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Discworld and Philosophy: Reality Is Not What It Seems

Discworld and Philosophy: Reality Is Not What It Seems

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Discworld and Philosophy: Reality Is Not What It Seems

444 pages
7 hours
Aug 9, 2016


In Discworld, unlike our own frustrating Roundworld, everything makes sense. The world is held up by elephants standing on the back of a swimming turtle who knows where he’s going, the sun goes round the world every day, so it doesn’t have to be very hot, and things always happen because someone intends them to happen. Millions of fans are addicted to Pratchett’s Discworld, and the interest has only intensified since Pratchett’s recent death and the release of his final Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, in September 2015.
The philosophical riches of Discworld are inexhaustible, yet the brave explorers of Discworld and Philosophy cover a lot of ground. From discussion of Moist von Lipwig’s con artistry showing the essential con of the financial system, to the examination of everyone’s favorite Discworld character, the murderous luggage, to the lawless Mac Nac Feegles and what they tell us about civil government, to the character Death as he appears in several Discworld novels, Discworld and Philosophy gives us an in-depth treatment of Pratchett’s magical universe. Other chapters look at the power of Discworld’s witches, the moral viewpoint of the golems, how William de Worde’s newspaper illuminates the issue of censorship, how fate and luck interact to shape our lives, and why the more simple and straightforward Discworld characters are so much better at seeing the truth than those with enormous intellects but little common sense.
Aug 9, 2016

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Discworld and Philosophy - Open Court



Rewriting Your Chem


More Golems around Than You Might Think


Golems just creep the living hell out of people. And even in the huge melting pot of a city like Ankh-Morpork, with its many different species like humans, trolls, dwarfs, or werewolves,¹ people don’t quite know what to make of them. And can we blame them?

And for that matter, whatever Nobby Nobbs is.

Just imagine yourself, peacefully walking home through the dark alleys of Ankh-Morpork after your nightly volunteer shift at the Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons. You’re not too worried—after all, there has been a good deal less murder and mayhem in the streets with old Sam in charge of the City Watch. Also, you’ve already had your fill of run-ins with the Guild of Thieves this month, and you carry the receipts to prove it. But suddenly you hear heavy, thumping footsteps. You look up, and, outlined against the lantern-lit Ankh-Morpork fog, you see a huge, misshapen figure with two glowing red embers for eyes slowly lumbering in your general direction. It’s a golem—one of the giant, person-like machines made of clay that are used everywhere around the city for all the hard or dangerous jobs nobody else wants to do. You try to stop the chill running down your spine by being reasonable. It’s probably on its way back from some job and won’t hurt you. Technically, it isn’t even alive; it’s only a machine kept going by a chem (a piece of parchment with religious instructions) that rests inside its hollow head. And you’ve also heard something about their not being allowed to hurt humans because the words in their head tell them not to. Or have you? Suddenly, you’re not at all sure as that gigantic shape slowly drags its weight towards you. You hear all kinds of things about golems suddenly going berserk . . .

This is more or less how most people in Ankh-Morpork feel about golems—being so different from everybody else, they just make people feel uneasy. Cheery Littlebottom of the City Watch, for example, has some serious issues with them, even with her colleague Angua trying to calm her down.

Sorry, look, said Cheery. Are you telling me this . . . thing is powered by words? [. . .]

"Why not? Words do have power. Everyone knows that, said Angua. There are more golems around than you might think." (Pratchett, Feet of Clay, 113)

And Angua is right. There really are a lot of golems around—you’re one, for example. And there’s no need to be insulted, here. I’m one too. Actually, we all are. Now, before you decide that I’m completely off my rocker, let me clarify. I’m not claiming that you have a hollow skull containing a piece of parchment filled with written instructions.² What I am claiming is that your life and your behavior are determined by texts, by the words in your head, just like the lives and behavior of the golems and all the people on the Discworld.³

If you do, you should probably not be reading this but seeing a doctor about it, right about now.


Don’t believe me? Then let’s have a look at Feet of Clay and at the golem Dorfl, the chief suspect in two of the murder cases that Sam Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch have to solve in this novel. Dorfl and his fellow golems suffer from their situation, so they have created themselves a king golem to lead them to freedom. Sadly, they have made one huge mistake: they put too many words inside its head, so it went insane and started murdering people, creating a whole lot of trouble for the Watch. In the end, Dorfl saves the day and becomes a Watchman, but only after he has learned that he can choose his own words, words in his heart, and that he can follow these words rather than the words in his head.

Beware of the Words in Your Head . . .

The best Discworld character to turn to if you want to understand why we’re all not so unlike Dorfl the golem has little to do with Ankh-Morpork and probably wouldn’t hold with golems at all: It’s Granny Weatherwax. Granny and her coven have to journey to the far-off city of Genua to stop a girl from marrying a prince in a storyline that sounds suspiciously like Cinderella. This does not seem too difficult, at first. Things get a lot more complicated when Granny’s long-lost sister Lily enters the picture. Lily is terrorizing the entire kingdom by forcing its inhabitants to live according to fairy tale plots. Her main interest is, of course, to marry Ella, the daughter of Genua’s former ruler, to a frog that she has turned into a prince. This way, Lily would become the one truly in control of the city. In a final confrontation, this is what Granny tells her sister: "Things have come to an end, see [. . .]. That’s how it works when you turn the world into stories. You should never have done that. You shouldn’t turn the world into stories. You shouldn’t treat people like they was characters, like they was things. But if you do, then you’ve got to know when the story ends" (Pratchett, Witches Abroad, 270). Knowing when the story ends sounds like it’s quite simple. Granny herself would probably tell you that reality is really real, while stories aren’t. Modelling life on fairy tales and failing to acknowledge the real world has barely done anyone good. While this approach works quite well for our pragmatic witch, a bunch of other people wouldn’t think that it was all that easy. They call themselves postmodernists.

Postmodernism has unfortunately nothing to do with Moist von Lipwig and his reform of Ankh-Morpork’s postal system, but is all about a bunch of philosophers thinking that they have some revolutionary new ideas that will succeed the thoughts of modernism, and which are therefore a lot better. There’s a whole lot of arguing going on about whether this is true. Or about whether their ideas are new at all. Philosophers are just as competitive as the next person and a good deal more awkward at parties.

Postmodern philosophy is very interested in language and what it does—its functions. One of the most important functions of language is of course that it allows us to communicate. This means that the definition of a text is much wider for postmodernists than you would think. For a postmodernist, not only are words written down on a piece of paper, on a parchment, or on a screen texts, but also everything that fulfills a communicative function is considered a text. A movie can be a text. So can a painting.⁵ An idea that is accepted by everybody in a society can also be a text—for example, the idea that all dwarfs must look and act male, no matter their actual sex. The dwarfish language on the Disc does not even have female pronouns. The words we use say a lot about the way we see the world, and the other way round, too.

Even if there are no urns or fat babies with wings in it.

Postmodernists believe that our culture is dominated by lots and lots of contradictory texts, which constantly compete for our attention. If any text is successful, it is not so much because it tells us what is really real, but rather because a large number of people would like to believe that what it tells them is real. Unless Lily Weatherwax happens to be around, young women could wait for a prince on a white horse to come by and whisk them off to a life of luxury until their heads fell off and it still wouldn’t happen, but it’s nice to believe it will if you’re just patient and nice and humble enough, isn’t it? It sounds so much easier than, say, studying and working hard to earn a life of luxury all by yourself. Also, if you’re patient and nice and humble enough, your evil stepsisters will apparently end up losing their toes in a bloody mess. That’s always a plus.

Culturally promoted ideas like this are what the postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard⁶ (1924–1998) calls metanarratives. He describes metanarratives as culturally accepted texts that people use to justify certain ways of thinking and acting, often without even noticing it. Examples of metanarratives that postmodernists love to use are political systems (capitalism, communism, fascism, Vetinari-ism), religious beliefs, gender, and race, but there are many more. If it tells you how to behave or what to believe because you belong in this or that group and that’s just what we do, you’re probably dealing with a metanarrative.

Not to be confused with Jean-Marie Jules Léotard, the inventor of the popular sports garment. (This is actually true. Funny things, words!)

Postmodernism is not only defined by its fascination with texts but most importantly by its belief that there’s definitely something fishy about metanarratives. This rejection is basically founded in the assumption that most of the information we receive on a daily basis⁷ is manipulated by people who have the power to do so and want to feed us certain texts—world views, value systems, beliefs—without our noticing it. This begins with those people in charge of commercials telling us that we absolutely need their product for our happiness and can end with politicians telling us that we need to go to war against this or that nation because we have always hated them, those evildoers. Postmodernists tend to reject the totalizing explanations that metanarratives want to offer us and instead side with those who do not fit into these narratives, those who are left out of them or who are regarded as inferior in them. What right do random children wandering through the woods have not only to eat other people’s houses but also to brutally murder old ladies? For that matter, can golems really be nothing but mindless machines if they want their own king to lead them to freedom? In thinking like this, postmodernists turn against the Lily Weatherwaxes of this world—those people who have the power to manipulate narratives and to put words into our heads to achieve their own ends.

And we receive lots of information, what with our constant exposure to the media. We are a long way from the days when we could get married, buy a farm, and diaper our first child by the time we get a letter back from our cousin Clem telling us, I really don’t trust that gurl you fancy; you should find yerself a new one else before she cons you into buyin’ Old Man Dotson’s farm. Information moves a mite speedier these days, Pardner.

. . . and of the Buggers Who Put Them There

So, if the reality that we all live in is mostly based on texts that are put in our heads by the people in power, what does this mean for our everyday lives?

For one thing, it means that reality as we see it is not really real, but rather is based on stories, and that these stories can be manipulated by those people in power. Lily Weatherwax, who sees other people as characters in fairy tales and forces them to live by them, is one example for such a manipulative person. Or think of Dragon King of Arms in Feet of Clay, who pretends to be a simple herald, but who actually manipulates Nobby’s family tree to make him the Earl of Ankh and finally the new king. King Nobby would of course be much easier to control than Lord Vetinari, or say, King Carrot. The power to change texts gives Dragon the power to control people.

So, evil people manipulate the words in our heads to make us believe in those stories that play into their hands. It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. People don’t live according to stories because other people force them to do so, but mostly because they like it. I think it’s safe to say that most of us prefer neat and easily comprehensible patterns to chaos in our lives. Stories offer just that: neat, comprehensible patterns to structure our lives on, so that its whole complexity seems less confusing. It’s exactly this urge to believe in stories that can make humans so easy to manipulate.

Terry Pratchett doesn’t like this human tendency to fall for stories one bit, and his plots and characters show this dislike. Two characters who strongly share it with him are Granny Weatherwax and Sam Vimes. Vimes, for example, may not know a thing about postmodernism, and he wouldn’t recognize a metanarrative if it hit him in the face,⁸ but he instinctively understands a lot about the power that stories can have over people. He is furious at those people who are weak or stupid enough to completely model their lives on stories without questioning them. The people of Ankh-Morpork, for example, still believe that, some day, their long-lost king will return to rule over them all.

That would not stop him, however, from using his pair of perfectly legal brass knuckles to pummel it into submission, arrest it, and throw it in the Tanty for Being a word that causes Nobby Nobbs to wink knowingly at ladies passing by.* (*This charge is kind of like Impeding an Officer of The Law . . . Nobby can reduce any word to four letters and make even a lamppost blush.**) (**Immediately after which the lamppost would look at the almost-human face of Nobby Nobbs and run away . . . quickly.)

Just like Granny, Vimes deeply hates anything that degrades people and makes them unequal. As he puts it when accusing Dragon King of Arms of having manipulated Nobby’s family tree: I don’t like to see people treated like cattle. [. . . ] And of course that’s what you’ve always done, isn’t it? These are the stock books of Ankh-Morpork (Feet of Clay, 330).

This is also the reason Vimes burns down the archives containing Dragon’s stock books. In a social system controlled by stories and the people who manipulate them, he sees it as his duty as a policeman to protect all who suffer from the injustice of it. This is also why he insists that Dorfl be given a voice at the end of the novel. With his own voice and the ability not only to reject the words that are put in his head by others, but also to choose his own words, Dorfl finally gets a chance to be free.

How Would You Like Your Texts?

Now, Lily’s manipulation of fairy tales and Dragon’s messing with Nobby’s family tree will already have given you a clue: The interesting thing about texts is that they are not unchangeable. They develop and they evolve, often based on what society would like them to be like, or on the intentions of the one who is narrating them. The history of Ankh-Morpork as Dragon is writing it has little to do with the actual historical facts, but much more with his own political aims. Just like Lily, Dragon likes to think of himself as an author who is writing a story, and of other people as characters in that story, which he can manipulate as he likes. Granny Weatherwax would tell you that evil begins with seeing people as things. This is just what Lily and Dragon do.

A good example for a whole society that modifies a text to fit its own needs are the people of Ankh-Morpork, who are rather fond of the story of Vimes’s famous ancestor Old Stoneface, and how he killed their last king—but who are not so fond of the actual historical facts. At the three-hundred-year anniversary of the revolution, Nobby gets to play the king and is allowed to wear nice clothes and ride around on a white horse. But nobody wants to play Old Stoneface, on account of him being on the losing side (Feet of Clay, 81). When Vimes points out that the king was a vicious tyrant, and that Old Stoneface did rule the city for six months after killing him, Nobby explains to him how everybody in the Historical Society thinks that he shouldn’t have. After all, he was outnumbered, and he was a bit of a bastard, chopping a king’s head off and all (Feet of Clay, 81). Also, he was apparently not the most handsome guy around.

This coming from Nobby should be counted as an insult all in itself.

This way of thinking is not so much evil as it is stupid, but it is still alarming. Thinking in orderly but extremely simple patterns like this not only keeps people from seeing the bigger picture, it also makes them easy to manipulate for others, who have a feeling for what the masses want to hear and who can change texts to fit those needs.

Words in Our Heads, Heads up Our Bums

Now, if the way we see the world is controlled by the words in our heads, and if these words can be manipulated and changed, where does this leave us, morally speaking? Well, first things first, it means that questions of morality and ethics are a lot more complicated than it seems, because their answers depend a lot on our individual point of view—and we can’t even be sure that this point of view is really our own.

Dorfl and his fellow golems are only alive because of their chems, the rolls of parchment with religious words on them inside their heads. They are also controlled by these words and must follow their rules, and where the words don’t control them, they are slaves to the will of their owners. All across Ankh-Morpork, people use them as working machines and think of them as things, without feelings or rights. That the golems do have feelings, and that they suffer from their situation, is clear. After all, they built themselves a king to lead them to freedom. Even golems seem to think that kings are a great idea.

Still, the only one who sympathizes with the golems and believes that they have thoughts and feelings is Carrot. After he buys Dorfl from his owner, the butcher Mr. Sock, he puts the receipt inside the golem’s head to give him to himself. The idea of freedom is pretty overwhelming for poor Dorfl at first, but slowly he begins to understand that he does not need to follow the words that others prescribe to him but that he can choose his own words to follow instead.

Meanwhile, everybody but Carrot still sticks to the view that golems are not thinking and feeling creatures, but things. Even when Dorfl comes to their aid to fight the golem king and is smashed up, Angua still insists that this is not murder,¹⁰ because Dorfl was never alive (Feet of Clay, 314). And just when you think that Carrot is all about treating people equally and without prejudice, look at his reaction when Cheery begins to look and act more like a girl. After he delivers a lengthy rant about how she should have the decency to keep her femininity to herself instead of drawing attention to it, Angua has to inform him that he probably has his head stuck up his bum (Feet of Clay, 228).

And she, as a werewolf who gets her fair share of discrimination in Ankh-Morpork every day, would have to know better.

The problem with Carrot’s head is not so much that he has it stuck up his bum, but rather the words he has inside it. Carrot was raised as a dwarf, and thinks of himself as one, which means that the words in his head are pretty much those that his dwarf parents and dwarf society have put in there. While it’s maybe not morally right, it’s still almost natural for him to be irritated by Cheery’s behavior. This only shows how difficult it is for us to break out of the moral systems that our peers teach us, and how hard it can be to tell right apart from wrong because of this.

In the end, we all have a more or less big collection of words in our heads that tell us what to do and how to behave. This is actually alright, as long as we do not let them trick us into judging people because they don’t seem to fit into the world drawn up by these words. Just like we believe the words in our heads to be the right ones, other people think the same thing about the words in their heads. If we don’t want to end up with our heads up our bums, we should stop to think about this from time to time.

Freedom Is Like Having the Top of Your Head Opened Up

What Terry Pratchett is telling us here is that right and wrong are not quite so simple. Nobody should come along and hand us a manual on what is right and what is wrong. Instead, the values that we follow should depend on our own choices. We have to choose what we believe is right and act according to it. It’s choices like this that make us really free. Golems like Dorfl cannot be free before they reject the words in their heads and choose their own. Similarly, the people of Ankh-Morpork are so easy to manipulate because they like to believe in texts, like the old, romantic stories of ancient kings, and model their world views and behavior on them. Cheery Littlebottom cannot be truly free before she rejects her society’s belief that she is not allowed to act and look female. In a way, this is what we’re all like. We as free persons are not controlled by metanarratives, the words that are put in our heads by the Lilys and Dragons around us, but choose our own stories to believe in because they seem right.

Still, letting go of the words in our heads is not all that easy, and the freedom that comes with it can be extremely confusing and scary, which is why a lot of people shy away from it. No longer blindly believing in the words in your head means having to think and act for yourself, having to make all of your decisions by yourself, and taking full responsibility for your actions. This is hard, especially because you can never really be sure if you are making the right choices until you see how they turn out. Dorfl recognizes this when he tries to free the animals from the slaughterhouse and his fellow golems by smashing their stalls and working places and releasing them into the streets.

I Smashed The Treadmill But The Golems Repaired It. Why? And I Let the Animals Go But They Just Milled Around Stupidly. Some Of Them Even Went Back To The Slaughter Pens. Why?

Welcome to the world, Constable Dorfl.

Is It Frightening To Be Free?

You said it.

You Say To People ‘Throw Off Your Chains’ And They Make New Chains For Themselves?

Seems to be a major human activity, yes.

Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. Yes, he said eventually. I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up. (Feet of Clay, 349)

Dorfl has to realize that simply setting the animals and his fellow golems free will never work as long as they don’t choose freedom by themselves and are actually scared of it—and, what’s even more important, he doesn’t blame them for being scared of freedom, probably because he remembers how painful it was when he had to let go of the words in his head. So, instead of trying to force freedom on his fellow golems again, he decides to save his wages from his new job as a Watchman to buy more golems and give them to themselves, like Carrot did for him.

Now, what can we learn from that? Well, for example, that even if we are machines driven by texts, and if everybody else around us is just another machine, driven by another set of words, that doesn’t mean that we should let our fellow humans suffer for it. Not because their words are different from ours and not because we think they’re stupid for not realizing what’s going on. Much like Dorfl does, we should realize that we’re all in the same boat together and try to encourage others to see make their own words.

Words in the Heart Cannot Be Taken

So, we’re all not so unlike Dorfl and his fellow golems at all. We’re all controlled by the words that others put in our heads and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s also extremely hard to reject this influence, because once you get rid of one story bouncing around inside your skull, the next one already comes along to replace it and manipulate you. Well, that’s just too bad! Let’s just sit down and lament the fact, but let’s not try and change anything, because those darn words are too powerful for us, anyhow.

Believe it or not, this is actually what your typical postmodernist would have to say about the matter.¹¹ Radical postmodernists not only think that metanarratives are basically everywhere around us, but also that they are all-powerful and we can never escape their influence. Well, knowing Terry Pratchett, we know that he would beg to differ.

Give them a few drinks however and you will have a small army of philosophers charging the gates of the university demanding change, and a small raise.

Of course we are controlled by the words in our heads. Of course we are faced with huge numbers of different stories competing for our attention every day. Of course the Lilys and Dragons around us are trying to put their words into our heads to manipulate us into following their aims. And of course it is next to impossible to get out of this mess.

The important thing is to notice what is going on. The next time we see a dwarf wearing a skirt and lipstick in public,¹² before becoming all upset about it, let’s all think about why it upsets us. What words are at work in our heads just now? Who put them there? Do we agree with them? Or wouldn’t it be better to think them over, reject them maybe, and choose another set of words, which we personally like better? Every single one of us can choose the words they want inside their heads—and kick out those nasty little buggers that make us see the world too narrowly, treat other people unfairly, or that make us do things we don’t actually want to do. If we do this, the words become our own. They become words in our hearts, rather than words in our heads. And, as Dorfl knows in the end, these can never be taken from you.

Alright, not so likely. How about a man wearing a skirt and lipstick?


Golem Morality in the Modern World


You’re on your way to your favorite band’s music with rocks in concert. You go past the River Ankh, and you see a small child gradually descending into the water. You could easily walk across the crust of the river and save the child, but then you would have to go home and bathe for several hours, and you would miss your concert. Should you save the child and miss your concert, or go to the concert and let the child eventually drown? According to pretty much everyone, you should save the child. After all, the child’s life is more important than your attendance at the concert, and it would be wrong to sacrifice something more important in order to do something less important. A morality so undemanding as to let you get away with letting kids drown is clearly not up to snuff.

On the other hand, the kids on Cockbill Street often don’t have enough to eat. In at least some cases, a lack of food for an extra few days could be just as eventually fatal as being unable to swim while sinking into the River Ankh. Having enough food to eat is also more important than going to the concert. And you could have used the money you spent on the ticket to buy food for them instead. So, in buying the ticket haven’t you already decided to privilege something less important over something more important? If it was wrong to think attending the concert justified letting the kid drown, why isn’t it equally bad to let the kids on Cockbill Street starve so you can go to the concert?¹


What Does Morality Demand of You? Perhaps It’s Give Me All Your Money!

The problem just presented is, more or less, the same one raised by Peter Singer in his paper, Famine, Affluence, and Morality. According to Singer, there is no real difference between these cases. Whenever we decide to spend money on something like concerts, or movies, or Discworld and Philosophy books rather than giving it to those in need, we are effectively choosing to let children needlessly die.² Singer’s moral system is very demanding. It would require you to forgo almost all of your desires and ambitions (not to mention all your Discworld books) in order to help those in need. There is something that makes us suspicious of the view. For instance, why doesn’t that guy on the dust jacket look like he’s wearing clothes from the Shonky Shop and living off of boiled cabbage and sausages sold at cut-throat rates?³ Singer himself gives away a lot of money, but he certainly doesn’t sacrifice everything less important than a child’s life in order to help those in need. Singer also doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who could live with himself if he really thought he was murdering children by the thousands. Yet he seems to get through each day without suffering a mental breakdown.⁴ The idea that going about our daily lives amounts to killing children is overstating things (I hope). Although we may not be ending their hunger, at least we aren’t causing it. So how demanding should a moral system be? I think the proper balance might be found in the moral system of the golems, especially as described in Going Postal.

On the other hand, perhaps the Discworld and Philosophy book will help motivate you to help others more in the long run. I’d say it’s worth the risk.

Singer is known for caring very deeply about animals, and would normally never eat a sausage. But given that an Ankh-Morpork sausage sold by Dibbler might contain only something that has been near a pig or even just within earshot of a pig, that’s not really an issue here. (For details on such things as Dibbler’s sausages, see Pratchett and Briggs, Turtle Recall.)

At least as nearly as this can be ascertained for a philosopher.

Old-Fashioned Values from Old, Fashioned Beings

Golems are artifacts created to do various jobs. They are intelligent, but they have no free will and usually no voice prior to being set free. As tools in the hands of others, they have a clear sense of the jobs people want done, and are often asked to participate in questionable activities. Perhaps because they don’t have it, the focus of golem morality rests in freedom. German philosopher Immanuel Kant also believed that our free choices were the foundation of morality. He thought that our ability to make choices made moral evaluation possible. Despite focusing on freedom, neither Kant nor the golems thought that freedom involved freedom to do anything one desired.⁵ Instead, Kant and golems both understand that Freedom Without Limits Is Just A Word (Pratchett, Feet of Clay, 347), and that with freedom we must also have responsibility. Neither Kant nor the golems go light on responsibility. They think our responsibility includes an obligation to reason through our choices in ways that respect and don’t wrongly make use of others, or demonstrate an indifference to their will or their choices. Unlike Kant, who focuses only on the reasons for our choices, golems also think we should focus on the consequences of our actions. As beings who would wait until the world comes around again to deliver a package, they have little forgiveness for ignoring the long-term effects of our actions.

Kant was so unmoved by his own desires that if he would’ve had a golem’s anatomical structure, it probably wouldn’t have hindered his life in the slightest.

The golems possessed

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