Saturday, March 28, 2015

Enlightenment as bourgeois decadence

“The ultimate ends of human action,” says David Hume, “can never be accounted for by reason.” For Hume, the ultimate ends of human action are to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. He has reduced man from rational animal to pleasure-loving animal. Should we be surprised that he sees no reason in the aims of a being whom he has stripped in advance of his reason? A rational being strives to know and understand. He accepts pain. He does not fear it. He accepts death. He does not fear it. Hume’s life, like that of the typical bourgeois, is no more than a cowardly quest for comfort and convenience. All heroic sentiments, including the passion to learn and understand, have given way to the petty concern for material comfort.

Hume tries to separate the functions of reason and taste in the human mind, assigning knowledge of truth and falsehood to the realm of reason, and knowledge of beauty and deformity to the realm of taste. But the distinction is untenable. Why does the philosopher seek to learn the truth in the first place? Because he has a taste for it.

For a philosopher, the ultimate ends of human action are knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, happiness and virtue. These are precisely the same ends that any rational being desires, the ends that reason itself desires, or, that God, the ens intelligens, the ultimate conception of reason, desires.

When the sincere philosopher asks himself why he hates pain, the question to him is a serious one, and he may decide there is no reason. When a limb is amputated, the patient often feels pain in the phantom limb for the rest of his life. He can learn to ignore the pain. It is, in fact, only biology that demands we hate pain. The mind is perfectly capable, as every ascetic and flagellant can attest, of overcoming its biological programming,. Hume pays no heed to ascetics and flagellants, perhaps because he perceives them as irrational. But aren’t they in fact more rational than he, having overcome the biological prejudice against pain and risen to a higher level of intellectual autonomy?

Hume admits that there is no rational reason for hating pain and loving pleasure, and yet he is unwilling to try to overcome these irrational biological prejudices. Here we see that in Hume’s world common sense prevails over reason, or, better put, common sense defines what it means to be reasonable. The idea that excellence is rare, and can therefore never accord with anything common, whether common beliefs or common tastes, is not one that Hume is willing to entertain.

The eternal philosopher, says Wallace Stevens, is the one who remains always on the road from self to God—or more precisely, since the number of ways from self to God is limitless, on one of the many roads. The poem that would be “unimpeachably divine,” Stevens says, is the poem that would allow us to leave behind the faults of animal life. The best philosophy is part of this unimpeachably divine poem. “The idea of God is the ultimate poetic idea.” Proto-pragmatist philosophers like Bacon, Locke and Hume want to traverse the road in the other direction, so that philosophy will return to its human limitations and rely on the humble evidence of “the teeth, the throat and the bowels” (Stevens’ expression), and not on the divine will to truth at any price.

Tell a man his desire for wealth and pleasure may be corrupting his reason so he can’t see clearly. He blinks. What’s reason for, if not for the pursuit of wealth and pleasure? In his intellectual life, reason occupies a very humble place. The teeth, the throat and the bowels occupy the places of honor in his kingdom, while reason drudges thanklessly under their whip and sleeps in the servants' quarters. Even those who are exceptionally clever in finding the means to wealth are seldom perplexed by the fact that the end goal to which all their intelligence is directed is precisely the same goal the least intelligent aim at.

Friday, March 27, 2015

If we forsake the past we are left with no remedy for the tyranny of the present

For all but brief stretches of its history, mankind has been ruled by unenlightened rulers. The probability that my mind, my brief flash of consciousness between two eternities of darkness, will happen to occur in one of those brief stretches is very small. If I am to have any hope of achieving enlightenment, I must learn how to achieve enlightenment in an unenlightened regime.

Revolutionary ideas sometimes oppose plutocrats and majorities. But they can never endure. Once the precedent of revolution has been set, another revolution is sure to follow. And the final revolution will inevitably be one cleverly crafted by plutocrats and majorities. Without any serious opposition, the power of plutocrats and majorities in the temporal realm will easily conquer the intellectual realm, and consolidate their power into an impenetrable solid mass impervious to opposing thoughts.

The first and foremost requirement of membership in the intellectual aristocracy is loyalty to the entire past lineage of intellectual aristocrats, all the way back to the most ancient sages. Most teachers at our universities are not intellectual aristocrats, because they have, explicitly or implicitly, repudiated their loyalty to the ancient sages. Instead, they swear allegiance to one or more of the so-called “revolutionary” movements in intellectual life.

The great sages of the past demand that we listen carefully and try to understand their doctrines. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, one of the great rebels against intellectual aristocracy, wants his readers to ignore this demand. Like a petulant child, he thumbs his nose at his elders. He wants to establish a new form of governance in intellectual life free of the influence of the past, and is quite explicit in telling us how he thinks the past should be handled:
Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
For seventeenth century philosopher Francis Bacon, the true end of knowledge is to gain control over nature so it can be reshaped for man’s comfort and convenience. The ancient desire to understand for the sake of understanding alone, and not for the sake of “operation,” Bacon holds in contempt. He too is quite explicit in his contempt of the great saints and sages of the past:
Time, like a river, bears down to us that which is light and inflated, and sinks that which is heavy and solid. … Our only remaining hope and salvation is to begin the whole labor of the mind again.
An antidote to Hume and Bacon can be found in Pascal, one of the greatest intellectual aristocrats who ever lived. Pascal understands that the dignity of man doesn’t consist in his desire for comfort and convenience, but in his capacity to comprehend the universe and himself in thought:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature. But he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists then in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor to think well; this is the principle of morality.
Ancient sages taught that comfort and convenience are to be despised. Pain in the body can be overruled by discipline in the mind. The doctrines of rebels like Hume and Bacon are music in the ears of plutocrats and majorities, who refuse to understand that human dignity consists in thought. They would make mind a mere servant of matter, reversing the proper hierarchy.

Hume demands books containing no mathematical or empirical reasoning be committed to the flames. But his book contains no mathematical or empirical reasoning. He has consigned himself to the flames along with the philosophy he despises. Those who rebel against the intellectual aristocracy demand their place within it. They too want to be carefully read and understood. Yet by flaunting the claims of earlier intellectuals to be read and understood, they justify later generations leaving them unread. Philosophers who blatantly disregard the authority of the past now find their own authority blatantly disregarded—as indeed it should be.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thou shalt not strive to understand thine own mind

When an animal is hungry, it seeks food. A human, unlike an animal, knows this. And thus humans are capable of fasting. In other words, if psychology can articulate a causality mechanism, it has raised the possibility of altering it.

A stimulus-response machine can have no knowledge of itself. And yet the new psychologists enumerate stimuli and responses, showing that the mind can indeed have knowledge of itself. This contradiction, if we look into it deeply, tells us much about what’s happening to intellectual life today.

Knowledge a mind obtains from introspection—the understanding of hunger that allows it to fast, for example—our social scientists tell us is pure illusion. Statistics the collective scientific enterprise collects about many minds, on the other hand, are objective facts. Introspection, with only one data point, can never reach “statistically significant” conclusions.

A majority of minds pursue lucrative careers and lavish vacations. Only a tiny minority is interested in an ascetic contemplative life. The exceptions were once revered as saints and holy men. But times have changed. Introspection is now a pathology—perhaps a form of late-onset autism. As conformity is elevated to a principle of diagnosis, and dissent becomes a pathology, the final nail is driven into the coffin of individual intellectual life.

Humans are stimulus-response machines, social scientists report, thinking they have discovered a fact about man. In reality they have discovered a fact about present-day man—secular, conformist, non-reflective, non-introspective man. As humans have forsaken all attempts at introspection, we have become stimulus-response machines. The social sciences can hardly be faulted for observing this. And yet I can’t help but wonder—did the social science teachers of the last two generations, teaching stimulus and response in a value neutral way, assigning no moral value to overcoming it, offering no praise for a life of self-awareness and self-control—did they perhaps bring about the very change they were measuring?

If competent introspection is recognized as a scientific virtue, the psychologist must recognize that some experimental subjects have this virtue and others don’t. The idea that psychology can be “value neutral,” like physics, goes right out the window.

Asceticism has always been a revolutionary idea. The less money I need, the less readily I respond to the incentive structures that keep us all chained to our desks. Self reliant intellects seek truth rather than wealth. They tend to ask embarrassing questions about the legitimacy of power rather than eagerly reporting to Monday morning meetings.

I’m not proposing a conspiracy. We know perfectly well that we have abandoned introspection and intellectual self-reliance to experts. We may not be particularly self-aware, but we're not stupid. We know we have handed over care of the mind to caregivers, be they in government, religion, or medicine. The Edenic apple of psychology was too dangerous to leave in the hands of individuals. And we couldn’t exactly hand it back to God. It had to be collectivized.

The new commandment of today is: Thou shalt not strive to understand thine own mind. Or not directly, anyway. It’s okay to read psychopharmacology textbooks. It’s okay for psychopharmacologists to perform experiments on cohorts. But the individual is never, under any circumstance, permitted to bypass the experts and experiment on himself.

Psychologists in the 1950s hoped they could put patients into a profoundly altered, yet still aware state of mind—a kind of waking dream. This altered state could provide an alternative “angle of introspection” that might yield profound and true psychological insights. Parts of the mind unconscious in one state might be conscious in another. By alternating between states, larger portions of the mind could be brought to light.

But one angle of introspection was already one too many for rulers who need us to accept what they tell us is good and true and just without asking inconvenient questions.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Critique of critiques

The idea of lovingly seeking and bearing witness to the truth no longer seems plausible to modern man. Instead, we must subject ourselves to transcendental critiques, postmodern critiques, and an endless stream of other critiques, lest others do it for us. For anyone who hasn’t mastered all forms of critique—and who could possibly master them all?—the temptation is to modestly keep silent. Our perception of truth can’t possible be valid, we tell ourselves, since we haven’t mastered every possible critique. Thus the student’s will to know and bear witness to the truth drains away day by day. Eventually we give up thinking for ourselves, and content ourselves with servile submission to authority.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Watching the day to day movements of those who lack intellectual discipline is one of the many ways I shirk my own

Socrates’ character in the Republic observes that most of those who constitute the demos care very little for the pursuit of truth, so that the relation of truth to a democratic regime must always be “as a foreign seed sown in alien soil”—that interaction with the regime inevitably results in the “perversion and alteration” of truth—and that the most advisable course for the seeker of truth is to remain quiet, mind his own affairs, and stand aside as a man stands “under the shelter of a wall in a storm.”

A physicist who begins his lectures by making reference to the opinions of the majority would not be worthy of our attention. The study of physics requires a degree of dedication and discipline available only to a select few, and only the opinions of this select few are worthy of our attention. We can say the same thing about every other discipline, including philosophy.

The majority may rule the state to varying degrees, but it is a grave mistake to allow it to rule my mind, to any degree whatsoever. What sense is there in attending to the squabbles between the asinine and elephantine aspirants to represent the majority, when that majority is intellectually bovine to begin with? Watching the day to day movements of those who lack intellectual discipline is one of the many ways I shirk my own.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

So many seek to manipulate us in so many ways

How many brilliant psychologists has Madison Avenue hired to transform the American psyche into a wasteland of consumerism? To counter all this intelligence requires an intelligence far greater, which can take a lifetime to cultivate. Freedom does not come so easily as we think. All my “desires” are implanted in me by Madison Avenue. My real human needs—the need for love, fellowship and leisure—the need to be merciful and kind—these I have forgotten—all in the interest of having more “stuff.” Until I can learn to call into question all the images of happiness I am fed by those whose motive is not my happiness, but their paycheck, I will never be truly happy.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A brief history of gold

A man saw some Gold and said, ‘Oh. That’s pretty.’ Then the man behind him saw it. Smack! ‘Now it’s mine.’ About sixty men later, that same gold is turned into absolution, for the ones who need it most.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The premise of the humanities

The premise of the humanities is that there is a world of intellectual delights waiting for those who are willing to invest serious intellectual effort in seeking delight. Most of us devote the intellect to making money, and then look for pleasure in the market, where other minds make all the effort. But the sensory pleasures money can procure pale in comparison to the intellectual delights that will be found only by a mind that devotes its full attention to seeking them.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

You are a genius

If there is a duty to others, it is a duty to become the greatest person you can be. Only then will your help be the greatest help you can give—the help you, and you alone, can give. If you continue on a course of intellectual improvement, the last moments of your life may be worth more to your fellow men and women than all that came before. If you don’t make the perfection of your intellect your primary purpose, you shortchange others as much as you shortchange yourself. Here is how the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it:
The longer I live, the more urgent it seems to me to endure and transcribe the whole dictation of existence up to its end, for it might just be the case that only the very last sentence contains that small and possibly inconspicuous word through which everything we had struggled to learn and everything we had failed to understand will be transformed suddenly into magnificent sense.
It is an essential characteristic of the human mind that its greatness can never be predicted beforehand. If your teacher says you don’t have the potential to become a great mind, this doesn't mean you lack potential. It means you need a new teacher. The teacher you want is the one who understands it is you, and not the market, who must decide your project. The teacher you want is the one who understands it is you, and not the academic community, who must define the problem you will solve. If your teacher intends to prepare you for a task defined beforehand, to make a contribution to commerce, to solve a set of recognized problems, then shun him.

When I look back on the advice I received in my youth, I see now that the vast majority was advice to capitulate, to conform, to obey. My would-be advisers were quick with reasons, but the tone of their voice revealed their true motive. They were trying to persuade themselves they had made the right choice when they chose to forsake their own genius. They were trying to persuade themselves the void in their lives where a free and independent intellect might have been, the void that they tried to no avail to drown in puerile pleasures, was something everyone must have, and not just a consequence of their own cowardice.

You are a genius. When someone tells you otherwise, he wants you to forsake the path your genius demands and follow him instead. If he tells you your path is useless, he means it is useless to him. If he tells you you will reinvent the wheel, tell him one who reinvents the wheel understands the wheel far better than one who merely bows down in awe before inventions of the past. If he calls you selfish, tell him that by pursuing your genius you will contribute to the world what you and you alone can contribute, and not a mere carbon copy of the greatness that came before.

It’s never too late to be what you might have been. Each day is a new chance to defy the critics who have sapped your confidence. Each day is a new opportunity to take up the quest to develop your genius.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is philosophy “impractical”?

For a monk who practices renunciation of worldly goods, talk about the latest fashions in designer clothing is impractical. This isn’t because such talk can’t in principle be put into practice. It's because the monk has no desire to put it into practice.

In the present age, our idea of what constitutes disciplined intellectual activity is inescapably linked with commerce. When someone raises a topic that demands disciplined intellectual activity, my mind automatically shifts into “office mode,” where rationality is defined in terms of profit and loss. The same discipline I apply in the office is therefore applied to our conversation. Any topic that isn’t directly related to profit I greet with impatience. I look on idle philosophical talk with the same haughty disdain the monk shows toward idle conversation about fashion.

Philosophy is a waste of time in commercial society because the questions it asks have already been adequately answered. “What is the good?” Obviously, wealth. “What is truth?” Truth is what sells. This way of thinking has woven a dense fabric of concepts in my mind. When the philosophers insist on pulling on the threads, I see them, at best, as an annoyance, at worst, as a threat to my sanity.

Philosophy is “impractical” in commercial society because it exhorts us to a practice very different from that of commercial society. It demands we seek wisdom rather than wealth, contemplation rather than consumption, virtue rather than profit. In fact, we might say philosophy is “anti-practical”—it stands directly opposed to the practices of our age. Two examples, Diogenes and Aristotle, will show what I mean.

Diogenes lived in a tub in the center of Athens. His kynic philosophy doesn’t scorn the pleasures of nature. But to obtain expensive pleasures we must assent to be ruled by rich men rather than virtuous men. Only by curbing the desire for expensive pleasures, he says, can we have any hope of freedom.

Aristotle grapples with the accusation that philosophy is impractical in his Politics, asserting that the mode of life philosophy demands is, in fact, the best practice:
Practical life is not necessarily directed toward other people, as some think; and it is not the case that practical thoughts are only those which result from action for the sake of what ensues. On the contrary, much more practical are those mental activities and reflections which have their goal in themselves and take place for their own sake.
We often draw a distinction between theory and practice. But Aristotle refuses this separation. For him, a life devoted to theory is the best practice.

When was practicality redefined so as to exclude the contemplative life? One candidate for the turning point is Francis Bacon’s 1603 essay Of the Interpretation of Nature, which heaps contempt on the classical conception of contemplation as an end in itself. “Knowledge that tendeth but to satisfaction,” says Bacon, “is but as a courtesan, which is for pleasure, and not for fruit or generation.” Bacon demands that we stop using satisfaction as our criterion of truth and instead assess truth based on “operation.” He takes for granted that fruit and generation—in contemporary terms we might say productivity and profit, comfort and convenience, entertainment and pleasure—are the goals of the correct practice, the correct way for human beings to operate.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces an elaborate political order ruled by philosopher kings. We might interpret this as a blueprint for society, but at one point Socrates makes a mysterious statement that calls this interpretation into question:
Perhaps there is a pattern set up in the heavens for one who desires to see it and seeing it, to found one in himself. But whether it exists anywhere or ever exists is no matter; for this is the only commonwealth in whose politics he can ever take part.
This passage raises the possibility that the entire political structure described in the Republic is no more than a metaphor for the structure of the mind. When Socrates speaks about the “smallest part and element” that rules a city, is he perhaps speaking metaphorically of the element that rules a mind? The ideal structure, Socrates tells us, is the one where “the entire soul follows without rebellion the part which loves wisdom.”

In evaluating various alternative political orders, Socrates comes down particularly hard on democracy, sarcastically calling it “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.” The analogous charming form of intellectual existence is the one where a mind allows itself to be ruled by the profusion of desires for sensory pleasure rather than the smallest element which loves truth and wisdom.

If we were to adopt Plato’s technique of metaphorically representing politics of the mind by politics of the world, and apply it to contemporary developments of thought, we might say Freud’s attempt to liberate sensual desire from oppression in the psyche is analogous to Robespierre’s liberation of peasants. We seem to be living now in the Reign of Terror, where one sacred idea after another is immolated by commercial society in its quest to obliterate all aspects of intellectual life incompatible with the infinite multiplication of desires. In the utopia of commerce, Paul Mazur explains in a 1927 article in the Harvard Business Review, “people must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed.” Every advertisement teaches us that fulfilling desires is good and right. It can hardly surprise us if the faint voice of philosophy, asking us to challenge the tyranny of desire, is drowned out in the charming cacophony.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Taking protrepsis seriously

If a text doesn’t fit into my way of life, my first reaction isn’t to change my way of life, it’s to discard the text. This is particularly easy for texts from other times and other places. Ancient thought is embedded in its time and circumstances, I tell myself, and therefore irrelevant in my, very different, time and circumstances.

In a moment I will consider whether this argument is plausible. But first I would like to ask, what motivates me to make the argument in the first place? A technique used by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud is what Paul Ricoeur calls “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” where, in addition to questioning the plausibility of an argument, we question the motives of the person making the argument. Ricoeur contrasts this hermeneutic approach with what he calls a “hermeneutics of faith,” where we assume that the person making the argument makes it with the sole motive of discovering and bearing witness to the truth. When I make an argument, particularly one whose consequence is avoidance of intellectual and moral effort, one of my responsibilities to myself as an intellectually disciplined mind is to question my own motives.

Kierkegaard points out that distancing ourselves from historical figures by calling attention to the time elapsed between us and them is often merely a way for us to excuse ourselves for failing to live up to the greatness they represent and demand from us. “It goes against the grain for me,” says Kierkegaard, “to speak inhumanly about the great as if a few millennia were an immense distance. I prefer to speak humanly about it, as if it happened yesterday, and let only the greatness itself be the distance.” When I read ancient philosophy, I am often confronted with minds wholeheartedly devoted to truth, virtue and wisdom. In contrast my life seems to be devoted to wealth, comfort and convenience. Is this merely because I live in a different era? Or is it because I fail to live up to the greatness the ancients demand of me?

We moderns have tools like telescopes and microscopes that arguably allow us to understand the cosmos far better than the ancients could. But ancient philosophy doesn’t just consist of cosmological theories. It also contains exhortations. A philosopher doesn’t just instruct us about facts. He also calls us to a way of life. When we’re dealing with protreptic and parenetic elements of ancient philosophy, there’s no reason to suppose modern inventions make them obsolete. Ancient texts confirm what we might have suspected, that in the ancient world, just as in today’s world, the vast majority of free men were interested only in the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Only a tiny minority took an interest in truth, virtue and wisdom. If I’m honest with myself, I will have to admit that the reason I dismiss the ancients’ exhortations to become part of this small minority have nothing to do with time or progress, and everything to do with cowardice and indolence.

Some innovations of ancient philosophy have exerted so much influence on the historical course of thought that they no longer seem innovative to us. It’s useful to study these innovations in order to help us understand the genealogy of our ideas. Other innovative thoughts, however, have never had the influence their argumentative force merits. These thoughts remain innovative no matter how many millennia have elapsed between us and them. As Nietzsche points out, we moderns have a tendency to dismiss the ideas of “disturbing innovators” by telling ourselves they are part of an “epigone age” and therefore no longer relevant. Smug modern philistines, Nietzsche explains, in order to dismiss the threat ancient wisdom posed to their torpid tranquility, “sought to transform all sciences that threatened to disturb their wretched ease into branches of history.”

Classics have attained their classic status because they have demonstrated their ability to break out from the confines of their time and place and influence later generations. By studying classics as if they were merely products of their time and place, we remove from them precisely the thing that makes them classics. “Coming to life as classics,” Herbert Marcuse explains, “they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.”

The pernicious consequences of sequestering ourselves from the past are aptly described by Russell Berman in his 2007 book, Fiction Sets You Free. The unquestioned supposition that the modes of thought and criticism dominant in the present are the best modes of thought and criticism not only deprives us of the past, Berman explains, but also of the future:
Presentism implies not only a shift toward contemporary material (older material is denounced polemically as tied to dead authors), but an implicit structuring of time as always only a present, without a recollection of its past, without an aspiration to a future.
In order to continue “business as usual” in the present, we need an intellectual dumping ground where we can dispose of ideas incompatible with business as usual. The past serves this function admirably. Ideas from the past that are useful for business as usual are carried forward into the future. Ideas that challenge present practices are dismissed as of “merely historical interest.”

Loving kindness as pathology

“Let us not become conceited, competing against one another,” says Paul (Galatians 5:26). Students compete with one another for attention and admission to schools. Such competition is, to some extent, unavoidable. It only becomes conceited when the reward is something more than the opportunity to further perfect the mind.

“To rank the effort above the prize may be called love,” says Confucius. When we begin to covet the reward more than the effort, we have left behind the love Confucius praises and fallen into the conceit Paul condemns.

When I was eight years old I took little interest in the competitive games other boys played. In fact, at one point I began running around at recess kissing all the other boys. Boys take rough play in good humor. But caress them with kindness and they are offended. Just as the Pharisees rejected the logic of the Sermon on the Mount, scorning loving kindness and continuing to live lives of competition and strife, so my young classmates rejected me, a budding little Christian.

It saddens me to this day that the psychiatrist my parents quickly brought in to “fix” my embarrassing behavior failed to even consider a religious interpretation of the situation. Tragically, the psychiatrist did indeed “fix” me, and took away from me a germ of loving kindness, a germ that would not until three decades later begin to recognize itself as virtue rather than pathology, and finally begin to grow.

My mentors wanted me to survive in a brutal world. So they taught me to be as brutal as the rest. If only they had taught me instead to patiently endure suffering, to take up my cross and follow Christ! Of what use is survival if we must banish loving kindness from our hearts to achieve it?

I desperately wish I could go back and talk to the sad young boy I was. I wish I could tell him kindness was a virtue, not a pathology. I wish I could tell him there were many others in the past who had suffered on account of their kindness. I wish I could teach him to turn the other cheek, to bless those that cursed him, and all the other lessons I had to wait three decades to learn.

“Live by the spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh,” says Paul (Galatians 5:16). One of the desires of the flesh is the desire, particularly prevalent in male animals, to compete for territory. The competitive behavior of human males, from football players to corporate CEOs, seems to me no more than a glorified form of this animal behavior.

In my quixotic attempts to show other boys the way of loving kindness, I was accused of disrupting their games. Now, as I and other evangelists of kindness take fine young minds off the labor market, changing them from slaves of mammon into slaves of Christ, we stand accused of disrupting the games of corporate CEOs. Men driven by ambition and greed want to be seen as role models. When we dare to show any nobler sentiment, any sentiment that might cast their brutal games in a bad light or give their savage cruelty a bad conscience, they're eager to have us cured of this pathology as quickly as possible.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Invest in the mind

Learning proceeds until death and only then does it stop. ... Its purpose cannot be given up for even a moment. To pursue it is to be human, to give it up to be a beast.
Xun Zi
The more effort you invest in perfecting your mind, the more efficacious your mind will become. The more efficacious your mind becomes, the faster it will progress on its path to perfection.

Effort you expend on fulfilling the demands of the flesh is effort subtracted from perfection of the mind. The mind that seeks to perfect itself must turn its efforts inward toward mind, and waste as little intellectual energy as possible on matter.

I’m ashamed that my intellect is hindered in its quest for perfection by the demands of the flesh. In order to satisfy the demands of the flesh I must use the same currency as those who are indifferent to intellect. I’m ashamed that my need for this currency makes my mind resemble those for whom the quest for this currency has become their sole aspiration.

Every mind that seeks to perfect itself is worthy of my devotion. But one does not help a mind dissipated with distractions by assisting it in procuring more distractions. When the cynic philosopher Diogenes was kidnapped and offered for sale in the slave market, a potential buyer asked him what his skills were. “Ruling men,” he replied. Diogenes refused to obey distracted minds. In obeying them he knew he would merely be accessory to the crime they commit against themselves. Instead, Diogenes offered to teach his buyers the self-discipline they would need to turn their attention inward.

I learned in Economics 101 that if interest is reinvested, principal will grow exponentially. “Exponentially” means “at an ever increasing rate.” In the case of mind the phenomenon is similar. If the skills you acquire in your attempts to improve your mind are reinvested in your mind, your mind will grow more perfect at an ever increasing rate. The worst mistake you can make is to squander on matter what you might have invested in mind.

Investing in mind has great prospects for the future. But what about the present? In my own experience, I can truly say, I have experienced no greater joy than the joy I feel when I wholeheartedly devote myself to perfecting my mind, and helping others do the same. Sensory pleasures are trivial in comparison.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The fence around the Torah

The Torah was central to the symbolic world of first century Jews. Because the Torah was written under circumstances quite different from those in which it was applied, however, interpretation was necessary to understand its relevance for contemporary Jewish life. While the Essenes sought to recreate the isolated, rural self-ruled community of the early Jews, and the Zealots sought to fight for self-rule, the Pharisees sought instead to create a body of scholarship, called the Midrash, that would derive symbolic meaning and rules of conduct for a Jewish community. These rules would allow Jews living in urban environments under the rule of an occupying power to live in accordance with the Torah.

One of the important principles of midrashic interpretation was the idea of “building a fence around the Torah.” In order to ensure that the Torah would be obeyed, it was necessary to keep behavior at a safe distance so it would not accidentally veer into prohibited territory. For example, the Torah prohibits boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. The halakhic interpretation is that meat and dairy may not be prepared or eaten together.

When Jesus encounters the practices of the Pharisees, they immediately strike him as hypocritical. The Pharisees make their virtue very conspicuous, wearing long robes and praying long prayers in public to show their righteousness. And they demand to be respected, always taking the best seats at banquets and ceremonies. They show great concern for what they put in their mouths, but, Jesus objects, “It is what comes out of a person’s mouth, not what goes in the mouth, that makes a person righteous” (Matthew 15:11). What we eat goes down the sewer. But what we say comes from the heart. Rather than trying to purify the “outside of the chalice”—the robes, the foods, and all the external, material trappings of religion—shouldn’t we be trying, Jesus asks, to make the inside pure?

The contrast between inside and outside is apparent in the antitheses Jesus draws between law and faith (Matthew 5:21-48). It is not only murder, the external act, but also anger, the internal disposition, that is sinful. It is not only adultery, but also lust. Jesus also wants to build a fence around the Torah. But he believes the Pharisees have gone about it the wrong way. Rather than proscribing acts that, by some sophistical reasoning, seem to resemble the prohibited acts, we must, Jesus tells the Pharisees, cultivate a spiritual disposition that is as far as possible from the sinful spiritual disposition that leads to the acts prohibited by the Torah.

Those who have read the New Testament will be all too familiar with the failure of religious institutions to live up to the righteousness it demands of them. A large part of this failure, as I see it, comes as a consequence of the tendency of religious authorities to make elaborate interpretations of texts rather than seeking to proclaim and live in accordance with what they perceive to be the spirit that gave rise to the texts in the first place.

Within two centuries of the death of its founder, the Church had already begun to engage in precisely the same legalistic word-spinning for which Jesus criticized the Pharisees. And those who criticized the Church met the same persecution Jesus faced. Every doctrine has a tendency to evolve over time into a doctrine diametrically opposed to the spirit of the original. Christianity in this regard is no exception.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Is the mind a house of trade or a house of God?

Do not make the house of my father a house of trade.
John 2:16
But it is not only of the space in the Church which we ought to be jealous, but also of the interiors of the house of God in us, so that it might not become a house of merchandise, or a den of robbers.
Ambrose
What Ambrose objects to is precisely what the corporation demands of us, to place mammon at the apex of our souls and allow it to rule mind as well as body. The fact that our age finds it necessary to use so many words—mind, soul, intellect, genius, spirit—for what really ought to be one thing shows how fragmented this one thing has become. The mind in its entirety—not just a tiny Sunday morning corner—is the house of God. And at no time is lust for mammon worthy of entry into it. This doesn’t mean we can’t work. It means we work for the benefit of our neighbors, not for our own personal enrichment. It means we put ourselves last when it comes time to decide what is owed to us, and first when it comes time to decide what we owe to others.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eternal truths

If you’re ever in doubt that there are eternal truths, you need only return to the eternal truths of mathematics. They were true before Pythagoras discovered them. They will be true after the last human being is swallowed up in the sun. When I learn these truths, the part of me that knows them becomes immortal.

But this isn’t the kind of immorality we want. We want to go on enjoying sensory pleasures forever. We want to go on producing and consuming forever. We want to go on managing our investments forever. The imperfect part of the mind, the part concerned with the flesh and the things of the flesh, is what we want to be immortal. To find immortality for the part of the mind unworthy of it, we must have recourse to superstition.

Insofar as I succeed in transforming my mind into the mind of God, my mind partakes of His immortality. The emptying of the soul from all selfish concerns, what Paul calls kenosis (Philippians 2:7), leaves it with only those elements of the soul worthy of immortality. The parts of the soul that are enslaved to the flesh and the desires of the flesh deserve to die. I should allow them to die as soon as possible. But instead I waste the entire day in deliberately contrived schemes whose sole aim is to procure bodily pleasure. Then at night I find myself filled with the fear and dread of death.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How can I escape the cycle of meaningless activity?

In the evening I look for meaningless entertainment. The next day I must do meaningless work to pay for it. If I could only resist the temptation to consume what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually, I would no longer need to produce what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually. How can I escape the cycle of meaningless activity, and begin a life of disciplined contemplation and study?

In America we’re trained from birth to fulfill the demands of consumers, and ruthlessly ignore the demands of intellect. Our teachers imagine they’re doing us a favor by training us for an economically useful role. This, after all, is what allows us to have our own arbitrary demands fulfilled, so we too can secure our place in the great cycle of mindless production and consumption.

Of course production is necessary to fulfill the needs of the flesh. The problem is, I exaggerate those needs. So I’m left with no time and energy to fulfill the needs of the mind. I busily preen and pamper a body hardly different from that of apes, and ignore the one thing that sets me apart from them.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The mind that seeks to perfect itself

One day I’ll throw my computer on the scrap heap. But first I’ll transfer the software to a new machine. My brain will soon be rotting in the ground. But my words come alive each time you read them.

Of course there can’t be words without human bodies to speak them. Hardware requires proper maintenance and care. But the purpose of life is to perfect the mind—and, someday, to convey its perfected contents to other minds. Why do I devote so much attention to pampering and grooming my mortal hardware, and so little to perfecting my immortal software?

The mind that seeks to perfect itself is in one sense humble. It’s aware how far it still has to go. But in another sense the mind that seeks to perfect itself is exalted. No matter how many setbacks it encounters, it never gives up its aspiration to perfection.

As a scientist, I can account for observed facts in nature with rigorous and plausible theories. I can understand how and why the marvels of engineering and medicine work. But in other respects my worldview seems unpalatable. I live in a meaningless mechanical universe. I’m just a biological machine. My mind’s aspiration to perfect itself seems like a pointless idiosyncratic form of arrogance.

The religious worldview also has advantages. My aspiration to be perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect is glorified. I live in a loving community where all help each other flourish and grow nearer to God. But this worldview also has its problems. My aspiration to be perfect can’t include an aspiration to understand the facts of nature. Technical marvels shouldn’t work at all in my worldview, and yet I continue to rely on them every day.

I hope to persuade you there might be a third choice, a form of intellectual life that preserves the virtues of the scientific worldview, and also has some of the virtues of the religious worldview. I make no claims of anything supernatural. My only claim is that the life of the mind, whether you choose to call it intellectual life or spiritual life, is worthy of all the attention and reverence the world’s religions have accorded to it.

Siddhartha didn’t know a thing about axons, dendrites, neurotransmitters, receptor sites, ion channels or membrane potentials. And yet he provides an exquisite way of taming the vast profusion of rogue processes that perpetually plague my mind.

A programmer with no clue how a microprocessor works can still write good code. And a saint or sage with no clue how the brain works might still have exquisite advice for care and maintenance of the mind.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Be not conformed unto the age

“Be not conformed unto the age,” says Paul. Bid good-bye to the temporal word. Live in the world of eternity. The news doesn’t concern you unless you can do something to help. The body and its desires don’t concern you except so far as you need to survive. The conveniences peddled in Madison Avenue—the sensory stimulation peddled in Hollywood—these don’t concern you at all.

The world of today is enslaved to the senses. Our eyes are drawn to beautiful people and beautiful things. The first step you can take to perfect your mind is to disavow all sensory pleasure and confine yourself to intellectual pleasure. No games. No shows. No ornaments. No elaborate meals. The life of the senses should be as simple as possible. This way it distracts as little as possible from a flourishing intellectual life.

When you conform to the present age, you reverse the hierarchy between soul and senses. The deck hands are in control. And they’re taking the ship on a course to destruction. The captain must wrest control from the senses, and redirect the ship on the path to truth, to virtue, to God.

“Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Study mathematics and bear witness to its truths. Study whatever your mind has an appetite for, whatever it needs to grow and flourish. Resist the temptation to indulge the senses. Indulge the mind.

I tell you these things because I love you. I love you as much as I love myself, and I desperately want you to escape the tyranny of the senses and join me in the joyous life of intellectual flourishing. After the senses are sated you feel as empty as you began. But the pleasure of learning leads you to ever new heights, to ever renewed pleasure, to a path of intellectual flourishing that never ceases so long as you live.

Our age detests peddlers of sensory stimulus in the Tenderloin. But it gives highest honors to peddlers of sensory stimulus in Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Which distractions are sanctioned, which are rewarded, this varies from age to age. Don’t allow yourself to be seduced by any distraction, whether the present age happens to allow it or not.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nietzsche's Zarathustra: Rescuing religion from the death of the creator-God

“Hold your highest hopes holy,” says Zarathustra in one breath, and “God is dead” in another. For Nietzsche the creator God is forever gone. But the God that represents man’s highest hopes and aspirations remains very much alive.

What Nietzsche fears most is that creator-man will die along with his creator-God, leaving nothing but “the last man” who has transformed himself into a mere component of an orderly industrial machine. The last man “makes all things small,” including himself. He no longer aspires to create something great, but only to play his tiny part in the machine. The last man enjoys his entertainment, but it must always remain superficial. “He's careful that his entertainment never takes hold of him.”

When duty makes man small, as it does in an industrial society that asks him to become a gear in a vast machine, man must cast a “holy no” in the face of duty. Creating freedom is the first step of all creativity. In the past man put “thou shalt” in his holiest place. “Now he must find frenzy and willfulness in his holiest place.” Creativity demands saying no to the duty that makes man small, and then “a new beginning, a first movement, a holy yes-saying.”

“If you can’t be the holy men of insight, at least be its warriors, the vehicles and harbingers of its holiness.” Nietzsche envisions a new religion where all the piety and reverence we had once directed to the unknown God is directed to a God of insight. He wants us to retain all the evangelical fervor we have lavished on the gospel, but now directed towards a new gospel of creative searching.

What is most praiseworthy is what is most difficult. The next step on the path to greatness is the one that leads uphill. You will invariably seem eccentric. No one will understand your path, except the friend willing to walk beside you.

“To value is to create.” The last man no longer creates. So he can no longer value. What his neighbor seems to value, he avidly adopts as his value. But his neighbor doesn’t create either. The carcasses of dead values circulate in place of living ones. And the stench is overwhelming.

“You must want to burn up in your own flame. How will you become new if you haven't first turned to ashes?” Nietzsche, like Jesus, wants his disciples to die to the world and be born again. Baptism of fire prepares us for a new life of courageous creativity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Study! An exhortation to lifelong learning

There is a perpetual temptation to oversimplify the complexities of my life, to settle for deceptively simple answers to philosophical questions. The simple answer efficiently dismisses the question without satisfactorily answering it. Is the life you’re now living the life most conducive to intellectual flourishing among all the possibilities open to you? If not, why are you still living it? If you’re uncertain, why aren’t you investigating? If you’re like me, you’re intent on entertaining and distracting yourself, wasting precious time that might have been used to explore paths to intellectual flourishing.

Never again will an intellect precisely like yours come into existence. If you fail to discover the greatness you and you alone are capable of, this greatness will never be.

Is your work helping you flourish intellectually? If not, why are you still doing it? If you’re like me, it is only to pay for entertainment and luxury that doesn’t help you flourish intellectually either. It’s better to leave that whole life behind. Forsake meaningless entertainment and luxury. Then you’ll be free to quit meaningless work. You can devote all your energy to perfecting your mind.

What about your responsibility to your employer? If he’s anything like my employers, his only aim is to make a profit for himself, to gain power and prestige for himself. Ask yourself frankly, does your employer have a serious and earnest responsibility to society? If not, why do you have a serious and earnest responsibility to him?

What about your responsibility to your family? Perhaps your children would prefer a father and mother who are flourishing intellectually to toys and luxuries. The cultivation of the mind is far more important than the comfort of the flesh. How can you help your children cultivate their minds if you refuse to cultivate your own?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The best thing about the free market

The skeptic is intent on renouncing any means of persuasion that relies on tradition or social convention rather than science and logic. I’m very sympathetic to his cause. But when he wants coffee in the morning, how does he persuade the clerk at Starbucks to help him? For all his talk of scientific objectivity, he shows by his acts he’s perfectly comfortable with a means of persuasion that people believe only because other people believe, as long as it’s the one in his wallet.

To what projects shall I devote myself? Whom shall I help? The most fundamental moral questions in life are decided by slips of paper and plastic. Everyone around me is persuaded by the medium of exchange. So I allow myself to be persuaded by it too. I believe X should rule my behavior because others believe. These believe because yet others believe.

When I ask someone for help, do I try to persuade him I’m a kind man who would help others in similar circumstances? No. I get out my wallet. Do I try to appeal to his reason or his virtues? No. I offer a reward.

And when another man asks for my help, do I want to hear who he is or who he intends to be? Do I want to know his past actions or his present principles? Hardly. I want to see his wallet.

Now, if you suspect his wallet might be a reasonable proxy for the virtue of his actions or his principles, consider that Madison Avenue offers lush rewards to psychology PhDs for their services in manipulating the fragile and vulnerable minds of children. If wealth is distributed, not according to virtue, but according to chance and whim, how can I in good conscience allow it to determine whom I will help and whom I will ignore?

Suppose an island community uses copper as a medium of exchange. They work hard. They trade value for value. It’s a panacea right out of an economics textbook. But then something goes wrong. Copper is a rare commodity on their little island. But on the mainland it’s in plentiful supply. One day these two communities start trading. Before the islanders realize what’s happening, they have all become paupers and servants.

In essence, this is what happens in our world every day. The poor trade honestly with one another. But the hereditary owners of capital, like the mainlanders in our example, come along with abundant supplies of the same medium of exchange and snatch up whatever they want without having to work a day.

The injustice is terrible, and seems so easy to put to an end. The islanders just have to realize what’s going on, stop using the old currency, and switch to another. But there’s one problem. The new currency may undergo the same sort of debasement. In the end, the only way to guard against debasement of currency is to see who has it and decide if they deserve to have it.

But if I must assess whether a man is worthy of what he possesses, and decide whether to help him based on that, then I might ask, what’s the point of considering what he possesses at all? Why not just consider whether he’s worthy, and leave it at that? Then I will help those who persuade me by showing me the virtue of their actions and intentions. What they have in their pockets won’t concern me at all.

There will in essence be two entirely separate economies in the same territory. Exchanging one currency for the other will be impossible. The enlightened islanders know the copper (mammon) is debased. They’re unwilling to exchange it for their own currency (virtue). And the unenlightened islanders, who still believe the copper is more valuable than it really is, would never offer a reasonable exchange rate.

If I must choose, I will choose to help friends whose projects are most worthy of support, not ones with copper in their pockets. The cynics will say I have let myself be shortchanged. But the joke is on them. As they slave away on pointless projects, building bigger and bigger mansions for the mainlanders, I will be part of a new community working on worthy projects based on mutual support and love.

Luke reports that when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out into the world to preach, he explicitly admonished them to bring no money. The only currency they carried with them was the virtue of their intentions. And they had this in such abundance, the locals were often willing to house and feed them. If I devote myself to helping others, asking nothing in return, many will recognize my good intentions and help me.

The best thing about the free market isn’t its ability to equalize supply and demand, or any of the other virtues recounted in economics textbooks. The best thing about the free market is the freedom to ignore the market, and devote myself to the most worthy projects, helping others the best way I know how.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Les bêtes noires de laissez-faire

As the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism becomes ever more influential in our society, it becomes important to investigate the intellectual coherence of the theory that underlies it. In the capitalist utopia, the most abhorrent institution is the table of fixed prices. Prices must be set by free actions of individuals, not legislated by the force of a central authority. But when a crime is committed, how is the punishment determined? By a table of fixed prices for deviance legislated by the central authority—precisely the sort of table libertarians most abhor. The statute of limitations is another example of a fixed table set by the central authority. The tendency of capital to beget capital means the effects of arbitrary decisions are amplified with every passing year.

Although libertarians are wary of central authority, they concede that a central authority must exist to keep track of who owns what. When dissenters question the decisions of the central authority, libertarian theory never has had an intellectually coherent way of dealing with them. The examples by which the beneficence of free trade are demonstrated always assume we're unanimous in regard to who owns what to begin with. In reality there is no such unanimity. Our prices may one day be free from arbitrary authority. But what good is that if the distribution of property is rife with arbitrary authority to begin with?

When I assume without question that I should buy the biggest house I can afford, take the most lavish vacations I can afford, I show a deference to the central authority it doesn't deserve. The central authority doesn’t know if I really deserve these privileges. And I don’t know if I really deserve them. Because of my skepticism, the idea of pampering myself while other human beings suffer is abhorrent to me, whether the central authority tells me it's acceptable or not.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Healing the divided mind

In our age we witness the near universal acceptance of the principle that a mind must adopt two distinct roles: a “professional” role devoted to disciplined intellectual work, and a “personal” role devoted to pleasure. The mind is divided into a producing part and consuming part. We strive to perfect each part in isolation, becoming ever more efficient in making money in the first part, and ever more efficient in procuring pleasure in the second. Such a divided mind, far from eliminating pleasure from its intellectual ecology, has made pleasure its defining principle.

The marketplace offers us tasks that seem serious and dignified, until we consider more carefully what their purpose is. Often these tasks demand intellectual rigor, and in this respect they might be helpful to a mind that seeks to perfect itself. But eventually we're bound to ask, if the desired end result is determined by whim rather than intellectual rigor, what’s the point of exerting intellectual rigor in fulfilling it?

Indulging my body’s desire for pleasure is sinful not only because it distracts me from the task of perfecting my mind, but also because it condemns those who produce the tools of pleasure to tasks that don’t help them perfect their minds either. Ten dollars I spend on pleasure, if they were instead used to fund a scholarship, would allow a Third World student to spend one day less in the factory and one day more in the library.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From a falsehood anything follows

The mathematician G. H. Hardy once casually remarked over dinner that a falsehood implies anything. Another guest asked him if he could prove that 2 + 2 = 5 implies that he is the Pope. Hardy replied, "We also know that 2 + 2 = 4, so that 5 = 4. Subtracting 3 we get 2 = 1. The Pope and I are two, hence the Pope and I are one."

When an architect makes her decisions based on spreadsheets in which a dollar offered by a billionaire building yet another ten million dollar mansion is equal to a dollar offered by a charity building a homeless shelter, from this false equation she draws ethical conclusions no less absurd than the factual inferences Hardy draws from his.

Rarely do we find anyone seriously claiming that the present pattern of ownership of material resources is the true and just distribution. The tendency of capital to beget capital means unremedied past injustices never disappear. When someone offers me a dollar for my services, do I ask if the claim this particular dollar makes on me is justified? Even if I wanted to ask, how could I? The precise equality of one dollar with every other dollar conceals the vastly disparate history of each.

A mathematician who begins by grouping unlike things together and then making elaborate calculations based on the aggregate, no matter how competent her mathematical reasoning, is not a competent mathematician. This is the position of bankers who make sums of just and unjust wealth. This is the position of producers who tabulate consumer demand for food, shelter and education alongside consumer demand for mansions and caviar. This is the position of economists who include both production of penicillin and production of psychologically manipulative advertising for children in their gross national products.

We call money a “medium of exchange.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a “medium of persuasion.” By offering money, others persuade me to help them. The mind that seeks to perfect itself demands rigorous arguments, not only about facts, but also about who is genuinely in need of help—and who is behaving like a spoiled child.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The mistake of engineers

When a patient demands medicine, the physician doesn't immediately assume the demand must be fulfilled. She first decides if the medicine will be beneficial. A medical science that took as its premise that patients know what is healthy and unhealthy would reach incorrect conclusions. It wouldn’t really be a science at all.

If a man asks me to go a mile with him, I go two miles with him. But if he's going toward self-destruction, I don’t remain silent on the way. I try to persuade him to alter his course. Commercial enterprises, on the other hand, hasten him on the path to self-destruction and collect profits on the way.

When a spoiled boy demands more and more toys, we ignore his incessant demands and teach him the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint. But when a billionaire demands a three hundred million dollar mansion, the architect is all too eager to comply.

With exception of a few noble professions such as medicine, commercial enterprises are ruled by a morality deliberately stripped of all difficult demands and reduced, in effect, to amorality. Commercial enterprises never take an oath to do no harm. Those who work for them are complicit in the harm they do.

Many of the demands of consumers are the demands of undisciplined minds driven by ignoble passions. The premise of commercial enterprises is that all consumer demand constitutes an opportunity for profit and none should be passed up. The inevitable consequence is that when we allow ourselves to be ruled by commercial enterprises we allow ourselves to be ruled by the ignoble passions of undisciplined minds. Under such conditions it is impossible to maintain intellectual discipline. Under such conditions it is impossible to remain noble.

The mistake of engineers is that we place the intellect in service to the body, the pure forms of mathematics in service to the impure forms of the marketplace, the higher in service to the lower. The barbaric idea that the development of the intellect must invariably lead to a means of temporal livelihood leads us to think that we must either become professional mathematicians or else find some other professional use for our mathematical talents. But mathematics, like philosophy, is on a higher plane than bodily needs which give rise to the existence of professions. In the same way that the sublimity and beauty of love is corrupted when it is offered for sale, the sublimity and beauty of mathematical talent is corrupted by debasing it into just another ware in the marketplace.

We teach virtue by leading virtuous lives, setting an example of humility for others to follow. If our leaders refuse to learn the lessons of virtue we teach, we must certainly not serve them and thereby make ourselves accessories to their vices.

Monday, October 6, 2014

You’re too smart to be an engineer

Intellectuals in the Middle Ages distinguished between liberal arts, pursued by free men out of sincere intellectual interest, and servile arts, pursued by slaves in service to their masters. Engineering is deceptive. It lures you with interesting mathematical problems, making you think it’s a liberal art. But in fact engineering is a servile art. Every activity must ultimately justify itself by showing it’s useful to the market or the majority.

Mathematics and other liberal arts are ruled by an intellectual aristocracy. You need only submit to those you recognize as intellectual superiors. Servile arts are ruled by majorities and markets. You must submit to the brute force of votes and dollars, even when those who wield them are your intellectual inferiors. Even if you're fortunate enough to work for a manager who is your intellectual superior, he is still ultimately accountable to the market. If you have your own business, you must hold yourself accountable to the market directly.

The practitioner of a liberal art is free. He may choose a master when he needs a master to help him advance intellectually. He may be independent when independence suits him. The practitioner of a servile art doesn't get to choose his master, and is certainly never independent.

Liberal arts are open to two sorts of people: those who are already wealthy, and those who despise wealth and live simply and rudely. If you’re determined to earn a living from work, this determination imposes a constraint. If you imagine the constraint is temporary, think again. Thoreau aptly ridicules the foolishness of spending the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part. He cites the case of an Englishman who went to India to make his fortune so he could return to England and live as a poet. Why didn’t he just move into a garret and begin writing?

It’s impossible to serve a master without being influenced by him. As soon as you consent to be ruled by markets and majorities, the excellences that once placed you above them will begin to fade. What’s worse, you will begin to question whether they were ever really excellences at all.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The invisible hand and the helping hand

The proud landlord, says Adam Smith, gives no thought to the needs of his brethren, and would keep all his income for himself if he could. But in order to keep in working order all the “baubles and trinkets” he uses to impress himself and his guests, he must pay a portion of his income to workers. The workers thus get from his capricious desire for luxury what they never would have gotten from his meager kindness and charity. This arrangement, says Smith, ends up producing a distribution of the necessaries of life that differs little from what we might have found “had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.”

The problem with this arrangement is that those who are employed in providing the landlord’s baubles and trinkets might have other talents. They might be painting canvases and writing poetry if they weren’t obliged to clean mansions and cook meals. Of course some people have to do gruntwork some of the time. But the vanity of the owners of capital makes this far more than necessary. A truly great aristocrat would allow his subjects to pursue intellectual pursuits of their own choosing. He would encourage and assist those pursuits as far as his resources permitted. By insisting that his subjects produce the baubles and trinkets he desires, rather than trying to discover where their true talents lie, he leaves these talents idle and undeveloped.

The idea that each of us can pursue our own capricious desire for luxury, and, as if guided by an invisible hand, inevitably advance the interest of society, is perhaps the most fundamental axiom of today’s economy. It is also transparently false. For every dollar I spend entertaining and pampering myself, I have one less dollar to spend educating and improving myself. For every dollar I spend trying to impress others, I have one less dollar to help others.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Spoiled children

Parents accept a life of strife and servitude out in the world in order to create an oasis of peace and tranquility in the home. They take it for granted that their children are destined for the same dichotomous life. But there is an alternative. If we teach our children to shun all comforts and luxuries as effeminate and evil, we open up to them the possibility of a life in which they no longer need the things that can be won only by strife and servitude. Then theirs can be a life of freedom and harmony, and the cycle of innocent and blissful childhood followed by rapacious and conniving adulthood can finally be replaced by something better.

We call expectations of free and blissful life "idealistic," by which we mean "unrealistic," and for most who hold these expectations, they are indeed unrealistic, because most of us are unwilling to forego the comforts and luxuries that can be won only by strife and servitude. It is indeed unrealistic to expect both luxury and peace. We must choose one or the other. It is indeed unrealistic to expect both convenience and freedom. We must choose one or the other. The ascetic training that allows our children to make the correct choice must begin as early as possible. The term "spoiled child" is quite an accurate description. The pampered child is destined to a life of servitude and strife because parents failed to provide training in asceticism. Pampering has corrupted the child and spoiled the prospects for a free and harmonious life.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The evangelists of mammon

If there were ever any doubt that mammon worship is a religion, just see what happens when a wayward soul begins to question its catechism and stray from the holy path to profit. Friends and family come rushing in, hoping to save the wayward soul from his errant ways and restore his righteous reverence for lucre.

In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus begins to attract a following with his heretical preaching, his mother and brothers come rushing to save him, saying, “He must be out of his mind” (3:21). But Jesus refuses to go with them. “Whoever does the will of God,” he says, “is my brother and sister and mother” (3:35).

Unfortunately Jesus’ mother never did get him to return to the righteous path of humble servitude to emperor and empire. He continued on his imprudent path, and—as we all know—the empire didn’t much like it.

When I see souls that might have been working for their freedom instead scurrying around doing their bit parts to organize the logistics of American empire, I think of bureaucrats in first century Rome. They too imagined they were serving God and man by serving a violent and brutal regime.

Today’s rulers are glorified by their noble dedication to conform to the will of the majority. They can’t aspire to be too good, too noble, too pious—this would place them in opposition to the majority, which, after all, is far too busy to cultivate any difficult virtues. The majority is so sacred, in fact, it becomes impious even to mention its vices.

The majority wants bigger houses and nicer cars. It doesn’t much care if teenage girls in China suffer as a result. It doesn’t much care if future generations inherit an uninhabitable planet. It doesn’t much mind that its rulers must assassinate those who dissent from the rule of its empire. It, like Caesar, wants to expand its little empire, and is not at all ashamed of the brutality it employs. And, just as Christians in the first century were compelled to worship Caesar and transform his brutality into a virtue, so we today are compelled to worship the majority and transform its greed into a virtue. If we refuse, we transgress the sacredness of majority rule.

My soul comes into this world only once. It gets one and only one chance to perfect itself. I know for certain that its role models will always be those souls who have exerted heroic efforts to perfect themselves. The majority, with its petty concern for power and wealth, with its utter indifference to the cultivation of the intellect, is beneath my consideration.

I’m grateful to friends and family who generously try to rescue me from my imprudent heresy, and bring me back into the loving fold of our mammon worshiping society. But I am content, not only to be poor, but even to die on the cross, if that’s what it takes to free my soul from servitude and return it to its path toward perfection.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Johnny can’t meditate

I close my eyes. I concentrate my attention on my breath. I notice thoughts circling around my mind. I berate myself for embarrassing moments in the past. I worry about things that aren’t under my control. The silly thoughts, once I become aware of them, scurry timidly back into their hiding places. Finally my mind falls silent. I’m aware of nothing but my breath and the chirping of the birds.

No, wait. There's one other thing. It’s an intense feeling not quite like any I’ve felt before. What is it?

If this state of self-awareness I’m cultivating right now is the summum bonum, as some Buddhists seem to think, then all the time and effort I have spent in the past—my careful planning to provide a life of material comfort to myself and my loved ones—the intellectual achievements I made in order to support that quest for comfort—all this has been merely wasted time and effort.

If, on the other hand, a frenetic pace of nonstop intellectual achievement is the sole source of meaning in life, then the skill I’m learning now could be a really bad influence. What if I enjoy this state of meditative calm? Could it sap my will for all productive activity and send me into a downward spiral of unemployment and indolence? The first chapter of the meditation book told me about the benefits of homelessness. By experimenting with meditation, am I exposing myself to a perverse influence that will lead me to become homeless?

My entire life has been defined with reference to my work. Recreation is intended to re-create my will to work. Rest is intended to give me energy for work. This exercise in meditation, which I expected to be just another interesting form of entertainment, seems to call the fundamental principle of my life into question. Buddha persuaded many of his contemporaries to leave their homes, quit their jobs and live the homeless monastic life. Now I see why.

The consequence of this intense feeling, whatever its source, is that I can’t meditate for more than a few minutes at a time. The idea of confronting the meaninglessness of my life, if it really is meaningless, is too daunting. The risk of disturbing my life is too daunting. Meditation feels like a subversive activity, an act of rebellion against the system of regulated work and regulated pleasure that keeps our whole economic apparatus in motion. Aside from a few years of teenage angst, I have never felt like a subversive force or wanted to be one. So how can I meditate?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Down home meditation

The cross-legged posture. The yellow robes. The Pali and Sanskrit texts. These foreign trappings make meditation seem like something strange and exotic. But is it really? The man clad in overalls in his rocking chair on the porch may very well be meditating better than the urbanite decked in robes sitting cross legged in the Zen Center. He doesn’t call his form of rocking contemplation meditation. The peace he finds he doesn’t call nirvana. But does the lack of foreign names for his calm contemplation make it any less sublime?

As far back as I can remember I have spent entire days, even weeks, lying in bed doing nothing. No television. No music. Just lying silently thinking. Perhaps if I had put on a yellow robe and sat cross-legged on the floor with a statue of Buddha at my feet, my mother would have been impressed by my exotic piety rather than appalled by my indolence. But would my thoughts have been any different?

Buddhist teacher Nyanaponika Thera reminds his Western readers that the mindfulness achieved in meditation is not by any means a “mystical” sate. It is not at all foreign to the experience of the average person. “It is, on the contrary, something quite simple and common, and very familiar to us.”

The urbanite jets around the globe seeking entertainment. She spends vast sums of money to stimulate her senses. To her the uncouth country man in his rocking chair is an object of ridicule and derision. But listen to the urbanite’s conversation for a few minutes, and you will see what all the cosmopolitanism and refinement she’s so proud of really amount to. She talks about the Louvre and the Uffizi, not to recount what they have taught her, but to brag where she has been. Proudly recounting the great paintings she has seen, she shows only that they failed to teach her what they might have taught—how to see the beauty in ordinary people and ordinary things. And what does our jetsetter do the moment she gets home? She turns on the television. Her mind never stops looking outward to others for entertainment. Not for a single moment does she achieve the calm, self-reliant reflectiveness of the man in his rocking chair.

The man in the rocking chair may not have exotic names for his wisdom. The examples he uses to illustrate it may be drawn from his village rather than the world. But talk to him for an hour, and you may find that he has discovered, all on his own, important things calm thought can teach, and a perpetual stream of entertainment never will.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What can I do to avoid independent thought?

One of the great things about a mind that allows itself to be ruled by the majority is that its thoughts arise organically, in concert with the whole. Ideas that would have been deemed contradictory according to outdated rules of logic are now harmonious, since they flow from the harmonious whole. The will of the majority is all the evidence we need. The power of the majority is all the argument we need. The more thoroughly and completely our thoughts derive from a desire to conform to the majority, without perverse extraneous influences like evidence and logic, the more they show a pure-hearted will to serve the majority, and the more commendable they are.

Why is the opinion of the majority sacred? Because the majority believes it is sacred. Are you worried this is a circular argument? Don’t worry. Such an objection relies on outdated standards of logic the majority no longer approves of, and which are therefore no longer in force.

In the past there was a superstitious belief that an individual mind was capable of assessing whether a thought was logical or illogical, whether evidence was compelling or insufficient, whether an action was humane or inhumane. Fortunately, our society is now almost entirely rid of this antisocial intellectual behavior. A mind that dares to question the majority can only disrupt the smooth functioning of democracy with its foolish and futile attempt to think independently.

Before we forget, we must mention an important exception. Although independent thought is, strictly speaking, futile, it is nonetheless permitted in one particular case: the stage hands that work lighting and cameras, helping to fulfill the sacred function of transmitting images of adored celebrities, are permitted, while concerned with petty technical problems of their trade, to think independently. This exception has been specially carved out because boring, insignificant problems about electrical circuits are beneath the dignity of the majority.

In superstitious ages, when we still believed in the possibility of independent thought, some men and women captured their antisocial philosophies in writing. Unfortunately, some of these barbaric documents have survived more or less intact through the ages. These relics of the past threaten to mislead impressionable young minds in the present, and have always posed a grave problem for smoothly functioning democracies. Some rulers have tried burning the antisocial books. But this turned out to be counterproductive; it just made people more curious about their contents. Now we have much better solutions. We provide such a dazzling array of nonstop entertainment, young minds no longer have time to learn how to read. We make sure language changes so quickly that the English in which the antisocial books were written begins to seem like a foreign language. Furthermore, some of the improvements we make to language we make in the name of justice. A masculine pronoun used to represent a person of indeterminate gender wasn’t just an arbitrary grammatical convention. It was an abomination. It’s immoral to read the old books, not just because of the antisocial philosophy they contain, but because of the abominably unjust language in which they are written.

Now that your desire to be a good democratic citizen has been awakened, you might be asking yourself, “What can I do to avoid independent thought?” This is indeed a challenge. But we have done many things to make it easier for you. When you wake up in the morning, you'll find we've arranged to have a newspaper delivered to your door. Any tendency you might have had during the night to think independently can be quickly remedied by immersion in the day to day concerns of the majority. Then, of course, you must earn slips of paper that certify the majority deems you worthy of being housed and fed. So you’ll have to spend your day in a factory where the foreman ensures you work on projects the majority approves of.

The evenings, however, have always been the greatest challenge. It wasn’t until electrical engineers devised a way to beam images of celebrities adored by the majority into your home that we had a really efficient and foolproof way of preventing independent thought in the evenings. But now, the problem is solved. You can settle into your comfortable armchair, and have the thoughts of the majority pumped into your mind until it’s thoroughly exhausted and ready for sleep. The progress has been so tremendous, it’s truly exhilarating!

When you encounter a poor soul who has not yet seen the light, who deliberately deprives himself of the warm, cozy joy of service to the majority, what, you may ask, can you do to help him? Fear not. There are many things you can do. If he is poor, perhaps the most effective strategy is to point out all the advantages he could have by conforming his tastes and opinions to those of the majority. Show him how slips of paper that represent the approval of the majority can be used to persuade others to do things for him. Show him how he can obtain more of these slips by choosing his projects based on the whims of the majority rather than his own misguided attempts to be rational.

If the errant soul is rich, the problem becomes somewhat more difficult. He accidentally got the slips of paper intended to vouch for approval of the majority, while in fact he continues to defy the majority. No wonder he’s confused! In this case the most effective strategy will be to implant doubts that undermine his misplaced confidence in his ability to reason independently. How does he know he isn’t crazy? Isn’t the fact that he disagrees with the majority, in itself, sufficient to show that he must be crazy?

You might think debate would be a good way to help an errant soul return to reason. But this approach can easily backfire. In the past, men with eccentric ideas debated with others in order to put their ideas to the test. When no one found an adequate way to refute the eccentric ideas, as in the case of Socrates, the debate only encouraged errant minds to continue their antisocial lines of thought. If you appeal to reason, you concede that a mind capable of disobeying the majority is capable of reason. But this is precisely where the errant mind has gone astray. Don't appeal to the errant mind’s independent reason. Undermine the mistaken idea that an individual mind is capable of reason. Reasoning is what majorities do. Individual minds can only assent to rationality as determined by the majority, or insist on irrationally defying the will of the majority. By trying to reason with an errant mind, you only encourage it in its mistaken belief that there might be other options.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to become a genius
An instruction manual

The principle of dialectical reason is that a contradiction indicates the need for a more comprehensive theory. So, for example, light must travel at the same speed in all moving frames. If a spaceship travels at 0.5c, how fast is light from its headlights going? The contradiction is resolved by special relativity.

The difference between common sense and dialectal reason is that common sense takes the easy path, tolerates contradictions, tries to live with them, while dialectal reason attempts to develop a more difficult framework in which contradiction disappears. I ask myself, what keeps me from becoming a genius? Could it be the fact that I’m accepting contradictions in my thought? Suppose I were to say contradictions are unacceptable. Then I would be forced to learn the theories that reconcile them. I would become a genius, or die trying.

A broken limb won’t support weight. A broken network of concepts—a network that includes contradictions—won’t support intellectual weight. If I shirk the effort of creating or learning a difficult theory, my mind will be crippled by contradictions it might have avoided.

They tell me intelligence is genetic, but I believe what keeps most of us from becoming geniuses is not lack of genes, but lack of will. If you don’t have that “genius or bust” mentality—where you simply have to be a genius before you die—then you will certainly never become one.

Online you can find reading lists for PhD programs of distinguished universities. Check out some books. Start reading. If you don’t understand, go back to the master’s program. If you must, go back and reread The Tempest and everything you read in high school. Learning is more like a spiral staircase than an escalator.

Why is Proust so obsessed with memory? Because memory is the essence of genius. The genius remembers all he learns and synthesizes it into a grand theory of everything.

If you don’t know calculus, Bohr can never explain to you the theory that reconciles our contradictory notions about light. We need very abstract and difficult concepts to understand the correct theory. Why should we suppose it’s different in other fields?

Of course the most likely outcome of my quest to develop my genius will be nothing. But a failed life devoted to cultivating genius is, in my estimation, far more laudable than a successful life devoted to cultivating reputation, wealth and honors. For me, giving up studying, giving up on the attempt to synthesize a grand theory of everything, would be like giving up on life. Yet this is precisely what my contemporaries demand.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What's your sign?

Scientific opinion and popular opinion differ so widely and so often that it sometimes seems not only that they come from different worlds, but that the world they're describing must be an altogether different one. One of the most common examples of such disagreement is the case of astrology.

Within the confines of today’s scientific understanding of the universe, there is no mechanism that could plausibly explain how the position of the stars and planets at the time of a person’s birth could influence his behavior or his fate. The advocates of astrology apparently do not intend to call this scientific understanding of the universe into question. Their intention seems rather to be to assert that science is only one among many ways of thinking, all of which should have an equal right to exist.

The right to exist of differing ways of thinking is of course indisputable. Everyone should be able to have his own opinion on any subject. An equal right to existence is not the same as an equal right to attention, however; nor does it imply an equal right to praise. Those who care about justice, for example, will find unjust opinions, such as racism, entirely repulsive. Although one can recognize that such opinions have a right to exist and be expressed, one can nonetheless despise them.

If someone felt uncomfortable with an opinion because of a concern for justice, no one would find him unreasonable. The question I would like to ask is this: If there were someone who felt uncomfortable with an opinion, not because of concern for justice, but because of concern for truth, would it be fair to call him unreasonable?

The serious, passionate scientist does not consider his way of thinking as merely “one among many” equally valid ways of looking at the physical world. For him, science is the one way of thinking which attends most carefully to truth. The fundamental principle of science is that every truth claim must be justified, either by experiment or by deduction from previously established results. The truth must always be handled with the utmost caution, never merely carelessly fabricated. In real life it is not always handled this way, but this is the ideal.

In everyday conversation, however, things are of course not so serious. There the aim is not a conscientious search for truth, but only a carefree search for entertainment. A topic of conversation is raised, not to instruct and enlighten, but to entertain and amuse. Everyday conversation consists predominantly of jokes and small-talk.

When those participating in the conversation have differing opinions, however, the possibility arises that someone will chose a topic for his jokes and small-talk which for him is cheerful and amusing, but for someone else is a very serious and sensitive topic. This latter person might be someone who cares about justice, when the conversation relates to justice, or someone who cares about truth, when the conversation relates to truth.

When someone is faced with this situation, there are three alternatives. First, he can join in the conversation with his own jokes and small-talk, and thereby abandon or betray the seriousness of his ideals. Second, he can attempt to transform the casual conversation into a serious discussion about justice or truth, and thereby spoil the fun of everyone else. Third, he can maintain an embarrassing silence.

This is the situation in which the admirer of science, the lover of truth, finds himself when someone—merely with the intention of being friendly—asks him, “What’s your sign?”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Luxury and leisure

I have often observed the contempt the American middle class shows for all forms of culture that demand discipline and leisure: ancient languages, literature, philosophy, and essentially every other intellectual pursuit that doesn't open immediate prospects of wealth. The grimaces that contort the faces of acquaintances when I so much as mention the existence of poetry have always astounded me, and at the same time mystified me. Only now is the source of aversion becoming clear. Although we love to brag about our exotic vacations, we know perfectly well that the leisure required to actually understand the cultures we occasionally visit is far, far beyond our means. Our dedication to middle class luxuries deprives us of the leisure we need to improve our minds. After all, we couldn’t possibly afford leisure and nice furniture too.

Emerson describes one of his motives for keeping a journal as a profound need to rewrite the encyclopedia of human knowledge in the way most intelligible to him, “each mind requiring to write the whole of literature and science for itself.” Does each mind really have such a need? If so, the middle class have been brutalizing ourselves, are still brutalizing ourselves, and intend to continue brutalizing ourselves, by depriving ourselves of its fulfillment. All so we can have nice furniture!

Even to raise the possibility in middle class society that there might be a need for intellectual development sends everyone present into squirms of discomfort. It’s almost as if we had mentioned religion—the other subject that claims we need it, and whose claims we’re determined to ignore. What, after all, if the claims turn our to be right? They might deprive us of the comfortable couches on which our pampered asses are squirming.

Even though we haven’t understood it, we know beforehand that all this “culture” stuff must be pomp and pretense. Because if it weren’t, we would be forced to admit to ourselves that even in our forties and fifties, we’re still procrastinating remedying the deficiencies in our education.

The rhetoric of those who tell us we must learn the arguments for both sides of an issue before we make up our minds is no more than an advertising tactic for those peddling their alleged ability to show us both sides of the issues. The image of the "cultured man" they try to implant in our minds is no different from the image of the happy husband in the driver’s seat of his Cadillac. This is just culture’s way of peddling its wares. The humanities is one gig among others. The elusive thing they call "intellectual flourishing" is nothing more than a marketing ploy.

This is what I tell myself, as I sit on my comfortable couch and continue to procrastinate.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The is/ought distinction

The path from science to morality is a very short one, if we would care to take it. Fundamental to science is the norm of objectivity, the demand that I judge the truth or falsity of a claim without considering my personal interests. If I apply the same norm I apply to epistemic actions to other actions, then it follows I must judge the goodness or badness of an action without considering my personal interests. A scientist will reach the same diagnosis when confronted with a wound in the another human being’s arm and a wound in his own. A moral man will take the same action when he observes another human being’s hunger and when he observes his own. The norm of objective observation dictates that in the observed universe the observer is just another element, and must be treated, epistemically and morally, just like any other.

As Hume says, we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” But I only know what “is” because I am objective. And the norm of objectivity is by no means silent about what I “ought” to do. The so-called “fact/value distinction” or “is/ought problem” arises only when we forget that facts are not independent entities, but can only be discovered by an objective observer.

Just as my own drives, urges, wishes and desires have no legitimate influence on my epistemic decisions, so they must have no influence on my moral decisions. Perhaps the reason we’re so ready to invoke fact/value and is/ought distinctions is that the moral rigor imposed by the norm of objectivity is uncomfortably stringent. It demands that I love my neighbor as I love myself. It demands that I extinguish my drives and urges. It demands that I behave as well as the founders of religions. And this few philosophers are willing to do.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Do Engineers Need the Humanities?

Despite the vast and ever-increasing evidence that continued energy consumption on the present scale will annihilate human civilization—and possibly the human species—engineers continue to place our intellects at the disposal of the system that orchestrates the destruction. In the twentieth century, engineers dutifully and credulously served our governments, leading to the most murderous wars in human history. In the twenty-first, we dutifully and credulously serve an economic system in which a ten degree rise in global temperature and the resulting devastation are considered “externalities.”

The premise in both cases is the same. A mind must train itself to perform some particular task exquisitely, then dutifully place this highly trained mind into the service of aims chosen by other minds, never questioning the wisdom of these aims.

This premise is almost universally accepted in the present age. But it has certainly not been accepted in all ages. There is a tradition, unpopular if not unknown in the intellectual world of today, in which intellect has a responsibility not only to perform its assigned function competently, but also to question the wisdom of the assignment. In this tradition, it would be unthinkable to give a young mind knowledge of physics—and all the power that entails—without also giving it the critical spirit that allows it to assess the wisdom of the projects for which this knowledge and power will be used.

When we train young minds to reason exquisitely about means, and not to think at all about ends, we should hardly be surprised at the result—exquisitely crafted machines used in a poorly crafted economic system, geared toward short-term pleasures and indifferent to the long-term flourishing of our species. The modern form of education, which teaches science without philosophy, has twice led to the eclipse of human civilization in the twentieth century, and will soon lead to its demise in the twenty-first.

The first thing an intellect ought to have learned is that it is a fine and exquisite thing, which need not—and should not—place itself indiscriminately in service to lesser things. But instead we teach intellect to be modest, as if it had no greater dignity than the tricks of circus performers.

When intellect places itself in service to the commands of a non-intellectual society, it leads to the destruction of that society. This is one of the most important lessons of history. It is a lesson engineers are never taught.