In a way, Homo Ludens is nothing more than a book-length reiteration of Plato’s offhand remark. But then, the latter is the most stirring and profound thought in the entirety of the “Laws.” The scientific and historical foundation for this philosophy only emerged centuries after it was first expressed.
Only in the 20th century was that foundation first systematically laid out. The man to do it was Dutch historian, philosopher and polymath Johan Huizinga, who learned Sanskrit in his youth and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Indian culture, only to come back “home” to the history of Europe and, especially, his native Netherlands. In 1919, he wrote The Autumn of the Middle Ages, a massive work that aimed to reconstruct and evoke the medieval view of the world, not only through Huizinga’s encyclopedic knowledge of primary sources, but also through his poetic writing style. (We will come back to Autumn later.) In the 1920s he wrote a biographical study of Erasmus of Rotterdam, with whose intellectual outlook he perhaps identified. By the 1930s, however, he became preoccupied with more universal questions. Rather than study the history of any one particular culture, he tried to grasp what culture is — why it exists, how it develops, what place it should rightfully hold, and what will happen to humanity without it, this last question being especially topical in the years leading up to World War II.
In Homo Ludens, he gave one possible answer: culture, and really all human activity, is…a kind of game. The foreword states the following thesis (page numbers throughout are from the 1980 edition by Routledge, a reprint of an English translation made in 1949):
(Homo Ludens, ix)
When Huizinga admits that he does not approach his question “scientifically,” we should perhaps understand it as follows. Homo Ludens is not a polemic or opinion piece; the author does not “prove” the thesis stated above. He cites many historical facts to illustrate it, but this collection of facts is not claimed to be exhaustive. Nor does Huizinga draw any real conclusions at the end: there is nothing to act on, no law to pass, no political party to support. The argument is made in a literary way, through inventive associations between seemingly unrelated facts and ideas, rather than through the apparatus of logic and debate. In that sense, Huizinga’s style (which holds very consistently throughout all of his work) is very Platonic.
When you read a book like this, there is no point in trying to determine whether it is “correct,” or in spending time deciding whether you “agree” or “disagree.” The best way to approach it is to temporarily adopt its point of view and try to look at the world through it, and then, to step back and see whether this perspective revealed anything new that might not have been visible before. Some people evidently think so — one unlikely contemporary admirer of Huizinga is the Japanese video game designer Hideo Kojima, who namedropped Homo Ludens on the website of his production company. Perhaps Kojima just wanted to look intellectual (I doubt he really got much out of Huizinga’s excursions into medieval history), but still, someone thought that the ideas in Homo Ludens are not only important in some abstract philosophical sense, but have concrete, tangible economic value.
(Homo Ludens, 13)
(Homo Ludens, 11)
These two aspects are reiterated in virtually all of Huizinga’s examples: his idea of play usually takes the form of a competition which is subject to certain formal “fixed rules” which must be scrupulously followed despite their totally arbitrary nature. The rest of the book then examines various areas of human endeavour through this lens. If I were to go over all of them, I would end up retelling the entire book, so I will just briefly summarize three examples:
“High Treason” (detail), John Lavery, 1916.
1. Jurisprudence. Laws are “fixed rules” in their purest form, but there is more to the analogy. Huizinga writes, “That an affinity may exist between law and play becomes obvious to us as soon as we realize how much the actual practice of the law, in other words a lawsuit, properly resembles a contest, whatever the ideal foundations of the law may be.” (76) The Ancient Greek practice of law, which he cites, is an excellent illustration — Plato criticized the courts for turning justice into a competition in rhetorical skill, but that was always the original intent of the system, not a corruption of it. Litigants were explicitly evaluated based on the quality of their speeches, and were encouraged to hire professional writers and public speakers to address the court on their behalf if their own abilities were not up to the task.
Little has changed since then. “The pronouncement of justice takes place in a ‘court,’ for a start. This court is still, in the full sense of the word, the…sacred circle within which the judges are shown sitting, in the shield of Achilles. Every place from which justice is pronounced is…still a magic circle, a play-ground where the customary differences of rank are temporarily abolished. Whoever steps inside it is sacrosanct for the time being.” Furthermore, the formal rules of jurisprudence are not at all limited to laws themselves, but also take great care to establish various completely arbitrary, irrational theatrical displays: “Judges about to administer justice step outside ‘ordinary’ life as soon as they don wig and gown… The judge’s wig, however, is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress. Functionally it has close connections with the dancing masks of savages. It transforms the wearer into another ‘being.’” (77) This is an amusing, but thought-provoking observation. Perhaps one might argue that the judge’s attire is just a way of showing respect for tradition, but it is not clear why this one tradition should have been preserved while so many others were abandoned, and in any case, even in the traditional world there was never any rational reason why judges wore wigs.
“Disputation Between Martin Luther and Johann Eck
at the Pleissenburg in Leipzig,”
Karl Friedrich Lessing, 1867.
2. Philosophy. Well, this too should come as no surprise to any reader of Plato. Many of his most famous dialogues are openly presented as competitions, from Socrates’ debates with sophists in “Gorgias” and “Protagoras” to the more collegial atmosphere of the “Symposium.” The sophist, Huizinga writes, “was gaped at like a miraculous being, likened to the heroes of athletics; in short, the profession of sophist was quite on a par with sport. The spectators applauded and laughed at every well-aimed crack. It was pure play, catching your opponent in a net of argument or giving him a knock-out blow. It was a point of honour to put nothing but twisters, to which every answer must be wrong.” Plato was also critical of this custom, but he certainly took full advantage of it in his chosen literary form, where philosophical ideas were deliberately expressed as a kind of theatre. In this sense, philosophy developed as a form of “the ancient game of wits which, starting in the remotest cultures, vacillates between solemn ritual and mere amusement, sometimes touching the heights of wisdom, sometimes sinking to playful rivalry.” (147) Even such a serious discipline as medieval theology followed suit:
(Homo Ludens, 155-156)
(This is also a good illustration of Huizinga’s historical method in general. It works by drawing associations between completely different cultures and time periods. As a literary device, at least, it is fantastically effective.)
“The Tournament,” Pierre Révoil, 1812.
3. War. It is not hard to guess the general outline of how war fits into Huizinga’s thesis; suffice it to say that, in every language, wars and battles are “won” or “lost.” Much more unconventional, however, is Huizinga’s interpretation of the function of this “competitive” element in warfare. Far from being a trivialization of war or a mere glorification of violence (for example, by portraying war as a “sport”), the play element is actually the only possible way to ensure that war follows any rules at all:
the sphere of equals, against groups not recognized as human beings and thus deprived of human rights — barbarians, devils, heathens, heretics and ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ In such circumstances war loses its play-quality altogether and can only remain within the bounds of civilization insofar as the parties to it accept certain limitations for the sake of their own honour. Until recently the ‘law of nations’ was generally held to constitute such a system of limitation…expressly separating the state of war — by declaring it — from peace on the one hand and criminal violence on the other. It remained for the theory of ‘total war’ to banish war’s cultural function and extinguish the last vestige of the play-element.”
(Homo Ludens, 89-90)
Unfortunately, eighty years later, it is evident that the theory of democracy is just as effective in this regard as the theory of total war — it simply has a different set of “groups not recognized as human beings.” This is the entire reason why contemporary wars are never formally declared. In fact, nowadays, even the most basic diplomatic relations have become morally suspect — the very act of sitting down to negotiate with your adversaries is seen as granting them that dreaded “moral equivalence,” which is abhorred precisely because it implicitly recognizes them as human beings. To the modern totalitarian democracy, being human is something that requires special permission from the state.
The philosophy of war as a “game” is far more humane. War will never become less violent, but its brutality can be partially confined within a certain set of rules. By the very fact of being non-ideological, these rules already recognize the value of the individual to a certain extent. The military code does glorify the victors, but also grants dignity to the fallen and comfort to the vanquished. Dismantling these rules only causes a regression to a more primitive level.
“Alchemist Heating a Pot,” David Teniers the Younger, 1671.
But let us return to Huizinga’s discussion of philosophy. Since philosophy combines both art and science, much of what he says about it also applies to each of the two individually. In fact, Homo Ludens has separate chapters on poetry and music, which I will not describe here because it should already be fairly clear how the discussion proceeds. But virtually everything that he says about philosophy is just as relevant to any branch of science. The conclusion of Chapter 9 says as much:
(Homo Ludens, 156)
It is especially interesting to look for Huizinga’s play element in mathematics. On one hand, as far as Huizinga’s “fixed rules” go, mathematics is bound to them more than any other scientific discipline. On the other hand, mathematics also has the most objective standard. A physical model may have a great deal of practical value even if it is in some sense “wrong” or limited, or, perhaps, there might be two models that explain the same observable phenomenon with equal plausibility. A mathematical statement, however, can only be either true or false. This does not seem to leave much room for rhetorical competition. In that sense, although mathematics is the most abstract science, it is subject to the most concrete, “material” criteria.
In light of that, we might consider this presentation by Kevin Buzzard, professor of pure mathematics at Imperial College London. He intended it as a kind of futurological position piece to argue the need to “stop attempting to generate new mathematics, and concentrate instead on carefully checking ‘known’ mathematics on a computer,” i.e., to invest into the development of new artificial intelligence technology with the ability to prove mathematical statements autonomously. All I can say there is, good luck with that; to me personally, it is more interesting to look at the critique of mathematical research that he uses to motivate his program. It is concisely stated as follows:
A proof is an argument which gets accepted by the Annals of Mathematics or Inventiones.”
This by itself is not particularly damning or even meaningful, since any scientist already knows, and will readily acknowledge, that the scientific community is not at all immune to careerism, politicization, or over-reliance on authority. But, presumably, the “elders” achieved sufficient mastery of their fields, at least at one point in their lives, to justify their exalted position. Some degree of professional hierarchy may be justifiable in order to preserve the integrity of the field, and in any case, even if some correct but controversial work is rejected by the “community,” while some incorrect work is embraced by it, such individual cases of human error can eventually be corrected with enough time and do not say much about the science itself.
The following, however, is stranger:
Out of the three people driving the project, one has died (Gorenstein) and the other two are now in their seventies.”
In other words, a certain major theoretical result has been generally accepted for almost forty years, but its proof has never actually been completed. The more time that experts spend working on it, the more new difficulties are discovered; the goal expands and self-complicates to the point where achieving it has become physically impossible for any human, literally running up against mortality itself.
But then, science has never been an individual endeavour. The real problem is not that, but rather the fact that no one is stopping to wait for the proof to be completed. Incomplete results have ample time to spawn entirely new areas of research, spanning numerous dissertations and entire careers:
‘It should be noted that we use Arthur’s multiplicity formula…as announced in [Art04]. [The symbols in square brackets are all references to other mathematical papers. -FL] A proof of this (relying on Arthur’s work for symplectic and orthogonal groups in [Art13]) was given in [GT18], but this proof is only as unconditional as the results of [Art13] and [MW16a, MW16b]. In particular, it depends on cases of the twisted weighted fundamental lemma that were announced in [CL10], but whose proofs have not yet appeared, as well as on the references [A24], [A25], [A26] and [A27] in [Art13], which at the time of writing have not appeared publicly.’”
You would expect scientific research to at least have a valid starting point. But it appears that the most rigorous, the highest-quality, and the most cutting-edge new advances in mathematics are actually the most likely to rely on a mirage-like foundation of incomplete results and amorphous “consensus” (Buzzard writes, “If you’re in with the in crowd, you can find out which [research] is currently believed by the elders“). Suppose that some of these unpublished references never “appear publicly,” as indeed happened with one of the above examples — perhaps some of the follow-up work may still be recoverable, but is anyone really going to spend the time to make sure?
Buzzard then asks, grandly, “Can we honestly say that this is science?” But with Homo Ludens in hand, we might ask: what is mathematics, if not a game? To Buzzard, mathematics is facing a new and unheard-of crisis (“Is human mathematics moving too fast?“) that should be solved using technology; but it seems to me that the crisis just exposed a side of “human mathematics” that was always there. Perhaps the most ideal mathematics should not be explicable to anyone but the “players” standing in the “magic circle,” and in fact, if Buzzard has his way and mathematical proofs do indeed become computer-generated, that will only enhance their magical character — as Huizinga writes, “The competition may take the form of an oracle“. (Homo Ludens, 105)
(“The Gamblers,” Andrei Shishkin, 2010.)
And that is mathematics, the most rigorous science. What about everything else? Economics, for example, has long relied on a branch of mathematics literally called “game theory,” while its practical application in business has always used the language of play and competition, so that Huizinga also comments, “The hazy border-line between play and seriousness is illustrated very tellingly by the use of the words ‘playing’ or ‘gambling’ for the machinations on the Stock Exchange.” (Homo Ludens, 52) In the days of crypto-currencies, the meaning of these terms feels extremely literal. And the businessman at least has a clear, tangible goal in mind — what about when irrational elements are deliberately brought into science, mixing mathematics with numerology or evolutionary biology with crazed transhumanist fantasies?
Unfortunately, for us peasants, these noble games truly do govern our life and death. It has been widely observed and lamented, by politicians, journalists, thinkers and so on, that contemporary society is faced with a kind of resurgent obscurantism where “expert knowledge” is devalued because large groups of people simply refuse to believe it. The most extreme forms of this behaviour are quite ugly and destructive (insisting that the Earth is flat and so on). But, unfortunately, “expert knowledge” itself also has a significant aspect of obscurantism:
(Homo Ludens, 110)
The “language of the adepts,” by nature, will never be accessible to the general public. As a responsible member of society, you are supposed to be “informed” rather than “ignorant.” But being “informed” does not mean that you have any real knowledge of what the “experts” have agreed upon. It only means that you have absorbed a number of articles in which journalists attempt to communicate various oracular pronouncements. The authors are unable to independently guarantee the accuracy of their interpretations, and if they do understand the content, they cannot certify its veracity except by argument from authority. In essence, they are the shamans of our secular religion. The rebellion against “experts” is driven, not only by irrational suspicions of conspiracy by the elites (well, when it comes to financial “experts,” perhaps not so irrational), but by hostility toward the fact that, no matter how you cut it, the vast majority of humanity will simply be permanently left out of the discussion one way or the other. “Democracy” was the first casualty of this conflict.
An informative news report.
But we were talking about Huizinga’s book. Despite its encyclopedic nature, one soon finds that there is one dimension of life that has been conspicuously downplayed in it, namely religious life. Most likely it is absent, not because the author hadn’t thought to include it, but because he knew all too well just how perfectly it could be made to fit into his concept. Huizinga, the grandson of a Mennonite preacher, had a deep respect for Christianity as a category of ethics and aesthetics; in his more “political” essays, focused on the contemporary world, he speculates whether it might be possible to bring about a “rebirth” of the Christian ethical ideal, which in his opinion would help to revitalize European culture. But at the same time, he always viewed Christianity at arm’s length, having fully absorbed and embraced the cosmopolitan crypto-paganism of late 19th-century cultural philosophy, which went on a kind of safari through religious traditions ancient and modern all around the world, and insisted on seeing them all through the same lens of vulgar collective psychology. Furthermore, when it comes to Huizinga in particular, culture itself was his religion: he could only approach and evaluate actual religions entirely in terms of their ability to sustain culture.
So, Huizinga must have envisioned a chapter on religious rituals as a form of play. The chapter practically writes itself — organized religion is based on a strict set of rules, for which no rational explanation is provided, and religious rituals involve numerous “actors” whose “roles” are meticulously written out. The “players” devote themselves to these “roles” with great fervour, but only within the boundaries of the space (“playing field”) that has been set aside for them; once the “game” is over and they leave these boundaries, they revert back to everyday life, except for a few who choose to spend their whole lives inside the “field.” Such an interpretation is far more realistic and convincing than, say, the flamboyant pagan ecumenism of Frazer’s Golden Bough. But Huizinga simply chose not to write this chapter; perhaps this deliberate omission was a final debt of gratitude to his family roots, or an act of compassion toward the European cultural tradition that he loved so much. The furthest that he goes is the following mildly worded comment in Chapter 1:
(Homo Ludens, 18)
But it doesn’t take much for his readers to reach the logical conclusion on their own. The worldview of Homo Ludens poses a much more serious and difficult challenge to the religious mind than any standard materialist argument. Atheists and believers have never successfully converted one another, because their arguments are based on mutually alien frames of reference: what seems most compelling to the atheist is completely unimportant to the believer, and vice versa. (In the language of Homo Ludens, they play by different rules.) An atheist will be appalled by the corruption and hypocrisy, both real and imagined, of religious hierarchs throughout the ages; from his point of view, the believer’s unwillingness to protest or seemingly even notice such blatantly sinful behaviour is a sign of moral weakness, if not complicity. But in fact, the believer never thought that it would be any other way — everyone is a sinner, and one first has to embrace the moral ideal before one can know the true extent to which one has fallen short of it. However many wicked priests or bishops there may be, each of them is already punished by his own sin, left alone to face God’s wrath. Religion only needs a tiny handful of saints to be validated; even a single saint is sufficient for the sinner’s faith to remain unclouded. There may be millions of apostates, but in a sense this only increases the power of individual sainthood.
So, a single example of individual transformation through holiness is all that it takes to acquire lifelong immunity against all arguments that religion is a crutch for the weak, or a means of control. But the idea of religion as a game is much more insidious. Even in the very middle of church services, at their most heightened moments, one might get the strange feeling of being an actor in a play, one that may be particularly sublime, but nonetheless a play. In fact, the religious “mystery play” was an established theatrical genre in the Middle Ages, a time that could hardly be accused of taking religion lightly. But maybe, for them, religion was such a dominant force in their lives (I almost wrote, “played such a major role”) that it simply carried over into recreation in a natural way; in our case, the dominant force seeks to separate it from all other aspects of our life. Faith is now supposed to be part of your “personal life,” along with your “hobbies” — something that you do over the weekend, as long as nothing more important turns up. Having gotten used to compartmentalizing religious feeling in this way, it is hard not to feel like it is a form of make-believe, even with serious time and effort put into it. In fact, one might never feel the full extent of this detachment until one has first made such an effort.
“O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
(“Jesus walks on the water,” Ivan Aivazovsky, 1888.)
From a religious point of view, this feeling is nothing more than evidence of being a sinner. One can still point to the great monks and saints, for whom religion was the entirety of life; even if they were tempted by the thought that their very faith had an artificial, staged character, surely they overcame it. But, as Huizinga points out, “genuine and spontaneous play can also be profoundly serious.” (20) There is no shortage of examples: “The sportsman, too, plays with all the fervour of a man enraptured, but he still knows that he is playing…The same holds good of the violinist, though he may soar to realms beyond this world. The play-character, therefore, may attach to the sublimest forms of action. Can we now extend the line to ritual and say that the priest performing the rites of sacrifice is only playing?” Through this analogy, the priest or saint becomes a master artist, who should be admired for his skill and dedication in the same way that we admire any other kind of virtuoso. In fact, though Huizinga always maintains his respectful tone, he cannot help but conclude, “The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play which we enumerated above, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world.” (18)
One might ask if there is really anything wrong with this view. Huizinga cites a Catholic intellectual, Romano Guardini, who embraces the identification of religion with play, and comments: “He does not actually cite Plato, but comes as near the above quotation [The same one as in the epigraph. -FL] as may be. He ascribes to liturgy more than one of the features we held to be characteristic of play, amongst others the fact that, in its highest examples, liturgy is ‘zwecklos aber doch sinnvoll’ — ‘pointless but significant.’” (19) But then, early 20th-century Catholic theology showed itself willing to absorb virtually any philosophical fashion, from radical materialism to blatant occultism, often in the same breath (as was the case with Teilhard de Chardin). In this particular case, Guardini is essentially trying to justify religion from a purely materialistic point of view — an inherently self-contradictory, self-defeating enterprise. The book that Huizinga cites (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 1917) is divided into chapters titled “The Prayer of the Liturgy,” “The Fellowship of the Liturgy,” as well as “The Style,” “The Symbolism,” “The Playfulness” and “The Seriousness,” but all of these aspects are decidedly secondary to the central purpose of the ritual, which is literal Communion with Christ. In his closing chapter, Guardini states that “we cannot directly translate into action that which the liturgy offers us,” but what more direct form of “action” could there be than that?
“Prayer,” “fellowship,” “style,” “symbolism,” etc. are all fine things, but none of them is an end in itself. St. Mary of Egypt never learned any prayers and certainly did not have access to “fellowship,” which can be obtained much more easily in many other ways. “Style” and “symbolism” in particular are purely aesthetic categories; their value and meaning are conditional and can be reevaluated at any time. It makes perfect sense that Guardini was influential in the push to reform the Catholic Mass — if one can agree to follow the rules of a game, one can also agree to change them, and there is no reason not to do so if one feels that the “style” will be improved. As a direct consequence, there is also no reason not to abandon the game entirely when a better one comes along. Hideo Kojima would know something about that: the business model for his entire industry is based on the expectation that players will “upgrade” to every remake and sequel that comes out. Guardini is unwittingly laying the philosophical foundation for the eventual self-abolition of Catholicism.
But, again, Huizinga made a decision not to go down this path any further. Instead, our genteel philosopher was kind enough to offer a possible way out. Citing that same passage from Plato, he comments: “The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play, rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the spirit. We said at the beginning that play was anterior to culture; in a certain sense it is also superior to it or at least detached from it. In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it — in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.” (19) In other words, Plato’s “beautiful games” are themselves a divine institution; by becoming an “actor” in the ritual, one is actually doing God’s work.
(Homo Ludens, 27)
Perhaps Huizinga did not quite mean it in this way, but we might choose to think of play as a defining attribute of human individuality. The ability to play is one of God’s gifts, and, as with any of His other gifts, the best use of it is to glorify Him. Perhaps God Himself created the universe playfully, and mankind’s role in the game is both an honour and the best possible destiny.
(Continuation: part 2.)