, young and old, rich and poor, excited and bored—especially the bored! [Wait, why the bored?] Well, we live in an age of deliberate overstimulation, I think its fair to say. Being bored is all too easily curable—which is actually a problem. Growing up, I remember being bored here and there which was, yes, well, annoying, but usually, a prelude to seeing new and different things, to calming down, to sitting a bit with the objects around me...and seeing their details and uses afresh. Not to be dramatic, or at least not overly so, but it was often a prelude to novel thoughts and observations. Boredom was what you got in order to have some progress.
But enough about me, for now.
I mentioned something in my first substack (first post, newsletter, acch, who knows what the terminology is, really) that I want to say a bit more about. [Only one thing, Mordechai?! Fine, fine, a few things...but one in particular for now.]
I want to play with concept of inertia. It is greatly under-appreciated when it comes to people, organizations, ventures, and just plain, well anything that’s not coming straight out of physics (where we all recognize how important it is)!
In modern physics, inertia is an object’s resistance to change. An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest, as Aristotle stated. (Just kidding! Aristotle, the king of physics for a few centuries, asserted very nearly the opposite.)1
Our modern understanding of inertia derives rather from Galileo and was later refined by Newton, and memorably encapsulated in what is generally called Newton’s first law of motion, which famously states:
So, what does this mean? And why am I focused on inertia? [I mean, what a boring topic, c’mon man!]
To put it simply, questions of change animate an enormous amount of historical research. In fact, the significance of change, especially dramatic or revolutionary change, undergirds the bulk of European historical investigation and argument. [Hello, French Revolution? Did you inaugurate modernity? What, no?! Well, even so, just so y’know, you’re still a big deal, really....]
The flip side of this phenomenon—persistence, inertia, continuity—is paid less attention, no matter how much it must necessarily figure, even if only by omission, in any discussion of why, when, and how any sort of meaningful shift or change occurs. Why the center can and often does hold is an equally significant question and lens by which to understand the world. But we don’t talk speak or analyze it much, we just presume it.)2
Rest is supposedly the natural state, and motion the artificial or purposeful one in common usage, but that is exactly what the physics of inertia notes is not the case. Inertia is no more natural than motion, but change and motion is somehow much more often the subject of analysis, discussion, debate, and investigation!
And don’t just take my word for it, take the well crafted rant of sociologist extraordinaire, Barrington Moore Jr. (longtime non-tenured professor at Harvard, the best kind).3
There is a widespread assumption in modern social science that social continuity requires no explanation…. The assumption of inertia, that cultural and social continuity do not require explanation, obliterates the fact that both have to be recreated anew in each generation, often with great pain and suffering. To maintain and transmit a value system, human beings are punched, bullied, sent to jail, thrown into concentration camps, cajoled, bribed, made into heroes, encouraged to read newspapers, stood up against a wall and shot, and sometimes even taught sociology….To speak of cultural inertia is to overlook the concrete interests and privileges that are served by indoctrination, education, and the entire complicated process of transmitting culture from one generation to the next....4
Moore didn’t hold back (thankfully).5 My favorite anecdote about him (there are a few cause he was that kind of person) is about his teaching style, which was described as “Socratic-totalitarian,”—as great teaching often is. But I digress (you were warned in my last substack)!
Anyways, my main point is that despite Moore’s efforts, still, unfortunately, the very vocabulary, concepts, and ideas we use to conceptualize notions like continuousness and durability are less often examined. Inertia, stability, persistence, and even possibly permanence are simply presumed. We don’t quite get how they operate often, and why. The processes and workings of inertia get a overlooked because the supposed liberals want to study how and why (good and progressive) change happens, and supposed conservatives are wont to suggest the (long and true) solidity of tradition. (As if the world worked according to either view!)
If we’re going to take anything from considering the use and meaning of inertia in physics, we should not presume inertia is any more of a default than motion. (None of this is to say apply physics to politics and life, mind you. That’s a recipe for a quick hell!)6
Finally, none of this is on my mind for vaguely general reasons, but because, to mis-quote the Wu-Tang Clan (for those too young to know, a popular rap group from the 90s), inertia rules everything around me.
Well, maybe not everything, but more than enough (my own hobby horse is the peculiar durability which characterizes scholastic institutions, institutions that claim to be at the forefront of change, today, but not a few of which easily outlast and are generally much more conservative than many states or governments), so today I’ll just mention two common examples.
I’m Jewish, and we’re in the middle of Passover. There are traditionally two seders, gawd help us. Why two? To make sure one has it on the right date, which used to be difficult to determine for a variety of reasons, especially spatial and technological.7 But now we can know with precision which date it would be, and we’ve overcome those issues! So, why do we (okay, non-Reform Jews) still do two days? Custom, tradition...but that’s just like saying inertia, which, again, is not just a thing by itself....
So let me take, and end with, a second example, to illuminate the first from everybody’s favorite subject: trigonometry. Trigonometry is still a mainstay of most high-school instruction. It is, however, among the least applicable areas of mathematics in later life for anybody not working in a field (say structural engineering) that directly uses it. (It is also among the most boring and least interesting kinds of mathematics—yeah, I said it! Don’t like it—sue me!) Why do we have it? Historically, because it used to be an essential part of any mathematics education due to the importance of trig to navigation, and the importance of navigation in commercial life. (Trust me, I wrote a dissertation on this). But that’s not why we still have it because, now, the context has vastly changed. Why do we still have it? Well, one important reason for this is because it would not be easy to re-train and re-educate the teachers who already teach one subject to learn how to teach another. Teachers, often, teach what they are taught. (Which tells you more about why and how and what any of your teachers do than you might like to imagine, but...that’s for another time)!
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from one of my least favorite writers today, Victor Davis Hanson (this was from before went full Trumpist), but his early works (where he passionately criticized exactly the sort of sinecurial ways and habits he now lives by) were often sharp and thought-provoking:
Conservative critics, who laudably appreciate stability, continuity, and tradition in society [and now I’m hope you’re more attuned to sometimes surreptitious nature of such words], more so than their liberal counterparts, have a special responsibility to identify an evil legacy, to distinguish what must be preserved and what discarded.
Now, trigonometry is hardly evil (despite what many of us were put through). The teaching of trig is not evil (despite what many math teachers have done to try and teach it). But taking things for granted, assuming the world is necessarily one way, and that there is little one can do about it, because, well, inertia...well, that, that too often leads to and permits, if not indulges, evil.
He stated that an object’s motion (or lack thereof) was due to what kind of object it was, or what elements it was composed of (see especially his Physics, and his On the Heavens).
I should emphasize I am not talking about the modern conservative movement here who often cloaks itself as, well, the party of tradition, conservation, and norms. There is way too much social/intellectual/moral/you-name-it-kind-of-change called for from conservatism’s self-described leaders to describe said movement as inertial. At some later point, I’ll likely to expand on this and hopefully step on the toes of many of my good (no, really) conservative friends, and even more so those of my liberal ones! ;-)
And who was Barrington Moore Jr., you ask? And why does he have such an echt waspy name? His father, Barrington Moore Sr. was a notable forester—I mean, now there’s a cool job, and you should totally read more about it here cause Wikipedia is amazing—and, even more importantly, the great great-grandson of Clement Clark Moore (about as important a figure in early national America as they come, professor, polemicist, president (of Columbia), and poet—best known as the author T’was the Night Before Christmas—and very rich landholder as the former owner of much of the neighborhood of Chelsea, New York.
Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, p.485-486.
Which is probably at least one reason he didn’t get tenure; the long quotation just above, for instance, contains one footnote where he singles out the work of his just as waspy and very boring colleague Talcott Parsons for critical comparison (which has led others to assume TP blocked BMJ for tenure); as if academics would ever do such a thing!
However, it would behoove us to think, especially those of us who do intellectual history, not to ignore the concepts and forces which shape many other parts of reality. And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can read more about that here: https://aeon.co/essays/the-secret-intellectual-history-of-mathematics
“When the Torah was written, the beginning of the new month was determined by observing the moon. This was done in Jerusalem. Word of the new moon did not always arrive in other cities outside of Israel in time to observe the holiday. For communities outside of Israel, the practice developed of observing an extra day of Yom Tov on major holidays to be sure those communities were in sync with Jerusalem. This led to holding two seders in the Diaspora.” https://reformjudaism.org/learning/answers-jewish-questions/why-do-some-jews-have-one-seder-and-others-have-two-seders